The Burma Circle of the Geological Survey of India and their Contributions to the Geology of Myanmar

November 07


William Dixon West was born on 27 January 1901, in Bournemouth, England. He spent his childhood at Jess Elton, British North Borneo, where his father A J West, constructed the first railway, and the town of Weston there was named after him. West was educated at the King’s School, Canterbury, where he became Captain of the School and Vice-Captain of the football team. Even at school, he was interested in geology and used to prepare thin sections of rocks given to him by Harker – the well-known metamorphic petrologist.

This early hobby later developed into his main pursuit when in 1920 he joined St John’s College, Cambridge University, where he was very much influenced by teachers like Harker, Woods, and Marr At Cambridge, he made a mark in geology with the award of the Winchester Prize in 1922. This was followed by a brilliant performance with First Class in Natural Tripos to be crowned with the Harkness Scholarship in 1923.

On his arrival in India in 1923, as Assistant Superintendent in the Geological Survey of India, West joined the camp of L L Fermor who introduced him to the well-known Sausar Series in Nagpur and Chindwara Districts in the Central Provinces and Berar. In fact, this early interest led him to discover in 1936, the ‘Deolapar Nappe’ in the Sausar, and also the structure of the ‘Shali Window’ near Simla in 1939. He also excelled in petrological and petrogenetic studies of the Deccan lava flows of western India. This area later became his main field of investigation.

West played a vital role in a wide range of geoscientific activities in India. He was a founder fellow of the National Institute of Sciences in India, in 1935, and became its Vice-President in 1945. He had a close association with the Indian Science Congress and was its General Secretary from 1932 to 1938, and later in 1972 became its General President. In recognition of his services, the British Government in 1974, honoured him with CIE (Companion of the Indian Empire). In 1947, West became President of the Mining, Geological, and Metallurgical Institute of India. In 1950, he became President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which awarded him the P N Bose Memorial Medal in 1959.

W D West took up his duties as permanent Director on 29 December 1945. The Government of India had by then already announced its intention to expand the Geological of India permanently. His Five-Year Plan for Expansion and Reorganization was submitted to the Government in July 1946. He supported Dunn’s previous scheme for the formation of separate sections for Mineral Development and Engineering Geology and Ground Water. He clearly emphasized that mapping should continue to be the basis of all sound geological work and that reconnaissance for economic minerals without such a scientific background would lead to disappointment.

With the assistance of P K Ghosh, he reinstated the pre-war setup of the Records which had consisted of four parts including the General Report and the Annual Review of Mineral Production. The Quinquennial Review of Mineral Production, last published for the years 1929-33, was to be restored, and in the meanwhile, the data for the period 1934-1946 have been collected and are already in the press. He also introduced a new series of Bulletins: Series A-Economic Minerals, and Series B-Engineering Geology and Ground-Water, the first few numbers of which have either already been published or are in the press. In addition, the semi-popular journal “Indian Minerals”, contemplated by Dunn, was introduced. The first volume of the third edition of the Manual of the Geology of India, by E H Pascoe, in the preparation of which West, assisted by Ghosh, had taken considerable pains, was published at last in 1950.

West reorganized the scientific work of the Department on the basis of five mapping Circles, one Mineral Development Division, and one Engineering Geology and Ground Water Division. The coordination of work at headquarters was carried out through two Deputy Directors, one for administration (P K Ghosh) and the other for technical duties (V P Sondhi), the latter being in charge of the Mineral Development Division. A new section on Palaeobotany under K Jacob was initiated. The main difficulty that West had to face was the shortage of senior officers. Of the team of officers with whom Fox had begun his period of Directorship, thirteen seniors had gone and West had only 17 left. Serious efforts were therefore made to train the junior officers by means of the Training Camp already brought into being by Clegg in 1944; by improvement of the geological education in the Indian Universities, for which a committee was set up consisting of D N Wadia, P Parija and West.

During his tenure (1945-1951), he planned, organised, and expanded the Geological Survey with a vision and foresight which is reflected in the way he prepared the first and second five-year plans for the scientific growth and development of this organisation in the new areas. In 1951, West admirably organised the Centenary celebrations of the Geological Survey of India, and for this achievement, he was awarded the Lyell Medal by the Geological Survey of India from where he retired in 1951. He was elected as a foundation fellow of the Geological Society of India in 1958 (Nayak, 1994).

While he was in England, Dr R P Tripathi, the then Vice-Chancellor of, the University of Saugar, invited him to join the University as Professor and Head of the Department of Geology. He accepted this invitation and joined the University in January 1955. As a visionary, West laid the foundation of a course in Applied Geology which was in keeping with the future needs of teaching, research, and field training of Indian geologists to face the challenges of the country. Recognizing the excellent performance and all-around progress made by the Applied Geology Department, the UGC raised the status of the Department to one of a Centre of Advanced Study in Geology in 1963. In the same year, Prof West was elected Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Technology of the University and in January 1971, he was elevated as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Saugar, which position he occupied with distinction.

Prof West was a first-rate field geologist and believed in the development of individual personality. He supervised and guided the Doctoral Dissertations of 18 students who occupy high positions in the country. Prof West was held in high esteem and in 1971, a commemorative volume prepared by his colleagues, students, and admires from all over the world, was presented to him in recognition of his long-dedicated service to research and teaching of earth science in India.

Although he supervised some publications of the Records of Geological Survey of India no direct field activities in Burma by the West were found. I would like to take the opportunity to mention “The Bird’s-Nest or Elephant Islands, Mergui Archipelago” by Commander Alfred Carpenter, “Investigator” in 1888 as follows: –


The Bird’s-Nest or Elephant Islands, the Mergui Archipelago

This remarkable group called the Burmans Ye-ei-gnet-thaik (literally sea birds’ nests) is located on the south-east side of Domel Island one of the largest of that chain forming the Mergui Archipelago at the southern extreme of British Burma. It is a small group of six marble rocks, the highest and largest of which, 1,000 feet in altitude, and about one mile in length, is oval-shaped and rises very abruptly out of a depth of only five fathoms.

They present a very appearance, particularly if the weather is hazy when they are not seen until within five or six miles; for then they gradually loom out through the mist like some huge misshapen monsters that have stayed away from civilization.

Their sides are partly clothed with vegetation wherever a break in the limestone has left a cleft in which moisture and dust can lodge. Conspicuous because of its leaning attitude is a species of tree fern that appears content to grow in any jungle, but only above a height of 200 feet from the water.

The face of the rocks is reddish, partly from soil; and where cliffs exist the most beautiful though uncouth stalactitical formation is at work, showing grotesque and snake-like patterns varying in hue and shape, till one feels as on some ogre-enchanted land. But the great feature of the group is the bird’s nest caverns which, as a rule, open into the sea, the entrance being below the high water mark; fortunately, I visited them at spring tides and had plenty of leisure to examine each cavern in two days’ low waters.

At the south end of the largest island stands a ninepin of grey marble, 370 feet high, almost separated from the rest. It is hallow-like a huge extinguisher, and the polished light blue and light yellow sides of the interior seem to point to its having been hollowed by the swell of the sea, which on entering the cave would probably expend its force vertically, the mouth of the cave being open to the direction of the strongest seas.

This ninepin forms the western point of a nearly circular cove 360 yards in diameter which runs back into the big island, and the sides of the cove rise steeply though not perpendicularly from it. At the head of the cove is a perpendicular wall of rock over which can just be seen the 1,000-foot summit in the distance.

At half tide, a tunnel opens under the wall of rock at the head of the cove, and a canoe can go through; but it requires to be within an hour of low water springs for a ship’s gig to go through. This tunnel has a roof covered with large stalactitical knobs, except at its narrowest part where it is apparently scoured smooth by the action of the tidal rush. It is about 250 feet long and four feet deep at low water, the rise and fall are 16 feet long and are covered with dripping marine life, corallines, small corals, sponges, and sea horses. Passing through this submarine drain one emerges into another circular basin with perpendicular sides, which gives the impression of volcanic action, so like it is to a crater. This basin is only open to the sky; caves here and there open into it, some of which may perhaps lead by long tunnels to other basins. Water was running freely into it from the foot of the cliffs in several places as the tide fell, showing that water spaces existed, and strange gurgling sounds, as of air taking the place of water, could be heard now and again. The first thought that strikes a European is “What a famous place for smugglers.” There were hardly any signs of the place being utilized, except here and there the worn ropes of bird’s nest climbers. It was either not the season for the swallows or they had deserted the islands, for none were seen. There was a little reddish guano in some of the caves. There was evidently but little traffic through the tunnel by which we entered, for the delicate growth on its sides was hardly injured.

On the west side of the northern large island, a lofty cavern opens at half-tide into another nearly circular basin of about the same size as that we have just described, but in this case, the basin also opens into the sea on the east side of the Island. After contemplating the cliffs that surround these basins, the general circular contour of the high ridges of these islands, and the undermining action of the sea at the water line, causing in some places an overhanging of 20 to 25 feet, and the softening of the marble surface of the cavern roofs by moisture; the impression gradually forces itself on one that these circular basins were themselves at one time the floors of huge caverns, and that in days gone by the islands were far higher, with cavern piled on cavern, and that the work of disintegration by moisture is slowly going on, pulling down these marble monuments of a giant age. Indeed, here and there a fall of blocks has occurred lately, and from there being no shoal off the slip the dissolving action, if such really occurs, must be rapid.

A small oyster covers the rocks at the water line. A handsome kingfisher was secured and sent to the British Museum. A few doves and an eagle or two were the only other birds seen, besides a small bat in the caves. By the position of the nest seekers’ ropes, the swallows appear to build only on the roofs of the caves. The Island appeared to be entirely composed of blue-tinted marble. A vessel could be alongside them and lower the cut blocks straight into her hold, but it is probably of too poor a quality to be worth shipment.



1. Nayak, V K 1994: William Dixon West, Journal of Geological Society of India, Vol. 44. Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad.

2. Carpenter, A 1888: The Bird’s-Nest or Elephant Islands, Mergui Archipelago, the Record of Geological Survey of India, Part 1, Vol. XXI.