MANAWAR — The fossil of the cidaris looked like a self-embroidered Christmas ornament. It was the relic of a slate-pencil sea urchin, or cidaris, a punk-styled marine critter. Alive, it looks like a golf ball with spikes, or a comic-book version of an exploding firecracker.
Vishal Verma, a 48-year-old fossil-hunter and conservationist, was rummaging through an overcrowded closet, sifting through a wobbly pile of electrical-fan boxes. They were now stuffed with fossils of ancient life, some wrapped in plastic, others in old newspapers.
Entombed in one of these boxes was the million-year-old, petrified fossil of the cidaris. It was blonde from the limestone that had meticulously ripped through every cell of its existence.
Verma had found numerous breathtaking fossils like this one. But one particular kind eluded him: That of the poster children of these relics, the dinosaurs.
It is a thrill that cannot be explained.
Manawar is a sleepy town in central India, surrounded by rolling hills of pale limestone and dark volcanic basalt. Dinosaurs once walked these lands.
On the geological timescale, it was the Cretaceous period, 146 to 65 million years ago. It was overall warm on earth with high sea levels.
India had broken free from Africa and Madagascar. It was an island continent in the southern hemisphere. A seaway cut through its center and a vast ocean spread out to its north, separating it from Asia. The Himalayas weren't born yet.
Verma opening boxes filled with fossils — Photo: Anupama Chandrasekaran
Dinosaurs ruled this period — until, of course, apocalypse struck.
A widely accepted theory is that dinosaurs were killed by a meteor or an asteroid crash. But other paleontologists believe that a series of colossal volcanic eruptions in a part of western India decimated these megafauna 65 million years ago.
Sediments deposited during what is called the Deccan volcanic activity are a treasure-trove of dinosaur nests and eggs. The fossil-rich rocks along the banks of the Narmada river in Central India were formed during this geological event.
In fact, the first dinosaur bones in Asia were reported in 1828 from Jabalpur, close to the eastern end of the Narmada river. The bones were of the Titanosaurus indicus, a gentle and giant herbivore of the Cretaceous period.
Since then, a vast collection of dinosaur bones, nerves, teeth, claw, eggs and even dung have been found in the country.
Some of these facts come from a book called Dinosaurs of India, a 100-pager authored by veteran fossil researcher Ashok Sahni. He is the leading figure in Indian paleontology, best known for unearthing dinosaur nesting sites in central India.
"It is a thrill that cannot be explained," Sahni said over the phone from Lucknow. "The joy of finding something is like the joy of creation."
His amazement at fossil digs in India is understandable. The country's landscape is a lavish buffet of animal relics.
Its diverse fossil wealth is partly thanks to a 100-million-year odyssey. This Noah's Ark-like trip kicked off when India chipped away from Gondwanaland, the mother continent. As India waltzed up latitudes, it underwent climatic changes. This isolation also led to a spike in animal and plant species, even a variety of dinosaurs, found only in the floating landmass.
He shed his high-school physics-teacher garb and fastened his amateur paleontologist cape.
Jabalpur has numerous deposits of dinosaur eggs and nests. The city is located along the banks of the Narmada river. It was amid the barren hillocks of this region that the British soldier William Sleeman found dinosaur bones in 1828.
More than 150 years later, Sahni stumbled upon dinosaur nests around the same spot.
"I saw these rounded bodies and they didn't look like eggs because ... they had been covered with silica," Sahni said. "We started searching for more and found more." Sahni had spent many years on that site and hadn't come across any dinosaur egg fossils until that day. "A lot is luck," Sahni added. "A lot of it is perseverance."
Vishal Verma is aware of the patience it takes to find animal relics. In 2000, the fossil hunter started scanning the neighboring town of Bagh in Madhya Pradesh. He spent weekends cruising over 40 kilometers of asphalt to Bagh on his motorbike. There, he did his version of a superhero flip. He shed his high-school physics-teacher garb and fastened his amateur paleontologist cape.
Verma started looking for petrified bones, eggs, even a shard of a dinosaur-egg fossil in this prehistoric graveyard. He was keenly aware of what he should look for, as he had spent hours studying attributes of these elusive fossils.
"To identify an egg, its shell is key," he said en route to Bagh, speaking in Hindi. "The details on the eggshell tell us whether it is a carnivore or a herbivore dinosaur. The breathing pores, its textures, its shape. If it is spherical, it is a herbivore, and if it is elongated, it is a carnivore."
A fossilized shell of a dinosaur egg — Photo: Anupama Chandrasekaran
The Bagh Fossils Park is a 100-hectare conservatory. It was an overcast day and Verma walked down a mud-path that wound around lush mounds to sight a small pond. Back in 2006, on a cool November morning, Verma and a former student Rajesh Chauhan chose this very spot for their fossil hunt.
"On the first day itself. We parked our bikes and came here close to the pond," said Chauhan pointing to a waterbody at the park. "And we kept doing the rounds and I was a bit unsure because I didn't know to identify a dinosaur egg or its shell. Then Vishal called out, ‘Come here, come here.' It was the shell of a dinosaur egg."
A while later, there was another shriek. This time it wasn't just another shard of the puzzle. It was the actual whole: a coconut-sized dinosaur-egg fossil.
So much has been destroyed.
But even that wasn't what left them clicking their heels. Over the next couple of days, they collected about a hundred petrified dinosaur eggs. It was one of India's biggest finds.
"At that time, we didn't have any words. Everyone's happiness was of different degrees," said Chauhan. "I was excited that we found dinosaur eggs. And we truly had a windfall. We were taking the eggs in sack-loads. And since we couldn't take them on our bikes, we got a friend to bring along a van and spent a few days ferrying the dinosaur eggs to Manavar."
It was a monumental find. A few months later, they handed the eggs over to the Madhya Pradesh government. Some of these egg fossils were deposited at a fossil museum in Mandav, a tourist town located 100 kilometers from Bagh on a scenic plateau in the Vindhya mountain range.
Unlike countries like the U.S. or even China, India doesn't have a national repository to store fossil finds. Only this year, there has been some talk of a natural history museum in Delhi.
The damage of this lethargy is evident all over the country. Like Bagh, Raiyoli in neighboring Gujarat was another major dinosaur nesting site. It is close to the western bank of the Narmada. But today, Raiyoli has very few fossils.
"So much of it has been destroyed and is constantly being destroyed. That's the biggest tragedy," said Sanjay Kumar, a Delhi-based journalist working with Sahni and others to push the government to establish a natural history museum. "This spot in Raiyoli was a global hotspot, which was to be declared a UNESCO site. Nothing was done and the whole site was destroyed. It's almost clean now."
Verma summed up the tension: "Some people look at fossils with amazement as a clue to the origins of life. And then there are those who cannot understand why we are investing so much in a piece of stone."
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