A thick canopy of sal and jamun blocked out the sun as we entered Ghugwa Fossil Park in eastern Madhya Pradesh. Birdsong filled the 27-hectare space. The forest melded into a blanket of waist-high wild grass on the undulating hilltop. In this sun-dappled meadow lay four large collections of fossils, placed on circular stone platforms, in the shade of trees. Locals refer to these fossils as “pathar ke ped” or stone trees.
Driving from Bandhavgarh to Kanha, we’d stopped at this little-known park to understand what the fuss is all about. We were the only visitors that morning, and had to coax the sleepy caretaker to unlock the gates for us. At first glance, what I saw resembled piles of chopped firewood. Admittedly, I felt a twinge of disappointment.
But once I learned that these relics are up to 65 million years old, my feeling turned to amazement. The pile of wood I was staring at was 325 times as old as the human race. It was formed from trees that existed at the same time that Triceratops, the last of the dinosaurs, roamed the planet.
Many millennia ago, an evergreen forest of eucalyptus, date palms, banana, rudraksh, amla, and smaller palms existed at this very spot. Forests similar to those presently found in the Western Ghats and India’s northeast, but vastly different from the tropical dry deciduous forests of Madhya Pradesh, where sal, teak, and bamboo prosper today.
When the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and Australia were all part of the same landmass called Gondwanaland, the Ghughwa region lay close to the equator and the ancient Tethys Sea. The climate and heavy rainfall supported a dense equatorial forest. Gradually, as the continental shift brought about earthquakes and lava flows, sediments and volcanic ash covered the land, fossilizing remnants of these trees—the fossils preserved here before me today.
As the subcontinent (and the Ghughwa region) shifted away from the equator and the Tethys Sea receded, climatic conditions changed, and consequently, the forest structure in Central India morphed into a tropical deciduous one.
Time fades all things, but it is fascinating how nature endures. The gnarled eucalyptus fossils on display were surprisingly heavy. Cross sections glittered like crystal or quartz. In texture and weight, these fossils are more stone than wood.
At the on-site museum, I learned that the fossils of Ghughwa are mostly petrified wood—a fossilization process that occurs when plants grow near brackish water. Wood turns to stone as mineral sediments from the water or lava flows replace the organic material.
Trees of stone. How apt. How beautiful.
The museum houses the more delicate exhibits behind a glass display, along with information on the history of the park and the formation of fossils. I discerned the impression of a leaf in one fossil, while others are said to have seed and fruit remains as well.
The abundance of fossils of this region was discovered by Dr. Dharmendra Prasad, a local district officer, in the 70s, and the Ghughwa Fossil Park was created in 1983. These ancient relics provide insights into the evolution of our forests. They also offer clues to the formation of today’s world, putting weight behind the continental drift theory. The fossils found in Ghugwa are of species considered native to other continents, like the eucalyptus of Australia. They provide evidence that at one time, India and Australia were part of the same landmass.
Filled with utmost awe, I can’t help but wonder if these incredible trees of stone deserve a better platform to be seen and made accessible to all. These primeval treasures of the earth lie open to the elements, mostly forgotten, in an isolated, untamed park with overgrown pathways. But then again, these relics have withstood the formation of the modern world, and the evolution of the human race. Perhaps this is how they are meant to be. Stoic and enduring in nature’s clutches.
Getting There: Ghughwa Fossil Park lies midway between Bandhavgarh National Park (100 km/2 hrs to the north) and Kanha National Park (130 km/3 hrs to the south), in the Dindori district of eastern Madhya Pradesh. The closest town is Shahpura 14 km away. The nearest airport and railhead is Jabalpur, a 76 km/2 hr drive away.
Address: MP State Highway 11, Dindori district
Hours: Daily 8 a.m.- 5.30 p.m.
Entry: Indians ₹11; foreigners ₹165.
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