“The eggs are gone,” the museum caretaker told the disappointed group. It felt like a scene straight out of an Agatha Christie mystery—excited patrons eager to see something wonderful, only to discover that the objects were missing.
It was a rainy day in 2018, and winds howled through the hills in Mandu, Madhya Pradesh. A family with kids had just driven up gentle basalt slopes to arrive at the Ashmadha Fossil Museum. They had taken a day off from school to see fossilised dinosaur eggs at the museum. A 15-foot gaudy blue statue of a dinosaur greeted them at the entrance.
The popular fossils were supposed to be in an egg-shaped, igloo-like room. The kitschy structure perched over a cliff overlooking cascading waterfalls wasn’t open for tourists. Though there were 24 eggs left in the collection, fear of theft had made them extra vigilant, and the dinosaur eggs were a no-show.
A Starting Point
But let’s rewind to the beginning of my own fossil quest. In late 2017, I came across Pranay Lal’s book Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent. It was one of the most scintillating deep history narratives that I had ever read. Through vivid illustrations and lucid prose, the writer sliced through India’s mountains, rivers, rocks, and fossils to reveal intricate layers of the country’s natural history.
After digging out Lal’s contact, I seized the opportunity to interview him, thus inaugurating my podcast Desi Stones and Bones. His friendly demeanour and excited descriptions spotlit my podcast’s focus—fossils and prehistory. I wanted these oral tales to be an immersive audio experience, and give listeners a taste of actually being on-site, excavating these million-year treasures.
This connects, oddly enough, with a Kafkaesque query that my then four-year-old son posed to me nearly a decade ago. I don’t remember his exact words, but unscrambling his toddler-speak, it went something like this: Is reality a dream, or are dreams reality?
While I worked on my podcast Desi Stones and Bones, this question frequently crossed my mind.
There’s something special and almost fantastical about learning that a quiet South Indian town now rests where an ancient sea once did, teeming with sharks and giant marine reptiles. Or when you discover dinosaur nesting sites submerged in the rolling basalt hills of Central India.
My kids, who merely yawned at the business stories that I had written as a financial journalist, immediately had their antennas up when I explored fossils and prehistory. I can’t say I blame them.
Around the time that I discovered Lal’s work, I also happened to read journalist Sanjay Kumar’s detailed story in Science magazine on India’s fossil heritage. Kumar’s story featured a little box titled: ‘A one-man fossil rescue mission.’
That headline piqued my interest. This side story painted a picture of a school teacher infected with fossil madness. Vishal Verma had driven himself into debt as he tried to conserve the fossils he had discovered in the Narmada valley.
Lal connected me with Kumar, which created a domino effect. Kumar later introduced me to Verma, a physics teacher who moonlighted as a fossil hunter. I recollect my first call to Verma. A bundle of enthusiasm, he was bubbling over with stories of his adventures, and after more than an hour of conversation, he invited me to visit Manavar in Madhya Pradesh. I promptly booked my tickets to Indore, the closest airport to Verma’s town.
I packed my audio recorder and fought to fit the awkwardly-sized blimp into my small suitcase. I delicately lodged the equipment amidst my clothes for padding and protection.
It was the start of an odyssey—an audio series on fossils and prehistory in India. Desi Stones and Bones would have audio stories curated through my travels, and time spent listening agape to archaeologists and palaeontologists. It was a self-funded exploration: a study and expenditure that I equated to a meaty college course.
The One-Man Fossil Rescue Mission
Rake into the soil beneath your feet and you could claw into eye-popping, fantastical proof of creatures that existed a hundred, thousand, million, or even a billion years before you. The earth under you holds ghosts of the past.
Vishal Verma, a 48-year-old fossil hunter and conservationist, lives in Manavar—a sleepy town surrounded by rolling hills of pale limestone and dark volcanic basalt. The same hills that dinosaurs once roamed. Just writing these lines gives me goosebumps.
I arrived in Indore from Chennai and took a taxi to Manavar, reaching the small Central Indian town at around 10 pm. I checked into a cheap, stripped-down hotel. Over the next two days, Verma would tell hair-raising stories of marauding youngsters who accosted vehicles and robbed visitors traversing the roads surrounding his village. I shuddered and thanked my stars for my safe arrival. I couldn’t help but wonder if these criminal activities were the outcome of both unemployment and an uninspiring educational system.
The next morning, I hired a taxi and went to pick up Verma from his three-room, railroad-style home. I found him sitting on the floor, rummaging through an overcrowded closet, sifting through a wobbly pile of electrical-fan cartons. They were now stuffed with fossils—some wrapped in plastic, others in old newspapers.
One beauty he uncovered looked like a self-embroidered Christmas ornament. It was the relic of a million-year-old slate-pencil sea urchin called cidaris—a punk-styled marine critter. Alive, it looks like a golf ball with spikes or a comic-book version of an exploding firecracker. Entombed, it was blonde from the limestone that had meticulously ripped through every cell of its existence—a weather-chiselled artefact. I held it with a reverence that I had never felt before in my life. My pilgrimage had begun.
India’s landscape is a lavish buffet of such animal relics. Its diverse fossil wealth is partly thanks to a 100-million-year odyssey. When India chipped away from the mother continent of Gondwanaland, it waltzed up latitudes, undergoing climatic changes. This isolation also led to a spike in animal and plant species, and a variety of dinosaurs that were endemic to the floating landmass.
On the geological timescale, this was the Cretaceous period, 146 to 65 million years ago. Lal describes it perfectly with two words: swimsuit weather—overall warm with high sea levels.
India had broken free from Africa and Madagascar. It was an island continent in the Southern hemisphere. A seaway cut through its centre and a vast ocean spread out to its North, separating it from Asia. The Himalayas were yet to spike from a continental crash. Dinosaurs ruled this period until, of course, armageddon struck. The widely accepted theory is that all dinosaurs were killed by a meteor or asteroid crash. But some palaeontologists believe that a series of colossal volcanic eruptions in Western India decimated these megafauna 65 million years ago.
Sediments deposited during what is known as the Deccan volcanic activity are a treasure-trove of dinosaur nests and eggs. The fossil-rich rocks along the banks of the Narmada river in Central India were formed during this geological event.
Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh has numerous deposits of dinosaur eggs and nests. The city is located along the banks of the Narmada river. It was amid the barren hillocks of this region that a British soldier, William Sleeman, found dinosaur bones in 1828. More than 150 years later, renowned palaeontologist, Dr Ashok Sahni, stumbled upon dinosaur nests around the same spot. “A lot is luck, a lot of it is perseverance,” Sahni told me.
In 2000, Verma scanned the neighbouring town of Bagh in Madhya Pradesh for fossils. He sniffed around for petrified bones and even a chipped dinosaur egg in this prehistoric graveyard.
Covering palaeontology, I began to realise the necessity for ‘vision’. Let me explain. You may spend hours looking for these remnants, but you need practice. Only practice can train your eyes to perceive fossil shapes and patterns amidst the rubble. Things previously invisible, first seem pixelated and then shapeshift into a concrete object in your viewfinder.
At this ancient site, Verma was looking for a spherical or oval, coconut-like fossil with a breathing pores pattern. I had seen fossils before, including a fossilised dinosaur egg in Verma’s possession. Even today, I remember clearly the rounded egg of a herbivorous dinosaur amidst the clutter of his home. It lay like an abandoned football in a corner of his room. He had found it in Bagh.
The Bagh Fossils Park is a 100-hectare conservatory. The morning drive from Manavar to Bagh was stunning. We flew past lush rolling hills and small fields with saplings of corn and cotton.
It was an overcast day, and I was treated to a host of stories by an excited Verma, who breathlessly told me an unforgettable tale. He shouted the details over the racketeering engine of the frugal, groaning urban van climbing up the slope.
Back in 2006, on a cool November morning, Verma had chosen this very spot for excavation. It had seemed like just another day until he stumbled upon the fossilised shell of a petrified dinosaur egg. Next, he found a whole coconut-sized, dinosaur egg fossil. It ended up being a series of discoveries. Verma found hundreds of fossilised eggs over the next few days.
Initially elated, he soon worried himself sick, concerned that the eggs would be stolen. He became maniacal in his desire to conserve these fossils.
After he found the dinosaur eggs, he had to figure out a way to safeguard them. Verma wanted to shift them to a safe location in Mandu, Madhya Pradesh, where the government had set up a fossils museum. In 2007, he borrowed $300 to rent a truck to ferry some of these fossils to the government site. It was a huge debt to take on, especially for a low-paid school teacher.
Financially devastated and distraught, Verma worked tirelessly to overcome the hardships that he faced. During this dark period, his students helped immensely. They became his pillars of strength, often accompanying him on fossil hunting expeditions.
Verma told me about his troubles over rotis and sabji at a small restaurant just outside the Bagh Fossils Park. The owner of the eatery is the default overseer of the finds in the conservatory.
A Case, Unsolved
Back to 2018. On that rainy day in Mandu, I wandered into the main museum building, jostling to protect my recording equipment from the incessant drizzle. The building was right next to the tacky, egg-like structure. Taking a break from interviews, I walked around the exhibit. It was startling to realise that if I reached across the rope hurdles, I could easily touch the displays. There was only one watchman, a clearly inadequate security measure to oversee dozens of browsing guests.
While the government had built this museum, there was very little commitment to safeguarding these precious finds. So, there they were, priceless treasures protected by thin ropes and hope.
Nearby, Verma spoke to the visiting family with whom this story began. He patiently narrated the tale of the discovery of the dinosaur nesting site, taking special interest in telling the children about the events that unfolded. The family was enthralled, but their enthusiasm soon waned.
After three eggs had been stolen five years ago, the rest of the collection was kept under lock and key. No one was allowed to see what the thieves left behind.
Christie’s fictional hero, the inimitable Hercule Poirot, would have saved the day. After summoning all the surviving suspects, a dramatic accusation would have ensued. The mystery would’ve been solved, and the eggs returned. But this is real life, and no detective has been able to solve this particular case.
Verma was downcast as he told me about the theft of the eggs. To this day, no one knows who took them, or how they were stolen. Three of the eggs were taken, and the rest continue to languish inside glass cases, away from the public eye.
Determined to circumvent similar crimes, Verma created a travelling museum which he carries on his motorbike to educate the locals, especially children, about the region’s fossil riches. He carries his finds, including the fossilised dinosaur eggs, in a box and displays them to anyone interested. At all other times, they remain wedged in pizza-box shaped, electrical-fan cartons, safely tucked in his crowded closet.
The grit and determination of locals like Verma have been essential in conserving our fossil sites. Handing finds over to the government, while necessary, may not guarantee protection for these priceless pieces. I still remember walking around the Bagh conservatory and Verma calling me over to point out what seemed, at first, like just another rock. Entombed in it was a yet-to-be-removed fossilised dinosaur egg. I could see a semi-oval, bowl-like depression in the rock. I froze and yelled out a predictable, “Oh…my…god!”
No matter how many stories about these ancient creatures you read and hear, the moment you see proof of their existence is special. I couldn’t help but stare. Dinosaurs once bred and laid eggs on the land where I stood. Face-to-face with clear evidence of their existence, it seemed even more surreal that we were allowing this proof to disappear through gross negligence. The gossamer screen between reality and dream had faded.