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How astrotourism is growing in India

The pandemic, Isro’s ‘Chandrayaan’, Elon Musk, and a slew of amateur astronomy clubs have all served as catalysts in India’s skyrocketing interest in astrotourism

The Indian Astronomical Observatory in Hanle, Ladakh.(Anita Rao Kashi)

By Anita Rao Kashi

LAST PUBLISHED 09.12.2023  |  07:27 AM IST

It is bitterly cold. Even in mid-May. Out on an open terrace, close to midnight, the temperature hovers around low single digits. The cold seeps through layers of clothing and gets under the skin. The air is thin, making breathing a bit laboured. But none of the discomfort registers. Instead, the drama up above is transfixing. The night sky is inky black and thickly carpeted with stars—some faint, some bright, some feel close enough to touch. It is spectacularly surreal. Even the few constellations that I can usually recognise (Little Bear, Great Bear, Orion) are lost in the stunning celestial show. In the far distance, a dense collection that appears like a puffy cloud is the Milky Way. Clearly, there’s a reason why Hanle, a remote village in Ladakh, is the fulcrum of India’s first and only dark sky reserve, and the aspirational destination for India’s growing astrotourism community.

Spread over 1,073 sq. km, the reserve is named after Hanle village which sits in a valley carved by the eponymous river in the middle of the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the rare kiang (Tibetan wild ass), 4,500m above sea level. It is about 7-8 hours from Leh and the nearest airport. The air is rare and the journey is through stunningly beautiful landscape but torturous roads. So it takes effort and determination to reach. And yet, a hitherto trickle of visitors is steadily swelling. While a few come for the wildlife, the overwhelming majority arrive to look at the skies. Especially after December 2022, when it was designated a dark sky reserve, a massive shot in the arm for the country’s fledgling astrotourism. While September to March is the best time to visit, Hanle has clear skies for much of the year.

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On the terrace around me are a handful of others, from Mumbai, Ahmedabad and other far-flung places. Strangers united in silent camaraderie and shared fascination of the heavens. A lone telescope between us has died. Undeterred, we reconcile to looking at pictures on the tiny screen of a DSLR camera on a tripod that is set to long exposure. The rest of the time is spent just gazing wide-eyed at the sky, trying to figure stars, planets and constellations from an app. There are deep sighs of wonder, whispered pointing. There’s no reason to whisper, but it feels deeply insulting to sully the sheer magnificence with sound. The only time the silence is broken, with gentle oohing and aahing, is when a shooting star gracefully streaks across the sky.

The pinnacle of the night skies

For sky gazers, Hanle is akin to pilgrimage, the holy grail of night skies. Not just stars, planets and the Milky Way, but in winter, it is possible to see the Andromeda Galaxy (2.5 million light years away). By day, the village’s stark landscape—flat bare lands in shades of brown and occasional green, set against a backdrop of towering peaks, some topped by snow—is breathtaking. By night, the stunningly clear skies take one’s breath away too. This is due to two attributes. It has no dust or light pollution (1 on the Bortle scale, a nine-level numeric scale which measures the night sky’s brightness) and is situated in a dry, rain-shadow area, offering 170 cloud-free and moisture-free nights and 270 usable nights (night sky observation possible for four hours or more). The latter is almost impossible to find anywhere else in the country. All of these conditions made it the perfect place for something unique two decades ago.

Just beyond the village, rising quite dramatically is a set of rocky, pebbly hills which is the site of Hanle’s pre-eminence. On the highest peak sits a sci-fi-like metallic structure—an astronomy station with optical, infrared and gamma-ray telescopes. Established in 2000, Hanle is the location of the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) run by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), a high-altitude astronomy station, 10th-highest in the world. Subsequently, the village began to be frequented mostly by scientists, researchers and hardcore astronomers.

Single night sky shot in Benital astro-camp, Uttarakhand. (Shikhar Gupta)

For the longest time, the night sky with its infinite stars, has mesmerised and mystified. Almost every ancient civilisation, and not so ancient ones, embodies myths and stories around stars and constellations. More relatably, stars have been used to tell time and guide ships to land, are believed to influence human behaviour, and their paths and positions are deemed to dictate the auspiciousness or not of a moment, a relationship, an enterprise or an occasion. They are also imbued with magic and good fortune: a falling star, it is believed, can make wishes come true.

Indian astronomy goes back centuries, but it is Aryabhata (fifth century) who is held as the pinnacle of astronomy knowledge, followed by such names as Varahamira and Bhaskara. However, it is only in the last hundred years or so that the field gained recognition through the efforts of such icons as C.V. Raman, Homi Jehangir Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. Setting up organisations, departments, societies and amateur clubs signposted this period. Throughout, apart from dedicated subject experts, it was only a small band of outsiders or amateur astronomers who were interested in the skies. But one global event was to change it significantly.

In early 2020, the world began convulsing as covid-19 unleashed mayhem. The resultant lockdowns made people yearn for the outdoors and wide open spaces. As lockdowns were eased, stargazing served as the perfect antidote. What’s more, it also provided the perfect avenue for binoculars and DSLR cameras that had languished for months, which doubled as telescopes. The sudden uptick in skywatching and stargazing grew into something of a trend. Agreed it’s still a bit niche, but the momentum is undeniable. Not everyone desires or makes it to Hanle. Instead, more than two dozen well-known dark sky areas (up to Bortle scale 4) and scores of locations which have minimal light pollution have become popular within the astrotourism community.

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“Astrotourism is a relatively new phenomenon for India but it has a slightly longer history in other parts of the world. The whole idea is the awestruck feeling that you get by watching the star-studded sky from a pitch dark location is something worth travelling for," explains Mumbai-based avid stargazer Aniket Sule.

“There is a growing awareness that dark skies are a part of our natural resource and heritage and is something to preserve," says Niruj Mohan Ramanujam, head of IIA’s science communication, public outreach and education section.

While the pandemic might have served as an unexpected trigger, a set of ensuing events appear to have fed the interest. “After covid hit, everybody was looking at stars and people realised this is something that can be done," says Ramashish Ray, founder of Starscapes, a company that runs a chain of observatories that provide astronomy experiences across the country. “Armchair skywatching also increased a lot of interest in astrotourism. Isro (Indian Space Research Organisation) events like Chandrayaan, (US space agency) Nasa events, and (SpaceX founder) Elon Musk sending spacecraft fired up the imagination of people. Suddenly space is cool," he says. Also, galactic events like eclipses and meteor showers increase interest and add to the popularity of astrotourism, he says.

Ray’s experiment with a small observatory in Kausani, Uttarakhand, was successful enough for him to expand it and set up observatories in Madikeri in Karnataka, and Mukteshwar and Bhimtal along with Kausani (all three in Uttarakhand), complete with high-end telescopes, museum with virtual reality shows, merchandise store, workshops and equipment for astrophotography. In 10 other locations across the country, Starscapes has stargazing facilities that it has set up with hospitality partners such as Club Mahindra, St Regis and ITC in their properties (not above 4 on the Bortle scale) at locations conducive to skywatching.

Aditya Sharma, community director of Vaatalya, a mountain top community retreat in Himachal Pradesh, set up in 2007 with a 360-degree unobstructed panoramic view of the night sky, estimates that there has been a 30% growth in astrotourism post covid. He ascribes the rising popularity of astrotourism to several factors. “There has been a noticeable increase in awareness and appreciation for the beauty of the night sky. Technological advancements have played a crucial role, making advanced equipment for celestial observation more accessible to enthusiasts," he says.

Sharma adds that astrotourism has experienced a surge in popularity, driven not only by special celestial events like eclipses and meteor showers but also by sustained interest in the wonders of the night sky. “The annual Geminid showers (12-15 December; see box), renowned for their spectacular display, have notably captured significant interest. The rise of eco-friendly tourism, with a preference for sustainable and experiential travel, has contributed to the appeal of astrotourism. A noteworthy point to consider is the significant investments made by the government in organisations like Isro, particularly evident in initiatives like Chandrayaan. This not only signifies a heightened sense of awareness but also sparks increased interest in astronomy among the public," he says.

Slipping into childhood

For many it is about childhood and nostalgia too. Sule, an associate professor at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Mumbai, as well as the chair of the Public Outreach and Education Committee of the Astronomical Society of India, says his fascination with the night skies goes back to his childhood. “I started as an amateur astronomer when I was in grade 5, in 1990. We could just hop on a local train and go to Wangani village, which had pristine skies. We used to go there at least once a month, but the sky condition in all such small towns around Mumbai has changed drastically in the last three decades. Now visiting any site with the sky even half as decent requires a lot more planning (booking the site, booking transport, planning food, etc.) and much more travel. So, at present, my own sky-gazing frequency has gone down drastically."

Ray says his own childhood experiences were contributory to the setting up of Starscapes. “It comes from a deep personal experience. As children we used to sleep on the roof top of our house. One of my best memories is seeing the sky full of stars and my father telling stories to my brother and me about the different shapes. We’d try to identify the constellations like ‘bhaloo’ (Great/Little Bear)… Such experiences don’t exist anymore and they have just disappeared from our cities. It is something I could give my child when we were abroad, but it is a big part of the motivation that is driving me," he says.

The IIA says it is attempting to rekindle and sustain such emotions. “We are interested in getting everybody to just look up and enjoy our night sky and engage in conversations about what we see there, what they are, and how did we arrive at the knowledge we now have," says Ramanujam. “Our goal is to promote preservation of dark skies in Hanle and also around India and link it to astrotourism. Astrotourism is an important example of a science-driven socioeconomic development programme which caters to remote areas which have dark skies, and is hence important."

Amateur astronomers to the fore

Fuelling the country’s massive interest in stargazing and the night skies are a slew amateur astronomy clubs which work as a crucial networking tool. Pune-based Jyotirvidya Parisanstha is considered to be the country’s oldest, dating back to 1944. Since then all metros and several other cities have birthed their own. The Association of Bangalore Amateur Astronomers (ABAA), set up in the mid-1970s, has over 500 members, and meets every Sunday evening in the serene surroundings of the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium. “About 20-30 people turn up regularly. But closer to cosmic events, like eclipses, attendance increases dramatically," says association president Ravindra Aradhya. The volunteer-driven association is among the more active organisations and conducts a variety of education, awareness and outreach programmes, holds talks and discussions, spearheads stargazing trips and all kinds of events.

Aradhya says the sense of community and sharing is one of the highlights of the association. “Not just members but anyone can attend our meetings. There is no age limit; all we ask is an abiding interest. There are experienced members with over four decades of astronomy experience who are happy to guide newcomers, share our knowledge about what (stars, planets, galaxies or nebulas) and where to see, what kind of equipment to buy (telescopes and cameras) and we even train them. We also help them build their own telescope, polish and grind them," he says. He agrees that interest has been steadily rising of late.

A Perseids meteor shower, similar to the Geminids shower. (Shikhar Gupta)

“Based on past surveys and networking efforts we estimate that there are more than 200 independent groups of amateur astronomers in the country. Some of these are larger than others, so you hear more about them. But it is difficult to make a distinction between serious stargazers and hobby stargazers," says Sule. A few years ago, a rough estimate indicated there are over 5,000 serious amateur astronomers and perhaps 50 times that number of astronomy enthusiasts. Another speculates that it could be about 5 million in India alone. But these are wild guesstimates at best.

Shooting of the celestial kind

Gazing at the night skies frequently triggers an adjacent passion—astrophotography. It helps that several phone models now come equipped with enough bells and whistles that make it easy to photograph night skies, though high-end DSLR cameras are eminently desirable. But often, astrophotography is an unexpected dividend from daytime activity. As it is for award-winning wildlife photographer Srikanth Mannepuri. When he is not stalking and photographing the elusive fishing cat in mangroves of East Godavari district or snakes in Papikonda National Park, Andhra Pradesh, or Olive Ridley sea turtles that come to nest along Andhra Pradesh’s coast, he pitches up on a dark beach and revels in photographing the night sky.

“Around 2014-15, when I was photographing turtles and fireflies along Andhra coastline, I looked for zero light pollution areas. I realised these areas also had absolutely clear skies with fantastic views of the Milky Way. That’s when I started photographing night skies and it was phenomenal," he says.

Once he began sharing occasional night sky photos on his Instagram page, he was flooded with requests. “People were astonished that the pictures were from the Andhra coast and wanted to see it for themselves. After the second wave of the pandemic, I started taking small groups of people to do astrophotography," he says. Over the last three years he has done over 30 camps in places like Antarvedi, Uppada, Tuni in Andhra Pradesh with zero light pollution, for people from all over the country.

Seeking deeper meaning

Beyond the visceral aspect, skywatching and stargazing are credited with cerebral and spiritual qualities.

“The immersive experiences offered by stargazing, providing captivating and unique encounters, have further fuelled its popularity," says Sharma. “There is a broader societal shift towards seeking deeper and more meaningful travel experiences, with astrotourism catering to a diverse audience and capturing imaginations," he says. “Observing the night sky becomes a gateway to understanding our place in the universe, fostering mental well-being and a holistic appreciation of nature. This holistic approach aligns with the broader benefits of skywatching, promoting mindfulness, community connection, and scientific curiosity."

Ray says looking at the skies is important because it is not just educative but sustains wonder and curiosity. “It’s only when you look up that you understand a bit of man’s evolution. Man’s first stories are about hunting and about these shapes in the sky. It evokes a sense of curiosity, that there is something beyond. It raises questions about what is space and what am I in relation to the universe. It’s not the philosophical part of it but actually the scientific part of it. There is curiosity when you see something that is millions of light years away and understand the time that light has taken to travel. It is a bit like time travel into the past."

Hanle certainly delivers on all this in spades. Much before I arrived in the village, IAO’s engineer-in-charge, Dorje Angchuk, who’s also an astro-photographer, told me that when people see the night sky in Hanle, they say it is a life-altering, mind-blowing experience. “They say they feel like they are in heaven," he said. As I swivelled my head and tried to take in the sheer vastness and absolute splendour, that seemed about right.

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Coming soon: Geminid meteor showers

What: A celestial fireworks display. This one is the consequence of earth passing through the remains of an asteroid. It results in a string of shooting stars that present a captivating spectacle. Under a dark moon-less sky, an estimated 120 meteors are expected to be visible. They appear to originate from the Gemini constellation and hence the name.

When: 12-15 December, with peak activity predicted for 14 December; best viewed between 2-3am.

Where: Visible from anywhere in the country with relatively dark skies; in the direction of the Gemini constellation (north-east of Orion).

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Where to see stars

Some of the best places in India for stargazing:

Hanle, Nubra Valley, Turtuk, PangongTso in Ladakh; Sonmarg in Jammu and Kashmir; Katao, Yumthang valley in Sikkim; Shnongpdeng in Meghalaya; Bomdila and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh; Spiti in Himachal Pradesh; Jaisalmer, Churu in Rajasthan; Rann of Kutch in Gujarat; Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh; Taregna in Bihar; Koraput in Odisha; Lonar, Dehne, Mahuli in Maharashtra; Coorg, Sakleshpur, Chickamagalur in Karnataka; Yelagiri, Kodanad, Jawadhu hills (Vainu Bappu Observatory) in Tamil Nadu; Srisailam, Antervedi in Andhra Pradesh; Havelock, Mayabundar, Neil Island in Andaman and Nicobar

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Stargazing essentials

Basic telescope, a red flashlight for night vision or a headlamp, and bug spray/insect repellent.

Get in touch with local astronomy clubs and join a star party.

Download a night-sky app and a weather app—cloudy skies can play spoilsport.

Use stargazing apps like Google Sky, Nasa app, Star Tracker, Skysafari or Skyview to identify celestial objects until you get familiar with them.

Best viewing is around new moon night plus immediately before/after; moonlight can affect viewing.

Look for a place with this golden trifecta—minimal light pollution, high altitude and open space.

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Armchair astronomy

In the absence of access to dark skies, visit the nearest planetarium since they often have all kinds of resources, and one can meet fellow skywatchers. There are 48 planetariums across the country, with the best ones in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Chennai, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Pune. They have exhibitions and shows related to various astronomical aspects, eclipses and meteor showers.

Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.

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