Sid, my six-year-old son, is crazy about dinosaurs. Like many kids his age, he dreams of becoming a paleontologist when he grows up. For a long time, he has wanted to travel to Utah, a well known repository of prehistoric artifacts, and find a dinosaur fossil for himself. In India, this August, we found a great way to fulfill Sid’s “fossil” dreams.
To see fossils in a local museum would have been the usual thing to do. But I remembered a newspaper clipping I had preserved about a dinosaur park in India. This is how our journey into the world of dinosaurs began.
It may come as a surprise that India has a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils. In fact, Raoli, a small village in Gujarat about 80 kilometers from Ahmedabad, has the third largest number of dinosaur fossils in the world. Some of the best known dinosaurs in the world roamed on Indian soil.
On Sid’s birthday we drove from Ahmedabad to Balasinore, a town close to Raoli. It took nearly an hour to get out of the city limits but once we were out, our vehicle sped smoothly on well laid roads. Our drive along the countryside was beautiful. Occasionally we came across a sign board reading “Balasinore Dainasor Park,” which never failed to bring a smile to our faces.
Paleontologists have found that at least seven types of dinosaurs roamed on these lands, including the mighty T Rex. The latest find has been that of Rajasaurus Narmdensis, a previously unknown dinosaur. This dinosaur has been reconstructed fully and is on display in a museum in Calcutta. A model of this can be also be found in the Indroda Fossil and Dinosaur Park in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Enough fossils have been recovered to suggest that both herbivore and carnivore dinosaurs ambled through the entire Narmada basin. These dinosaurs disappeared from the face of the earth about 65 million years ago. Scientists attribute the extinction to various reasons. But this site is believed to have been destroyed by a meteor, called the Shiva Crater, that was discovered beneath the Indian Ocean, west of Mumbai, India.After a three-hour drive, we reached the Garden Palace Hotel in Balasinore which is the ancestral home of the royal family of Balasinore, now converted to a Heritage Hotel. We were welcomed by the lovely Princess Aliya Bibi. Aliya is the daughter of Nawab Mohammad Salabat Khan, the current descendant of the royal family, and she looks after the affairs of this beautiful hotel. Over the years she has also become a dinosaur lover and an expert of sorts.
We were grateful to have Aliya as our tour guide because the fossil site would have been impossible to find on our own. There are no directions or proper roads that lead to the site which was discovered by the Geological Survey of India in 1981.
Aliya’s unceasing efforts to protect the site from vandalism and theft have resulted in the government putting up a fence of barbed wire and also deploying a lone security guard. In spite of this, the people in the nearby villages do not realize that they are sitting on a national treasure. Children play and cattle graze, destroying some of the most precious fossils existing on earth.
As we travelled over rugged roads to reach the fossil site, we saw building construction underway to our left. On completion, it will be the first of its kind in the country—a dinosaur interpretative centre. The proposed plan also has a dinosaur theme park.
Two huge rusted iron gates welcomed us help the feeling that we were driving over brittle bones and crushing them.
We followed Aliya around the fossil site, feeling elated that we were walking on the land where dinosaurs once roamed. “Every time I come here, I find a new fossil. Because this area is so huge it is simply impossible to gather all of them,” she told us. This encouraged us to look for some fossils of our own. We picked up rocks hoping to lay our hands on something previously unseen.
Aliya gave us some pointers. “Fossils are fibrous in nature,” she explained, pointing to the lines of a possible arm bone of a dinosaur.
Having learnt this secret, we were eager to explore the land.
“If only I could find a T Rex’s tooth,” my son said hopefully.
“Let’s keep looking,” I encouraged him.
Aliya pointed to a pink striated rock. We saw the lines that ran smoothly along the pink structure. That was what primarily distinguished a fossil from ordinary stone. This one was the bone of a limb.
There were more fossils of bones and skin. “We need specialized machinery to extract these, so it has to wait,” she said. The highlight of the visit was the fossilized remains of the internal organs and the backbone of a dinosaur. It was mesmerizing to realize that something so soft as the insides of a dinosaur could have withstood the test of time. The backbone prompted us to freeze the moment for a memorable vacation picture.
We lingered on for a long time, watching our steps, not wanting to step on something precious. We studied some of the rocks hoping to stumble onto a treasure we could pick up, but it was not to be.
On the other side of the park were three models of dinosaurs. Made from plaster of Paris by local art students, the models had disproportionate dimensions. A temple stood next to these reptiles, as if to shower protection on the site. On the way back to the hotel, Aliya promised us to show us her personal fossil collection.
Back at the resort, we freshened up and had lunch with Aliya. She spoke at length about her experiences. When we could hold our curiosity and patience no longer, she showed us a round rock.
“This is a dinosaur egg,” she declared, holding the rock and beaming with pride. The egg had an interesting story. One of the villagers who had found the egg was using it to grind masalas because of its shape. Eventually, better awareness of fossils led to the stone being turned over to Aliya, but the egg fossil had lost some of its outer covering by then.
We took turns to hold the egg and look closely. Although we were holding something millions of years old, we realized we could have easily mistaken it for a rock.
Sid wondered aloud, “What if we could magically put the rock in a time machine and send it back?” Back in the car, my thoughts lingered on the magic of life, evolution, and the magnificent giants, while Sid continued to dream about time travel. We started playing a game to see how many dinosaur names we knew. Halfway through, Sid had another idea. He started to make up some dinosaur names, because he wanted to be ready—ready to grow up and find new dinosaurs of his own.
Editor’s note: Geologists recently found a clutch of fossilized eggs in what could be India’s largest dinosaur nesting site in Ariyalur district in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The eggs are believed to be about 65 million years old.