“I have loved dinosaurs since I was a baby,” says Nawabzadi Aaliya Sultana Babi of Balasinor. “I knew the spelling of Bronstosaurus and Diplodocus at the age of five!” Part amateur paleontologist (a scientist who studies the history of life on Earth through fossil records), part guide, and part dinosaur evangelist, Princess Aaliya is one royal in India who is an expert on the gigantic reptilian creatures that once roamed the land of her forefathers, many millions of years ago. Today, visitors make a beeline to Balasinor in Gujarat for the famous ‘dinosaur experience with Princess Aaliya’, a personalised guided tour of the world’s third-largest dinosaur hatchery and its museum.
It was while she was a little girl at a boarding school in Mount Abu in Rajasthan, when the first excavations at Raiyoli village near her father’s former princely State of Balasinor took place in the 1980s. Two mappers from the Geological Survey of India (GSI), G.N. Dwivedi and Dhananjay M. Mohabe, were in Raiyoli on a systematic mapping mission, and found fossilised remains and eggs of dinosaurs. After they submitted their report, GSI Jaipur sent a team led by Suresh Srivastava, who discovered more than 400 bones.
But until then, Aaliya had no knowledge about the discovery. While she was in college in Gujarat, paleontologists from Lucknow and Jaipur came for tea with her father, late Nawab Saheb Mohammad Salabat Khan Babi of Balasinor, and invited the family to visit the excavation site they had discovered. “At that time, they just looked like a bunch of rocks to me, so I didn’t bother,” says Aaliya of the fossils found in the area. But as the number of tourists to the Balasinor Garden Palace Hotel (a heritage hotel since 1996) grew, so did their interest in what was getting a lot of buzz — the site in Raiyoli. She recalls a particular group of British tourists. “They asked me questions about the finds — the type of dinosaur, when it was discovered, but I had no answers,” says Aaliya, who was determined to get better informed about this niche subject. “Paleontology was a neglected subject in India at the time,” she says.
The paleontologists dismissed her curiosity as the musings of a “bored princess with nothing better to do”. Aaliya’s persistence eventually bore fruit and the paleontologists and researchers began sharing their notes with her. The next hurdle was getting acquainted with the technical terms, which were not easy to assimilate for this student of English Literature. “From Shakespeare, I jumped straight into reading about tibia, fibula, femur, Gondwana land, the Pangea, Sauropods and Theropods,” says Aaliya. “I also found that the site in Raiyoli was the world’s third-largest hatchery of dinosaur eggs, after Aix-en-Provence in France and Mongolia.” When she started including an exclusive guided tour of the site for guests, word soon spread that a princess was conducting the tour, and more people signed up. “My knowledge on dinosaurs increased over the years, and I continued to pester the paleontologists with questions over emails. This is how I became an amateur paleontologist with 27 years of experience!,” says Aaliya.
And what about the 400 bones that were discovered? “These belonged to both herbivore and carnivore dinosaurs,” says Aaliya. “But the car - nivorous bones are more interesting because the Indo-American team that found the jaw, teeth, braincase and a horn, made a full skull based on these bones, unlike any found elsewhere on the planet.” The dinosaur got its official name, the Rajasaurus Narmadensis — Rajasaurus because its horn resembled a crown, and Narmadensis because most fossils were found on the banks of the Narmada in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
Other teams followed, from places such as Texas Tech University, the GSI, and the Indian Statistical Institute (Kolkata), and found bones of seven types of dinosaurs, from juvenile to a fully grown adult. They also found another carnivore’s bones, which was smaller than the Rajasaurus, and named it Rahiolisaurus Gujaratensis after the village it was found in Raiyoli. “These are my Gujju dinosaurs, and they feature in the world dictionary of dinosaurs now!” says Aaliya.
But what has really made Raiyoli famous is the 24,000 sq ft splendid museum for dinosaurs that stands there today. Divided into two sections, with a 72-hectare protected park, owned by the Gujarat Forest Department, and the museum building (owned by Gujarat Tourism), it was inaugurated in 2019, and attracted 92,000 visitors in the first six months. The Balasinor Dinosaur Museum features 10 galleries, from the incep - tion of the earth to the extinction of the dinosaurs, an array of different species found on the planet, a 3D stereoscopic theatre, a Dino Fun for Kids, an atrium with dinosaur models where one can pose for a photo, and a fossil exhibit.
“You can see 65-67 million-year-old fossilised bones and eggs in their natural form here,” says Aaliya.
But the road to the museum has been strewn with rocks, literally and figuratively. “As we began to get tourists to come to our heritage hotel, most of them wanted to visit the excavation sites,” says Aaliya. But with no infrastructure in place, the park was a disappointment. “I was the only one making my tour educational and fun,” says Aaliya, who was told more than once that it was time to create a museum there. “But who would go there? It was in the back of beyond (it’s an hour’s drive from Balasinor town.)” It was her father who sug - gested a museum dedicated solely to dinosaurs, to the officials of Gujarat Tourism. Met with stiff opposition, the Nawab Saheb persisted. It was a Field of Dreams Hollywood moment— ‘If you build it they will come.’ Only by spending on infrastructure and creating the right opportunity for this priceless heritage, would people come. A dynamic MD of Gujarat Tourism helped catalyse the idea, and the museum was built, but lay shut for many years. By then it was 2017, and Aaliya took it upon herself to get it opened. The Spielberg mega-hit Jurassic World had been released a couple of years ago and public interest was at an all-time high
“We’ve managed to bring the museum to the doorstep of the villagers,” says Aaliya. Today, around 40 people are employed there, from opera - tors, to watchmen, to the guards of the park and the museum. There’s a wheelchair ramp for the disabled, and a small canteen run by the local village women.
Star attractions include the fossils of three documented dinosaurs from Balasinor — the Rajasaurus (30 ft in length), the Rahiolisaurus (28 ft) and the herbivore Titanosauraus (who was triple their size). There’s also a nest of dinosaur eggs, with the fossilised remains of a snake that was about to eat the hatchlings when it got buried under mounds of rock and sand, and was preserved for 65 million years!
Today, the museum, closed from March until Novem - ber, then closed again in April, is once again awash with visitors. Aaliya features on TripAdvisor and Google, and is connected to Gujarat Tourism’s customer care. “Being a part of a family legacy, I got attached to this area and wanted to work for it,” says Aaliya. “We were taught to take care of our people, sowhether or not the rajwadas sur - vived or not, the people still look up to us. I wanted to do something for the village of Raiyoli, and villagers would always ask me — when will the museum become operational? When will progress come? They would sur - round my car. I resolved to work for them, and as I love challenges, I took it on!” Today, Aaliya has adopted a local government school in the village, and has donated school books, lunch boxes, compass boxes, and is building a water cooler for the students.
Besides the museum, it’s the gala lunch at the Balasinor Garden Palace that beckons weary travellers. “The credit goes wholly to my mother,” says Aaliya. “As a Palanpur royal, she was exposed to Western culture and cuisine, but adapted to my father’s orthodox family, and cooked for my father while he entertained at home.” The Rajmata Saheba of Balasinor Begum Farhat Sultana (Aaliya’s mother) brought from her maternal home of Bantwa (Junagadh), the famous Lasaniya Kheema, which is still served today for guests. It’s a mutton keema cooked with green garlic found during the winter, where raw eggs, placed on top, are cooked to perfection as they are smothered with piping hot ghee! Some of the other signature Balasinor dishes include Mahabat Khani Pasande named after the late Nawab Saheb of Junagadh, Zarda e Jamiyat, named after Aaliya’s late Dada Huzur, and various kebabs and korma.
Today, the 13-room Garden Palace she resides in with her mother, her brother Nawab Saheb Sultan Salauddin Khan Babi of Balasinor and his wife Begum Zeba — a former state guest house and a Diwan bungalow built in 1883 during the State era — is a trove of antiques, with Louis XIV furniture, European crockery, French lamps, and gilded pelmets. There’s a new wallpaper in the large living room, but the paintings that adorn it — of her great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, are all antique original paintings. A particularly poignant portrait is that of her father the late Nawab Saheb, painted when he was an infant of 11 months, the year he ascended the throne of Balasinor.
Aaliya, affectionately known as the Princess Dinosaur or Dr. Dinosaur by the locals, can truly be proud of her efforts to put Balasinor on the world map. With no formal degree in paleontology, she’s worked tirelessly to bring recognition to the site and philanthropy to the region. Just as in Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams, the prophecy has been fulfilled — they have come.