D. N. Wadia and Himalayan Geology

Rasoul Sorkhabi

The chisel of time has cut deep into them [the Aravallis] and out of their dust and debris built many a rock-system of India …There were no quadrupeds, and no boasts of prey; no birds broke the silence of the air. They were yet to be born …There, deep under the mantle of the ocean, I lay, a sheet of white sand.

D. N. Wadia, a pre-eminent Indian geologist of the Himalaya, passed away on 15th June 1969 in Delhi at age 86. This year (2019) marks the 50th anniversary of his death. This article pays tribute to D. N. Wadia by briefly describing his life, professional career, and contributions to the geology of the Himalaya.

I still have my copy of D. N. Wadia’s Geology of India from my days at the University of Jammu in the early 1980s. I was then a geology student, and my choice was an accident of life (or probably it was meant to be). I happened to see the Kashmir Himalaya from the Pahalgam valley and fell in love with the mountains; I wanted to be close to them and study geology. I was told that the University of Jammu had a geology programme and that it was founded by a renowned geologist, D. N. Wadia. His name gave reputation to the geology department at Jammu; it still does. When I bought and opened my copy of Wadia’s textbook I found it delightful to read.

After all these years, I still believe that Wadia’s book with its systematic discussion and elegant prose offers an inspiring model for geology education and writing in India. Wadia was a great teacher and writer. His fieldwork, maps, and papers on the northwestern parts of the Himalayas are a testimony to the work of a pioneer, dedicated, and original mind. But who was D. N. Wadia? How did he become a shining star in the history of Indian and Himalayan geology? What is his legacy? This article explores these questions. I hope that Wadia’s story continues to be an inspiration and encouragement for younger generations in India to follow in his footsteps by advancing our knowledge of geology and serving people.

A Sketch of Early Life (1883–1906)

Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia was born on 23rd October 1883 in the port town of Surat in Gujarat (formerly the Bombay State). As his name indicates Wadia came from a Parsi (Parsee or Zoroastrian) family: His given name Darashaw (Dara Shah) and his father’s name Nosherwan both refer to the name of the great Sassanid king who ruled ancient Persia from 531–579 AD. Centuries ago, as the Arabs invaded Iran, Parsi communities immigrated to India and made Gujarat and Maharashtra their home. During the British rule in India, the Wadias were highly educated and entrepreneurial: They owned a ship-building enterprise, first at Surat and later in Bombay. Indeed, an ancestral relative of Wadia, Ardeseer Coursetjee (1808–1877), was a renowned engineer of steam ships in Bombay, and the first Indian to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in London.

Dara (as he was affectionately called) was the fourth of nine children in an upper-middle class family; his father was a Station Master in the Bombay, Baroda and Central Indian Railway (now called the Western Railway). Wadia grew up at Surat in the care of a strict maternal grandmother. He attended a private Gujarati school, and later, studied at the Sir J. J. English School. In 1894 Wadia’s family moved to Baroda, about 120 km north of Surat, and there Wadia attended the Baroda High School and became interested in science under the influence of his eldest brother, Munchershaw N. Wadia, who was a reputed educationist in Baroda State.

At age 16, Wadia entered Baroda College (then part of the Bombay University). There, two teachers had a great influence on Wadia’s education: Adarji Mernosji Masani, the college principal and professor of natural history; and Aravind Ghosh, professor of English. Professor Masani had encouraged the ruler of Baroda State, Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad (1863–1939), to establish a Museum of Arts and Sciences at Baroda College. The Cambridge-educated Aravind Ghosh (1872–1950) from Bengal, who later under the name of Sri Aurobindo rose to be an eminent Indian freedom fighter, mystic philosopher and poet, inspired Wadia’s love for literature (especially Shakespearean) and influenced his elegant style of writing.

Wadia obtained a B.Sc. degree in Botany and Zoology in 1903, and another B.Sc. in Botany and Geology in 1905. The following year, Wadia took an M.A. degree in Biology and Geology, and began teaching undergraduate courses at Baroda College. In those days, geology was taught only in Calcutta (Kolkata) and Madras (Chennai). Wadia was largely self-taught but the geological collections at his college were very helpful for Wadia’s education in this field.

Jammu University (1907–1921)

In 1907, Wadia took up the position of professor of geology at the Prince of Wales College in Jammu on a salary of Rs. 200. The college was established by Maharaja Pratap Singh in 1905 on the occasion of a visit made by Prince of Wales (later King George V) to that city. The college was then affiliated with Punjab University; it still stands on the same campus but it is called the Government Gandhi Memorial Science College and is part of the University of Jammu.

Wadia’s new environment was so different from his hometown. Located in the foothills of the Himalaya, Jammu and its fossil-rich hills provided a valuable opportunity for Wadia to conduct geologic investigations and expand his knowledge in the field. Moreover, he received support and friendship from two successive principals of the Price of Wales College: Farma Dadina and S. Robson. In 1909 Wadia married Alan G. Contractor, daughter of G. P. Contractor, an engineering contractor in Gujarat. Their marriage was happy but their only daughter died in infancy.

Wadia’s teaching at Jammu was directed toward training students to enter Punjab University. As there was no suitable textbook on the geology of India for his students, he decided to prepare one: Wadia’s Geology of India for Students was published in 1919 by Macmillan in London. It was a major textbook in India and went through several editions and reprints. Wadia worked at Jammu University for 14 years. He spent his vacations doing fieldwork in the foothills of the Himalayas. In this way, he met and became a close friend of the pioneering Himalayan geologist Charles S. Middlemiss who had worked for the Geological Survey of India in Calcutta (1883–1917), and after retirement was hired by the Maharaja of Kashmir and Jammu as the superintendent of mineral survey in that state.

Wadia collected minerals, rocks, and fossils from the Himalaya foothills for his geology department at Jammu. One of them, which still decorates the museum of the geology department, is a three-metre long tusk and skull pieces of an elephant-like Stegodon which Wadia found in the Siwalik sedimentary beds of Pleistocene age at the village of Jagti, nine kilometres north of Jammu.

The Story of a Stone

Wadia published his first article in 1912 in the The Tawi: Prince Wales College Magazine. Titled The Story of a Stone, the essay recounts the geological story of a pebble commonly found around the Jhelum river. The pebble was derived from a sandstone formation at the bottom of a Paleozoic sea in Kashmir where sediments shed off from the Aravalli range were deposited. The sandstone was subsequently buried deep under the Mesozoic sediments of the Tethys Ocean and became white quartzite, and later emerged on the surface of the Pir Panjal range during the uplift of the Himalaya in the Cenozoic Period. The pebble was then eroded, transported and finally deposited with other pebbles and sediments in the Siwalik basin in front of the rising Himalaya.

When one reads Wadia’s essay, even a century later, the reader is struck with three remarkable features. First, how modern Wadia’s interpretation of the regional geology of the Himalaya was! He rightly envisioned India as part of a much larger continent, Gondwanaland, in the southern hemisphere, with Tethys Sea washing its northern shore. Second, the reader feels being in the presence of a dedicated teacher who not only cares about his students and readers but also loves his subject-matter (Wadia humanizes the pebble: “He thus expressed himself: My history is long …”). Third, the writing comes from the pen of a master author; indeed the essay reads like lyrical prose: “The chisel of time has cut deep into them [the Aravallis] and out of their dust and debris built many a rock-system of India … There were no quadrupeds, and no boasts of prey; no birds broke the silence of the air. They were yet to be born …There, deep under the mantle of the ocean, I lay, a sheet of white sand.”

In writing this essay, Wadia was probably influenced by Sir Archibald Geikie’s 1858 book, The Story of a Boulder, which recounts the geologic history of Scotland through a stone; this was also Geikie’s first publication. The Story of a Stone was Wadia’s first and only writing for the public but he used the same clear style in his technical papers and reports.

Geological Survey of India (1921–1938)

In 1921 Wadia was offered a position at the Geological Survey of India – one of the world’s earliest geological surveys established in 1851. During the 17 years that Wadia was at the Survey he carried out extensive fieldwork and published dozens of research papers and reports. He also gave lectures at the Presidency College, Calcutta. While working for the Survey, Wadia made two overseas trips. First, during 1926–28 when he went to England to study his fossil collections from Potwar and Kashmir at the British Museum of Natural History; he also visited several geological institutions in the Alpine countries. The second was in 1935 when he travelled to China, Japan and the USA where he visited geology departments and established contacts. In 1935 (or 36), Wadia’s wife died while he was doing fieldwork in northern Kashmir; her grave lies in Srinagar.

Although Wadia was not the first Indian to be hired by the British-controlled Geological Survey, he was the first Indian employee who had graduated from an Indian university. In 1938, at the compulsory age of 55, Wadia retired from the Survey but with some bitter experience. During his years of service, he had not been promoted. He retired as Assistant Superintendent – the same rank he had been hired!

Wadia’s work at the Survey established him an authority on the geology of northwestern Himalayas. He carried out pioneering mapping of the stratigraphy and geologic structure of Nanga Parbat, Hazara, Gilgit, Kashmir and the Punjab. His first major work, published in 1928, was on the geology of the Lesser Himalaya in the Poonch State and adjacent areas of the Punjab. Then he went on to study Nanga Parbat, and in two seminal papers (1931 and 1932) he presented a detailed map of the area and established that Nanga Parbat was a tongue-like projection (syntaxis) of the Himalaya where rocks on both sides of the structure were similar. This was in contrast to the Austrian geologist Edward Suess’ idea that two different mountains – the Himalaya and the Hindukush – merged at Nanga Parbat. This important discovery by Wadia suggested that the Indian block in its push against Asia had developed a ‘knee bend’ at Nanga Parbat.

In 1934 Wadia reported on his mapping of northwest Kashmir where he described the stratigraphic record from the Cambrian to the Triassic period. He found that Silurian and Devonian sediments were missing in the area indicating absence of marine sedimentation (sea level fall) or tectonic uplift and erosion of the area during this time. Wadia discovered land-plant fossils (Glossopteris) from the Carboniferous sediments similar to those in central India (part of Gondwanaland) indicating that Kashmir and central India shared the same geologic history. He also mapped volcanic rocks (Panjal Traps) of Permian age and Himalaya-related thrust structure of the Pir Pangal range (the source area of the stone in Wadia’s 1912 story).

In 1937 Wadia discussed the geology of the ‘Great Limestone’ of Vaishno Devi hills north of Jammu. He suggested the limestone to be of Carboniferous to Permian age, but today we know that it is older than the Cambrian. The limestone as Wadia described does not yield any fossil. In another report in 1937 he presented his study of the widespread volcanic rocks from Astor through Deosai to Dras in Ladakh and established that these volcanic rocks erupted during the Cretaceous period based on his discovery of foraminifer fossils (Orbitolina) of that period preserved in limestone interbedded with the volcanic rocks.

One of Wadia’s major accomplishments at the Survey was his involvement in the first ‘Soil Map of India’ published in 1935. This was in response to a request from the International Association of Soil for their plan to compile a soil map of Asia. The Survey, represented by Wadia and his colleagues M.S. Krishnan and P.N. Mukherjee, collaborated with the Agricultural Research Institute in Pune and the Forest Institute in Dehra Dun to carry out out this difficult but important task for improving agriculture in India.

In his 1936 article published in Himalayan Journal, Wadia extended his ideas of Nanga Parbat to the eastern corner of the Himalaya and suggested that Namche Barwa was a similar structure to Nanga Parbat – an idea that has proven to be true by modern studies.

Sri Lanka (1938–1944)

In 1938 Wadia accepted the position of Government Mineralogist for the Government of Ceylon succeeding J. S. Coats (author of Geology of Ceylon, 1935). Life in Colombo opened a new chapter for Wadia. In 1940 he married Meher Gustadji Medivala, daughter of G. K. Medivala, a forestry manager at Baroda State. Meher, a mineral economist and a graduate of the University of Bombay, was Wadia’s companion for the rest of his life. (She published Minerals of India in 1966.)

During his stay in Ceylon, Wadia produced a detailed annual report on the accomplishments of his small Department of Mineralogy. He also conducted fieldwork and published several research papers on the geology of Sri Lanka. Based on his mapping Wadia found similarities of rocks between southern India and Ceylon, and suggested that Ceylon became a separate island only during the Miocene period. H P. G. Coorary in An Introduction to the Geology of Ceylon (1967) acknowledges Wadia as a pioneering figure. Wadia left Ceylon in 1944 and returned to India leaving behind a rich legacy of science and administration in Ceylon. The Department of Mineralogy was renamed the Geological Survey Department of Sri Lanka in 1962. Wadia also helped the formation of the Ceylon Association of Science and served as its first president in 1945.

Geoscience Leadership in India (1945–1969)

Back in India, Wadia devoted the rest of his life to the progress of science and scientific institutions, especially the systematic studies and exploration of mineral resources in India. He firmly believed that geology would play a critical role in the economic development of independent India. Wadia became Geological Advisor to the Government of India with Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister. He was asked to design a mineral policy for the country. As a result he helped establish the Bureau of Mines in 1948 and became its first director. In 1949 he was appointed to lead the Atomic Minerals (Division of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission)—a position he kept for the rest of his life.

Wadia’s leadership in Indian science resulted in the formation of several research institutes and professional societies. He served as president of a number of scientific societies in India including the Indian National Science Academy (1946–47), the Mining, Geological and Metallurgical Institute of India (1951–52), and the Geological Society of India (1958–1964). He delivered presidential addresses at the Geological Section of the Indian Science Congress in 1921 and 1938. He presided over the Indian Science Congress in 1942 (Baroda) and 1943 (Calcutta), Indian National Science Academy in 1946 and 1947, Central Board of Geophysics (1954–1957), and Indian National Committee for Oceanic Research (1960).

In 1948 Wadia attended the 18th International Geological Congress in London, and offered, on behalf of the government of India, to host the next congress in India. But the following three congresses were in Algeria (1952), Mexico City (1956) and Copenhagen (1960). Finally, the 22nd International Geological Congress was held in 1964 in Delhi, and Wadia served as its president. This was a huge success story for India during its post-independent years. The 36th congress is planned to be held in New Delhi in March 2020.

In 1968, Wadia founded the Indian Institute of Himalayan Geology based in Delhi. The institute was later renamed Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology and moved to Dehra Dun in 1976. The institute’s new building was completed by 1983, and on 23rd October that year the institute celebrated the 100th anniversary of Wadia’s birth. In 1984 the Indian government also issued a postal stamp in honor of D.N. Wadia’s 100th birth anniversary.

Honours and Legacy

During his life time Wadia was given several prestigious awards including Back Award (Royal Geographical Society, 1934), Lyell Medal (Geological Society, London, 1934), Jagdish Bose Memorial Medal (Royal Asiatic Society, 1947), Padma Bhushan (third highest civilian award by the Government of India, 1958), and Leopold von Buch Plaketter of the German Geological Society (1960). He was named National Professor by the Government of India in 1962 and was given honorary doctorates by the University of Delhi (1947) and Aligarh Muslim University (1967). Several institutions have set up Chairs, Medals and published papers in the name of this great geologist.

Even with his busy schedule and administrative responsibilities, Wadia continued to publish papers on the geology of India and the Himalaya. In 1969 just before his death, Wadia finished the fourth edition of his Geology of India; it was published in 1975 in 532 pages. The book has educated generations of Indian geologists.

In April 2014 the University of Jammu opened the Wadia Museum of Natural History on the occasion of the 130th anniversary of Wadia’s birth.

William D. West, the last British director of the Geological Survey of India, once remarked that “Wherever Wadia travelled in the Himalaya he was successful in throwing significant light on problems of stratigraphy and tectonics which had hitherto remained uninvestigated or unexplained.” Wadia’s work still forms a pillar of our knowledge of the geology of northwest Himalaya with its remote and rugged terrain. Wadia was undoubtedly the greatest geologists India has produced.


Anonymous (1957) D.N. Wadia: A biographical sketch. Journal of Paleontological Society of India, vol. 2 (D.N. Wadia Jubilee Number), pp. 2–8.

Anonymous (1957) Felicitations to Dr. D.N. Wadia, F.R.S.. Journal of Geological, Mining and Metallurgical Society of India, vol. 29 (4), pp. 231–233.

West, W. D. (1965) D.N. Wadia: An Appreciation. In: Jhingran, A.G. (ed.) Dr. D. N. Wadia Commemorative Volume. Mining, Geological & Metallurgical Institute of India, Calcutta, 833 p., pp. 1–9.

Auden, J. B. (1970) Obituary: Darashw Nosherwan Wadia. The Geographical Journal, vol. 136 (1), pp. 171–173.

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Anonymous (1993) D. N. Wadia – A biography. In: Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology Silver Jubilee Souvenir, Dehra Dun, pp. 1–4.

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Glabsy, G.P. (2009) D.N. Wadia and the Geology of the Himalaya.
Geochemical News, no. 138 (January 2009). Reprinted in: Glasby, G. (2009) Walking the roofbeam. Geoscientist: A Magazine of the Geological Society of London, vol. 19 (8), pp. 20–26.

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Craig-Geen, E. R., G. M. Bhat, J. Craig, and B. Thusu (2016) Foundations: DN Wadia and his links with the Geology Department at the University of Jammu, India. Himalayan Geology, vol. 37 (1), pp. 67–71.

D. N. Wadia’s major works related to the Himalaya and cited in this article are the following:

D.N. Wadia (1912) The story of a stone: the biography of a pebble. The Tawi: Prince of Wales College Magazine, Jammu & Kashmir, December 1912. Reprinted in Calcutta Geographical Review, vol. 1, 1936, 39–49; reprinted in School Science, Quarterly NCERT, vol. 2, 1963.

D.N. Wadia (1919) Geology of India for students (Macmillan, London, xx+398 p.); 2nd ed. 1939; 3rd ed. 1953; 4th ed. 1975 (xxiv+508 p.)

D.N. Wadia (1928) Geology of Poonch State (Kashmir) and adjacent portions of the Punjab. Memoirs Geological Survey of India, 51(2), pp. 185–370.

D.N. Wadia (1931) The syntaxis of the north-west Himalaya: its rocks, tectonic and orogeny. Records of Geological Survey of India, vol. 65 (2), pp. 189–220.

D.N. Wadia (1932) Notes on the geology of Nanga Parbat (Mt. Diamir) and adjoining districts of Chilas, Kashmir. Records of Geological Survey of India, vol. 66 (2), 212–232.

D.N. Wadia (1934) The Cambrian-Trias sequence of north-western Kashmir (parts of Muzaffarad and Baramula districts). Records of Geological Survey of India, vol. 68 (2), pp. 121–176.

D.N. Wadia (1935) On the Cretaceous and Eocene volcanic rocks of the Great Himalaya Range in north Kashmir. Records of Geological Survey of India, vol. 68 (4), 419–421.

D.N. Wadia (1936) The trend-line of the Himalayas—its north-west and south-east limits. Himalayan Journal, vol. 8, pp. 63–69.

D.N. Wadia (1937) The Cretaceous volcanic series of Astor-Deosai, Kashmir and its intrusives. Records of Geological Survey of India, vol. 72 (2), pp. 151–162.

D.N. Wadia (1937) Permo-Carboniferous limestone inliers in the Sub-Himalayan Tertiary Zone of Jammu, Kashmir Himalaya. Records of Geological Survey of India, vol. 72 (2), pp. 162–173.

portrait of D. N. Wadia

Upper left: A portrait of D. N. Wadia painted by Setsuko Yoshida (donated by Rasoul Sorkhabi to Wadia Museum of Natural History, Jammu University). Upper right: Wadia’s chair at the department of geology, Government Gandhi Memorial Science College, Jammu. Lower image: A 1984 Indian stamp in celebration of Wadia’s 100th birth anniversary.

geologic periods

A timescale (in million years ago) of geologic periods showing the main events in the northwest Himalaya of India

D. N. Wadia was a pioneering Himalayan geologist. Many of his geologic maps and tectonic interpretations of the geology of northwest Himalaya still hold valid and valuable. This article remembers him on the 50th anniversary of his death.

About the Author

RASOUL SORKHABI did his PhD dissertation on the geology of Ladakh and Zanskar in 1991. He has conducted geologic research in Garhwal Himalaya, Nepal, Borneo, Japan, and USA. He is a research professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, USA. He continues to contribute articles and book reviews to the Himalayan Journal.

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