I stared at the round, grey eggs sticking out of the slab of rock in front of me. They were about the size of musk melons, rough and chipped. Out of context, they looked like a supersized concrete sculpture of a carton of eggs. Except that this dozen was laid at least 65 million years ago, making them much older than the first human beings to walk the Earth.
Craning my neck upwards to get a glimpse of where they came from, I see a fibreglass model of a mama brontosaur, the creature the fossilised eggs probably belonged to. The herbivorous reptile with a long sweeping neck probably looked down on most of its counterparts when it roamed our planet eons ago. I am stupefied: I’d never imagined I would encounter my first dinosaur in Gujarat.
I am at the Dinosaur and Fossil Section of Indroda Nature Park in Gandhinagar or, as I like to think of it, a wormhole into the past. The park has three other parts. There’s a botanical garden with a selection of medicinal herbs, a zoo where visitors can see crocodiles, sambar, and birds like the sarus crane, and an area dedicated to sea mammals that has a skeleton of an adult blue whale. However, I am here to see creatures that are even bigger. The dinosaur section of the park has fossils from a site in the Gujarati village of Raiyoli, about 90 minutes from Gandhinagar. They were discovered by the Geological Survey of India (GSI) in 1981, creating a stir among India’s palaeontologists. Some scientists believe that it is among the largest fossilised dinosaur hatcheries in the world. Once the specimens were studied and documented, some of the finds from Raiyoli were brought to Indroda to be gawked at by visitors like me.
Models of triceratops are found in the fossil park. This dinosaur species had 4 to 5-foot-wide heads including bony frills and three large horns. Photo: Sam Panthaky\Stringer\AFP\Getty Images
Walking around the tree-filled park with Kusum Suthar, my spunky guide, I feel like I have gained a little knowledge of palaeontology. Most of the dinosaur fossils in the world, Kusum tells me, belong to the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, which are the middle and waning eras of the dinosaur species’ habitation on Earth. The fossils found in Gujarat—the only known dinosaur excavation site in India—belong to the Cretaceous period, which ended 65 million years ago. By comparison, the first Homo sapiens appeared only about 200,000 years ago.
Fragments of limb bones. Photo: Rumela Basu
Earlier that morning we had walked into a squat building near the park’s entrance, where over 100 fossils are sealed in dusty glass cases. I saw ammonites, imprints of leaves, and patterns that look like oyster-shell impressions. I was more interested in the specimens that held evidence of prehistoric animal life, like the hunk of rock with the imprint of turtle skin. Turtles, it turns out, are among a few creatures that still walk the Earth, that trace their lineage back some 200 million years. The room didn’t look impressive, but each exhibit I saw helped piece together the mental picture of what our planet might have looked like eons ago. Kusum pointed to a spiky-looking indent on a piece of pale, pink rock: allegedly an impression of a squid-like marine animal. Or perhaps it was a shelled marine animal with or without tentacles. I started to get the feeling that being a palaeontologist involved a lot of educated guesswork.
We were soon joined by Rayjibhai Rathod, one of the people in charge of the fossil park and part of the GSI team that worked on the excavation site in Raiyoli. Rayjibhai was shy but obviously passionate about his work. He showed me one of the park’s most prized exhibits, a glass case with football-sized hunks of stone caked with dry mud. Closer inspection revealed a barely-there eggshell pattern on the exterior. “Most dinosaur eggs are round, you know”, he said, “unlike bird eggs that are oval, or well, egg-shaped.” I asked him which species of dinosaur these belonged to. “We don’t know for sure,” he confessed, “though we have established that long-necked, four-legged dinosaurs like the Brontosaurus have round eggs, while theropods (creatures that walked on two limbs) laid oval eggs.”
Despite the fact that so many fossils are yet to be classified, they still provide valuable information about what Earth looked like so many million years ago. The marine fossils for instance, are evidence that water bodies once flowed through this part of Gujarat, which is now largely arid. The wood fossils show that trees with trunks as large as boulders once thrived here. Looking closely at one such piece, I noticed a chunk of shiny black charcoal nestled between slabs of rock.
Life-size, fibreglass models of dinosaurs at Indroda Dinosaur and Fossil Park bring alive the surrounding fossilised remains. Among the fossils discovered in Gujarat in the 1980s, was that of the Sanajeh indicus. In 2001, it was confirmed that the fossil was that of a snake curled around a dinosaur nest, apparently waiting to devour the new hatchlings. Photo: Rumela Basu
The open areas of Indroda’s fossil and dinosaur section have life-sized fibreglass models of all the dinosaurs found in this region, made to scale according to the GSI’s findings. Thanks to quirks in their production and their al fresco location, each seems to have a personality. Deinonychus or “Terrible Claw”—named after the curved claws on its hind appendages—seems to have a wide smile pasted on its face. Megalosaur, the first species to be classified as a dinosaur, looks like a sneaky, overgrown gecko, and the famously ferocious Tyrannosaurus rex has, oddly enough, taken on the role of protector. The fierce predator’s model has a little nest in its jaws, thanks to an industrious bird that’s decided it is a safe place for her young ones. A few steps away from T-rex is a towering brontosaur with the clutch of eggs at its feet. This is where I linger longest.
As I continue to examine the fossilised eggs, it strikes me that each of these giants (and many more) had once roamed the same piece of the planet that I now inhabit. Bustling Ahmedabad was once the territory of T-rex. Gandhinagar, where I was all of yesterday, was once home to brontosaur babies. It was a mindboggling thought.
An amused Rayjibhai tells me to shift my attention to a few large rocks on the floor. One of them has peculiar pinkish-purple circular patches, while another has a kidney-shaped maroon piece embedded within. The coloured markings are dinosaur fossils. Armed with this information, I begin to examine each of the rocks, scrutinising the murky markings for any semblance of bone structure. Many, oddly enough, remind me of bony chicken drumsticks, but one rock has a familiar shape that I correctly identify as a vertebra (thank you high school biology). It was larger than my torso.
Some of the more striking specimens excavated at Raiyoli, a two-hour drive from the park, include pink-blue swatches of fossilised dinosaur skin. The first dinosaur species to be documented was the Megalosaurus; before that, dinosaur bones were mistaken for dragon bones since the existence of dinosaurs was unknown. Photo: Rumela Basu
Buoyed by my discovery, I dart from one rock to another, looking for striations and pores. There are more vertebrae, thigh bones, eggs, and one with a conical protrusion that resembles a plastic knife that accompanies birthday cakes. “What is it?” I ask my guides, wondering whether it could be a spike from a dinosaur’s back. “Feel it,” Rayjibhai tells me. It is rough and serrated. “It’s a dinosaur tooth.” I gulp, mentally picturing a jaw full of these teeth tearing into flesh.
The highlight of the afternoon at Indroda is when I meet India’s very own Godzilla. Occupying pride of place at the centre of the fossil section is the tyrannosaur-like dinosaur which was the fiercest by far. It had small, beady eyes, a jaw full of razor-sharp teeth, and spikes running down its spine. It is the Rajasaurus narmadensis: a species of dinosaur endemic to India. Its name is inspired by its anatomy—a conical bony projection on top of its head, like a king’s crown. Its second name comes from the fact that fossils of this meat-eating theropod were found close to the Narmada River. Trust an Indian dinosaur to have a title like that.
I spend the next hour strolling through the rest of Indroda, observing the park’s peacocks, nilgai, and fawn-coloured blackbucks prancing around their enclosures. It is as good a way as any to return to the present, but I can’t get the rajasaur out of my head. I leave the park smiling and restless. The next day I am to visit the excavation site.
As my taxi drives through Gandhinagar, I try to imagine what the landscape outside my window might have looked like millions of years ago. It’s hard enough imagining what life was like when India was a clutch of kingdoms ruled by maharajas. Trying to conjure a world without any humans at all is much harder. I wonder if the gleaming road in front of me was once a river bed where giant squid lived. Perhaps the whole region was submerged under a deep lake. History suddenly seems infinitely vaster.
Until as recently as six years ago local villagers would use the fossils as stones for their homes, oblivious to the fact that they were of historical importance. Fossils recovered from village homes include a whole egg that was used as a pestle for grinding spices. Photo: Aaliya Babi
Raiyoli village is located about 16 kilometres from Balasinor town where I will halt for the night. I am staying at a butter-yellow haveli hotel run by Aaliya Babi or the “Dinosaur Princess”, as she is more popularly known. Aaliya, a member of the erstwhile royal family of Balasinor, had an early introduction to palaeontology. “Raiyoli was even smaller in 1981, and back then the haveli was the only place to get a decent cup of tea,” she says. “When the geologists were done digging, they would come to my house to discuss their finds.” As Aaliya grew older, she began reading up on the subject and even accompanied visiting palaeontologists to the site. Today, she manages tours at the excavation site at Raiyoli village, 72 acres of rock-strewn scraggy grassland fenced in with barbed wire.
As dusk approaches, Aaliya and I find two fossil-free rocks to perch on and talk some more. Despite the advancements that have been made in palaeontology in the last few decades, we know so little about the existence of dinosaurs. (For example, scientists are still unclear about what colour dinosaurs really were.) Then, there are the complications that come with excavation. There is obviously a lot more to be unearthed at Raiyoli, but excavation has been stalled due to complications over jurisdiction. In the meantime, people have been sneaking in and stealing valuable artefacts from the site. We need more centres like the Indroda Nature Park to spread awareness about our rich natural heritage.
I take one last look at the vast, rocky expanse in front of me, trying to imagine a herd of brontosaurs, or even a rajasaur walking on this land. I wonder what these majestic creatures would have thought of us, their successors. Probably not very much, since their brains were the size of walnuts. As I walk back to the car, I also wonder what our successors will make of us a few million years from now, when we’re little more than imprints and fragments of bone. How will our species be remembered?
Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “Set In Stone”.
Indroda Nature Park is located in Gandhinagar, 26 km/40 min north of Ahmedabad (www.geerfoundation.gujarat.gov.in; 079-23220560; open Tue-Sun 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; entry adult ₹20, free for children under 5 years).
Raiyoli is 100 km/2 hr west of Ahmedabad and 16 km/30 min north of the closest town, Balasinor. Tours are conducted on request by Aaliya Babi from the Garden Palace Heritage Homestay (98253 15382; firstname.lastname@example.org; ₹350 per person; duration 90 min).
is Features Writer at National Geographic Traveller India and has an MA in International Journalism from Cardiff University. She likes poetry, food, and books. One day she'd love to have a large library and enough time to travel and drink lots of tea.
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