A late-night drive post dinner brings me to a place said to be ‘one of the darkest places in India’. Intrigued, I get off the vehicle and manage to navigate to what seems like a raised podium using the torch of my mobile. A fleeting thought wondering what I have signed up for vanishes in a jiffy as I put off the light and look up at the starlit sky. A canopy of twinkling stars and constellations, that I remember from my geography textbook, eons ago, brings back a rush of memories.
The only time I had seen such a beautiful sky was as a child growing up in Hyderabad in the eighties. And for someone who has always been fascinated with astronomy, my visit to the Rann Utsav at Tent City Dhordo, unexpectedly helped me relive those memories with a telescopic twist as I had an amazing stargazing session with Narendra and Nishant Gor from Stargazing India.
Aim for the sky
The growth of astro-tourism in India has seen a significant uptick, a part of which is due to the country’s successful space experiments. Ramashish Ray, founder, Starscapes, agrees. “In recent years, in India, there have been many launches like Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan that were followed on social media and gained traction. On the other side, people who follow global news, Elon Musk- Space X, trail of satellites, have made astronomy and space mainstream, and to be able to give that in a slice when someone is on a holiday, or someone who wants to associate with it but doesn’t know how to. That’s what astro tourism brings to people,” he says.
Interestingly, if you are wondering where the best sites are you can look up light pollution meters online. Look for a sky which is at least 4 or below in the Bortle scale rating. Bortle is a way to rate light pollution. “The places where it is slightly darker is ideal for stargazing. But if you want to talk about deeper interests and darker skies that are below Bortle 2, one should head out to Rann of Kutch, deeper mountains, national parks, Spiti, and Ladakh,” adds Ray.
Astro-tourism is fast growing around the world, and amateur astronomers and others in India have also realised the potential this has for socio-economic development, promotion of interest in astronomy and science in general. “Equally important is the need to preserve the dark sky locations in India for all of us to enjoy. Hanle Dark Sky Reserve (HDSR) that we are coordinating in Hanle with the UT Ladakh government, is a world class location for dark sky astro-tourism, and the efforts there have been highlighted extensively in the media”, says Niruj Mohan Ramanujam, head, science communication, Public Outreach, and Education Section, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru.
Setting up an astro-tourism initiative is not easy, but sustaining it is even harder. “We have ourselves learnt a lot from our experience with the HDSR, and we are now starting conversations with other organisations who want to start smaller initiatives. A bigger challenge is of course the ever-growing light pollution, which keeps encroaching on to what used to be dark sky locations before. Hence, community and government support in preserving the existing dark sky locations are essential. We believe that HDSR is a good example in this regard,” says Dorje Angchuk, engineer-in-charge, Indian Astronomical Observatory in Hanle, Ladakh, Indian Institute of Astrophysics.
Astro-tourism is also getting a shot in the arm as several tourism boards are working with professionals to promote the concept. Stargazing India that started in 1991 as Kutch Amateur Astronomers Club has been working in the field of Astro-Tourism from 2006. After their initial success at the Rann Utsav, the team now works with the tourism departments of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and various companies who are related to tourism.
“Our biggest astro-tourism site is Rann Utsav – The Tent City in collaboration with Evoke experiences, and other sites such as Gandhi Sagar Forest Fest, and Kuno Forest Fest at Madhya Pradesh, Bhitarkanika – Pentha Beach at Odisha. On other hand with Madhya Pradesh Tourism, we have started working on a project which provides training to the local youth to empower them by giving the knowledge of stargazing and astronomy from beginner to advanced levels. As of now four training sites are going on in Pachmarhi, Khajuraho, Bandhavgarh and Madai, and some more are in pipeline to start at selected regions of MP to become Astro guides and contributing to the field of Astro tourism,” explains Narendra Gor, founder, StarGazing India.
One of the lesser-known aspects of this initiative is that it is helping local communities and assisting in their development. And making this a reality is Astrostays, a venture that works in Ladakh and has trained several local women to use telescopes as well.
Sonal Asgotraa, founder, Astrostays, says, “The idea was to see how astronomy-based tourism could be used as a tool for livelihood creation opportunities and new avenues for revenue generation for local communities that are remote. When we started in 2019, we connected with 35 women from 15 different remote villages in Ladakh. In the tourism season in April, most men move to Leh to work in the tourism value chain. The women who stay back run their houses as homestays. We then started training them on astronomy. This was technically challenging so we started with their own local folktales and cultures, and then started to slowly build on the western science aspect that blended beautifully. We started the first astro stay on the banks of the Pangong Lake as this would help with astro-tourism.”
This helped the community sustain through the COVID period when they used the money to set up greenhouses and solar water heaters. In 2022, they opened a more scalable model and started Cosmohub in Phyang to integrate local food, art, and sights (monastery, museum) along with the stargazing activities that have taken off well.
With the new age traveller who is seeking differential experiences, Astro tourism is a great option. Bhavik Sheth, COO, Evoke Experiences avers, “Among the many delightful experiences, we extend to our guests at Rann Utsav Tent City, one that I fervently recommend is stargazing. It's a magical journey, an encounter that etches itself into one's memories for a lifetime. Stargazing unfolds as something truly remarkable against the backdrop of the Rann of Kutch, attracting almost everyone who visits. Especially for children, this experience is both educational and thrilling, making it highly recommended. Guests often share how these moments become cherished memories. Our viewing sessions utilize the latest in hi-tech, powerful telescopes, providing a clear, close, and stunningly sharp view of the sky and stars. Guests frequently share the sheer joy when their children catch glimpses of galaxies, expertly guided by our skilled astronomers.”
Astrophotography is also gaining popularity as most mobile cameras are sophisticated enough to capture the beauty of the skies. And Gor admits that many star gazers also spend time taking images of the galaxies. And with the Government of India having announced Hanle as India’s first Dark Sky Reserve, the sky's the limit (pun intended) for astro-tourism.
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