Rock Cut, Part 2

On May 11, 2016 · 2 Comments

I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I stumbled across the existence of an entire genre of structural design known as Rock Cut Architecture, described in the previous article. I could hardly contain my glee although there was still a lot of work to be done. There were so many examples from widely varied parts of the world that I couldn’t fit them all into a single article. That made this follow-on post necessary, with additional illustrations from several more nations.

Ellora Caves, India

Great Kailasa From Above
Great Kailasa From Above by Craig Moe on Flickr (cc)

India became such an epicenter for buildings and rooms carved from stone that it had its own distinct subcategory, Indian Rock Cut Architecture. It wasn’t just one culture or religion either. Followers of several beliefs and faiths practiced and perfected this art. These structures rose in numerous places. One of the best was the Ellora Caves in Maharashtra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

These 34 monasteries and temples, extending over more than 2 km, were dug side by side in the wall of a high basalt cliff, not far from Aurangabad, in Maharashtra. Ellora, with its uninterrupted sequence of monuments dating from A.D. 600 to 1000, brings the civilization of ancient India to life. Not only is the Ellora complex a unique artistic creation and a technological exploit but, with its sanctuaries devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, it illustrates the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India.

A Hindu Structure known as Cave 16 or the Kailasa temple (map) was particularly impressive. This massive structure unfolded on multiple levels, so large and complex that it had to be carved from the top down. It dated to the reign of Krishna I in the Eight Century.

Yungang Grottoes, China

Yungang Grottoes
Yungang Grottoes by Olga on Flickr (cc)

Sites featuring rock cut architecture in India were often called Caves by English speakers, and in China they were Grottoes. I didn’t know why. I simply observed that China placed a close second to India in terms of rock cut prevalence and impressiveness. There were several expansive sites, notably the Yungang Grottoes near Datong in Shanxi Province (map). These were Buddhist structures from the Fifth and Sixth Centuries. Buddhism moved north from India as did a penchant for rock cut architecture. At Yungang, devotees carved more than 250 openings and 50,000 statues into the Wuzhou Shan mountains, "a classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art."

Vardzia Monastery, Georgia

Vardzia by Tony Bowden on Flickr (cc)

Vardzia in Georgia (map) represented an instance of carving into stone for protection as much using it as a convenient building material.

In desperate circumstances people are often driven to perform feats of mythical proportions. In the late 1100s the medieval kingdom of Georgia was resisting the onslaught of the Mongol hordes, the most devastating force Europe had ever seen. Queen Tamar ordered the construction of this underground sanctuary in 1185, and the digging began, carving into the side of the Erusheli mountain, located in the south of the country near the town of Aspindza.

Once completed, the Vardzia Monastery contained multiple levels and thousands of rooms, stretching over a half kilometre of mountainside. Invaders weren’t a problem although natural forces took a heavy toll. An earthquake caused many of the cells to collapse after only a century.

Coober Pedy, Australia

Underground House at Coober Pedy
Underground House at Coober Pedy by Matthew Klein on Flickr (cc)

The popularity of rock-cut architecture faded many centuries ago. The technique was incredibly labor intensive. In the meantime, other building techniques and materials continued to improve. Nonetheless, this distinctive style survive into the modern era although generally during unusual circumstances such as those found at Coober Pedy in South Australia (map).

Coober Pedy was one of those places that probably had no reason to exist except that it happened to sit atop enough gemstones to crown itself "Opal Capital of the World." Otherwise it was a harsh desert climate not particularly conducive to civilization. For one, there weren’t any local material available to build anything to shelter those who mined for opals. However, the surrounding bedrock was perfect for digging into so local inhabitants did just that and created what were known as dugouts. People simply carved into hillsides.

The early Coober Pedy dugouts were indeed the holes that had been dug in search for opal. Today opal mining in the town area of Coober Pedy is not allowed any more. But hey, you can always renovate or expand, Need another shelf? Dig a hole in the wall. Shelf not big enough for the new stereo? Dig a bit deeper. A walk in robe? Dig a big hole. Another bed room? Not a problem! And always the off chance of finding some opal… In reality nobody digs by hand any more. Any new building work is done by modern tunneling machines.

Many homes and businesses in the area were created as dugouts, as were two churches, one Catholic and the other Serbian Orthodox. Residents of these structures also benefited from a constant comfortable temperature. Whether the desert at the surface hit scorching hot or freezing cold, it always remained nice underground. Rock cut architecture might not be an optimal choice in most places today although it seemed to be a great solution for Coober Pedy.

Rama Setu (Adam’s Bridge)

On June 17, 2012 · 5 Comments

Articles often influence new 12MC articles that I never anticipated originally, as is the case today. Actually, this one come from a comment on All Ways – Every Cardinal Direction by reader "Snabelabe." I got fixated somehow on a link embedded in the comment, a list of countries and territories by border/area ratio.

I always gravitate towards extremes on these lists, the items at the very top and the very bottom. The bottom in this one featured self-contained island nations, all with ratios of zero because they didn’t have any land borders with other nations. I found that meaningless from an oddity perspective so my eyes wandered up the list to the first non-zero value. Sri Lanka had the lowest border-to-area ratio of any nation or territory listed, at 0.0000015 m/km2.

Sri Lanka? — I was muttering to myself because I hadn’t yet had my first cup of coffee for the morning — that’s an island. What land border? Yet, according to the list, it abuts another nation for 0.1 km.

View Larger Map

The obvious candidate is India. Sri Lanka rests like a little teardrop off of the southeastern tip of the Indian subcontinent. Really, it’s not all that distant when one ponders the situation. Only the Palk Straight separates the Tamil Nadu state of India and the Mannar district of Sri Lanka, with a total distance of maybe 100km at its widest? Drill down and one notices other places that come considerably closer. The area known as Rama Setu or Adam’s Bridge comes closest yet. This chain of islets, shoals, sandbars and shallows nearly connects Sri Lanka to India contiguously. It’s alleged that land pokes just high enough above water at a crucial point to provide a brief overland boundary between the two nations.

View Larger Map

I guess maybe I must have heard about Rama Setu at one point or another. It seems like the type of geo-oddity that would grab my attention. I must have either overlooked it or forgotten about it, so it was an unexpected joy to either find it or become reacquainted with it.

Rama Setu used to connect Sri Lanka to India in a literal sense. "It was reportedly passable on foot up to the 15th century until storms deepened the channel: temple records seem to say that Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until it broke in a cyclone in 1480 CE."

The origin of Rama Setu is still a bit of a geological mystery. One set of theories centers on a ridge created as Sri Lanka pulled away from India. Another focus on longshore drifting and tombolos (I do love a good tombolo!). A Hindu religious origin has been ascribed to it in a Sanskrit epic, which doesn’t surprise me considering the formation has been around for a long time and it’s pretty impressive. Modern-day fringe researchers also postulate that Adam’s Bridge is literally a bridge, constructed by intelligent yet unknown hands (aliens, lost civilizations, the usual suspects). I’m not going to wade into those later waters. If you want to hit the search engines and poke around a bit, go for it.

Adams Bridge aerial
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.5)

What everyone can agree upon, however, is that Rama Setu impedes commercial shipping albeit they disagree on whether that matters or not. Only the smallest, lowest draft vessels can make it through. Everything else has to go around Sri Lanka and that’s why the government of India wishes to build the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal.

Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project which envisages dredging of a ship channel across the Palk straits between India and Srilanka is finally taking shape. The project will allow ships sailing between the east and west costs of India to have a straight passage through India’s territorial waters, instead of having to circumvent Sri Lanka. This will lead to a saving of up to 424 nautical miles (780 Km) and up to to 30 hours in sailing time. Two channels will be created — one across north of Adam’s Bridge… and another through the shallows of Palk Bay, deepening the Palk straights.

It seems like a straightforward idea although it’s wrapped in controversies from one end to the other. Some object to the project from a religious perspective (Rama Setu is a sacred structure to Hindus) and others from an environmental perspective (it has the potential to alter alignment of ocean currents in a biologically sensitive area). Still others argue that it’s simply not cost effective economically.

Is there truly a land boundary between India and Sri Lanka as claimed? That’s proved to be more elusive than I figured. It’s possible that a border perhaps crosses one of the islets or sandbars, either continuously or intermittently. I’m not convinced it’s entirely meaningful.

I wonder if there are other international borders that may (or may nearly) have been erased by natural forces?

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