A raja, a Jain, a Tagore: Meet desi dinosaurs that once roamed India’s plains
India’s prehistoric treasures will surprise you. They include local species found nowhere else, the largest egg hatchery in the world and a competitor for the T-Rex!long reads Updated: Apr 04, 2017 15:02 IST
Some 190 million years ago, six dinosaurs set out on the last journey of their lives.
The world was a different place. No Himalayas in the north. Ferns, palms and coniferous plants everywhere. India herself was in the southern hemisphere, fused with Africa, Australia and South America.
The dinosaurs would have taken big strides – they certainly had the legs for it – but they didn’t reach their destination. Something, possibly a flash flood, struck mid-way, uprooting trees and killing everything in its path. The herd died together, decomposing quietly, their skeletons falling apart as layers of earth began to cover them.
That’s how Indian researchers discovered them 57 years ago, in what is now Telangana. About 300 bones were unearthed near Pochampalli village, the only evidence of a type eventually named Barapasaurus (bara for big and pa for leg), and one of 20-odd dinosaur species that India can call her own.
“This is not local history or even Indian history, what we are finding is world history.”
India’s dinos have been given Indian names. One discovered in Raiholi, near Ahmedabad, was found to be a fierce carnivore, much like the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Its name: Rajasaurus Narmadensis, or the king dino of the Narmada region. Another found, in Jabalpur, goes by the delightful name Jubbulpuria. We even have an Indosaurus.
“When they ruled, dinosaurs tested the limits of the planet,” says Vishal Verma, a school teacher and amateur geologist. “We are only now beginning to understand them.”
BREAKING NEW GROUND
Becoming a fossil is no easy task. Less than 0.01% of living things get preserved in rock instead of breaking down to dust. Finding even a fraction of them aeons later is rarer still. But in India, enough bones have been discovered to identify 20 separate species – gentle herbivores, cagey carnivores, some of the earliest dinosaurs, and at least one that could fly.
They tend to be related to those from Australia, Madagascar and South America – landmasses that formed the supercontinent of Gondwana 201 to 184 million years ago, before India broke free, taking some dinosaurs with her.
“Our history is older and more interesting than most Indians imagine,” says Ashok Sahni, possibly India’s best-respected palaeontologist. He’s spent his life gathering evidence that great beasts roamed India 228 to 65 million years ago.
Worldwide, about 1,400 dinosaur types have been identified; 59 in China alone. So our count is comparatively small. But India’s relationship with fossils goes back to the first days of dinosaur discovery.
“Asia’s first recorded dinosaur find was in Jabalpur in 1828,” says Sahni. That’s just four years after the dinosaur was first documented as a species in a scientific journal, in England; and 14 years before the term dinosaur was coined (combining the Greek words for terrible and lizard).
Early excavations in India were carried out by British administrators, Sahni says. “Most of what we know is because some enterprising person on Company time and dime went on horseback to indulge his curiousity, laboured over rocks and kept records.”
By the time of the Barapasaurus discovery in the 1960s, India was in its “golden age” of dino discovery, says Dhananjay Mohabey, a former deputy director general at the Geological Survey of India. Dinosaur bones had been excavated from the fossil-rich Narmada Basin across Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Over the decades, remains have been unearthed as far apart as Tamil Nadu, Meghalaya and Barkhan in Pakistan.
Then, in 1982, Mohabey (on a mapping project for GSI at the time) asked Sahni to examine a coconut-shaped rock, one of many that would show up during blasting operations at a cement factory in Balasinor near Ahmedabad. It turned out to be a dinosaur egg.
“It was a real bonanza,” Mohabey recalls. “Only France, Spain, the US and Mongolia had found dinosaur eggs then.” We found more still – close to 1,000 eggs, hard as rock, some weighing 5 kilos, were excavated solo or in muffin-tray-type communal nests of 10 to 24 in Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP and Maharashtra. It’s made scientists consider central India the largest-known dinosaur hatchery in the world
We are also abundant in fossilised dinosaur dung, which offers unique insights on what dinosaurs ate.
PROTECTING THE PAST
Finding evidence of beasts that died out before humans arrived is momentous. When Verma helped discover two mass nests in Baag, near Indore, in 2007, unearthing more than 100 eggs, he says he “just lay down on the nests in happiness”.
But what happens after that is just as important; otherwise what is found may be lost, stolen, or worse, never given a chance to tell its story.
India’s record in this regard is dismal. The first dinosaur bones, found in 1828, were also the first ones we lost. One of them, a tailbone, was rediscovered by Mohabey and American palaeontologist Jeffrey Wilson, more than 100 years later, mislabelled in a Kolkata archive.
No one knows what happened to the Jabalpur fossils distributed among natural history museums in London and New York and Kolkata’s Indian Museum in the 1920s. Some were returned, but have proved untraceable. “Others were returned, but as replicas,” says Mohabey. “We don’t know where the original specimens might be.”
Many specimens meant to be shipped abroad in 1912 never even left India. They lie, unopened, in the GSI maintained Shivalik Gallery of Kolkata’s Indian Museum. Missing remains include those of the gigantic Lametasaurus Indicus, Indosaurus Matleyi and Indosuchus Raptorius, parts of the Jainosaurus Septentrionalis and the tiny Laevisuchus Indicus.
The GSI is working on creating an online photo archive of its treasures in Kolkata, Nagpur and Hyderabad. But conducting an inventory is tough, says Mohabey. The GSI repository has tens of thousands of specimens, and only a handful of trained staff.
Some losses have cost us dearly. In 1989, researchers found a two-metre long shin bone in Tiruchirapalli near Chennai. Its size indicated it might belong to a 34-metre-long dinosaur, an undiscovered species and the largest to have ever lived. But the scientists were unable to transport the fossils to a safe place and left them on site, jutting out of a rock. They were washed away in the next monsoon.
A blurry black-and white photo is the only record it even existed.
Amateur archaeologist Aaliya Babi, whose ancestors were the rulers of the princely state of Balasinor near Ahmedabad, discovered an intact oval dinosaur egg by accident: “A local woman was using it to grind her spices!” Babi now calls it the Masala Egg and stores it in a silk-lined box.
At Jabalpur cantonment’s Pat Baba temple, priests protected dinosaur eggs believing them to be a symbol of Shiva. But many nests were lost during renovations in 2011.
“I sometimes feel sorry for having discovered the dinosaur site in Raiholi in the 80s,” says Mohabey. “We took small samples and left. But entire swathes of rock have been cut away and moved to a man-made fossil park in Ahmedabad without proper records of their original location. We have lost any way of studying dinosaur social behaviour. And in three decades, we have destroyed what was left intact for 67 million years.”
SECURING THE SITES
The GSI has identified 32 sites of geological and fossil importance. But there are no strong laws to protect them.
“The GSI is the custodian of a meteor that lands on Indian soil, but it has no powers to protect a fossil discovered on it,” says Mohabey.
Most of our fossil parks are little more than fenced-in rocky forests. In February 2014, three of the 27 dinosaur eggs in the Ashmadha fossil museum in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, were stolen. “They were the largest ones,” says Vishal Verma. The museum is run by the local panchayat. No new security measures have been instituted.
Balasinor’s 70-acre open-air fossil park is manned only by two Forest Guards. The rocks bearing bones and eggs lie exposed to heat, rain and theft. “Someone has been meticulously digging at one bone, hoping to dislodge it from the rock and steal it,” says Babi.
Private collections fare no better. In Ghodiyar village, in Kutch, war veteran Mohansinsh Sodha’s 50-year passion for fossil hunting has yielded enough fossils, coral, bones, teeth and petrified organisms to build a museum he largely funded himself. The dusty shelves are badly labelled – dinosaur bones are clubbed together by size, not species. One selection of fossils belongs to an ancient sea cow, named Dommingia Sodhae in his honour.
“People come all around the world to see them,” says Sodha, now well past 80 and losing his sight. “But scientists have no money to buy them and the government has no interest in looking after them.”
SHARING THE KNOWLEDGE
For Pranay Lal, a biochiemist with a lifelong interest in Earth’s history, researching India’s geological past for his 2016 book, Indica, was challenging. “Given the richness of what we have, there are few people working on it and not enough who can convey the information simply to the public,” he says. “There are more enthusiasts than there is scientific rigour. India still has no single public repository of fossils from that era.”
“I sometimes feel sorry for having discovered the dinosaur site in Raiholi in the 80s,” says Mohabey. “In three decades, we have destroyed what was left intact for 67 million years.”
Instead of a national museum for natural history, we have small, ill-curated single-room affairs in small towns, managed by states and panchayats, or closed-off archives maintained by the GSI.
The enthusiasts do what they can to give India’s past has a future. Babi guides researchers and visitors to the sites and fights threats from poachers, vandalism and public ignorance. “I’m so involved with the sites because I owe it to my people,” she says. “I’ve been able to give back by putting an unknown town on the paleontology map.”
How did dinosaurs evolve in India?
On Earth’s only continent, Pangea, a mass extinction wipes out over 90% marine life and 80% of life on land.The world is cold. Ferns, mosses and conifers thrive. It’s perfect for a new race to begin.The first dinosaurs appear, like the Alwalkeria, Pradhania, Nambalia, Jaklapallisaurus184-201 million years ago
Pangea, rotating anti-clockwise, splits slowly in two. In the south is Gondwana (today’s India, Africa, Madagascar, Antarctica, Australia and South America). In the north is Laurasia (modern China, Europe, North America and north Asia).They take their dinosaurs with them. India is home to the Barapasaurus, Kotasaurus and Lamplughsaura163-174 million years ago
Gondwana itself splits. Antarctica, Madagascar, India, and Australia, separate from Africa. South America drifts away westward. In the fight for shrinking resources, dinos evolve. More species appear65-120 million years ago
The Indian subcontinent drifts northward, taking her dinosaurs with her. Local dinos now include the Indosuchus, Isisaurus, Rajasaurus, Laevisuchus, Jainosaurus and Campylognathus65 million years ago
Something terrible happens that wipes out half the world’s species on every continent. Birds are safe. Most mammals, turtles, crocodiles, salamanders and frogs survive. Snails, starfish, even hardy plants make it through. Dinosaurs, however, die.Scientists believe it was probably a meteor or volcanic eruption that clouded the sky with dust, polluting the water, withering greens and eventually killing the dinos.40-50 million years ago
India, northward bound, crashes into Asia, creating the Himalayas, much after the last dinosaur vanished.341 years ago
Earth is a different place, populated by humans, one of whom finds a huge thigh bone in England.It’s only later, after more bones are unearthed, that the study of these giant creatures begins.189 years ago
Captain WH Sleeman of the Bengal Army visits a hill near his house in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh and finds some unusual bones.They turn out to be from a large plant-eating reptile, the first to be found in Asia. No one knows what to call it. The term ‘dinosaur’ (Greek for terrible lizard) is finally coined in 1842.
Verma’s fossil finds – bones, teeth, rocks, marine creatures and dinosaur remains – have filled his home. There’s no room for a bed, even the kitchen shelves hold ancient rocks. He’s sculpted gigantic models for the Ashmadha museum and designed exhibits for the one inside the Rala Mandal wildlife sanctuary close to Indore. He’s working on building an underground fossil park in Baag with help from the local Forest Department and took up three jobs to be able to raise Rs 3.5 lakh to buy a shark fossil.
“This is not Dhar’s history or even Indian history, what we are finding is world history,” he says.
For paleontologist Sahni, the real tragedy is how invisible paleontology still is in India.
“It’s on the margins of many other fields, like biology, geology, physics, even chemistry,” he says. “That’s perhaps why kids show more interest in the subject than adults. They are open to ideas, they ask the right questions. They give me hope.”