Showcasing An Extinction

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The fossil abundant Kashmir has a vast potential of becoming the subject matter of global understanding of the last recorded mass extinction of species. For that, Kashmir society and the government will have to work overtime to protect the sites that are vandalised with impunity, writes Mahmood Ahmad

Group of geologists on a visit to the Guryul ravines in Pampore. KL Image: Special arrangement

At the Directorate of Tourism, one day, a man walked in. Introducing himself as a retired Geologist, Abdul Majeed, he informed me that about 15 km from my office is a site of immense geological importance. He was referring to Gryul, insisting that it is the only site in the world where Permian and Triassic boundary is evident. On one side of the ravine, he said, one could find Permian fossils as the Triassic fossils are abundant on the other side. He insisted that it is the site of third mass extinction.

The next time when I received a communication from the University of Kashmir to extend support to a group of geologists on Kashmir’s geological tour, I was excited. Driven by the idea of promoting “geo-tourism”, I accepted supporting the project and eventually accompanied the group. It was a rewarding experience.

I drove to Gryul to learn about the PT divide. It was appalling to see the site vandalized by the illegal quarrying so a process was initiated for its immediate protection.

A Fossil rich park fenced at Guryul. Image: Mahmood Ahmad

In a quick follow-up, I wrote a detailed proposal to the District Magistrate highlighting Gryul importance and requirement for its protection. The botanist District Magistrate entrusted the site to the tourism department for development as a Fossil Park, the first of its kind in Jammu and Kashmir.

Quickly, I roped in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Kashmir and Shakeel Ramshoo was all the more willing to help.

I had read a paper Developing Geological Heritage of Kashmir by Riyaz Mir, a geologist with the Geological Survey of India (GSI). So I contacted him on the Gryul initiative.

This association made me richer as he informed me that GSI used to operate a campus at Ashmuqam, a village en route Pahalgam, where the upcoming geologists would be taught for half the year and sent to the field for the next half. For this campus, the GSI had set up a Fossil Museum. He took me to this campus that unfortunately is defunct and converted into a security establishment.

Dr G M Bhat with his elephant skull he recovered from Pampore. It is in Jammu University’s Wadia Museum

The Mammoth Story

Sri Partap Museum is the place where the heritage of Jammu and Kashmir is on display. It was established by the Maharaja in 1889 to protect rare artefacts. The museum has seen its share of turbulence, from utter neglect post-1990 to moving to a new building in 2014, where only about one-third of the artefacts are on display owing to incompletion of various sections.

There, I saw an elephant skeleton. It, however, lacked details about its place of discovery. It was later that I learnt that that De-terra had found first the skeleton of an elephant in Kashmir. Interestingly the same skeleton was used by Maharaja Hari Singh as his coat-hanger, according to Khalid Bashir.

In 2001, news reports appeared regarding the discovery of another Mammoth skeleton very close to the site Majeed sahib had mentioned. It remained in news for a long time. Mammoths preceded elephants and are long extinct. The mummified skeleton was later transferred to Jammu where it is on display at Wadia Museum of Natural History in the Jammu University.

A collection of fossils from Kashmir by Mahmood Ahmad

It was Dr G M Bhat, heading the Jammu University’s Baderwah campus, who is credited to have exhumed the remains of a mammoth in Kashmir. The mammoth eventually turned out to be a straight-tusked elephant, he said. Later, he accompanied me to the site of discovery. We had to wade through a lane and enter a compound where Bhat pointed towards a Kerawa formation that had yielded the elephant skeleton during the soil excavation for the construction of Banihal Baramulla railway line. Sadly in situ preservation could have been made then, but lack of proactive approach led to the loss of the site. This site is now lost forever.

Making of Kashmir

Alferd Wagner a German scientist is credited with coining the theory of continental drift. He had discovered fossil species on the shores of Greenland and Europe that are similar. This led him to postulate that Greenland and Europe must have been the same landmass at some point of time in the past.

Pangaea the supercontinent, split up into Laurasia and Gondwana. It was Gondwana that later on separated to give rise to Asia, Africa and Australia. Gondwana land has been named so because of Gond a place in central India where some of the earliest known rocks, as well as some unique fossil assemblage, was found.

In order to understand the geology of Kashmir in a better perspective, I got a geologist to guide me to Kashmir’s various fossil sites. At first, he took me to Gondwana fossil bed, located behind the world-famous Nishat Bagh. This Mughal garden was laid by Asif Khan, brother in law of Emperor Jehangir in 1633 AD. The Gondwana fossil bed is located a few hundred meters behind this famous garden.

A collection of fossils from various Kashmir fossil beds by Mahmood Ahmad

Another impressive Gondwana fossil bed is located near Banihal tunnel. Next in line was the fossil beds of Zewan, which was formed when Kashmir was submerged under the Thetyes sea.

On both sides of Gryul, there are many fossil beds with huge diversity – ammonites, branchiopods, bivalves, gastropods, rhacopteris and even fish fossils. As the Indian plate began to drift towards Europe, Himalayas emerged out. Thetyas Sea was drained out and all the aquatic life vanished. However, it left its marks in the form of fossil beds. The climate of Kashmir was warm and conducive for tropical fauna like elephants, Rhinoceros and Giraffes. Geologists over the years have found their bones in Kashmir.

Geologists believe that about four million years ago, Pir Panjal rose up and enclosed the valley from all sides and made it a closed ecosystem. European Red deer got separated and evolved into a separate species called Hangul. Tropical animals that could not survive this change, vanished, as did the marine life. Life forms that were able to adapt to the changing climate survived.

Geo-tourism Potential

While trekking in South Kashmir once, I was taking momentary rest and quenching my thirst that inadvertently felt attracted towards a rock that looked different. On closer examination, it was full of fossils. The rock was too big to be carried away. I collected its coordinates and clicked a few pictures. Later, it turned to be coquina fossils, something unique which I could not find in the museums.

The Fossil Park at Guryul could be a global destination for geologists trying to unravel the great extinction. Image: Mahmood Ahmad

There are plenty of fossil beds around Ashmuqam and Pahalgam, and Kokernag. There are many fossil beds in Kulgam, Shopian and in Gulmarg around Butapathri. Effortlessly, we can link up these fossil beds with tourism, a fossil trail can be marketed with other tourism products.

Himachal Pradesh’s Langza village is known as India’s fossil village. It is located at an altitude of 4450 mts and is about 418 km from Shimla, taking almost 12 hours to reach. This place is inaccessible for half of the year because of snow. That is unlike Kashmir which is accessible round the year.

Sitting at Guryl next to a fossil bed, approximately 250 million years old, I could not stop thinking about the upheavals this place has witnessed over the millennia. In the universal time wrap, humans have been here on earth just for a blink of an eye, literally. But the fact is that we have managed to change the face of the earth so drastically that we are doomed to perish from the face of the earth. Geologists do believe that we are staring at the sixth great mass extinction and the countdown has already begun.

The International Geological Congress was scheduled to be held in Delhi in November could come handy in formalising the idea. Owing to Covid-19, it will now take place in August 2021. Let us work to get better attention from the field visits of the world’s best geologists. We can do it.

(Former Director of Tourism, the author, a senior KAS officer is a trekker and geology enthusiast. He is currently heading the Industries department in Kashmir.)

Erasing Past

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