A gigantic dinosaur rises up over the horizon, its large mouth agape in a silent roar or is that a huge smile? 😀 A terrifyingly friendly welcome, deep within Raiyoli, a remote village of India.
‘Meet the Rajasaurus narmadensis which means the Regal Reptile of the Narmada’, proudly says my host, the equally regal Princess Aaliya. With her dark eyes flashing with a fierce passion and her long tresses flowing down her back, she is attired in a neat blue shirt, denims, scarf and her signature hat, boots and cane, looking as cool as a cucumber. I on the other hand, delicate and spoiled by my Bangalore climate, am sweating in the September heat and humidity of Gujarat, which however has not deterred me from being drawn with fascination to this place that I recently came to know about.
Raiyoli lies near Balasinor, which to my ears rhymes with Dinosaur 😀 which is a town in the district of Mahisagar, in the Western state of Gujarat in India.
The Dinosaur Park at Raiyoli, is one of India’s mighty treasures that has been unearthed a few years ago but still remains relatively unknown to many.
Come let us step on the land that our prehistoric creatures walked on millions of years ago and let us unearth the secrets that it holds, ably guided by Princess Aaliya who is the authority and honorary guardian of this fascinating site.
About Princess Aaliya –
Nawabzadi Aaliya Sultana Babi belongs to the Babi royal family that ruled the erstwhile princely state of Balasinor prior to Indian independence. The family now resides in the Garden Palace Balasinor, which is also a Heritage homestay.
Right from her childhood she developed a fascination for dinosaurs and used to be quite intrigued by these gigantic creatures. She says that her interest in them in those days was quite inexplicable since she was not really exposed to much information in the 1980’s when there was no easy access to internet and dinosaur movies had not yet been produced.
An interesting story that she narrates is, that as a young child her parents had appointed a tutor to teach her the basics of reading, writing and mathematics. According to her mother, she learnt the alphabet with an A for apple but D for Dinosaur. And at that age when other children were into figuring out 3 letter words, she was already fluently spelling ‘brontosaurus’ and ‘diplodocus’, which she says was probably an indicator of the potential that she held to her future passion and calling.
Today she lives and breathes dinosaurs and has been the key person responsible for the development of the Dinosaur park and museum.
History of the Dinosaur fossil site/park –
The town of Balasinor had no idea that it was sitting on a treasure trove of dinosaur bones and fossilized eggs. The grazing lands of the state that belonged to the Babi dynasty, had become the property of the government after the merger of states, post Indian independence. These large tracts of sedimentary rock layers called the Lameta formation, lay uninhabited and barren until one day in 1981, 2 geologists from the Geological Society of India (GSI), Dr G. N. Dwivedi and Dr D M Mohabey discovered this place by chance.
They were on a systematic mapping mission and during their visit to the village of Raiyoli in Balasinor, they happened to come upon the fossilized remains of dinosaurs in their natural form. They also visited one of the cement quarries in the area and observed that the pathway to the mine manager’s office was lined with decorative spherical structures. These were thought to be limestone balls and were called cannon balls by the laborers who had found them in the surroundings.
Dr Mohabey took one of these balls to Dr Ashok Sahni, a prominent paleontologist who was visiting Ahmedabad for a conference. From the texture on the outer layer, Dr Ashok identified the object as the egg of a Sauropod dinosaur. Sauropods are quadrupedal herbivorous dinosaurs. After this discovery, a report was then sent to the GSI and the place was documented as a fossil site.
Over 10,000 eggs and several bones have been said to have since been unearthed from this site, many of which are now showcased in museums attached to the offices of the Geological Survey of India in cities Kolkata, Nagpur, Jaipur, Lucknow, Gandhinagar etc Many are also missing though and are thought to have been taken away by villagers and visitors over the years. It is assumed that there are still a large number that continue to be buried both within the site and its surroundings.
In 1996 there were around 50 geologists and paleontologists from around the world who were a part of a team that was touring India on field excursions and they declared that this seemed to be the third largest hatchery and fossil site in the world after the Mongolian Gobi desert and Aix en Provence in France.
Discovery of new dinosaur species –
After the discovery of this site, another geologist Dr Suresh Srivastava and his team, conducted 2 more excavations.
An area was selected and 7-8 pits were dug, from which over 400 bones were unearthed. These were sent to the paleontology division at the HQ of the GSI’s western region at Jaipur and over a period of time, the bones were cleared of all debris that covered them.
In 2001, 2 American paleontologists from Chicago and Michigan, Dr Jeff Wilson and Dr Paul Sereno joined the Indian team to study these bones and they discovered a brain cage, a jaw, teeth, spine, hip bone, tail and a horn that they pieced together to form an almost complete skull and skeleton of what they discovered to be a new species of dinosaur.
Finally in 2003, the Rajasaurus narmadensis was (re)born, a species that was declared to be unique to India and especially the Balasinor region. Raja or king, after the horn that looked like a crown, saurus after reptile/lizard and narmadensis after the Narmada river basin, this was a mighty creature indeed at 30 feet in length, 8 feet in height and a weight of 3-4 tons.
It bore a resemblance to the dinosaurs from Madagascar and South America and according to Aaliya, it proves that the Indian subcontinent was a part of the Gondwana region, which was a part of Pangea, a block of 7 continents that were connected together millions of years ago.
A few years later, another team comprising of members from the GSI, the Indian Statistical Institute and Texas Tech University conducted another excavation and they found fossilized remains of what seemed to be an entire herd belonging to one family. They were also carnivores but unlike the Rajasaurus, they were slightly smaller at 28 feet in length and much more slender.
And thus in 2010, the village of Raiyoli was immortalized in the name of this species, with due credit to Gujarat and this species was called the Rahiolisaurus gujaratensis.
Like a mother who speaks proudly of her children, Aaliya displays a deep sense of satisfaction in what she lovingly calls her 2 Gujarati dinosaurs that feature in the Dictionary of dinosaurs 🙂
Aaliya’s role in the development of the park –
Despite the magnitude of these paleontological finds, the area remained unheard of and undeveloped for nearly one and a half decades. There was no awareness of its need for protection and it is said that the fossils were freely removed by villagers who used them in the decor of their homes and even worshipped the eggs as Shivlings. Some of them even sold them by the wayside as decorative items and many were also taken out of the country.
In 1997 a group of foreign visitors who came to stay at the Garden Palace, showed an interest in viewing the site from an archaeological and paleontological point of view. Aaliya who escorted them, realized that she was unable to answer the questions that were put forth and hence decided to undertake a thorough study of dinosaurs.
During this period, Aaliya who had obtained a degree in literature and had no paleontology background, began to rekindle her childhood interest in these creatures of the past.
An interesting incident that she narrates is that around that time, during a visit to the village, she happened to chance on a woman who was grinding masala with a curiously shaped pestle. On examination, Aaliya realized it was a dino egg and after some convincing she managed to exchange it with the woman for a new pestle. The egg fondly referred to as Masala egg for obvious reasons, now occupies pride of place in a red velvet jewelry box like a true gem and resides with the rest of Aaliya’s personal fossil collection.
Aaliya took up rigorous self study and using the university publications and books that were shared with her by Dr Mohabey, she proceeded to learn as much as possible about the subject.
With 22 years of experience behind her, Aaliya now calls herself a self taught paleontologist and is considered to be the local authority on dinosaurs.
Realizing that this was a treasure that had tourist potential and had to be safeguarded for its paleontological value, she and her family began a relentless pursuit with the Department of Tourism, the Forest Department and the Geological Survey of India, all 3 of whom had a stake in this land. Understandably, coordinating with so many government divisions brought forth challenges that were as large as dinosaurs themselves 😀 but she remained undeterred and her tenacious efforts led to eventually barricading 72 acres of the site.
She has now made it her life’s project to develop the place which belonged to her ancestors. Her desire is to give back to the land and its villagers by creating employment and putting the place on the global map. All the employees are from the local communities right from the security staff to guides to administrative staff.
Her 23 years of effort have earned her the fond nickname Dr Dinosaur and Princess Dinosaur and she is synonymous with the Dinosaur park.
Initially she was an honorary guardian of the fossil park but in 2010 a committee was formed by Gujarat Tourism to take care of the affairs of the park and the then upcoming museum. Aaliya’s close association with the park and being the only person in the committee with knowledge of the subject matter, earned herself a key position with them. Today she has the role of a nodal officer of sorts and all tourist queries are redirected to her by the Dept of Tourism.
The fossil park today –
The park today is spread across 72 hectares of land which has been fenced by the government of Gujarat and watched over by a security team. A huge Titanosaurus stands guard at the gates and across the road is the Rajasaurus narmdensis.
There are a lot of bones and fossilized eggs that have yet to be unearthed both inside and outside the area but the 72 hectares is what has been brought under the Maharashtra Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, which declares it as a protected area and makes it a legal offence to take away any soil or rock or relics from the site. This act was brought in to prevent vandalism and to protect the area and keep it safe for the future generations.
Currently the main point of interest in the park is a cluster of 13 barricades that have been put up, not too far from the entrance gate. These enclose rocks embedded with various bone parts of different dinosaurs. With the help of Dr Mohabey, the parts were identified and very informative and helpful boards were put up indicating the original species of dinosaur and the location of that part in its bone structure, thus allowing the imagination to form a fathomable picture. Ulnas, sternums and vertebrae of Sauropods and Theropods and other such bones are visible and indicated in the cluster of barricades.
There are toilets and drinking water facilities and plans are ongoing for further development.
Dino Park tours –
Aaliya personally conducts individual and group tours within the park and her guidance is availed of by people who are keen to learn more about the subject. She has conducted tours ranging from 25-180 students at a time.
To a lay person what look like mere rocks could in fact be fossilized parts of these giant reptiles, says Aaliya. During her tour she patiently explains how to look for striations in the texture and hence differentiate between a bone and a stone. She informs us that Sauropods are quadrupedal herbivores and theropods are carnivores.
The park tour covers only a small portion and could range from 15 min to 45 min depending on the interest levels of the audience.
She says that dinosaurs are a fascinating subject and movies like the Jurassic Park series have sparked a lot of interest in them. She is amazed that children of today seem to be highly conversant with the history of the earth and they seem to easily rattle off complex dinosaur names and be aware of more information than the adults. Several children go back starry eyed with a new career in mind and she says that even if they do not actually become paleontologists, it is gratifying to note that the spark of interest has been ignited in them.
She also takes her groups to the dinosaur museum though she says that there they do not need her guidance because everything is self explanatory and people can view things at their own pace. She also says that given a chance, she can talk non stop on the subject and her guests will surely run out of time 😀
Aaliya also visits schools, colleges and universities across India and gives lectures and presentations. She carries her precious set of fossils with her to generously exhibit to her audience and she does all this with a desire to make people aware of our prehistoric wonders.
She feels she has reached a point where people have learnt a lot compared to the past but she says that there is still a long way to go because of this infinitely vast subject.
Dino Museum –
The idea of a museum was put forth by Aaliya’s family many years ago, as they tried to convince the tourism department that it would be an excellent attraction. The building actually came up 12 years ago but it was only 2 years ago that the contract was given to go ahead with the interiors and exhibits.
Vama communications, Ahmedabad have done an excellent job with putting together the museum and they are also responsible for fabricating the very impressive dino models and exhibits.
The museum was finally inaugurated by Gujarat’s Chief Minister Vijay Rupani a few months ago on 8th June 2019.
The facility is situated adjacent to the dino park and one enters through a gate that is shaped like an arched dinosaur … but of course 😀
Another huge Rajasaurus narmadensis rises in welcome in the front yard and Triceratops greets you at the entrance.
The museum which is one of its kind in the country, has been designed with much thought, in consultation with Aaliya and Dr Mohabey and is quite state of the art.
There is a central arena with models of dinos that serves as a photo op point and surrounding this are 2 circular floors that contain viewing galleries.
These chambers range from showcasing the origin of the earth to the various periods that it morphed through over millions of years, and the various prehistoric creatures that inhabited it. There is even a chamber for Dino games and fun facts for children.
The history of dinosaurs from their origin to extinction can be experienced via depictions on the walls, interactive panels and kiosks, virtual projections and even very enthralling 360 deg, 3 D animation experience that uses what they call an ocular lens, where you have dinosaurs walking all over your head and flying at you from all sides while you seemingly speed for around 5 minutes through a giant virtual park that seems quite lifelike 😀
Tickets to the museum are nominally priced and there are satisfactory facilities for toilets, drinking water, kid’s play area and a restaurant where local ladies sell their home made snacks.
Timings are 10 am to 5 pm and Monday is a weekly holiday.
Aaliya also has her personal souvenir shop where she sells dino related clothing and merchandise.
The future of the past –
Dino tourism is a unique form of tourism that has put an obscure place like Balasinor on the world tourist map.
The Chief Minister of Gujarat was very impressed with what he saw and recognizing the tourist potential that it holds, he has undertaken this as a special project. A fund of Rs 10 crore has been granted for the further development and international promotion of the Dino park and museum.
Gujarat tourism is also actively promoting the site in all their travel and trade fairs.
Today the site and museum attracts tourists from the world over and the numbers are as large as 3000+ on Sundays and are increasing with time. Considering that this is a remote and back of beyond location, this number is highly commendable.
Excellent roads, well marked sign boards, a museum that is one of its kind in the country and as an added bonus, the luxurious Garden Palace nearby where one can stay, is tremendous initiative for potential visitors to the place.
Best time to visit –
The park and museum are open all year round.
However, winters are the peak season in this region. The weather is a big deciding factor and November to February (and the fringe months of October and March) see the highest inflow of tourists. This is also a good time for bird watchers, since the surroundings throng with several species. For some reason, the Asian Koel that my camera found, also seemed to be competing with the dinosaurs 😀
What you should carry –
A pair of sturdy walking shoes, an umbrella/raincoat during monsoons and a cap as protection from the harsh sun.
Where to stay –
The Garden Palace Balasinor which is run by Aaliya’s family, is the best place to stay. A mere 12 km from the dino site, this is also where one can delight in their famous Balasinori cuisine and dine like royals before paying obeisance to the Rajasaurus narmadensis 😀
Getting there –
The nearest cities to Balasinor are Ahmedabad and Vadodara. Both are well connected by all modes of transport like air, rail and bus. Ahmedabad however is a better option since there are more direct flights to many destinations.
While the most convenient way from either of the 2 cities is cab or private car, Gujarat state transport buses also ply on the route.
Being a remote area, the main means of getting around within Balasinor, is cab or private vehicle and one cannot really depend on any other means of public transport.
Distance from Ahmedabad to Balasinor – 85 km, around 2 hrs.
Distance from Vadodara to Balasinor – 100 km, around 2+ hrs.
The highways are excellent and the landscape from Balasinor to Raiyoli is scenic and lush with bajra (pearl millet) and other fields.
Booking and contact –
You can contact them directly on the phone.
Jetholi Road, Raiyoli, Balasinor 388265
Mahisagar, Gujarat, India
Please Note – This trip was made in collaboration with Garden Palace Balasinor and Princess Aaliya was my host. The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from her as well as my own experiences.
This itinerary was specially curated hence some of the features might have been personalized accordingly.
Sep 24th, 2019