Ashok Sahni: The man who placed India on the fossil map of the world

Ashok Sahni: The man who placed India on the fossil map of the world
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First Published: Thu, May 17 2007. 06 43 AM IST
Updated: Tue, Jul 17 2007. 01 33 PM IST
Palaeontologist Ashok Sahni’s personal collection of fossils today fills up the Panjab University’s Natural History Museum—at least, those that he finally moved out of his house at his spouse’s insistence—which is just what you would expect from a man who put India on the fossil map of the world by discovering, four years ago, its earliest known dinosaur, and as recently as a week ago, the country’s earliest known bird fossil.
“My wife had begun to complain about all the clutter in my study,” said the 66-year-old professor. Part of the clutter remains, among it a research paper published by his grandfather, Ruchi Ram Sahni—one of the first by an Indian scientist—under the guidance of J.J. Thomson and Niels Bohr, two scientists who did much to shape our understanding of atoms and molecules. His grandfather was one reason he took to science, said Sahni.
The rest of the collection includes bones, teeth and eggs of dinosaurs, fossils of early species of frogs, and precious stones. “That one over there,” he said pointing to a topaz, “could be worth a fortune”. However, Sahni isn’t a fortune hunter. Thus, when his geology classmates were opting for doctorates and advanced degrees in mining and oil exploration as a precursor to a career in the corporate sector, Sahni chose the University of Minnesota’s research grant and decided to do a doctorate in palaeontology. That was the beginning of 40 years of quiet digging, excavating and washing the dirt and grime off rocks buried over millions of years.
The quiet life (and relative obscurity) ended on August 2003. “After 20 years of piecing together hip and thigh bones discovered along the Narmada, we finally constructed a new species of dinosaurs—Rajasaurus narmadensis,” recalled Sahni. A majestic nine-metre high carnivore— discovered by an Indo-US team of researchers and funded by the National Geographic Society—the Rajasaurus was India’s very own T-rex and made front pages of every major publication in the world.
“The useful thing that came out of the Rajasaurus episode was speedy grants for future digs,” said Sahni. According to him, India is a hotbed of dinosaur sites. There are countless buried bones that are waiting to be pieced together to recreate the ancient life of India.
Sahni’s current object of interest is a lignite mine at Vastan in Gujarat. “That place is a sprawling expanse of palaeontological wealth,” he said. The first nugget discovered, only last week, is the Vastanavis, a small bird that is the ancestor of the Great Indian Bustard. This 52-million-year-old discovery represents the oldest bird fossil ever discovered in the Indian subcontinent, and pushes back avian history in India by at least 20 million years, said Sahni.
The bird belongs to the Eocene era, which is of interest to palaeontologists because it marks the revival of the mammals, and important species of bird life. Prior to this period, gigantic flora and fauna—the ones shown in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and Peter Jackson’s King Kong—ruled the earth. The Eocene era saw the advent of smaller mammals and birds. The Vastanavis was flying over India when the country was a floating island, free of present day Africa and inching towards its Himalaya-forming crash into Asia.
Sahni is obsessed with reconstructing the Eocene period in India, even though it’s dinosaurs that propelled him into the limelight. A. Ahluwalia, Sahni’s colleague at the Panjab University, said Sahni’s contribution to the popular understanding of the subject has been immense. “He may be short (five-feet five inches), but he is the Amitabh Bachch-an of geology,” said Ahluwalia.
Sahni himself attributes his success to luck. “I remember this one time when at Ahmedabad, a young scientist at the Geological Survey of India said that lots of ‘funny shells were being discovered’ at a site that was once an artillery field.” Sahni discovered that the funny shells were actually dinosaur eggs. “Later on we discovered that India has the maximum number of dinosaur nesting sites in the world,” he added.
According to Sahni, knowing where to dig involves underst-anding a little bit of history and a lot of hard, manual work. For the dig that eventually res-ulted in the discovery of Vast-anavis, Sahni and his team moved more than five tonnes of rock. “It’s hard work for our team of old people,” he said.
Sahni comes from a family, where obtaining doctorates from Ivy-league universities is a norm rather than an exception, but said that he was certain he would flunk his Ph.D. at Minnesota (he didn’t). “Lucknow university, where I graduated in geology was easy. Blue-eyed boy, class topper...but the US was an entirely different cup of tea.” The university’s emphasis on practical knowledge, as opposed to the Indian system of learning theory by rote “though difficult at first, completely changed my approach towards palaeontology”, he added. Sahni said that geology students in India still miss the trees for the forest. “For instance, when I take some students on field work, they are often overwhelmed by the scenery, the know, the usual mush.” To him, what matters is the dig.
The basic element to the success of an excavation, said Sahni, lies in identifying the age of rocks. “When, among a host of Mercedes-Benzes, you see a Pontiac’s steering, then you keep looking around the steering, hoping to find other parts of the car....”
With an uncle who was a famed palaeobotanist—the late Birbal Sahni after whom the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany at Lucknow is named—and a father, M. Sahni, who “partly evoked Jawaharlal Nehru’s interest in palaeontology as a classmate at Cambridge”, the retired professor is a wee-bit worried that none of his children have taken up his passion, though they are in businesses connected to geology. Sahni’s son and daughter work with Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp.—two of the biggest oil companies in the world—and his wife teaches geophysics at the Panjab University. “That’s the way life goes on,” said Sahni, who is a disbeliever in an anthropogenic, or a human-centric view of the world.
“When you closely study the earth and its process, you start to realize that all this debate about global warming and climate change really amounts to little.” Sahni said that man can—and should—make efforts to retard the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but climate change is inevitable. “For 85% of the earth’s life cycle, the polar caps have been melting and reforming. Carbon will keep accumulating, and what must happen will happen.”
Sahni said palaeontology’s practical use could be in its ability to help people understand the earth’s evolution, including periods when it underwent significant climate change. “That’s our best bet to address climate change,” he added.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to
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First Published: Thu, May 17 2007. 06 43 AM IST
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