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Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia
Pioneer of Geological Investigations in India
Dr Subodh Mahanti


“A giant among geologists, Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia was a great visionary who not only shaped our understanding of the geological making of the Indian subcontinent but also set the national agenda of geological activities when India won freedom.”

K. S. Valdiya

“Fortunately for India, it found in Wadia an eminent geologist of its own, who would enthuse generations of Indian geologists. To say that he was energetic and hardworking is perhaps an understatement; one found clambering up and down the Nanga Parbat area of the Himalayas, at the height of twelve thousand feet, when he was fifty.”

Biman Nath

“It is granted to very few to live and to live fully to the last, and be revered and remembered after death. One such was Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia. His life was spent in unswerving worship of geology, the Stony Muse whose ardent votary he was. Through his hard and continuous labour over the years, he made important contributions to Indian geology and left a lasting impress on it. He remained unaffected in his simplicity and poise when honours, both at home and abroad, came his way.”

K. K. Dar

Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia was one of those great geologists of the Geological Survey of India, whose pioneering work laid the foundation of geological investigations in India. What is important to note is that most of his observations and interpretations in those early days of Indian geology still hold good. Wadia’s career was a single-minded pursuit of his scientific interests and indefatigable effort. He climbed peak after peak in the Himalayas to understand their geology and their structure. Wadia explained the abnormal sequence of rock formations of varied ages in the North-Western Himalayas. He also offered an explanation for the formation of the unique knee-bend of the mountain chains around the knot called Nanga Parbat. For the first time he gave a detailed geological account of the districts of Chilas, Astor-Deosai and Hazara. Wadia’s devotion to the study of the Himalayas was unlimited. Wadia was a great visionary. He was responsible for the establishment of the Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun and became its founder director (1968-69). The Institute was later renamed as the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Wadia’s memory. He was intimately associated with the establishment and functioning of the National Geophysical Research Institute at Hyderabad and the National Institute of Oceanography in Panaji, Goa. Wadia was the founder director of the Indian Bureau of Mines (1947) and the Atomic Minerals Division (1949-69). Wadia was an ardent advocate of a national policy for the search, utilization and conservation of mineral resources including gas, oil and water. He was an avid reader and wrote the first textbook on Indian geology that enthused generations of geologists. Wadia was extremely energetic and hardworking and lived a simple life.

Wadia was born on October 23, 1883 at Surat, a historical town in Gujarat in a Parsee family. He was the fourth of nine children of his parents, Nosherwan and Cooverbai Wadia. He was a descendant of the well-known clan of the Wadias, the erstwhile shipbuilders of Surat. When the Wadias built ships in Surat, it was an important west-coast port for maritime trade and commerce. With the development of its dockyard in 1735, the city of Mumbai (then Bombay) became the centre of maritime trade and commerce in the west coast. Most of the Wadias shifted to Mumbai. Only a few families preferred to stay back at Surat. In Mumbai, the Wadias rose quickly in the ladder of social hierarchy. The Wadias occupied important positions in industry, commerce, and education. Ardseer Cursetjee (1807-1877), a member of the Wadia clan, was the first Indian to be elected as the Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) of London in 1841. Cursetjee was a naval architect and marine engineer.

Wadia’s father, Nosherwan Wadia, was a Station Master at a small railway station. As there was not much scope of education where his father worked, Wadia was kept in Surat under the care of his randmother. Wadia first studied in a private Gujarati school and then in Sir J J English School to complete primary education. At the age of 11, Wadia joined the Baroda High School at Baroda, where his family shifted from Surat. At Baroda Wadia came under the influence of his elder brother, Munchershaw N. Wadia. From Munchershaw, who was a well-known educationist, Wadia imbibed thre important qualities of his life—a strong love for science, devotion to knowledge and a rational outlook.

After completing his school education, at the age of 16, Wadia joined the Baroda College, which was then affiliated to Bombay University. From Baroda College, Wadia completed two BSc degrees. His first BSc degree, which he obtained in 1903, was in Zoology and Botany. He obtained his second BSc degree in 1905, which was in Botany and Geology. Wadia’s interest in geology was aroused by his teacher at the Baroda College, Adarjee M. Masani, a keen naturalist and Professor of Natural history. In those days Baroda College did not have sufficient facilities for imparting education in geology therefore whatever Wadia learned was mostly through selfstudy. At Baroda College, Wadia was also influenced by Aurobindo Ghosh, who was then a Professor of English. Aurobindo later turned a mystic, philosopher and saint. In 1905 Wadia was appointed Fellow of the Baroda College. He completed his MSc degree in Biology and Geology in 1906. The geological specimen kept in the Museum of Arts and Science at Baroda greatly helped Wadia to pursue his geological studies. The Museum was set up under the patronage of the then ruler of Baroda State, Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwar.

In 1907 Wadia joined the Prince of Wales Colege in Jammu in the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir as Professor of Geology. The Prince of Wales College was later renamed as Mahatma Gandhi College and now it is affiliated to the Jammu University. He served at the Prince of Wales College for 14 years. Besides geology, Wadia also taught English, a testimony of his command over the language. During his services at the College, Wadia spent his vacations in the foot-hills of the Himalayas to get famililarised with their geology. He also collected minerals, rocks and fossils to aid his teaching at the college and also to solve problems that emerged from his field trips. Commenting on Wadia’s teaching and research work in geology during his stay at Jammu, KS Valdiya, an eminent geologist, has written: “ He used to take his students on adventure trekking and investigative field trips in the Siwalik Hills of the Jammu region. It was in one of these ventures that he discovered a 3 metre long fossil tusk of an elephantine mammal Stegedon ganesa, a finding of crucial importance. He pursued his personal research on stratigraphy, structure and palaeontology of the Kashmir Himalaya with single-minded devotion. Having a very keen eye for observation, he worked towards identification of broad structural elements of the NW Himalaya.” The fossil tusk is now kept at the Museum of the Geology Department of the Jammu University.

In 1921 Wadia left the Prince of Wales College, and joined the Geological Survey of India (GSI) in 1921 as Assistant Superintendent. He was 38. It has been reported that Wadia was the first Indian without any European degree to be appointed in the GSI. Wadia’s appointment provided him ample opportunities for carrying out investigations on the stratigraphy and tectonics of the northwestern Himalayas. Wadia embarked upon the arduous and challenging task of mapping and interpretation of the geology of North Western Himalayas. It was a very laborious work. Thus K. K. Dar wrote: “Nothing can speak so much of Wadia’s unremitting labour as the fact that when his first memoir was published in 1928 with his geological map, he was found to have covered not only the 2,000 square miles of the mountaineous Poonch State in the Middle and Lesser Himalayas, but an additional 2,100 square miles of the piedemount country in the adjacent parts of Punjab.” He made pioneering contributions. R. D West wrote: “wherever Wadia traveled in the Himalayas he was successful in throwing significant light on problems of stratigraphy and tectonics which had hitherto remained uninvestigated or unexplored.” Wadia authored about one hundred original research papers, monographs on various topics and the Records and Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India.

Wadia’s work led to the understanding of the geological history of the northwestern Kashmir. He gave a detailed geological account of the terra-incognito that Chilas, Astor-Deosai and Hazara districts were then. Against all difficulties Wadia succeeded in the mapping of the geological structure and the rock and mineral composition of the Nanga Parbat and adjoining portions of Chilas in Gilgit district. The basic geological information on the Nanga Parbat gathered by Wadia has become the basis for future research on tectonics of the region.

Wadia developed his explanation of the ‘knee-bend’ (or syntaxial turn) of the Himalayan mountain chains around the knot called Nanga Parbat. Wadia’s explanation differed from the earlier interpretations. The regional Himalayan trend in the Kashmiri PirPanjal is North-West to South-East. Further North-West the trend becomes North-South and then makes knee-bend to make the trend northeast-southeast in Hazara. This deeply inflexed knee-bend, which is called the Hazara or Jhelam Syntaxis, is a spectacularly unique orographic feature and which affects hundreds of kilometers of the Himalayan mountain system. Earlier Edward Suess, the eminent Swiss geologist, had suggested that the bend was a meeting or converging point of two distinct mountain systems, the Himalayas and Hindukush. Wadia gave a tectonic interpretation for the formation of the knee-bend. He suggested that the bend was produced by a loop-like bending around a central pivotal mass of the fold systems of Purana (older than 500 million years) and Carboniferous-Eocene (355 to 30 million years old) rock groups of the Middle and Inner Himalayas. Wadia’s explanations have been validated by more recent studies in structural analysis, metamorphism and geochronological dating.

Wadia made important contributions on the geological setting and economic minerals of limestones found as island-like mass forms of older rocks amidst younger sedimentary rocks in the Sub-Himalayan Tertiary belt of Jammu. He prepared detailed geological map of the Dandili-Devgar hills in the Kotli area of Jammu region. He demonstrated that tectonic deformation in this area is of very recent origin and the topography is of very young in nature. Wadia discovered the existence of vast reservoir of sulphide ores of copper, nickel, lead and zinc.

In 1928, Wadia discovered a very well-preserved skull of Actinodon from Gangamopteris beds of Lower Gondwana affinity. The discovery of this skull, which was found in association with fossil ganoid fish and pteridospermous plants, led to the fixing of the age of an important geological rock formation in the Kashmir Himalaya to the Permo-Carboniferous time (355 – 250 million years). As noted earlier, Wadia had discovered bones Stegodon ganesa

Wadia’s contribution to the soil science in India was very significant. It was Wadia who not only noted the neglect of soil science in India but also showed the way for its rectification by his own writings. In 1935 Wadia, jointly with M. S. Krishnan and P. N. Mukherjee, published the first soil map of India. This was published by the Geological Survey of India and paved the way for later soil maps. Thus Wadia’s work had considerable bearing on agricultural development in the country. He represented India at the 3rd International Congress of Soil Science held at Oxford in 1935 and also participated in an excursion arranged by the Congress to study the soil profiles in England, Wales and Scotland.

Wadia also participated in the 2nd International Congress of Carboniferous Stratigraphy at Heerlen in Holland.

One of his major contributions was his textbook on geology for Indian students. The book was titled Geology of India for Students and it was published by Macmillans in 1919. A book on Indian geology was very much needed as there was no adequate material on the subject. In 1887, the Geological Survey of India, had published the work of the early pioneers of Indian geology, H. B. Medlicott and W. T. Blanford. This was revised by R. D. Oldham in 1893 and issued as the Manual of the Geology of India. (It may be noted that R. D. Oldham was the first Director of Geological Survey of India. Oldham had assumed his post in 1851).

However, this manual had gone out of print and moreover it had become outdated, as more knowledge on the geology had gathered. Wadia realized the acute need of a textbook on Indian geology while he was teaching at the Prince of Wales College. Recalling his experience Wadia wrote: “a lecturer in geology of students preparing for the Punjab University examinations, I have constantly experienced great difficulty in the teaching of the geology of India, because of the absence of any modern adequate book on the subject.” For writing the book he was greatly encouraged by Sir T. H. Holland, FRS and C. C. Middlemiss. Wadia’s book, which proved to be a classic on the subject, reached its sixth edition in 1966. Commenting on the book, K. S. Valdya wrote: The erudite book he wrote—The Geology of India— published in 1919 by the Macmillans, London, distils his vast and intimate knowledge of the geology of the entire Indian subcontinent, embracing Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. This classical work, which had six editions, made him not only a celebrity but also a guru of countless generations of students of geology all over the world.” R. D. West, former Director, Geological Survey of India wrote: “Written, as are all his contributions, in matchless, and in places Churchillian style, it has had a profound influence on generations of students of geology, attracting them where others might have repelled, and stimulating them to take a keen interest in the subject of Indian geology.” His other important publications were: Syntaxis of North-Western Himalayas: Its Rocks, Tectonics and Orogeny (1931); Geology of Nanga Parbat and Gilgit District (1932); Cretaceous Volcanic Series in the Great Himalayan Range of Kashmir (1937); Structure of the Himalayas and of the North Indian Foreland (1938); Minerals and Metal Resources of India, United Nations Conference, New York (1949) and World Mining and Metallurgical Congress, London (1949).

While working in the Geological Survey of India, Wadia spent his study leave (in 1926-1927) at the British Museum, where he worked on the vertebrate fossils collected from Potwar and Kashmir. During this period he also visited geological institutions in Germany, Austria and Czechslovakia and attended a course in Apline geology at the University of Geneva. In 1935 he visited China, Japan and USA and in 1937 he attended the International Geological Congress held at Moscow where he presented his famous paper on the “Tectonic Relations of the Himalayas with the North Indian Foreland.”

After his retirement from the Geological Survey of India in 1938 he joined as the Government Mineralogist to the Government of Sri Lanka (then Ceylone). This gave him an opportunity to study the unique geology of an island in a stable continental region. His studies included accurate geological maps of the island and geological investigations concerning water supply, dam-sites and other engineering projects. It was Wadia who first produced the geological sketch map of Colombo. He showed four distinct units of geological formations viz. intrusive granites and charnockites; fundamental biotitegneiss of Vijayan series; laterite and laterite earth; and Pleistocene and recent alluvial gravel and coastal deposits.

In 1945 Wadia was appointed the Geological Advisor to the national government of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. He initiated and formulated a mineral policy for the country. In 1963 the Government of India made him the first National Professor in geology. The government of India honoured him with the award of Padma Bhusan (1958).

In 1957 Wadia was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. Among other awards he received were: the Back Award from the Royal Geographical Society (1934); the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society of London ((1943); the Joy Kishen Gold Medal of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Calcutta (1944); the Jagadis Chandra Bose Memorial Medal from the Royal Asiatic Society (1947); the Leopold von Buch Award of the German Geological Society (1960); Khaitan Gold Medal of the Asiatic Society (1964); the Sarvadhikari Gold Medal from Calcutta University (1964). Wadia was also the recipient of the Meghnad Saha Medal of the Indian National Science Academy and the P. N. Bose Memorial Medal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He was awarded honorary degrees by a number of Indian Universities. The Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon conferred upon him its Honorary Fellowship for his contributions to geology of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He was a Commonwealth member of the Geological Society of London; President of the National Institute of Sciences of India (later renamed as Indian National Science Academy) during 1946-47; President of the Geology Section of the Indian Science Congress (1921 and 1938); General President of the Indian Science Congress (1942 and 1943); President of the Calcutta Geographical Society (1938); Inaugural President of Indian Society of Soil Sciences (1949); President of the Geological Society of India (1951-52); President of the Mining, Geological and Metallurgical Institute of India (1951-52). President of Geographers’ Association of India (1955); President of the XXII International Geological Congress at Delhi (1964); President of the Engineering Geological Society of India (1965-66) and President of the Geochemical Society of India (1965-67). He was the Chairman of the Indian National committee for Oceanic Research. He was a correspondent of the Geological Society of America and an honorary member of the German Geological Society and the Belgian Geological Society. Wadia died on June 15, 1969 at the age of 86.

For Further Reading

  1. Valdiya, K. S. D. N. wadia. Resonance, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 2-3, 2003.
  2. Thakur, V. C. Research Contributions of D. N. Wadia. Resonance, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 65-75, 2003.
  3. Dar, K. K. Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Indian National Science Academy, Vo. 4, pp. 83- 100. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy, 1976.
  4. D. N. Wadia—A Biography (Booklet) published by Indian Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun.
  5. Dr. D. N. Wadia Commemorative Volume. Kolkata: Mining, Geological and Metallurgical Institute, 1965.
  6. West, R. D. “D. N. Wadia—An Appreciation” in Dr. D. N. Wadia Commemorative Volume. Kolkata: Mining, Geological and Metallurgical Institute, 1965.
  7. Wadia, D. N. The Making of India—A review of Some Aspects of the Geological Structure of India. Presidential Address to the 29th Indian Science Congress. Reprinted in The Shaping of Indian Science: Indian Science Congress Association, Vol.1 (1914-47). Hyderabad: Universities Press (India) Pvt.Ltd, 2003.
  8. Wadia, D. N. Minerals’ Share in the War. Presidential Address to the 30th Indian Science Congress. Reprinted in The Shaping of Indian Science: Indian Science Congress Association, Vol.1 (1914- 47). Hyderabad: Universities Press (India) Pvt.Ltd, 2003. D.N. Wadia with his friend’s (Source : www.unescoparzor.comigppl.html)

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