That the Indian subcontinent broke away from Madagascar 88 million years ago, hurtled north and attached to Eurasia may not be news to most of us. But the journey that took about 38 million years — and what it meant for the entire landscape, including plants and mammals — is a story worth telling. “India is one of the most eventful places to be. How did the Himalayas come into being? How did monsoons happen? These are answers waiting to be told,” says Ashok Sahni, emeritus professor, Panjab University, Chandigarh, who was at the international consultation meeting on the making of the Indian Museum of Earth.
The proposal to build such a museum was discussed and endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology & Innovation Advisory Council in January. Since then, experts have been discussing how a museum that tells India’s story should evolve. The meeting, held early this month in Delhi, was organised by Palaeonet Indica, a non-profit network of palaeontologists, geologists, biologists, museologists, science writers and design experts, in collaboration with the Indian National Science Academy, and Delhi University, with the support of the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, Vijay Raghavan.
“This country deserves such a museum because thus far most science museums have not focused on earth’s processes or fossils; they only exhibit dinosaurs. The origin of whales, for instance, is a classic example of microevolution that took place in India, and isn’t mentioned anywhere,” says Sahni, one of India’s best-known palaeontologists.
“The Indian subcontinent has a unique geological history that chronicles rocks and fossils ranging in age from 4,000 million years old to recent times,” says GVR Prasad, head, department of geology, University of Delhi. Journalist Sanjay Kumar, in an article for Science Magazine (April 2018), narrated the incident when Prasad and his team went hunting for dinosaur nests in Bagh, Madhya Pradesh. They were threatened by villagers who assumed they had come to appropriate land. Lack of awareness and access is one of the many challenges that confront palaeontologists in India.
Doing his bit is Vishal Verma. The physics teacher from Bakaner High School, Manawar, Madhya Pradesh, says his heart lies in the discoveries of the fossil-rich Narmada Valley. With help from municipalities, Verma helped set up a fossil museum in Mandu and is hoping the dream of a National Dinosaur Fossil Park in Bagh will become a reality. With a collection of over 20,000 shark teeth and 40,000 starfish fossils, among others, Verma says, “Fossils are a witness to the planet. It shows us the rhythm of life and enlarges our perspective. In India, people are not happy by just seeing a dinosaur egg. They want to know the context, how it was laid, and how many were there in the nest. Those are stories the museum should tell, none of which is possible without people’s participation.”
Preserving fossil material in Indian collections, many of which are unknown, is another challenge facing experts. Adwait Jukar, Deep Time-Peter Buck Fellow with the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution at Washington, DC, says, “Initiatives like The Indian Museum of Earth could be a place where training programmes could be organised with international collaboration and people could get technical skills.”
Pranay Lal, author, Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent, says, “Unlike the US or the UK, in India you have so many surprises, be it new discoveries around mammals or rock formations. For instance, it’s only recently that we discovered that dinosaurs ate rice and grass. India is an important part of the jigsaw of world history, and few things can be explained without us.”
Currently, the search is on for land in the National Capital Region for the museum. That India ought to celebrate its geological and natural history is a given, the question remains how and where.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘History of the World in India’.