With the coming up of the Hanle dark night sky sanctuary in Ladakh, astro-tourism in India is about to scale new heights.

The night sky has captivated the people of Bharat for many a millennia. In the absence of the wherewithal of the sophistication of today’s technology of space exploration, Indians had already produced vast literature on different aspects of astronomy, cosmology, numerology, measures of time and distance, development of observatories, instruments etc. The ancient Indians were also the first to study the planetary motions, design calendars, study time and the inter-disciplinary nature of many of these above studies.
Chaturveda Prithudaka Swami 890 B.C. an astronomer, known for his outstanding work on mathematical equations, had explained centuries before European astronomers came up with such predictions, that it is only the Earth that is regularly rotating once a day, and the sphere of the stars is fixed, causing the rising and setting of the stars and the planets.
To the naked eye and even telescopes, stars are visible when the earth moves away from the face of the sun. For this, you truly need a completely dark night similar to the darkness akin to a cinema hall and have to transpose ourselves to a Dark Sky Park or Reserve, to understand and absorb the immense beauty of God’s celestial creation.
Dark Sky Parks are publicly or privately-owned spaces, protected for natural conservation that ensure good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors. While a Dark Sky Reserve is a label given to a location that has policies in place, to ensure that a tract of land or region has minimal artificial light interference. The Indian Astronomical Observatory, the high-altitude station of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics IIA, is situated to the north of Western Himalayas, at an altitude of 4,500 metres above mean sea level. Located atop Mt. Saraswati in the Nilamkhul Plain in the Hanle Valley of Changthang, it is a dry, cold desert with sparse human population and has the Hanle monastery as its nearest neighbour. Here the virtually cloudless skies and low atmospheric water vapour, make it one of the best sites in the world for optical, infrared, sub-millimetre, and millimetre wavelengths observations. However, ensuring that the site remains well-suited for astronomy implies keeping the night-sky pristine, or ensuring minimal interference to the telescopes from artificial light sources, such as electric lights and vehicular lights from the ground.

Amateur telescope.

The Himalayan Chandra Telescope (HCT), High Energy Gamma Ray telescope (HAGAR), the Major Atmospheric Cherenkov Experiment Telescope (MACE) and GROWTH-India are prominent telescopes located at the Hanle observatory.
Recently, Science and Technology Minister Dr. Jitendra Singh had stated that in a unique and first-of-its-kind initiative, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) has undertaken to set up India’s first-ever Night Sky Sanctuary in Ladakh. A tripartite MoU was signed recently amongst the UT Administration, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council LAHDC Leh and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, for launching a Dark Space Reserve. It will be completed before the end of this year.
Following a meeting with R.K. Mathur, Lieutanant Governor Ladakh, Dr. Jitendra Singh had remarked that the site “…will have activities to help in boosting local tourism and economy through interventions of science and technology.” Dr. Annapurni Subramaniam, Director, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, stated to media people, that to promote astro-tourism, villages around Hanle will be encouraged to promote homestays equipped with telescopes that visitors can use to view the night sky. Villagers and residents will also be trained to help visitors with astronomical observations. “There would be some restrictions during the evening and night to vehicles and headlights. There will be delineators on roads, like you do outside observatories. People can come, park, observe the sky and stay in homestays”.
Several astronomers have been waiting for this development. Praveen Venkiteswara Annu observed that “India looked at the best options available before selecting Hanle in Ladakh to set up the largest telescope in India. The area has maximum number of days with cloudless skies. Close to zero pollution and suspended particulate matter”.
The International Dark Sky Association is a U.S.-based non-profit organisation that designates places as International Dark Sky Places, Parks, Sanctuaries and Reserves, depending on the criteria they meet. Several such reserves exists around the world. International Dark Sky area consists of a dark “core” zone surrounded by a populated periphery where policy controls are enacted to protect the darkness of the core. An example is the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve comprised of Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin of New Zealand’s South island. Outdoor lighting controls were first put into place in the area during the early 1980s. They have not only helped minimize light pollution for the nearby Mt. John Observatory, but also conserve energy, protect wildlife and make the area a popular stargazing destination for tourists.
Let’s understand some other International Dark Night Reserves. The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve is a region of nearly 4000 square kilometres of remote and largely rugged lands in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho, U.S. The Reserve has as its core parts of two recognized wilderness areas, and is situated in the spectacular scenery of the Sawtooth National Forest.
The skies over Chile’s Atacama Desert are blessed with over 300 clear nights per year, ideal for stargazing. These clear skies mean that this part of the country has become one of the world’s principal sites for astronomic observatories.
The Atacama Desert is not only the best place to see the Milky Way in Americas, in the entire Southern Hemisphere. The conditions in this desert are very special. It’s the driest nonpolar desert in the world with an average of 330 clear nights per year. Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights. Here in Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, at 65° N on the southern edge of the Arctic Circle, you can see auroras- the lights dancing across the sky-almost every night.
In Japan although there are many big neon-lit cities, there are also sizeable areas of remote, unbuilt and frequently mountainous landscape where night skies sparkle with billions of stars. Two years ago, the Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park, which extends across the tropical Yaeyama Islands in the far south (not far from Taiwan), was named the second International Dark Sky Park in Asia. From here, provided there are no clouds, you can see 84 of the 88 constellations (the three top are Hydra, Virgo and Ursa Major) recognised by the International Astronomical Union.
Srilekha G. observes that the following places in India offer the best stargazing experience.1. Pangong Tso, Ladakh 2. Nubra Valley, Leh Ladakh 3. Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh 4. Neil Island, Andaman & Nicobar 5. Sonmarg, Jammu & Kashmir 6. Lonar Crater Lake, Maharashtra and 7. Rann of Kutch, Gujarat.
Sounds exciting. As much as the satisfaction of stepping into the Arctic Circle and seeing the northern lights, will be this awesome experience, of looking at the enormity of the cluster of stars, galaxies in the cosmos. Astronomy tourism in India is now on its way and with this first declared sanctuary, many more will soon develop and spring up.
The writer is a former Chief Producer, News & amp; Current Affairs, Doordarshan.