“I want to go to the Wood Fossil Park at Akal.”
I am at my hotel’s reception in Jaisalmer and am trying to work out an itinerary for the day with Sushil, the car driver-cum-guide arranged for me by the hotel. The hotel’s owner and the receptionist are also there offering suggestions and advice.
Silence greets this statement of mine and three pairs of eyes turn to look at me. Since I receive no response, I repeat: “I want to go to the Wood Fossil Park at Akal.”
At this, the hotel owner clears his throat, puts on his most persuasive expression and says: “But why, Madam? There is nothing in Akal. Nobody goes there and it will be a waste of your time. You will be very disappointed.”
“I don’t think it will be a waste of time or that I will be disappointed.”
But the hotel owner, receptionist and Sushil do not agree and try their best to persuade me to drop Akal from the list of places I intend visiting. It takes them a while to realise that I have no intention of listening to their ‘advice’, and after about 15 minutes of back and forth, they grudgingly agree and send me off with dire warnings of grave disappointment in store for me.
Akal is about 17 km from Jaisalmer and after an uneventful drive, we are at the gates of the Wood Fossil Park. The gates are shut and when Sushil toots the horn, a security guard appears but does not open the gates and keeps staring at us.
Sushil gets off to find out the reason and comes back after a discussion involving a lot of looks in my direction. The security guard finally opens the gates, and Sushil gets back into the car. As drive into the Park, Sushil asks me: “What is so special about the place we have come to? Why did you want to come here?”
And I tell him that to understand what makes this place special, we have to travel back in time to about 180 million years ago.
It was the Jurassic Period of the Mesozoic Era and a time when Akal did not have the arid climate it has today, and instead had a hot and humid climate. Akal was not rocky and dry as it is today, but instead supported a luxuriant forest of towering trees. It was also the time when the continents that we know of today did not exist. Instead, there was a single land mass known as Pangea, which had just started breaking up around that time. This resulted in the sea water rushing in to fill the gap left, often submerging large tracts of land.
And that is what happened at Akal. Sea water suddenly entered the area along with huge quantities of mud and sand and buried the forest there. The sudden submergence and steady pressure from the weight of mud and sand began a process known as petrification, whereby the wood of the trees in the submerged forest turned into stone, cell by cell. In other words, the organic cell matter got replaced with mineral matter, usually silica. The slow process enabled the preserving of features like texture of bark and as well as cell structure, which can be seen during microscopic examination.
And then millions and millions of years later, through the great dinosaur extinction, formation of the continents as we know them today, receding of the sea from the region, the coming of humans, rise and fall of civilisations and royal kingdoms, formation of nation-states across the world and India as a republic, weathering and erosion … the petrified wood fossils at Akal got discovered in the 1960s.
The Wood Fossil Park at Akal is spread out over a 10 sq.km. area and appears quite harsh and forbidding due to the rocky outcrops and very little vegetation. One also does not see any petrified wood fossils around. While I wasn’t expecting to find them lying around waiting for me, I certainly did not expect to see them like this either in cages. Looking at this rather sad display, I could hazard a guess as to what must have happened for this to come about.
The discovery of wood fossils in Akal must have generated a lot of interest and brought in geologists, paleo-botanists and other scientists. Samples must have been collected, catalogued, and identified. Results of the studies conducted must have been presented in conferences and published in journals. This discovery must also have brought in people eager to collect the fossil wood and sell it for a price. Between the researchers and the collectors (and sellers), Akal must have been stripped clean of wood fossils in 2-3 decades.
Sushil tells me that the government museum in Jaisalmer has many pieces exhibited there, but I know from experience that this effort must have come in only after some of the best pieces were taken away by others. The horrible fossil cages must have been the only way to protect and preserve what was left. As I walk around the Wood Fossil Park, I now understand what everyone meant when they said that there was “nothing” in Akal.
But am I disappointed with the visit? Yes and no. Less disappointed and more saddened and angry at yet another example of how an area of rare fossil heritage gets stripped in the name of research, in the name of building someone’s private collection, and as a means to earn some money.
And yet, I am not disappointed as there are still some wood fossils lying around, albeit in cages. In fact, after a while, I am happy that I have a chance to play geologist once again after a long time (for those who do not know, I have Masters in Geology 🙂 ). It is like being in the field and I spend two very happy hours observing and noting details; sketching the more interesting rock formations around me and then photographing them; trying to recall classes and lectures; attempting to identify the rock textures and structures, etc. And to my absolute delight I see two petrified wood fossils, which are neither marked or caged.
If I did not have other places to go to, I might probably have spent the whole day at the Wood Fossil Park. As we were leaving the Park, Sushil stopped to say something to the security guard in the local language, which again involved a lot of looks in my direction. When we were back on the highway, I asked Sushil what the whole thing was all about.
Sushil smiled a little sheepishly and said:
Did you know, Madam, that you are the first visitor in 10 days? When we came here the guard thought that we had lost our way ! He also said that there is not much to see. And how could I allow him to say that after you showed me and taught me so much about this place? So when we were leaving, I had to tell him that there are lots to see and that I am bringing my children here to see this place and he should also do so !
Need I even elaborate any further as to why the visit to Akal has been so special? 😀