One October morning, way back in 1982, an incurably curious and highly respected paleontologist named Professor Ashok Saini was attending a seminar in Ahmedabad in the western Indian state of Gujarat when a young man came to him with a request: to examine what appeared to be a rock the size and shape of a large coconut.

The young man, Dhananjay Mohabey, was an officer at the Geological Survey of India and during his surveys in Gujarat had come across reports of discoveries of such spherical rocks. Locals had a term for them: ‘cannon balls’. These strange rocks, Dhananjay told Prof Saini, often surfaced during blasting operations close to a cement factory at Raiholi, a village some 100km from Ahmedabad. Some of these ‘cannon balls’ could be seen adorning the shelves of the factory manager’s office, he added.

Keen to find out what they were, the curious professor began to study it only to be shocked when he realised what it was. A priceless find, the ‘cannon ball’ was actually a fossilised egg of a dinosaur that once roamed western India more than 100 million years ago.

Model of a dinosaur. The first dinosaur fossil found in India was in a place called Bara, in Jabalpur, close to a well-known temple called the Pat Baba mandir

Even as the professor began to study it in detail, reports of dinosaur eggs were flooding in from other sites in the region including from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

“However, Raiholi remains the largest nesting ground of dinosaurs discovered in India, perhaps even in the world,” writes Pranay Lal, in his multi award-winning book Indica – A deep natural history of the Indian Subcontinent. (A report in the Chrsitian Science Monitor says close to 10,000 fossilised dinosaur eggs were discovered here making Raiholi one of the world’s largest dinosaur hatcheries.)

Compelling and extensively researched, Indica offers a spellbinding narrative of Indian natural history, and is replete with fascinating insights into the life and times of rare reptiles, massive mammals and fabulous flying creatures that millennia ago roamed freely on the subcontinent.

One of the biggest plusses of Pranay's book is that it has a charming and friendly tone, identifying and explaining in lucid language, sans jargon, spectacular milestones and awe-inspiring historical markers that punctuate the country’s historical and geographical timeline.

Not unlike an extremely experienced and knowledgeable tour guide, the author leads the reader on an adventurous journey, pausing to stop frequently to describe, highlight, or draw attention to lesser-known facts that he has painstakingly researched and listed in an easy-to-understand, even fun, manner.

So it was with delight that I, a former resident of Bengaluru, Karnataka, learnt some fascinating details about a place I had visited several times while in the city: the rocky terrain in Ramanagara on the Bangalore-Mysore highway, a locale that shot to fame after it became the setting for one of the most famous Bollywood movies Sholay. Thanks to Pranay’s book, I learnt that the abode of Amjad Khan’s character, Samba, is actually a rock formation on which the country stands and took its present shape some 3.5 billion years ago!

Another interesting find from the book: the awe-inspiring and much visited touristic destination, the Vivekanada Memorial that is perched at the southern tip of India in Kanyakumari, rests on an ancient charnockite rock formation that some 180 million years ago was joined together with Madagascar, Sri Lanka, east Antarctica and Australia. The joint is called the Gondwana Junction.

Indica offers a spellbinding narrative of Indian natural history

In Sharjah late last year as an invited speaker at the International Book Fair, Pranay clearly shares some of the qualities of professor Saini (the gentleman of the dinosaur egg fame); for one, a deep desire to learn about the natural world.

“As a child, I was curious and would ask my teachers a lot of questions,” says the Indian biochemist who works in the area of public health in Delhi, in an exclusive interview with Friday.

“I often wondered why the lower portion of India is triangular in shape; why all the rivers in Kerala drain into the Arabian Sea while the rivers in Maharashtra – Godavari, Krishna – do not do so but flow right across the state…”

He had a several questions for his history teachers too: “I found it very interesting that the Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji, during his reign of just 16 years, built an amazing 38 forts. No king in the world has done something like that; and they are all durable forts. What led him to build these forts?”

As he grew up, he had more questions – to geologists and palaeontologists now – wanting to know more about dinosaurs in India. “It was one of them who told me that there are several dinosaur fossils in India. In fact there are so many fossilised dinosaur eggs out there, they make cement out of them, he said.”

Shocked and keen to learn more about the ancient creatures and about India’s rich natural history, Pranay would frequently attend meetings, seminars and symposia that were regularly conducted in Delhi.

From attending to participating in discussion on issues as varied as wildlife conservation, geology, natural history and river management, Pranay soon began to be sought out for his views on various topics. “Eventually, people began telling me that if you do have so much understanding on the deep past, you need to write about it. That’s how Indica happened,” he says.

The book was widely appreciated and went on to grab awards including the 2017 Tata Literature Prize and The World Book Fair award.

Pranay has dug deep to discuss and share fascinating insights into India’s less known geographical history

Then earlier last year, Pranay, not veering too far from his academic interest, wrote Invisible Empire: The Natural History of Viruses – a delightful, engrossing and insightful study of viruses placing under the microscope the petri dish of a world that is invisible to the naked eye.

Right now he is busy working on a book on the natural history of Kerala. Titled Malabrica, it came about after a meeting with Ravi Dee Cee, the head of well-known publishing house, DC Books. “Ravi wanted me to write a book on Kerala,” reveals Pranay. But more about Malabarica later.

Digging up fossils

I am keen to know more about the discovery of dinosaur fossils in India, and Indica, that is replete with information about this among other amazing and little-known facets about India’s geography, history, palaeontology and anthropology.

“The first dinosaur fossil found in India was of a sauropod called Titanosaurus indicus,” he tells me. The book tells me it was found in a place called Bara, in Jabalpur, close to a well-known temple called the Pat Baba mandir. Proximity to the place of worship offered protection to the bones, eggs and nests of the dinosaurs because the priests and devotees believed the eggs had divine attributes. However, during a renovation a decade ago, several nests and eggs were damaged or lost, and today very few fossils remain.

The Titanosaurus must have surely been a terrifying creature to behold: As tall as a four-storey building, it stretched over 25 metres- the length of two city buses – and was the largest dinosaur of the Cretaceous period in India. Despite its size though, it was very likely a herbivore, say experts.

Then there was the Rajasaurus narmadensis, a name that means “regal dinosaur from the Narmada” because the bones were discovered close to the banks of the Narmada River in western India. It is said to have walked on the planet some 65 million years ago. According to one of the experts who pieced it together, it must have been at least 30 feet long and enjoyed a diet that included the long-necked herbivore Sauropod dinosaurs that roamed the Narmada region at the time.

But the largest find was without doubt that of the Bruhathkayosaurus. Fossils of the 48-metre long gigantic creature were found in Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu in 1989, says Pranay.

Ramanagara in Karnataka, a rock formation that took its present shape some 3.5 billion years ago, writes Pranay in his book

The scientists who discovered it could not carry it all back to their labs for further study at the time so took pictures and left, hoping to return later to conduct further studies. However, sadly for them and for science, torrential rains that monsoon washed away the bones and they could never be found, he says. Had the find been protected and preserved, the Bruhathkayosaurus would have been recognised as the largest dinosaur to have ever walked the earth!

These were not the only ones that roamed the jungles of the region. Smaller carnivorous dinosaurs like Indosaurus, the Indosuchus (that had a 1m skull and razor sharp, 10cm-long teeth), and strange snakes and crocodiles also inhabited the forests.

The fact that India’s fossil heritage is rich has been acknowledged by several experts in the field and it is a delight to explore the various interesting sites through Pranay’s Indica.

“India’s fossil heritage is largely untapped and has been forgotten,” Advait M Jukar, a vertebrate palaeontologist at Yale University and research associate in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington told BBC earlier this year. “India has produced the earliest whales, some of the largest rhinos and elephants that have ever existed, vast beds of dinosaur eggs, and strange horned reptiles from before the age of dinosaurs.” It is to Pranay’s credit that he has dug deep to discuss and share fascinating insights into India’s less known geographical history.

Lack of space

Incidentally, it was prof Sahni who identified and pieced together the bones of Rajasaurus narmadensis. He was also part of a team that more than a decade ago discovered perfectly preserved insects in amber- insects that dated back more than 54 million years. It’s an incident that reminds one of the prehistoric mosquito trapped in amber that was the basis for Jurassic Park, the Steven Spielberg movie that brought dinosaurs into our drawing rooms and scared the daylights out of us.

Why do most Indians still know more about the T Rex than about the dinosaurs of the subcontinent? I ask Pranay.

Ramanagara in Karnataka, a rock formation that took its present shape some 3.5 billion years ago, writes Pranay in his book

A reason could be because geologists and palaeontologists have been accorded a very low position in the field of sciences, says the author. “So people are really not interested in trying to know about the time dinosaurs roamed the earth. Also, scientists themselves do not demand a space to show that their studies are important,” he says.

He mentions cases where palaeontologists are unable to find a space to deposit or display their finds once they retire. “They simply don’t know what to do with the rich collection of fossils that they may have been studying,” says Pranay. “So sometimes fossils [end up] stacked behind a department or even left out in the open around the institutions.”

To start with, he sees the need for more repositories and national museums where such finds can be displayed properly. “It could also trigger conversations and discussion on the subject,” he says.

That said, the writer who has also been a caricaturist for newspapers and an animator for an advertising agency, sees hope on the horizon. “The good news is that things are changing now; measures are being taken to protect the fossil wealth.” The government is planning to bring out a Heritage Bill that could lay down strict terms on protection and preservation of fossil wealth. “It may not be exactly what experts desired but it is at least one step in the right direction.”

From dinosaurs to viruses

A year ago, when Covid was raging, Pranay decided to write a comprehensive book on viruses titled Invisible Empire: The Natural History of Viruses. “I wanted to tell people that all viruses are not villains,” says the biochemist. “I wanted to make it clear that if all viruses would go on a strike for even one day we would all die.” Sprinkled throughout with rare photographs, paintings and illustration, the book is extremely relevant especially when viewed with the pandemic in focus.

Certain viruses, he makes it clear, keep bacteria (present in the human gut and blood) under control, and within permissible limits. “Viruses also manipulate ocean bacteria to produce oxygen. The breathable oxygen that is produced is because of the interaction between viruses and bacteria,” he says.

A dinosaur head fossil. Several nesting sites of dinosaurs have been discovered in northern India

Pranay points out that while trees do produce oxygen, that alone would not be enough for mankind. “Trees take a very long time to produce oxygen to become net efficient in terms of producing more oxygen other than for themselves,” he says.

While a lot of people are raising their voice about the need to protect the rainforest, “I say we need to protect all the oceans up to a depth of at least eight metres. That’s the top layer where all the action takes place… where all the oxygen is produced and all the carbon is sunk.”

Pranay is now working on his next book Malabarica – on the history, geography and pedology of Kerala.

“I am still doing some research,” he says adding, “I am looking forward to those interested to join me in this study.”

As we prepare to wind up the interview, once again underscores how there are “so many great things in our backyard. But we are yet to know about them or are giving them the importance that they deserve”.

Could you share one more interesting nugget about India’s geography? I ask.

“Did you know that there have been only two instances when asteroids crashed into the earth to create not a depression but a tabletop mountain of sorts,” he says. “And one such mountain is in India.”

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