Storyboard Society

The night of the dragon

Ichthyosaurs attending a lecture on fossilised human remains. Lithograph by Sir Henry de la Bèche, 1830, after his drawing.

Ichthyosaurs attending a lecture on fossilised human remains. Lithograph by Sir Henry de la Bèche, 1830, after his drawing.   | Photo Credit: Wellcome Library, London

The recently-discovered Ichthyosaurus of Kutch reveals how closely connected we all are by our myths and heredity

It’s a creature dredged from the sands of time. One hundred and fifty-two million years old, the Ichthyosaurus, whose bones were uncovered in a hard sedimentary rock near the village of Lodai in Kutch, has been causing waves amongst palaeontologists.

Guntupalli V.R. Prasad, who led the excavation of the University of Delhi, has described it as a “top tier predator”, justifying its mythological reputation as a sea-monster. For the first time in India, there is evidence of a creature that lived in the Jurassic period, an unimaginable 152 to 157 million years ago.

The Ichthyosaurus of Kutch has even got a family name, Ophthalmosauridae, indicating a creature with eye sockets as large as lorry headlights. It’s not clear from Prasad’s pictures of the creature how large the eyes of the Kutch Ichthyosaurus might have been since part of its head has been lost. But its paddle-like forelimbs and 5.5-metre-long bony skeleton curling into its million-year grave is there for all to marvel at.

In the mid-riff

To geomorphologists who study the lay of the land to discover how our physical environment may have been formed, it’s evidence of a sea cutting across the ancient landmass called Gondwanaland. In its heyday, Gondwanaland included areas that we now call Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia and the Indian sub-continent. Gondwana is named after the area in the mid-riff of ancient India, or Central India.

The people who live there are still known as the Gonds, the largest ethnic group that has survived. Their language, the Munda dialect, termed an offshoot of the Austroasiatic language, has been linked to the original language known to the people of Mohenjo-daro, right next door, in the Indus valley. Some scholars believe that the Gonds, early Dravidians by race, migrated from the Indus valley after a great flood in the area.

They even advance the theory that the famous Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro (who need not have been dancing at all but possibly just standing casually), with her headdress and jewellery, has similarities with the elongated Dokra craft of the area, metal sculpting that uses the lost wax process. But this may be pulling the neck of the little Dancing Girl way too much out of joint.

To taxonomists who like slotting organisms into distinct categories by genus and species, ‘ichthyosaur’ is Greek for ‘fish lizard’. The creature is now termed a “marine reptile” with nothing fishy going for it, except that it lived in water, whether in oceans or freshwater lakes.

The creature is now termed a “marine reptile” with nothing fishy going for it, except that it lived in water, whether in oceans or freshwater lakes

Ichthyosaurs are also reputed to be fierce carnivores crunching through the shells of marine molluscs with their cone-shaped teeth, scarred and pitted through use. According to some sources, the last such creature was found off the Somerset coast of England in the 1990s and named Ichthyosaurus somersetensis. One wonders what the latest find will be named? Ichthyosaurus kutch-kutchotthaisensis? Or maybe Ichthyosaurus guntupallisensis?

Resurrecting myths

What is equally striking is a literary coincidence that celebrates an Ichthyosaurus on the opposite side of the globe. Sarah Perry, the winner of this year’s British Book Awards for her historical novel The Essex Serpent, has brought to life a mysterious sea monster that inhabits the marshes of a small village called Aldwinter in the year 1890. Perry describes how the rumour of a marine monster with fangs and wings that appears in the mist has terrified the villagers.

They seek solace in the comforts of religion in the small village church where the priest William Ransome is himself torn between his faith in the Bible and the theories of Charles Darwin. Cora, the scientific-minded heroine, is a firm believer in the evolutionary theory of On the Origin of Species. Several sea creatures are dredged in the course of one year. Perry has a marvellous time resurrecting myths about the Loch Ness monster, dragons and other chimera from the depths of the ocean, while debating the conflicts of the time between science and religion.

The Essex Serpent reminds us of the persistence of primal floods rising to punish human beings for their greed. Most often, the stories tell of a giant fish rising to save humanity. We have our own version in ‘matsya avatar’ with Vishnu taking the form of a fish to save Manu, the designated survivor of humanity. The Sumerians’ tales of Gilgamesh talk of Sage Utnapishtim, who takes his family, his animals and enough grains, to start all over again after the deluge.

Then there’s the Aztec myth of a couple that climbs a tree with two ears of grain to save themselves from the flood. And the Norse myth of Odin and his brothers who kill Ymir, an ice-giant, the frost in whose veins melts and floods the earth.

Maybe our own Ichthyosaurus is a reminder of the fragility of all life forms in the everflowing flux of time. Or how closely connected we all are by our myths and heredity. Surfacing as the oceans begin to rise, the Ichthyosaurus of Kutch lives again.

Starting her career in the Jurassic era of journalism, the author has waded through many ancient sites including Mohenjo-daro in her quest for fossils.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 6:00:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-night-of-the-dragon/article19981108.ece

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