Khursheed Dinshaw (India)
Raiyoli is a village near Balasinor in the state of Gujarat, India, which has been attracting palaeontologists because of its dinosaur fossil park (Fig. 1). Curious to know more about the park, I visited Balasinor to meet Princess Aaliya Sultana Babi (Fig. 2), who is also known as the ‘Dinosaur Princess’.
I had booked my stay at The Garden Palace, which is the private residence of the royal family of Balasinor. The property also offers guests’ accommodation and signature experiences. While relishing a sumptuous dinner and chatting with the warm and hospitable princess, I learnt about how she got involved with the site:
In the year 1997, Raiyoli was visited by leading palaeontologists from the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan for excavation purposes. They came to our residence for tea and, during the conversation about the site, I realised that it was time to act on my calling. I say “act” because my mother, Begum Farhad Sultana, used to tell me that, as a child when I was learning the alphabet, when it came to the letter ‘D’, it was not D for ‘dog’. Instead I learnt D for ‘dinosaur’. Spellings like Brontosaurus fascinated me even then,” she mentioned nostalgically.
The timing to get involved with dino-tourism was right, as foreigners began to express an interest in visiting the site. So, who better than Aaliya to guide and show them around the site? Her passion and dedication to the Dinosaur Fossil Park is amply evident, as she explained to me why the site is special. For example, I learnt that Raiyoli is not just a hatchery but also the graveyard of dinosaurs.
Twenty three years ago, almost 50 palaeontologists from various corners of the world studied the site. Based on the findings, Raiyoli was declared the third largest dinosaur site in the world and, in fact, it could be the second largest hatchery in the world. More than a thousand eggs were found onsite.
There is speculation about the number of dinosaur species that lived here. For one group of palaeontologists, it was six or seven different dinosaurs. For others, it was only the one that mattered in terms of its spendour and it was called Rajasaurus narmadensis.
The name comes from the words ‘Raja’, ‘Saurus’ and ‘Narmada’. Raja refers to king in Sanskrit, while saurus denotes a lizard in Greek. The reference to Narmada is to the River Narmada, which flows through Gujarat. Rajasaurus narmadensis therefore translates as the mighty princely reptile or king of lizards of the Narmada. This dinosaur was almost 30 feet in height, had a stocky build and was a abelisaurid, theropod dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous. It was carnivorous in nature and, while its horn was not so prominent, in appearance, it resembled Tyrannosaurus rex.
The next day, we visited Raiyoli and, on entering the dinosaur fossil park, the first fossil the princess showed me was a dinosaur limb (Fig. 4). Close to it, we spotted an impression of the scaly texture of dinosaur skin (Fig. 5). Aaliya mentioned that this was recognised as such by the original 50 palaeontologists and subsequently by other palaeontologists who visited the site.
As she opined, as she showed me yet another fossil:
This can possibly be the skin of Rajasaurus Narmadensis [Fig. 6]. I cannot say with a 100% certainty that it is, since skin, like internal organs, does not usually get preserved.”
I also got to see the outlines of eggs at the park, belonging to the Cretaceous Period (Figs. 7 and 8). The princess then proceeded to show me some of the fossils that were found onsite and which she has lovingly added to her dinosaur collection. From a red box, she carefully removed a bone (Fig. 8), which was covered in cotton. I held it and was thrilled to be able to touch a piece of the Cretaceous Period.
I also got to see two, not fully developed, dinosaur eggs (Fig. 10). They were rather small in size. “The eggs are small because they were in the womb of the mother at the time of her death,” explained Aaliya, as if on cue, and added that she was especially proud when, a postal first day special cover of Rajasaurus narmadensis was released, 11 years ago.
Dinosaur Fossil Park is in Raiyoli, near Balasinor in Gujarat. More information can be found at: https://www.gujarattourism.com/central-zone/mahisagar/balasinor-dinosaur-fossil-park.html.
All photographs are by Khursheed Dinshaw, other than Fig. 10, which is from the TripAdvisor website.