Aaliya Sultana Babi has fought fiercely for the preservation of the rare dinosaur fossil beds in the city of Balasinor in Gujarat, India. A self-taught palaeontologist Babi, 46, is a descendant of the 500-year-old Babi dynasty of Balasinor, a city that houses relics of the extinct dinosaur species that roamed these lands 65 million years ago.
Babi is fondly called the "dinosaur princess" or "Dr Dinosaur", and today, her city is home to India's very own Jurassic Park – the Dinosaur Fossil Park and Museum, which is nestled in Raiyoli village, the third largest dinosaur hatchery in the world.
The site was discovered accidentally in the 1980s when mappers from the state-run Geological Survey of India stumbled upon eggs and putrefied dinosaur bones embedded in the sedimentary rocks of Raiyoli, close to Babi’s ancestral residence, Balasinor Palace. Over the following months, the fossils of about 1,000 dinosaur eggs and bones belonging to at least seven dinosaur species were unearthed, representing a huge breakthrough in the field.
Babi was only a child then, but recalls how the excavation shot her nondescript town to global prominence. "There was a lot of excitement around the unique discoveries. One find, estimated to be 67 million years old, was that of a new species of dinosaur that was named Rajasaurus narmadensis after the Hindi word for king, raja. The formidable-looking 30-foot predator's head was crowned by spiky horns," recalls Babi, who featured in the BBC reality show Undercover Princesses in 2009.
The excavations left a deep impression on Babi’s young mind. “Kids recite ‘D’ for dog in school, but here was I saying ‘D’ for dinosaur! The creatures had become an all-consuming passion,” she says.
As she grew up, Babi started reading up on the ancient reptiles and watching National Geographic to brush up on her knowledge. She also accompanied her father, Nawab Muhammad Salabat Khan Babi, to meet the palaeontologists and geologists thronging to Balasinor from all over the world, including from the University of Michigan and University of Chicago.
“The findings were sensational because what local villagers thought were rocks for centuries turned out to be fossilised, cannon-ball-sized dinosaur eggs. Locals were ignorant of the geological treasures that lay strewn around them,” says Babi.
"They would graze cattle in the park and use the precious rocks for constructing their homes or grind spices with them. But after the discovery, Raiyoli, which belonged to my grandfather, was declared a dinosaur fossil site and the eggs put on the list of national treasures. The release of the movie Jurassic Park around that time created further interest in the site."
One day, in 2003, when she was doing the rounds of her estate, Babi was aghast to see an old woman grinding red chilli paste with an oval stone in her hut, not knowing it was a dinosaur egg. When the conservationist requested her to hand it over, the woman refused, saying the stone contributed to her food's deliciousness.
"After much persuasion, I did manage to take the rock from her and deposited it with the government, but it is still red in colour. We jokingly call it masala egg now," she says, with a laugh.
Gradually, with Babi’s efforts, the Gujarat government started investing in preserving and protecting the fossil park. It was fortified with new double fencing and guards to check trespassers, vandals and cattle grazing. “Initially, there were no proper roads to the site, nor any signage. But now fencing and guards are in place. This was crucial because dinosaur bones are as brittle and fragile as human bones and visitors treading upon them could have permanently destroyed them,” says Babi.
“It was a challenging task to educate the locals about the long-neglected site. But over the years, they have become aware of Balasinor’s special place in history and its legacy. They alert the authorities if there are trespassers or any attempts to damage the rocks.”
Today, the 72-hectare Dinosaur Fossil Park in Balasinor is the only place in the world where visitors can touch dinosaur remains and hold fossils in their hands. Babi can often be spotted here conducting tours in a safari hat, guiding visitors through a mesmerising topography of fossilised rocks, bones and egg rings.
Through relentless follow-ups with government departments, the crusader also managed to persuade the administration to launch the unique dinosaur museum as part of the fossil park in 2019. Inaugurated by Gujarat's chief minister, it has different sections, including: Time Machine, Earth's Inception, Dinosaurs of the World and Dinosaurs of Gujarat, as well as a gallery that showcases fossilised eggs and bones from Babi's personal collection.
“Earlier, tourists who walked on stones would expose the bones and damage them, making their preservation difficult. But the museum has helped protect this priceless treasure now,” she says.
Before the pandemic, the museum recorded a footfall of 92,000 visitors between June and December 2019, a significant development for tiny Balasinor. Babi also conducts classes to educate locals about tourism and management, and dinosaurs and fossils, across college campuses and schools in her state and abroad.
Many of the trained locals are helping to run the museum, and take care of it. "Twelve village women are running the museum's canteen. A few are also employed in its day-to-day operations. The men work as guards and museum operators," she says.
Meanwhile, dinosaur tourism has rejuvenated Balasinor’s somnolent economy, evident in the cafes, restaurants, hotels and souvenir stalls that now pepper its barren landscape.
A six-metre-tall, life-size replica of a roaring Rajasaurus, made of brass, cement and mud, welcomes visitors at the town's entrance. The local school, too, flaunts a kaleidoscopic dinosaur mural on its wall, while dinosaur sculptures embellish its iron gate.
Visiting children are fascinated by the town's dinosaur heritage. A young boy from Kolkata was so keen on becoming a palaeontologist after a site visit that he stopped going to school. "His worried parents contacted me urgently, requesting me to counsel the young one that in order to study dinosaurs, one needs to finish school and then go to college," she says, laughing. "I explained all this to the child. He processed the information and finally rejoined school."
With growing awareness about Balasinor's unique dinosaur legacy, and the next generation realising its enormous significance, the town now occupies rock star status, literally, in the world of palaeontology. And the dinosaur princess couldn't be more pleased.