National Fossil Woods Park
Thiruvakkarai, Tamil Nadu, India
We did not know about the park before reaching Pondicherry. It was on our way to Gingee fort from Pondicherry that my maternal grandfather called us up and on learning that we were en route Tindivanam, suggested that we check out the place. He had visited the park two decades ago and had forgotten the name of the place but had not forgotten the petrified beauty that he had beheld then. Since we had rented a car for the whole day, a short detour didn’t seem that much of a trouble and thanks to Aircel pocket internet, we could easily find out what this place that my Dadu was so fascinated about even after twenty years, was called.
The one problem that we faced was in conveying to the driver of our car where we wanted to go after visiting Gingee fort (which, by the way is a breathtakingly beautiful piece of history, magnificently adorning the hills of Gingee). None of us knew how to communicate ‘fossilized wood’ to our driver in Hindi. He didn’t speak English, we couldn’t speak Tamil. Finally, after a lot of wild hand gesturing, pointing at rocks and trees simultaneously, he caught on the word “Thiruvakkarai”, which is the name of the place where this Fossil Woods Park is located. He nodded vigorously and started with enthusiasm for the village of Thiruvakkarai. At a crossroad, we had to stop for directions and our driver, Mr. Shankar, parroting the name of the park to a traffic sergeant on duty, managed to get exact directions to the place. Thus proceeded our Indica, through courtyards of village houses and temples, between barren and arable lands to this place preserved in time.
When our car stopped in front of a wire-fenced compound with two white pillars displaying a tin board with the name of the park painted in white, I was, honestly, a little disappointed. It was past three in the afternoon and I was feverish with a splitting headache. And being naturally nettlesome, I was peeved. I had expected a well-structured, sanitized building housing the fossils. I most certainly hadn’t expected ruins in the wilderness. This goes to show how artificial my life and tastes have become.
The first step inside the park didn’t much change my opinion. The fact that the tin board explaining the significance of the place was worn out and looked a relic in itself, didn’t help the situation. Patches of paint had been peeled off from the board, making reading extremely difficult. What I deciphered painstakingly (my headache making the pain worse) is that fossils of gymnosperms and angiosperms, around 20 million years old, had been unearthed in this place, first by Pierre Sonnerat (French naturalist) in the 18th century, and subsequently by the Geological Survey of India. The trunks of the trees are thought to have been transported (by water) from distant places and petrified there upon deposition. The fossils are the same age as the rocks that are strewn all over the place and are part of the ‘Cuddalore series’. So far, taxonomists have been able to identify some modern families of plants (including Guttiferae, Leguminosae and Euphorbiaceae) petrified into stone, suggesting that these modern angiosperms perhaps were already formed 20 million years ago. Gymnosperms (Mesembrioxylon schmidianum) mostly predominated at that time as is evident in majority of the fossils.
The compound was taken care of by an old man (in keeping with the theme of the park, you could say), who looked amazed at having visitors. The reason became apparent when we went to sign the log-book on our way out. Three other visitors had been there that day, before we went to visit. Two groups in a single day! But there were few, very few others, who had visited in the preceding months. Time travel is not a very happening activity these days, it seems.
There is a paved walk way for visitors climbing the mounds strewn with fossil woods. The walk way winds through thorny bushes and shrubs occasionally littered with plastic bottles and gutkha pouches. But, the place being little known to tourists, mercifully, the amount of litter was low.
I, being a Zoology Major, had studied Botany sparingly, only for the exams. I cannot tell this tree from that (a shame actually, given that I am a student of Natural Sciences). But my ignorance shocked me when I couldn’t, at first, locate the fossil woods.
All I could see were huge chunks of red coloured rocks with prominent striations scattered around the compound and up the mound along the walk way. The rocks looked dusty, but their colour was very rich with shades of brown, black, purple and grey. Slanting sunrays through the leaves of the trees shone brilliantly on the surface of some of these rocks (I learned later that it was due to the silica that had replaced the inner organic tissues of the tree trunks), stinging my already paining eyes. I must have looked dumb, standing there, searching, while my companions had long moved along the walk way exploring history.
Did I expect a tree turned to stone in all its canopied glory? Perhaps I did. I should have remembered that delicate leaves and soft-tissues are usually the first to be lost during transit before nature casts the Petrificus Totalus spell on them. Nevertheless, what I beheld did not disappoint me, although it was different from what I had imagined.
I love mythological stories. Almost every ancient culture has a story that tells of living beings transformed into stone, usually by a curse. Hindus have the lore of Ahallya turned to stone by the curse of her husband (although, if it were today, her husband would have faced the ire of Women’s Commission for false suspicions and accusation without proof), while the Greeks have the legend of Medusa turning to stone everybody who beheld her. Although the information board at the gate told a different local legend, the fossil woods lying all around me, made me think of Ahallya and of Medusa’s victims; once living, breathing, metabolizing beings, lying petrified, undead.
The board at the gate tells of the local belief that these wood rocks are the bones of the Rakshasa (demons) slain on the spot by the Lord Vishnu. The red colour of the rocks and the sinewy striations perhaps help such imagination.
Some of the fossil rocks, those not covered in dust, show such fine marks on their surface, you would think you could peel off the bark, albeit with a chisel and a hammer. I tried counting rings on the cross sections, but since I am no expert at that, frankly, I could not. And the way some of the rocks sparkled in the afternoon sun, I am sure, with a little more time, these slain demon bones will be yielding the world’s most precious stones.
I learnt that there were more than 200 such fossil woods there in the park, but visitors are restricted to only those near the walkway. That is sufficient enough to delight anybody with a taste for the past.
While we were signing the log book, the care taker of the park expressed his surprise on noting that we had come all the way from a different state to visit the place. He informed us that only some locals and occasional GSI employees form the main visitors there. A small tip made him gush about how the government is negligent about the park and how it could have been made into a star tourist attraction. He was right.
Looking back over the mounds, on the relics of prehistoric life, I caught sight of the grand banyan that had been shading us as we rested moments earlier. It looked down on the fossils, as if wondering, if it were next. It had a long way to go still, unless we humans intervene.
For more details check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Fossil_Wood_Park,_Tiruvakkarai