Kalaroos Caves: The Gateways to a Natural Mystery
By Arka Chakarborty
The valley of Kashmir is a repository of natural wonders so magnificent in their beauty and so nearly unbelievable in their scope that the valley as a whole has been named ‘paradise on earth’ by many explorers, travelers and pilgrims from all corners of the Eurasian world. Kashmir is home to such naturally splendid sites as the snowbound Gukmarg and Sonamarg, the picturesque Aru, Betaab, Chandanwari and Doodhpathri valleys, the clear waters of Dal, Wular, Tarsar and Marsar lakes, glaciers and mountain ranges; and such products of human resources and organization as the Avantisvara, Avantiswami and Martand temples, the Mughal gardens, the massive Mughal road and the Chingus Sarai, among many others. Many of these sites have been acknowledged by international organizations like the UNESCO or at least declared protected monuments by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), thereby generating consistent and well- deserved positive public attention. There are, however, many examples of natural curiosities that have escaped the eyes of even the most adventurous of tourists. Such sites, hidden away from tourist attention but famous among the locals, are sometimes the sources of numerous legends and mysteries. The Kalaroos caves, located in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district approximately 130 kilometers away from Srinagar is one such example. Perhaps the most outrageous of the local claims surrounding the mysterious caves is that it contains tunnels through which one can reach as far as Russia! The web of myths that has emerged surrounding these caves for generations have made these natural structures enchanting for the locals and interesting for explorers. The Kalaroos caves are located at an elevation of approximately 1900 meters (6234feet) above the mean sea level, between the villages of Lashtyar and Madhmadu and near the village named Kalaroos. The village Kalaroos gets its name from its proximity to the Kalaroos caves. The word ‘Kalaroos’ has its origins in the word ‘Qila-e-Roos’ which means ‘Russian fort.’
The peculiar origins of the name of the caves owe their existence to the audacious myths that have circulated over generations. Locals claim that the Kalaroos caves have tunnels which, if followed, can lead one to Russia. Legends have cropped up to embellish this basic myth. Some claim that when the silk route was operational in the ancient world, merchants used to move between Kashmir and Russia carrying valuable goods for trade when the valley itself was covered in snow. Some aged locals have claimed that their elders used to tell stories of Russians using the caves to come to Kashmir.
Such outrageous myths have persisted and have been believed by the locals partly due to the existence of what are believed to be the magnificent entrances to the caves. Near the edge of the Lashtyal village is situated the awe-inspiringly huge ‘Satbaran Rock’, a boulder with seven carved doorways. Locals believe that these doorways, called the ‘Sat Barr’ (‘Seven Doors’) in the local language, represent seven distinct routes to Russia. What makes the myths about the Kalaroos caves even more potent is the lack of proper knowledge about the exact origin of the Satbaran rocks. Nobody knows when was it fashioned or who were responsible for carving it.
The Satbaran Rock is also believed to have been a part of a much more elaborate structure in the past, which was according to local legends most likely a temple. Again, if this temple existed at all, no one knows who built it and when. Some locals believe that the temple existed in the Epic Age of Indian history and the Pandavas, the protagonists of the epic Mahabharata, worshipped here.
Since exploring the caves is extremely difficult for amateurs and the Satbaran Rock poses such an enticing mystery, numerous legends have cropped up and circulate in the locality. Apart from the alleged Russia connection, some claim that in one of the caves a board was found where something was written in a foreign language (one source claims that the language was Chinese). Many people state that there are massive water bodies inside the caves. Some local youth even claimed that they had moved 2-3 kilometers into one of the caves and then heard the sound of running water. They had to return and could not explore further because their light sources grew dim at that point. Such myths have only further elaborated the ‘routes to Russia’ claims and have concocted a wonderland of mysteries in the minds of the people who hear these stories, wonderlands almost similar in their appeal to the caves mentioned in the classic novel Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Another cave a few meters away from the fabled Kalaroos caves is Tramkhan (‘copper mine’).
Less wrapped up in myths than its neighbors, the Tramkhan cave is a popular picnic spot for the locals. Nevertheless, it has a mystical aura of its own due to its crimson color and its copper deposits (of poor quality). The cave, according to the locals, emits a distinct aura.
In 2018, in a historic cave exploration initiative an American team led by Virginia-based cave explorers Amber and Eric Fies, a number of longstanding myths around the Kalaroos caves were exploded for good. While the team leader was Amber, Ohio-based Expedition Cave Adviser Dustin Kisner, Maryland-based support personnel Tyson and Letha Anderson and Kerala-based expedition interpreter Vamsi Ramakrishna were also in this team. The American team flew into Srinagar on 20 th September, 2018, conducted preliminary exploration after obtaining permission from the local authorities on 22 nd September and finally conducted an in-depth exploration into three caves on 23 rd September. Before and after the expedition, the team travelled to various places in Kashmir and interacted with the locals to be acquainted with the local and regional culture and beliefs. They conducted community outreach and shared their findings via a presentation at the local school. Their findings are mentioned very briefly below:
Cave-I is at an elevation of 1980 meters. The first 50 meters comprises a narrow up-trending path with downward pinches at places, leading to a 15 meters long shaft that opens up to a room. Then a 10 meters long shaft opens to another room. Thereafter, a 5 meters long trending passage leads to a narrow horizontal passage that terminates within 15 meters. All the leads off to the main passage and near the main entrance were explored by the team and they all quickly terminated.
Cave-II is at an elevation of 2020 meters. It has a down-trending general path of 50 meters which is then terminated. This is the largest entrance of the three caves. The team determined that this cave must have closed due to erosion or landslide. The team determined that Cave-I and Cave-II may have been connected at some point in the past because of their similar elevation and azimuth.
Cave-III is at an elevation of 2260 meters. It begins with a 40-meters long down-trending passage which leads to a pinched horizontal passage that terminates after 20 meters. The team could not reach the natural termination point for this cave because they determined that the Indian army had sealed off the cave years ago through a blast. This story is told and retold by the locals and corroborated by blast scars found on the cave’s surface. The cave was closed off either to ward off bears or to prevent militants from taking shelter there. While the team did not find any signs of bear marks or recent human movement there at the time of the expedition, they did find at least one pair of Himalayan porcupines.
As far as the expert cave explorers were concerned, none of the three caves they explored had the chance of leading to Russia. In fact, most of these caves ended around 50 meters into them. According to their report, there is not enough data obtained from the exploration to justify a second trip. The explorers decided that the caves had very little archaeological significance, but did in fact have some geological importance.
The Kalaroos caves have been the epitomes of a natural-cultural mystery for generations. The idea of unimaginably ancient intricately carved doors (which may have been a part of a larger temple visited by the Pandavas) leading to a world of endless magic and mystical aura that connected one part of the world to another has enamored the public imagination for perhaps hundreds of years. This idea has been embellished by more local legends which have finally caught the attention of some curious tourists. While the findings of the expert cave explorers have debunked this idea, it has nevertheless helped the world understand Kashmir’s heritage better without falling prey to legendary fiction. Working through the numerous myths and legends, the hard work and dedication of the explorers revealed three caves that hardly went beyond fifty meters each. It has to be understood, however, that despite these findings the Kalaroos caves are held in high regard as a unique part of Kashmir’s natural world. Restoration and development work is necessary to make Kalaroos more secure and accessible to those who are interested to learn about Kashmir’s natural splendor.