On the origin of species in India

Grey rocks around Nandi Hills, corals in Jaisalmer, giant giraffes in the Siwalik Hills—a biochemist connects our rich natural past to the present

March 11, 2017 10:55 pm | Updated 10:55 pm IST

Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent
Pranay Lal
Allen Lane

Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent Pranay Lal Allen Lane ₹999

Whenever you imagine planet Earth or sit and look at the stars on a dark moonless night, the thoughts that creep in are about life in our universe. Even life on Earth is a question that envelops the brain: how did it form? How did it shift and evolve? What were the first life forms and how did we as humans get created? This is a book about the Indian subcontinent, its origins and how the land masses around it were formed. What sets Indica apart is that the author, Pranay Lal, provides clues from his passionate and microscopic research over 20 years across the Indian subcontinent.

What Lal has done is to take us on a journey of a lifetime and it is a journey few others have taken us on. This book is truly his labour of love. This is a journey through India where you pick up clues from millions of years ago that reveal the formations of our seas, beaches and elevated hill ranges. For instance, did you know that the grey rocks around Nandi Hills outside the city of Bengaluru belong to the Dharwar craton and are some of the oldest in India that were formed 3.5 billion years ago? Or that if you travel to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan and explore the sand dunes around you may stumble onto a tubular coral that is 380 million years old as this was a shallow sea once?

In Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh, the Dhala crater, which according to the author, looks like a smudged pugmark of a tiger, was the result of a collision of a meteor with Earth billions of years ago at a time when life had just started on Earth. If you have been to the Western Ghats near Coimbatore and seen the Palakkad gap, Lal will tell you how it matches exactly a gap in the central highlands of Madagascar from which it originated as a result of volcanic eruptions 88 million years ago. The narratives are endless and meticulously researched.

Giant mammals

Then we get into the amazing origin of mammals—and the Siwalik Hills. Right from Kurukshetra to Chandigarh where millions of years ago there was an enormous diversity of giant mammals. Lal directs you to a town around the Markanda River called Kala-amb (black mango) not far from the city of Ambala where even today you can find fossils from the past. A museum there reveals the amazing discoveries that have been made.

There are amazing descriptions of the kind of wildlife that existed in our wilderness from giraffes that were three times larger than their present counterparts to mega herbivores like the ancestors of rhinos that were among the largest to ever roam the planet with a height of 5.5 m at the shoulder and weighing an astonishing 15 to 20 tonnes. According to Lal, “hyenas were vicious competitors for all carnivores including our early ancestors.” The hyena was the size of a lioness and appeared three million years ago before becoming extinct some 400,000 years ago. Then there is the discovery of the blue frog in 2000 in the Western Ghats and how this connected to the Seychelles and our ancient connections with other land masses.

The book is dotted with the most engaging descriptions of life on Earth and sprinkled with a remarkable collection of visuals carefully crafted by the author to strengthen his narrative from the past. There are sections on how we as humans evolved. Homo erectus , our ancestor, emerged two million years ago and in the foothills of the Siwalik Hills, where some of the largest collection of tools going back 600,000 years have been found. Others dating back to 200,000 years ago have been found in Didwana near Nagaur in Rajasthan.

Describing our entry to this planet, the author states, “the last Homo erectus probably died around 70,000 years ago, by which time Homo sapiens had taken their first steps that would propel them further than Homo erectus in claiming new territory.”

The mighty Indus

He describes their arrival: “When the Homo sapiens arrived on the banks of the Indus, the mightiest Himalayan river at that time, its far bank would have been scarcely visible, much like the Ganga and the Brahmaputra today at their widest. The waters of the Indus would have been filled with fish, turtles and crabs. Hippopotami would have lazed in its slow moving waters, and several varieties of deer and horses, eleven species of elephants and four of rhinoceros would have roamed the land, and waterfowl of immense varieties would have skimmed over the river. The sandy riverbanks would have been lined with tall grasses, and, from between these, ostriches and long-necked antelopes like Sivatherium [extinct giant giraffid] would have watched out for new arrivals.”

Fascinating narratives

All of Lal’s narratives are fascinating as he has pieced together all the clues he could find and then described an actual landscape with all the throbbing life in and around it. I have never come across a book like this and it has been truly inspiring to read. I have learnt from it and it has educated me on so much from the past that connects to our present.

All of us need to travel with Lal through the pages of Indica . Our decision makers, especially our bureaucrats, must read this book and imbibe some of the wisdom in it as this would help in taking strategic decisions to safeguard the future of this planet. Not to mention our politicians who desperately need an education about the fragility of life on Earth and how it all started and evolved.

Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent ; Pranay Lal, Allen Lane, ₹999.

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