By Adrienne Mayor (Wonders and Marvels contributor)
“Dragons of enormous size and variety infest northern India,” concluded Apollonius of Tyana who traveled through the southern foothills of the Himalayas in the first century AD. “The countryside is full of them and no mountain ridge was without one.” Locals regaled visitors with fantastic tales of dragon hunting, using magic to lure them out of the earth in order to pry out the gems embedded in the dragons’ skulls.
Trophies of these quests were displayed in Paraka at the foot of a great mountain, “where a great many skulls of dragons were enshrined.” Ancient Paraka has never been identified, but linguistic clues suggest it was the ancient name for Peshawar. In later times a famous Buddhist holy place near Peshawar was known as “the shrine of the thousand heads.”
Apollonius traveled through the pass at Peshawar and southeast on a route that skirted the Siwalik Hills below the Himalayas. The barren foothills of the Siwalik range boast vast and rich fossil beds with rich remains of long-extinct bizarre creatures. On these eroding slopes and marshes from Kashmir to the banks of the Ganges, people in antiquity would have observed hosts of strange skeletons emerging from the earth: enormous crocodiles (20 feet long); tortoises the size of a Mini Cooper; shovel‑tusked gomphotheres, stegodons, and Elephas hysudricus with its bulging brow; chalicotheres and anthracotheres; the large giraffe Giraffokeryx; and the truly colossal Sivatherium (named after the Hindu god Siva), a moose‑like giraffe as big as an elephant and carrying massive antlers. It seems safe to guess that the “dragon” heads exhibited at Paraka included the skulls of some of these strange creatures from the Siwalik Hills.
Several details in the ancient descriptions catch the eye of a paleontologist. The dragons of the high ridges were said to be larger than dragons of the marshes, which had sharp twisted tusks. The marsh dragons fought elephants to the death; to find their entwined bodies was a great discovery. The dragons of the ridges were frightening: they had long necks and very prominent brows over deep, staring eye sockets. Huge crests grew on their heads, of moderate size on the young but reaching towering proportions on the adults. Men set out to hunt these creatures for the precious jewels—iridescent, “flashing out every hue”—inside their skulls.
People also claimed that the dragons made a great clashing noise and shook the earth when they burrowed in the ground, relating them to the severe earthquakes of the Siwaliks. The lowland dragons with distorted tusks jumbled with the remains of familiar elephants could have referred to fossil assemblages of early elephants with oddly formed jaws and tusks. Glowering brow ridges over deep‑sunk eyes would fit the appearance of the Giraffokeryx and Sivatherium giganteum. Both skulls have two pairs of prominent bony projections behind and over the eye sockets. The gigantic Sivatherium’s palmated antlers were extremely massive, while the longer‑necked Giraffokeryx’s four ossicones projected back laterally from its long, dragon-like skull.
What about the gems in the dragons’ skulls? The Indian lore about glittering gems prised out of “dragon” skulls appears to describe the sparkling crystals that can form on mineralized bones. Indeed, paleontologists confirm that impressive calcite and selenite crystals are very common in the fossilized bones of the Siwalik Hills.
About the author: Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myths in Greek and Roman Times” (2011), “Fossil Legends of the First Americans,” (2005), and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.