Posted by Bhavika Sicka
Aaliya Sultana Babi is a princess who, along with her figurative crown, also wears—quite literally—the broad-brimmed hat of a paleontologist! She is the daughter of the Nawab of Balasinor, and traces her ancestry to Sher Khan Babi, the founder of the state of Junagadh, who was bestowed the nawabship by the Mughal emperor Humayun. Tens of millions of years ago, during the Mesozoic era, the lands of Aaliya Babi’s forefathers teemed with ancient reptiles and dinosaurs, and the rocks of Rahioli village (which has earned the moniker of India’s Cretaceous Park) near Balasinor are now etched with the remains of bones, eggs, teeth, and skulls, approximately 67 million years old.
These prehistoric giants include long-necked titanosaurs, an enormous snake, and a crested abelisaur often referred to as “the T-rex of India”—the deadly Rajasaurus narmadensis. Aaliya Babi is an ardent advocate for the protection and preservation of this rare and precious fossil site in Gujarat, which is one of the largest dinosaur fossil sites in the world, and she champions the cause of dinosaur education and conservation in India. As a dinosaur enthusiast who admires and has closely followed her work, including the Dinosaur Fossil Park and Museum that she has set up in partnership with Gujarat Tourism, I am honored to have been able to interview this Dinosaur Princess!
Aaliya Babi is an ardent advocate for the protection and preservation of this rare and precious fossil site in Gujarat, which is one of the largest dinosaur fossil sites in the world, and she champions the cause of dinosaur education and conservation in India.
Bhavika: I really admire your contributions to the field of dinosaur conservation. What sparked your interest in dinosaurs?
Aaliya: As a young girl of about four or five, I was fascinated with dinosaurs, despite the lack of exposure to dinosaurs that we grew up amidst. While learning the English alphabet, I would say “A for Apple” and “D for Dinosaur” instead of for “Dog”! I also knew the spellings of “brontosaurus” and “diplodocus,” which were both my favourite dinosaurs! All this was forgotten when I was shipped off to a boarding school, but when I came back after completing my schooling, the interest was rekindled.
Bhavika: I wish more children in India shared your enthusiasm and fondness! Do you believe it’s important for children to be familiar with dinosaurs? What would be your advice to a child who dreams of becoming a paleontologist?
Aaliya: Not just children, but, according to me, everyone should know about our prehistoric earth, and the fascinating creatures that inhabited it. Through our museum and fossil park, we are trying our level best to educate the people. I, in my own way, am trying to create awareness through lectures, presentations, and exhibits held across schools, colleges, universities, and museums, both in Gujarat and abroad, and have received favourable responses. If children want to take up palaeontology as a career, it is unfortunate that in India, we currently don’t have much scope in the discipline, as only limited educational institutes offer subjects related to paleontology. But we need to rectify that. There are some talks going on to include geology into school curricula in the future.
Bhavika: That’s lamentable. India has a wealth of fossils, but these are unexplored and undervalued. Why is this so? What are the current challenges?
Aaliya: There are a lot of challenges which I have faced over the years in trying to get the fossil site protected. First and foremost, we, in India, don’t have any legislations pertaining to fossil protection, and we don’t care for our heritage. It has taken me more than twenty-two years to get the site duly recognized and protected, but still it’s open and vulnerable to vandalism, as we have limited well-trained guards. Secondly, we don’t possess the required funds for excavations and the subsequent studying of fossils, and hardly any good-quality museums exist to exhibit them. We are also lacking in trained professionals.
There are a lot of challenges which I have faced over the years in trying to get the fossil site protected. First and foremost, we, in India, don’t have any legislations pertaining to fossil protection, and we don’t care for our heritage.
Bhavika: Do you believe that there’s potential for dinosaur tourism in India?
Aaliya: There is a huge, huge, HUGE potential for dinosaur tourism in India. You see, in the earlier days, people were not very aware about dinosaurs. The Jurassic Park movie series, based on Michael Crichton’s books, has sparked interest in dinosaurs, and now we also have access to so much information and literature on them. I’ve come across both three-year-olds and eighty-year-olds who want to know about these fascinating creatures that ruled our earth for millions of years! I get children who are so deeply interested in dinosaurs that they want to become paleontologists, and so times are changing!
Bhavika: How does the Garden Palace Heritage Hotel that you run from your royal palace go toward this mission?
Aaliya: The Garden Palace was built in 1883, and we began offering the palace as a homestay around 1997. From having only 1 renovated room, to now 13 rooms, we have come a long way! When we get visitors for the fossil park, we often have them stay at our property or take their meals here, as this is the only place in the area for a comfortable accommodation and a decent meal. We are famous for our cuisine, as my mother, Begum Saheba Farhat Sultana Babi of Balasinor, is a true connoisseur of food, and has carried forward the legacy of the signature Balasinori cuisine.
Bhavika: Can you tell us about the Rajasaurus? Do you believe it should feature in one of the next films from the Jurassic World franchise?
Aaliya: Yes, definitely, the Rajasaurus should feature in the coming Jurassic World movies! The fossilized remains of the Rajasaurus narmadensis were excavated by Dr. Suresh Shrivastav and team in 1983. The dinosaur was approximately 9 meters in length and 2.4 meters in height and weighed approximately 4000 kgs. It is a genus of abelisaurid theropod carnivores from the Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) of India, and is represented by one species, Rajasaurus narmadensis. It was formally described in 2003 based on a partial braincase, spine, hip bone, a leg and tail—a first for an Indian theropod dinosaur. The dinosaur had a single horn-like structure on the forehead, which was probably used for display and head-butting. Like other abelisaurids, Rajasaurus was probably an ambush predator and hunted in packs. Numerous theropod eggs and nests have also been found from the Rahioli Balasinor region.
Another similar dinosaur which has been named after the village of Rahioli is the Rahiolisaurus gujaratensis. Rahiolisaurus is another genus of abelisaurid theropod dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) of India. It fossils were excavated by teams from the GSI (Geological Survey of India), Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, and Texas Tech University in the USA, between 1995-1997, from the Lameta formation of Rahioli, and it was formally described as Rahiolisaurus gujaratensis in 2010. It can be distinguished from the Rajasaurus by its more slender and gracile build. It is known from a pebbly sandstone containing seven different individuals—from a juvenile to a fully-grown adult. It was 8 meters in length, 3 meters in height, and weighed approximately 2 tons.
Bhavika: Do you believe dinosaurs are linked, in anyway, to the myths and folklore of India?
Aaliya: Yes. We have heard tales of dinosaur eggs being worshipped by villagers, as they resemble shivlings. We hear that ammonite fossils (salagramas) are also worshiped, as they are believed by many to be natural manifestations and divine symbols of Lord Vishnu. The shell’s circular form, with its radial markings, resembles the discus (chakra) of the deity.
Bhavika: Is it especially challenging to be a woman in the field of science and conservation?
Aaliya: I think I am the only woman, as of now, from an aristocratic family in India, who is involved with fossil preservation and conservation. It definitely had its ups and downs, but I think I have used my family name and connection for the protection of the fossils and the betterment of the villagers.
This definitely was a roller coaster ride, but it has been a wonderful ride, nonetheless. Times are changing now, and women, today, are in all fields. I have had the support and blessings of eminent paleontologists like Dr. Ashok Sahni and Dr. Suresh Shrivastava, among others, who have helped and guided me throughout this phase, and have imparted so much of their knowledge to me. And I have a simple motto: that nothing is impossible in life; if we set our hearts and minds to it, we can achieve anything and everything! The word “IMPOSSIBLE” shouldn’t exist in our dictionary!
Bhavika Sicka was born and raised in Calcutta, India. She holds a BA in English from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University. She has been a finalist for the Times of India’s Write India contest, and her essays and stories appear in places like Arkana, Lunch Ticket, The Punch Magazine, and Waxwing. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
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