India’s Invaluable Dinosaur Fossils Lie Neglected and Forgotten in this Kolkata Museum
Three lakh rupees is the annual budget allocated for the maintenance of the museum.
Bara Pa, or Big Feet, was the name given to the first femur found at the excavation site. It measured over 1.7 metres, roughly the same size as the average height of an Indian man, and stirred up great excitement. More digging followed at the site, unearthing more fossil bones. The scientists were convinced that the bones belonged to at least six members of a new species of dinosaur. They decided to call it Barapasaurus tagorei, in honour of poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose birth centenary fell in 1961, the year of the grand discovery.
This graveyard of sauropod dinosaurs, unearthed by scientists from Calcutta’s Geological Study Unit in a village in what is now Telangana, was featured in the prestigious scientific journal Nature in 1962. Amid the celebration, nearly 10 tonnes of fossil bone material were excavated and brought to Calcutta to be studied for 15 years.
In 1977, the bones were mounted to recreate the animal’s skeleton in time for the fourth international Gondwana Symposium at the Geological Society of India. There was pride in the exhibit – it was the only mounted dinosaur in Asia at the time. Standing 60 feet tall, 13 feet wide and weighing about 20 tonnes, the Barapasaurus disproved earlier theories that gigantic sauropods did not exist in the early Jurassic period. A scale model of the dinosaur was exhibited as a float during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi in 1995.
But then amnesia crept in. The Barapasaurus remained locked up with other Mesozoic treasures in the Geological Study Unit museum, inside the Indian Statistical Institute on Barrackpore Trunk Road. The public stopped caring about the invaluable discovery, and its home in Calcutta.
Despite being a public museum, access is today limited – permission to enter is required from the office on the second floor, because the fossils are still the subject of ongoing research. Government funds are at a minimum – the museum cannot afford the protective coating needed to preserve the fossils and is languishing without artists and other technical staff. According to the head of the Geological Study Unit department and the museum, Dhurjati Prasad Sengupta, there was a time when each researcher was assisted by nine regular staff members, including artists and technical experts. “Today we have to hire everyone from outside,” lamented Sengupta.
The origins of the museum can be traced to a meeting between Indian statistician Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and Pamela Robinson, a British palaeontologist, in England in 1958. Robinson was preparing to go to China in search of fossils, but Mahalanobis invited her to India instead. He asked geologist Tapan Roy Chowdhury, mathematician TS Kutty and zoologist SL Jain to join her, and set up the Geological Study Unit in a small building within the Indian Statistical Institute campus in 1959. The team travelled far and wide, often on foot and on bullock carts, in search of fossils and geological specimens.
Initially, specimens were laid out on tables. As they piled up, they were moved to a vacant hall located under an auditorium. The hall had two-storey-high ceiling, so it was perfect to store the mounted Barapasaurus. A large laboratory and other facilities were added to the hall, and the space came to be known as the Geological Study Unit museum. The museum was shifted to its current premises, when the old building became dilapidated and damp. Apart from the display area, the new space has offices, stores and a laboratory. But some large specimens are still kept in the old building due to lack of space.
One of the more memorable moments in the movie Jurassic Park is when the protagonists Dr Allen Grant, Dr Ian Malcolm and Dr Ellie Sattler see the giant Brachiosaurus for the first time. A similar elation and wonder filled us, when we stepped into the Geological Study Unit gallery and set our eyes on the mounted Barapasaurus.
The Barapasaurus fed on tall trees and shrubs, much like the Brachiosaurus. Its world, roughly 196 million to 183 million years ago, was a rapidly changing one. The arid landscape had transformed into one with rivers, lakes, ocean coasts, clumps of tall trees and shrubbery. It was also a world that was subject to frequent earthquakes and flooding as the Indian landmass was breaking away from the Pangaea and the Gondwana. It is believed that one such flood that swept through the valley of the Pranhita and Godavari rivers caught a group of six Barapasauruses as they grazed on gymnosperms. The huge sauropods were carried by the waters until their bodies got trapped among some uprooted trees, near what are today the villages of Sironcha and Pochampally, close to the Maharashtra-Telangana border. And there they remained until scientists unearthed the fossils.
Apart from the Barapasaurus, the Geological Study Unit is credited with the discovery of around 80 species from different Mesozoic periods, most of which were discovered in the Pranhita and Godavari valley in the Gondwana basin. These included fish with ragged teeth, dorsal fan-like projections and fins that moved like limbs, two-metre-long amphibians with 40 cm heads and sharp teeth and herbivore reptiles with powerful beaks, used to crunch roots and stems.
Close to the Barapasaurus skeleton, encased in glass, is the mounted Rhynchosaur. Though it looks like a ferocious carnivore, it is actually a Triassic herbivore. The Rhynchosaurs are a group of diapsid reptiles who lived through the Triassic period. They have stocky bodies, short legs, enormous claws and a powerful beak. The early Rhynchosaurs resembled lizards, but later ones, like the one at the museum, have broader skulls and a powerful beak.
The museum also has a nearly complete skeleton of a massive Titanosaur, but it is so fragile that no one has tried to mount it. The late Cretaceous sauropod was found between 1984 and 1986 in the Dongargaon hill of Maharashtra. The Geological Study Unit team, headed by Jain and Saswati Bandyopadhyay, initially named their find Titanosaurus Colberti, after renowned palaeontologist EH Colbert. It has recently been renamed Isisaurus Colberti, with the first three letters standing for the Indian Statistical Institute. Unable to find space for all of it, the gallery has displayed only its giant hip bone.
The museum is also home to a rare fossil skull: the Endothiodon mahalanobisi. Named after the founder of the Indian Statistical Institute, it is one of the oldest land vertebrates from the Permian Period.
In 2017, the fossil bones of a Shringasaurus were discovered in the red mudstone of the upper Denwa formation in Madhya Pradesh. The dinosaur was described as a new, horned and long-necked herbivorous stem archosaur from the middle Triassic. At present, the scientists at the Geological Study Unit are working in Damodar Valley, the Eastern Coalfields, Pachmarhi and Satpura.
The Geological Study Unit is today limited to teaching palaeontology as part of the Pass course for students of statistics and mathematics, and providing support for PhD students. Their annual budget allocation for the museum’s maintenance – Rs 2 lakh – isn’t enough to preserve the fossils or display them appropriately. “We collect cans of polyvinyl methyl acrylate over several years [till we] have enough to paint the whole fossil at one go,” said Sengupta. “The lacquer often gets hard or discoloured but it does its job of stopping the fossils from flaking.” The scientists are expected to source funds for field or laboratory research from outside.
Sengupta is worried about the future of the Geological Study Unit. “The work has been sort of handed down from teacher to student,” he said. “After Robinson, the responsibility of serious research had fallen on Roy Chowdhury, Kutty and Jain. Then came Shankar Chatterjee [now a faculty member of the Texas Tech University] and Bandopadhyay. My own retirement is not due for a few years but the next generation of experts are not ready.” This, says Sengupta, is primarily because of the lack of good students. Palaeontology is not a separate subject in India until post-graduation. Only those with an MSc in geology can study palaeontology. “Even then, there is the general assumption that the study is borderline science and of no financial value,” said Sengupta. “So even when we get good students, they are more eager to shift to jobs in the Geological Survey of India or the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation.”
Paleontological research in India has always been harmed by lack of regulations and protection to sites. “Foreign researchers often conduct excavations without proper permissions, and in places like Panchet, local residents dig up fossils and sell them piecemeal to tourists,” said Sengupta. “Lystrosaurus fossils, for example, sell for Rs 30.” Stopping before a cabinet which had a collection of eggs from the Cretaceous Period, Sengupta said: “We all know how fossils of dinosaur eggs and nests are being regularly destroyed or stolen. We hope to save enough for future researchers.”
But all is hopefully not lost for the Geological Study Unit. Saradee Sengupta’s paper on the Shringasaurus appeared in the August 2017 issue of Scientific Reports, a Nature group publication. Research student Sanjukta Chakravorti was awarded a student travel grant from the Raymounde Rivoallan fund at the annual meeting of European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists. And this year’s budget for the museum is Rs 3 lakh – still a trifle amount, when it comes to preserving what is an inextricable part of India’s past.
All photos by Subrata Ganguly.