In April 2022 the Phyang monastery in Ladakh will welcome stargazers. Monks here suggested promoting the site as an astro hub after visiting Astrostays, a homestay on the banks of Pangong Tso.
The homestay is an initiative of the Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), which is facilitating solar energy projects in remote Himalayan villages. “The monastery felt that a stargazing experience from the Buddhist cosmology point of view would generate interest. We are working towards setting up an observatory at the monastery by March,” says Sonal Asgotraa, founder of Astrostays.
Astrostays was established in 2019 in Maan village in Ladakh and in a few months, nearly 350 visitors looked through their GoTo Dobsonian telescope to track stars, planets and constellations. Guides are locals who have been trained in astronomy and taught to use the telescope. The revenue generated from the astro tourism facility was pumped back into the community to build solar water heaters.
Also Read | All you need to know about astro tourism in India
With international travel getting tougher during the pandemic, more domestic travellers are discovering the joys of astronomy clubs, local campsites and accessible destinations with spectacular night views. Astro tourism enthusiasts plan ahead and travel to experience solar eclipses, meteor showers and other celestial events.
In 2020 and 2021, Chennai-based astronomer and astro-photographer Neeraj Ladia, CEO of Space Arcade, led sessions for astro-photographers and families that wanted to stargaze. They travelled to Yelagiri in groups of 20 to 30.
“The hilly areas away from the city have darker skies that are conducive for stargazing. Between the first and the second waves of COVID-19, we observed people showing interest in these short trips. The open space and small gatherings made it safer,” he points out. He also recommends Kodaikanal and Jawadhu hills for astronomy getaways. “There are a few secluded, darker spots while driving from Chennai to Pondicherry via ECR; these are also good for astro-photography.”
Join the astro party
In India, there are efforts to tap into the growing potential of astro tourism. Plans are afoot to turn Benital village, located around 2,600 metres above sea level in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, into an astro village. The Chamoli district administration and Gurgaon-based startup Starscapes conducted a two-day ‘astro party’ in Benital in December 2021, with about 50 visitors.
Also Read | Sachin Bahmba on astroports and astro-tourism
An astro park is in the works in Mandu, Madhya Pradesh, and in Jaipur, the State Department of Art and Culture introduced a Night Sky Tourism project after the first wave of COVID-19, to encourage visitors to look up through the telescopes set up at Jawahar Kala Kendra and Jantar Mantar. The Ladakh administration, in association with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, plans to promote astro tourism in Hanle village.
Meanwhile, Starscapes is expanding its footprint by setting up observatories in Jaipur, Coorg and Udhagamandalam, among other locations. Their journey began from an observatory in Kausani, the hill station in Uttarakhand located 1,890 metres above sea level, which is a hotspot for astro-photographers
Dark, clear skies
Technically speaking, all you need are cloud-free, dark skies without light pollution emerging from the cities.
Astro-photographers lead expeditions for photography enthusiasts, while the locals trained in astronomy do the honours in other cases. Sonal recalls being guided on a late evening trek by locals in Ladakh who knew their way merely by gazing up at the sky: The guides have the knowledge of traditional astronomy. With some training, we realised we could tap into the potential and help them earn additional income.”
Starscapes and Astrostays hope to tie up with hotel chains and eco tourism operators. In the event of overcast skies, there is always the backup plan of showcasing recorded videos or teaching astro-photography. Paul Savio, co-founder and CEO of Starscapes, says the potential of astro tourism in India holds promise: “The rise in disposable income has made people look for new avenues of experiential tourism.”
So far, Starscapes has had more than 40,000 look-ups (people who have purchased tickets and looked through their telescopes).
“This is still a small number for a large population like ours. But there are signs of growth,” says Savio. At stargazing events, stories from science and mythology merge to form narratives like the ones screened at planetariums. Only, the live narrative changes according to the patterns on the sky.
Starscapes is looking to tap into unexplored stargazing locations. “For instance, tourists in Goa can try stargazing in South Goa, where it is possible to view darker skies,” says Savio.
The start-up whets the appetite of new stargazers by organising watch parties in different cities with portable telescopes. Savio adds that stargazing can be driven with the enthusiasm of children and hence tie-ups with schools and universities will also help. In Chamoli and Jaipur, for instance, they hold fun practical sessions where students stargaze and also make pin-hole cameras.
Soak in a meteor shower
In Gujarat, Narendra Gor has been working with the Kutch Amateur Astronomers Club since 1991, and later as part of Stargazing India team. He recalls the enthusiasm when stargazing was included in the itinerary of Rann Utsav in 2008. “Since then, several families that have come for Rann Utsav have enjoyed the astro tourism experience. I’ve met people who travelled all the way from Mumbai and Bengaluru to track meteor showers.” Stargazing India is active also in Maharashtra, Odisha (during the Konark beach festival in winter) and Chhattisgarh.
- Popular destinations: Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Rann of Kutch in Gujarat.
- Best time: Winter months offer clearer skies
- Start small: Contact local astronomy or astrophotography clubs
Ajay Talwar has been a stargazer since the mid 1980s and took to astrophotography in the 1990s. He talks about leading budding photographers on expeditions and singles out experiences in the Himalayas, with its dust-free dark skies. He also suggests visiting the northern states during winters. “In the South, often clear skies are restricted to December and January. In Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, there are many remote locations with no citylight pollution. Indore and Ujjain are also conducive for stargazing since they are on a plateau.”
When the second wave of COVID-19 was on the decline, Gurgaon-based HR professional Sudha Reddy Patnaik and her friend Nupur Chakraborty, a marketing professional, headed to Kausani, not knowing what to expect. The hill station offered a few sightseeing experiences during the day. After dark, they visited the Starscapes observatory only to be disappointed due to the cloud cover. On day two, however, they eagerly peered through the telescopes and were awed by Jupiter and Saturn with its clearly visible rings, as well as the Andromeda galaxy. “The planets and stars moved as we gazed into the telescope,” says Nupur.
The experience whetted her appetite for astro tourism. She rues having visited Ladakh in the past but not being familiar with stargazing possibilities.
Her friend Sudha seconds that and says the next time around, she will take her friends and family along: “At Kausani, we were guided by an astronomy expert from the local community who was very enthusiastic. I never knew stargazing could be so much fun.”