An egg shivers, its cracks deepen, and out comes a small dinosaur. The first among its nest, this hatchling could grow up to be a long-necked 18m/60ft-high giant (a sauropod) that eats leaves. However, at the moment, his life is at risk. An ancient snake (Sanajeh indicus) coiled around the nest has been waiting for him to come out of his shell, and has now drawn its fangs, ready to attack. At that very moment, a mudslide covers them whole, killing both the predator and its to-be victim. This could have been a scene in the new Jurassic World movie, but this is no fiction. Around 70 million years after this event transpired, the fossilised remains of its protagonists were discovered near the small village of Raiyoli in Balasinor, Gujarat.
The Dinosaur Fossil Park of Raiyoli, where I stand under a smouldering sun, is the third-largest fossil site and the second-largest hatchery in the world. There are rocks interspersed with shrubs as far as the eyes can see, with a sprinkle of concrete huts for explorers to rest. My guide is erstwhile princess Aaliya Sultana Babi, the daughter of the last Nawab of Balasinor, who had hosted paleontology teams at her palatial home, researched and learned about the fossils, tagged along on field trips, lobbied for the buried specimens to be fenced off and now conducts tours. The park is under the forest department. She now walks ahead of me and starts pointing at strange shapes on some of the rocks that have been cordoned off with an easily scalable fence. These short fences were added in November 2017 by the forest department after much persuasion, says Babi.
“See here,” she says, tracing a thick, long contour that seems to run beneath the ground from an unguarded rock to another one that’s fenced. “This is a thigh bone of a sauropod. This is just a leg, so you can imagine how enormous they were.” It was only after the fence was erected that the rock outside revealed a part of the leg. Pointing at white circles on another rock, she reveals “a nest of eggs.” Another set of shapes on yet another rock look like the shattered remains of a small pterodactyl.
I touch the bones and the eggs, they are soft and porous. On this very place where I stand, these majestic beasts once walked. In the Paleozoic era, Gondwana and Laurasia formed the supercontinent of Pangaea. It’s here that many dinosaurs lived and went extinct, and their remains were ensconced in lava. Eventually, Gondwanaland broke to form present-day South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, India, Australia, and Antarctica. In India, the dinosaur remains can be found along the river Narmada (in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra).
The Raiyoli fossil site was discovered in the early 1980s, quite accidentally, by a Geological Survey of India (GSI) team which found curious looking stones while searching for minerals. A team led by Suresh Srivastava conducted digs and collected over 400 pieces of bones. In the early 2000s, it was found that some of these bones formed an almost complete skull of a new theropod (bipedal carnivores), which was named Rajasaurus narmadensis (the royal lizard of Narmada). Today, the reconstructed skull can be seen at the Indian Museum, Kolkata.
Balasinor doesn’t have a museum yet. There is a building that was constructed many years ago, but never inaugurated. The work was picked up again last year, and Babi hopes it will be opened for tourists before this year ends. The park, too, is devoid of signboards or any educational material to aid visitors. Guests depend on guides to know what to look for, and more importantly, for perspective. Without the latter, many a tourist with misplaced expectations has observed, “Aa toh bas pathra chhe (these are just rocks!).”
While Babi has many amusing anecdotes to tell, there is one that stands out for its most unlikely outcome. Many years ago, she stopped by a villager’s house for some tea while on a tour with a group of paleontologists. The lady of the house was crushing spices with a strange round pestle. Out of sheer curiosity, Babi demanded a closer look at the pestle and noticed its shell-like markings. It was a dinosaur egg. The local woman had found it in a jungle and was reluctant to part with it. She was finally persuaded, even though she could not fathom why a rock had created such a fuss. “It’s my masala egg,” says Babi, fondly placing the near-intact egg back in its box.
On another one of her paleontological trips, she noticed a fossil embedded in the wall of a newly-constructed house. She requested the owner to not plaster the stone which held the fossil, but the villager paid no heed to her plea. One wonders just how many of the Raiyoli houses have been built with stones that house priceless dinosaur remains.
Mining is just one of the activities destroying the site. Rampant vandalism, lack of awareness and apathy are others. People like Babi have been campaigning for the protection of the site, but unless stringent steps are taken, the last few remnants of the Mesozoic era, especially of the late Cretaceous period, at Balasinor will be lost forever.