Wadia, Darashaw Nosherwan

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(b. Surat, Bombay State, India, 23 October 1883;

d. New Delhi, India, 15 June 1969), geology (stratigraphy, tectonics, paleontology, economic geology).

Wadia is regarded as India’s most important geologist. He made major contributions to the understanding of Himalayan tectonics and to the administration of science and technology in India. His range extended from immensely strenuous field mapping, to stratigraphy, paleontology and soil science, and to problems in economic and engineering geology. He was an important administrator for the identification and exploitation of India’s mineral resources, including petroleum and uranium. He was also involved in geophysics and oceanography and wrote on Pleistocene geology. His influence as a teacher and author was very considerable.

Early Life. The future geologist was born to Nosherwan and Cooverbai Wadia, the fourth child of a family of nine. Their Parsee family had commercial, engineering, and industrial interests in Bombay and Surat that went back to the shipbuilding days of the East India Company in the eighteenth century. His father was a stationmaster for the Bombay, Baroda, and Central Indian Railway.

Wadia was educated at schools in Surat and then at Baroda High School, whence he proceeded at sixteen to Baroda College, where he studied botany, zoology, and geology. He became a fellow of the college upon graduation and in 1907 was appointed a geology professor at the Prince of Wales College in Jammu. In his fourteen years there, he explored the geology of the Himalayan foothills, collecting materials for teaching and finding the elephant-like fossil Stegodon ganesa in the Siwalik beds near Jammu. Lacking a suitable textbook, he wrote Geology of India for Students(1919). It was later revised and expanded as Geology of India(1939), which became a standard text on Indian geology until the 1960s.

Career. In 1921 Wadia joined the Geological Survey of India and began his arduous systematic mapping of Kashmir and Punjab, especially around Nanga Parbat. This led to his basic publications on Himalayan geology in the late 1920s and early 1930s and lectures on the results of his mapping at the Survey headquarters in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and at Calcutta University. He was a founder of the Geological Society of India (founded 1958), later serving as president. Having reached the survey’s retirement age in 1938 without the promotions that might have been his due (it was still British India), Wadia was appointed government mineralogist in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). There he promoted a systematic geological survey of the island, with emphasis on its economic resources. In 1942 he was president of the Indian Science Congress’s meeting in Baroda and urged the establishment of the Indian Academy of Social Sciences; and he was again president in 1943. He was also active in founding the Ceylon Association of Science in 1944.

Returning to India in 1945, Wadia served as minerals advisor to the Indian government and on the Board of Scientific and Industrial Research. He urged that the country should, after independence, support science and technology rather than turn away from them in Gandhian fashion. He advised on the need for a proper assessment of India’s mineral resources and in 1947 was appointed first director of the Indian Bureau of Mines. In that post he drafted legislation to regulate the mineral and mining industries. From 1949 he worked for the Atomic Minerals Commission, overseeing searches for radioactive minerals; several uranium deposits were discovered and exploited as a result of these efforts. He also supported the more general expansion of Indian mining and metallurgy and became chief Indian representative at various international meetings such as the Commonwealth Mineral Conferences (1946 and 1948), the Empire Mining and Metallurgical Congress (1953), a United Nations Conference on Atomic Energy (1955), and several international geological congresses, including the ill-fated one of 1968 in Prague, where he performed the opening ceremony before the meeting that had to be terminated due to political/military disturbances. Besides his industrial interests, Wadia contributed to studies in soil science, the study of arid regions, glaciation, geophysical research, and oceanography. In addition, he worked to encourage scientific and technical education and founded the Indian Institute of Himalayan Geology (now the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology) in 1968.

In his later career Wadia became the international leader for India in a wide range of matters to do with Earth sciences. He held important positions in Indian learned societies and presided at the Twenty-second International Geological Congress in New Delhi in 1964. His awards, both national and international, were numerous and included the Geological Society’s Lyell Medal (1943) and a Fellowship of the Royal Society (1957). A commemorative postage stamp, bearing his portrait, was issued in 1984.

Survey of the Himalayas. When Wadia started work in the western Himalayas (chiefly in what is now Pakistan), pioneering surveying had already been done there for the Indian Survey by the English stratigrapher Charles Middlemiss. Wadia greatly extended this work, and published his initial results in 1928. On the basis of his examination of areas around the Kashmir Valley and the valleys of the upper reaches of the Indus River and its tributaries, he proposed a stratigraphic succession for the region, from Precambrian (Purana Group) to Pleistocene. It appeared that in northwestern Kashmir there was a major thrust fault (the Panjal Thrust) underlying the Pir Panjal Mountains between Srinagar and Jammu, with the Kashmir Nappe, containing rocks from Precambrian to Triassic, overlying. A second major thrust fault (the Murree Thrust, dipping more steeply than the almost-horizontal Panjal Thrust) was also revealed farther south, below which lay the Murree Series (Miocene), which mantled the underlying foreland rocks. Between the two faults was a belt of folded “autochthonous” rocks (Carboniferous to Eocene). Thus it appeared that the Himalayas had been thrust over the lower-lying rocks to the south, because older rocks lay over the younger ones as a result of thrust faulting.

Wadia then turned his attention to the region around the great mountain of Nanga Parbat and northward, in western Jammu Province, publishing his findings in 1931. He had not been able to ascend the mountain and had to prepare his own topographic maps but he was able to report that the Nanga Parbat massif consisted of gneisses intruded by granite. To the south were Precambrian meta-morphics of the Salkhala series and an intermediate zone where these two main units were intermingled in a zone of great tectonic complexity. Also there were intruded basic igneous rocks that had eroded out to form the upper Indus Valley. The form of the main ranges was remarkable: to the west of Nanga Parbat the mountains ranged northwest to southeast; to the north they ranged east to west; and to the west they trended north-northeast to south-southwest. It was as if Nanga Parbat were a kind of knot in the structure. That is, the Himalayas formed a knee bend (or syntaxis in the terminology of Eduard Suess) around the “peg,” as Wadia called it, of Nanga Parbat.

Previously, Suess had envisaged that this syntaxis was the result of the formation of two separate mountain systems (the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush), which converged north of Nanga Parbat. But Wadia showed that the aforementioned thrust planes, folds, and analogous stratigraphic successions all looped round the mountain’s massif, so that the structure must somehow have formed as a whole. He hypothesized that the rising and south-thrusting Himalayan chain had encountered an obstacle in the form of the Nanga Parbat, which was an outlying bloc of the Archean Shield rocks of Peninsula India. Later, in 1936, he proposed an analogous structure for the curve of the eastern Himalayas around the mountain of Namcha Barwa (Namuchabawashan), Tibet, near the great bend in the Brahmaputra River, and their extension into Yunnan and Burma (now Myanmar).

There could, however, be two explanations of such phenomena (or perhaps a combination of the two): the younger rocks of the Himalayas could have been thrust over the resistant foreland of Peninsula India; or (if one were a “continental drifter”) one could envisage Peninsula India breaking away from the supercontinent Gondwana-land and drifting northeastward, eventually colliding with the main mass of Asia and penetrating into and under it. The latter interpretation was preferred by “drifters” such as Frank B. Taylor and Alex L. du Toit, and was eventually adopted. Wadia’s fieldwork provided du Toit with the necessary supporting evidence. Thus, Wadia’s heroic efforts, in extremely difficult country, with his mapmaking based on modern lithological and paleontological criteria, provided crucial evidence in favor of the major breakthrough in geological theory of the twentieth century: the hypothesis of continental drift, leading on to plate tectonics.

Wadia has been described as wiry, healthy, and able to accomplish 20-mile traverses on foot over trackless and mountainous terrain, taking lunch as his first meal of the day. He was austere, quiet, and genial, did not have hobbies other than reading, and in the early twenty-first century would have been called a workaholic. He was one of the great contributors to independent India and is appropriately revered by his compatriots.


Wadia’s scientific bibliography is provided by Cyril J. Stubblefield, “Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia, 1883–1969,” in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 16 (1970): 543–562.


Geology of India for Students. London: Macmillan, 1919. Revised as Geology of India (London: Macmillan, 1939).

“Geology of the Poonch State (Kashmir) and Adjacent Portions of the Punjab.” Records of the Geological Survey of India 51 (1928): 185–370.

“The Syntaxis of the North-West Himalaya: Its Rocks, Tectonics, and Orogeny.” Records of the Geological Survey of India 65 (1931): 189–220.

“Notes on the Geology of Nanga Parbat (Mt. Diamir) and Adjoining Portions of Chilas, Gilgit District, Kashmir.” Records of the Geological Survey of India 66 (1932): 212–234.

“The Trend-Line of the Himalaya—Its North-West and SouthEast Limits.” Himalayan Journal 8 (1936): 63–69.


“D. N. Wadia: A Biographical Sketch.” Journal of the Palaeontological Society of India 2 (1957): 2–8.

Mahanti, Subodh. “Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia: Pioneer of Geological Investigations in India.” Available from http://www.vigyanprasar.gov.in/scientists/DNWadia.html

Stubblefield, Cyril J. “Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia, 1883–1969.” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 16 (1970): 543–562.

Thakur, Vikram C. “Research Contributions of D. N. Wadia.” Resonance: Journal of Science Education 8 (2003): 65–75.

West, William D. “D. N. Wadia—An Appreciation.” In Dr. D. N. Wadia Commemorative Volume, edited by A. G. Jhingran. Calcutta, India: Geological and Metallurgical Institute of India, 1965.

David Oldroyd