A Scholar of Stones

Life and Times of Geologist Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia

Stephen Alter

Yet, for Wadia the mountains were not an onerous obstacle but a fascinating sequence of ridgelines and riverbeds that compressed geological time into folded contours.

In 1906, a young geologist accepted a position as a lecturer at the Prince of Wales College in Jammu, teaching both Science and English. Beyond the windows of his classroom, he could see a line of mountains rising out of the flatlands of the Punjab. In the foreground, pleated folds of dusty hills were covered with scrub jungle and scored by dozens of dry riverbeds. The geologist began to explore this puzzling terrain, where the Shivalik hills converge with the Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal ranges of the western Himalaya.

As he wandered through valleys and across crumbling ridgelines, the scholar discovered seasonal watercourses filled with stones, which had been smoothed and rounded by monsoon floods over successive millennia. The variety of colours and textures caught his eye. He came upon creamy quartzite, pink limestone and purple shale. Some rocks were the size of pigeon’s eggs, others larger than footballs. A few boulders were as big as oxen. Compared to the mountains that rose above them, the river rocks were like granules of sand, myriad particles washed down from higher elevations, out of the core of the Himalaya. These were the crushed debris of forgotten epochs filtering through an hourglass, each grain composed of minerals containing vital secrets of the earth’s creation.

Most of the riverbed rocks were distinctly different from the composition of the Shivaliks. This wild and rugged foreland consists mostly of loose conglomerates and reddish clays. The muddled collection of stones in the riverbeds came from drastically different eras. As the geologist began to record his observations and investigate the research done by others, his curiosity was fired by the riddles he confronted.

In the college library, he read accounts of early British scientists such as the The Paleontological Memoirs and Notes of the Late Hugh Falconer, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, who served as superintendent of the botanical gardens in Saharanpur, 450 km east of Jammu. In the 1830s Falconer discovered a trove of fossils in the Shivaliks, including Stegadonganesha, an elephant ancestor with fourteen- foot tusks, prehistoric hippos, and Sivatheriumgiganteum, an extinct giraffe from 2.5 million years ago, with antlers like a stag. The clayey soil of the Shivaliks also offered up the bones of Sivapithecus, an early hominid who walked across these hills between 12-7 million years ago. This distant predecessor of man resembled an orangutan and stood four feet tall.

As summer temperatures in Jammu began to rise above 40°C, the geologist must have counted the days until the end of term, when he could escape into the mountains and make his way to the alpine vistas and cooler climes of Kashmir. In those days, the traditional route to Srinagar lay farther north along the Jhelum river beyond Rawalpindi and Murree. But from Jammu, the geologist could ascend directly into the Pir Panjal, on the other side of which lay Kashmir. The Panjal thrust of the Himalaya tilts above the Shivaliks in a densely wooded concertina of ridges and valleys.

Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia was born at sea level in the coastal town of Surat at the western edge of Gujarat. He came from a Zoroastrian family, whose ancestors were exiled from Iran to India sometime between the 8-10th century, CE. The Wadias were shipbuilders by tradition, though they diversified into other trades ranging from textiles to filmmaking. D.N. Wadia came from a humble branch of the family tree. He was the son of a railway stationmaster. After receiving his primary education in Surat, he went on to high school in Baroda, where his interest in science flourished. He studied botany and zoology, as well as geology, receiving both his B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees. From Baroda, he took up the teaching post in Jammu, which would expose him to the Himalaya for the first time.

Wadia was an independent and resourceful man. Finding no suitable textbook for teaching earth sciences, he set out to write one himself. His Geology of India, first published in 1916, went through multiple editions and was assigned in Indian colleges for almost a century. Unlike most other publications on this subject, the book is marked by clear, coherent prose that makes the subject accessible to students of all ages. Wadia believed that geology was not an arcane discipline to be studied by a privileged few, but a story that everyone should understand and appreciate, for it reveals a rational and scientific explanation of the earth’s formation.

As soon as his summer holidays began, D.N. Wadia set out from Jammu for Kashmir. His route, on foot and horseback, took him directly over the western syntaxes of the Himalaya, a “deep knee bend”, where the strike of the ridges abruptly turns at right angles from east-west to north-south. This massive hinge fastens Kashmir to the rest of India, forming the dividing line between the main Himalayan range and the Hindu Kush to the west and the Karakorams to the north.

Walking from Jammu to Kashmir would have taken two weeks at least, climbing over ridges and descending into valleys along winding paths. Most of the altitude gained in a morning’s ascent was lost again by evening, though gradually Wadia moved farther and farther into the mountains. The rocks he encountered changed from sedimentary bands of siltstone and clay to metamorphic layers of schist and slate. In the course of a single day’s hike, the geologist set foot upon several epochs, from the Pre-Cambrian to the Eocene. The winding route took him along narrow goat trails and across landslides, up near perpendicular slopes that left him gasping for breath. Yet, for Wadia the mountains were not an onerous obstacle but a fascinating sequence of ridgelines and riverbeds that compressed geological time into folded contours. Each rucked up slab was like a chapter of a book, revealing new episodes in chronicles of stone.

He moved slowly, in short stages, stopping often to observe the different features along his path. From time to time, Wadia scrambled up a slope to collect rock samples. Slight of build, bespectacled with pince-nez glasses and dressed in professorial coat and tie, he was obviously not a mountaineer. But curiosity overcame a fear of heights. Clutching tufts of grass and stone, he carried his geologist’s hammer as resolutely as an ice axe. The notebook in his pocket was damp and stained with sweat. He jotted down his observations, noting the different strata and drawing the profiles of ridges. Each evening, camped along the margins of a stream or on a highland meadow, he reviewed his notes and made corrections, labelled samples and reflected on what he had seen.

With precise, evocative vocabulary, Wadia narrates the ancient stories that lay beneath his feet, “The Dogra slates pass upward into imperfectly cleaved and foliated clays, arenaceous beds, greywackes, with a few lenticular limestones”1.

These rippled rocks contained traces of early life. His journeys through the Pir Panjal revealed evidence from every period of Paleozoic history. In Cambrian layers, he discovered trilobites and brachiopods. Silurian strata divulged corals. In the Lower Carboniferous, he took note of ‘Syringothyris limestone’, named after a prehistoric species of clam, Syringothyris cuspidate. Resting on this were Middle-Carboniferous Fenestellashale beds, containing crystals of feldspar and quartz.

Crossing the Banihal pass at 2832 m above sea level, Wadia finally got his first view of Kashmir. Rather than spouting romantic hyperbole that so many others have exclaimed on seeing this beautiful valley, he surveyed the landscape with a studious and critical eye, remarking how the Pir Panjal range, which he had just traversed, “…represent generally a steep escarpment towards the plains and a long gentle slope towards Kashmir. Such mountains are spoken of as having an ‘orthoclinal’ structure with a ‘writing desk shape’”2.

This precocious son of a Parsi stationmaster was not only a scientist but a teacher of English literature too. He could just as easily discuss the poems of Thomas Moore as he might give a lecture on Himalayan stratigraphy, tracing the main thrust of the lower Himalaya as deftly as scanning lines of verse.

Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere,

With its roses the brightest that earth ever gave,
Its temples, and grottoes, and fountains as clear
As the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave?3

As his summer journeys through Kashmir took him to different parts of the valley, Wadia appreciated the poetics of rock. For him the picturesque panoramas of the Lidder valley leading up to Kolahoi peak and glacier became all the more dramatic and enticing when he saw, “a thin but continuous band of Silurian strata,” which he described as “sandy shales and shaly sandstones”. Higher up were Permian deposits known as the ‘Zewan beds’, and finally those granite spires that form the high points of the western Himalaya, towering pillars of silence where no evidence of life can be found.

Few people have studied Kashmir with as careful and appreciative eyes. D.N. Wadia devotes a whole chapter of Geology of India to this region, with diagrams and illustrations executed in his own hand.

In Wadia’s mastery of his subject there remains a poetic voice, as if the ‘writing desk’ of the Pir Panjal, on which he recorded his geological observations, also inspired literary metaphors and allegories. In one passage, he reveals the motives of a storyteller, who recounts a seminal narrative of the earth’s creation:

The idea of a geological system is not confined to a summary of facts regarding its rocks and fossils. These are the dry bones of the science; they must be clothed with flesh and blood, by comparing processes and actions which prevailed when they were formed with those which are taking place before our eyes in the world of today. A sand-grain or a pebble of the rocks is not a mere particle of inanimate matter, but is a word or a phrase in the history of the earth, and has much to tell of a long chain of natural operations which were concerned in its formation. Similarly, a fossil shell is not a mere chance relic of an animal that once lived, but a valuable document whose preservation is to be reckoned an important event in the history of the earth…In this way, by a judicious use of the imagination, is the bare skeleton given a form and clothed; the geological records then cease to be an unintelligent mass of facts, a burden to memory, and become a living story of the various stages of the earth’s evolution.4

Considered the founding father of Indian geology, D. N. Wadia received many honours. The Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun is named after him. The institute maintains a small museum, which contains a variety of rock specimens collected by Wadia and others. The stones are of all shapes and textures, with ripples, rills and waves. Samples of rock salt from Tibet are exhibited alongside ‘sinus crested sandstone’, mica schist and porphyritic granite out of which he compiled a chronology of creation.

Some of D.N. Wadia’s personal effects are also on display, donated by his wife Meher, who accompanied him on many of his expeditions to Kashmir. His briefcase and spectacles, a compass and his geologist’s hammer can be seen in the museum. Brass buckles bearing the crest of the Geological Survey of India are placed among an assortment of medals presented to Wadia in his later years. In 1984, a one-rupee postage stamp was released in his honour. But the most interesting items in the exhibit are his notebooks in which he recorded observations in the field. The handwriting is neat but cramped, no pages wasted. The letters and numerals are as tightly knotted as the cursive patterns in gneisses. Most entries are brief and cryptic, little more than dates, place names and classifications of different strata, accompanied by pencil sketches of ridgelines. These were his first impressions of the landscape, conveying an intricate, intimate appreciation for mountainous terrain and the narratives hidden beneath its surface.

Wadia, D.N., The Geology of India. London: Macmillan, 1937.

This is a brief sketch of Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia, considered to be the founding father of Indian geology.

About the Author

Stephen Alter lives in Mussoorie. His recent books include Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime and In the Jungles of the Night: A Novel about Jim Corbett. Currently, he is working on a Biography of the Himalaya.



  1. Wadia, p. 401
  2. Wadia, p. 384-85
  3. http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/lallarookh/
  4. Wadia p. 49

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