Meet The Men Behind India’s Own Jurassic Park

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Dhananjay Mohabey, the Dinosaur man at an excavation site.

Their passion as geologists helped them discover the remains of a very distant past.

Imagine discovering fossils of dinosaur eggs while on a routine mapping assignment as a geologist!

It was December 1981 and Dr Dhananjay Mohabey was at a limestone mine near Balasinor in Gujarat. The rocks of the Cretaceous age (around 67. 5 million years old) were exposed in a quarry during blasting and while examining the geological sections, he and members of his team noticed 4-5 football-sized bodies of similar size spread in a cluster. In fact, some blocks of limestone had spherical bodies entombed in them and looked like a basket of big eggs.

“My first impression about these spherical football-sized bodies was they were fossil eggs — most probably of dinosaurs, as only large-sized reptiles could lay such big eggs. This was the maiden discovery of dinosaur eggs in the Indian subcontinent,” fondly recalls Mohabey, who has since retired as Deputy Director-General of the 170-year-old Geological Survey of India (GSI).

At the time of the discovery of dinosaur eggs and nests, Mohabey was 28 and newly married. The GSI team he was with was camping in tents at a small village about 100 km from Ahmedabad. Working at dawn and dusk to beat the blazing heat of the day, the team managed to conduct transect surveys. “I was enjoying the fieldwork as I was thrilled with the fossil finds and there was this urge to search for more evidence. The discovery of the dinosaur eggs was no doubt an enthusiasm booster but we had to wait nearly a year to identify and establish our finds to make them acceptable at the international level,” explains Mohabey.

He was attracted to geology while in school. The turning point came in 1966 when Mohabey visited his eldest sister who was married to a geologist at the Bhilai Steel Plant. His brother-in-law was involved in exploring manganese ore deposits in remote parts of Madhya Pradesh. Staying in a British-built bungalow and travelling in a jeep through thick jungles teeming with wildlife and passing by rivers and gurgling streams fascinated the young Mohabey and he desired to become a geologist. His ambition bore fruit when he joined the GSI in 1977.

Rayjibhai Rathod displaying a dinosaur-sketch made by him in the front of life-size dinosaur at Indroda Fossil Park in Gandhinagar.

Assisting Mohabey in his quest for dinosaur fossils since the early days was Rayjibhai Dhulabhai Rathod, a local lad from Kheda district. Mohabey had run into him in 1983 while working on the dinosaur project. He recalls how Rathod had initially helped him in cleaning rock and fossil samples that were collected during the fieldwork.

Even though he had only basic schooling, Rathod was quick to pick up the basics and made pencil illustrations of dinosaur fossils. Impressed by his curiosity and drawing skills, Mohabey took him on field trips only to realise that he was a big help in spotting fossils almost as if he was an amateur paleontologist. Rathod gathered enough experience and knowledge by travelling with Mohabey and other geologists to various locations in Gujarat and soon became an avid fossil hunter and his passion for drawing sketches and making models of dinosaur bones blossomed.

In 1989, Mohabey was transferred from Ahmedabad to Nagpur and parted ways with Rathod, but they were in constant touch telephonically, exchanging news on encounters with dinosaur fossils. Meanwhile, Rathod continued to work for GSI at Raiyoli village with other geologists who got posted to the location and found his skills very useful.

Subsequently, more dinosaur egg and nest-sites were discovered at Raiyoli in Kheda district. Many graveyards and hatcheries representing both Sauropod and Theropod dinosaurs were discovered at a single locality and very soon Raiyoli became an acclaimed dinosaur site.

Working under GSI’s dinosaur research project, Mohabey, accompanied by Rathod and his team, was able to locate numerous dinosaur nest sites with thousands of eggs laid by different types of dinosaurs. After working for nearly 20 years close to home in Raiyoli, Rathod was asked to join the upcoming Indroda Dinosaur and Fossil Park. Spread over 1,000 acres on either bank of the Sabarmati river in Gandhinagar, Indroda Park is regarded as India’s Jurassic Park and maintained by the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation (GEER). It is also the first dinosaur museum in the country that has fossilised remains and petrified eggs of dinosaurs other than life-size models. Mohabey says that Rathod is well-versed with fossil localities in Gujarat and has played a dynamic role in collecting fossils and setting up the collection in Indroda.

After serving GSI for over 36 years, Mohabey is currently with the Department of Geology, RTM Nagpur University as Senior Scientist and Co-Principal Investigator in the Ministry of Earth Science Research Project for tracking reptiles and plants with environmental changes across Deccan Volcanism (the longest lava mega-flows on Earth, spanning over 1,500 km across the Deccan). He is also a collaborator with the US-based National Science Foundation’s sponsored research project on India at Crossroads during the Cretaceous-Paleogene period.

Meanwhile, Rathod, after nearly 40 years of service with GSI, is on the verge of retirement but continues to attend office in Indroda despite the lockdown. His elder son now works with the GSI. Rathod intends to go back to his home town in Raiyoli and set up a school that will train students to become fossil hunters.

The writer is a wildlife enthusiast and photographer based in Noida.