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'Indica: A Deep Natural History Of The Indian Subcontinent' Is More Compelling Than Sci-Fi

Pranay Lal’s book takes us to Indian sites that show how the world was created.

24/12/2016 5:14 AM IST | Updated 27/12/2016 10:52 AM IST
Bridget Liddell

Despite the many stories of creation enshrined in Indian mythology and religion, there was one waiting to be told by the very rocks, mountains, rivers and species that lived and died here long before we existed. Gabbar Singh's menacing hideout in the Ramanagara rocks in the timeless Bollywood hit Sholay, for instance, was formed over three billion years ago, making India one of the oldest countries on earth. We are an ancient civilisation yes, but we are also a very ancient land—only three other countries have rocks older than ours.

As the story of India's rocks is decoded, what emerges is a tale full of sound and fury that makes mythology pale in comparison. The rocks on the tip of Kanyakumari for instance, are called "Gondwana junction" by geologists, because they mark the place where India, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, East Antarctica and Australia were once joined to form the supercontinent Gondwana in the southern hemisphere.

We are an ancient civilisation yes, but we are also a very ancient land—only three other countries have rocks older than ours.

These and other "believe-it-or-not" facts are liberally scattered across a wonderful new book, Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinentby Pranay Lal, spanning 4.5 billion years of creation, before India was formed, and ends with the arrival of the first human settlers on the banks of the Indus. Written with all the tension of a suspense novel and the lyrical prose of a nature lover, Indica, is better than any sci-fi novel because the events are so extreme, the cast of characters so outlandish but the story so true.

"What mesmerises me, now and as a child, is how nature is constantly at work and how everything is related to each other," says Lal, a Delhi-based biochemist with an obsession for obsolescence. In the introduction to his book, a culmination of 22 years of research, travel, interviews and a lifetime awe of nature, he says: "Anybody who has looked out of their window and wondered why there is a river in one place and not another, why rocks in one place look different from those elsewhere or why there is a hill or a forest or a mine in front of them," should read this book.

The first ever detailed natural history of India, its mountains and rivers, and the evolution of life through a series of cataclysmic geological eras including mass extinctions, meteors, a nuclear winter and millions of years of ferocious volcanic activity in the Deccan, Indica is a gripping tale lavishly told through scientific photographs, artists' impressions, geological maps and biological sketches. We've met some of the cast of characters in movies such as Jurassic Park— only now we know similar parks existed in central India when Great Indian Lizards like the Rajasaurus and the Indosuchus were masters of all they surveyed.

Barapasaurus, displayed at the Indian Statistical Institute in 1977, was India's largest plant-eating dinosaur, living approximately 176 million years ago measuring around 18 metres and weighing about 7 tonnes. A 6-foot adult would only reach its thigh. Spectacular discoveries of dinosaur nest sites and eggs have been made across India, notably in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. These and a host of mammoths and mythical beasts make our acquaintance as we journey through time.

What can we learn from past events like the Great Dying when greenhouse gases obliterated the sun? How did life renew itself? Look to the hot springs near Leh, Ladakh, suggests Lal...

Indica takes on a special significance as the earth teeters on the cusp of another, possibly catastrophic, climate change. What can we learn from past events like the Great Dying when greenhouse gases obliterated the sun? How did life renew itself? Look to the hot springs near Leh, Ladakh, suggests Lal, "home to both the earliest sulphur anaerobes and oxygen-producing blue-green bacteria ... These tough life forms have survived every extinction event since they evolved nearly 3 billion years ago. Should all life on Earth be wiped out, chances are that organisms like these will resume the process of evolution forming, in all probability, entirely different types of creatures than those we know!" Including of course, ourselves.

Through most of earth's volatile existence there was no benign power that intervened to avert disasters, so while news of the mass extinction of species makes headlines today, it's really nature doing what it has been doing since the dawn of creation. "It is hard to believe that since life began nearly 3.8 billion years ago, 99% of all living things that have ever lived on Earth have become extinct," says Lal giving us a longer perspective on survival. "What we see today is just a miniscule 1% of all life that has ever lived on Earth." But the feeling of foreboding is somewhat alleviated by the many providential escapes that kept the Earth story going.

Some chapters in Indica would beggar the imagination of a Bollywood scriptwriter. Imagine fire spewing out of the turbulent oceans thanks to seismic activity of such force it made India break loose from Gondwana and begin its epic journey across the oceans to dock in Eurasia. That the impact of this "docking" was so severe it would lift islands and convert them into mountains creating the first of the three Himalayan chains over millions of years. Ever wonder why there are seashells and marine fossils in different strata as you approach the summit of Mount Everest? Geologists contend the correct explanation is that the land was under the Tethys Sea 250-350 million years ago.

It is hard to believe that since life began nearly 3.8 billion years ago, 99% of all living things that have ever lived on Earth have become extinct. Pranay Lal

The Himalayas changed global weather patterns but its melting glaciers have already given us a foretaste of what is to come if temperatures continue to rise. In 2013 the meltdown of the Charbari glacier send such a torrent of ice and rock through Kedarnath, hundreds of villages were washed away and hundreds of kilometres of roads disappeared in the landslides that followed. The formation of the Himalayas had a profound impact on global weather and indirectly played a role in human evolution. As the mighty mountains developed they became a barrier to winds and humidity, creating the Asian monsoon.

"The development and intensification of the Indian monsoon coincides with the split between Asian and African apes, the former evolving into the apes in Asia and the latter eventually evolving into African apes, early humans and us the Homo species." 'Narmada Man' was the first early human discovered in 1982 in Hathnora, MP. Believed to be 236,000 years old, the "man" was subsequently discovered by American scientists to be a woman between 27-32 years of age. Humans are a blink in the history of the earth but we have amassed such power over the planet we have come to live in the most dangerous time of all.

'Indica: A Deep Natural History Of The Indian Subcontinent' Is More Compelling Than Sci-Fi

Better than Sci-fi: Indian Sites that Show How the World was Created

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