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View from India: Dark Sky Reserve, tourism with a difference

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Hanle in Ladakh is in the news as the chosen site for India's first Dark Sky Reserve.

The Indian Institute of Astrophysics, the Ladakh Union Territory Administration and Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council have entered into a tripartite agreement for setting up a Dark Sky Reserve at Hanle. The Hanle Dark Sky Reserve (HDSR) will come under the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, which is part of the Hindu Kush Himalaya, nature’s bounty. The altitude of the sanctuary varies from 4,300m to 5,800m (14,000ft to 19,000ft).

Light pollution can alter the natural light levels of the outdoors, so a dark sky reserve is an area devoid of light pollution. Its starry nights are protected and preserved for scientific studies; the only environmental resource is the galaxy of stars. Barring that, there is a natural darkness which makes it worthwhile for astro research or even just viewing. As per media reports, HDSR will protect the area from unwanted light pollution and light emitting from high beam vehicles. Preserving the astronomical value of the zone could become a collective effort as the HDSR administration staff and scientists, as well as the local community, commit themselves to protect the nocturnal environment. This could open the area up to astro tourism as visitors come to experience stargazing. Science will contribute towards popularising this form of niche tourism and also generate employment.

The Indian Astronomical Observatory in Hanle ranks among the world’s highest-located sites for optical, infrared and gamma-ray telescopes. Located at an altitude of 4,500m above mean sea level, the Indian Astronomical Observatory lends itself to uninterrupted astronomical studies and is restricted for public entry. Nevertheless, the HDSR, spanning 22km in radius, will be centred around the Hanle Observatory. The visitor centre is envisioned as one-stop hub for community-tourist-scientist interactions, and HDSR will hopefully increase footfall at the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, popular for its snow leopard, Tibetan wolf and migratory birds. The region is known for its Himalayan Mountains, deep gorges and vast plateaus, picturesque landscapes, diverse flora-fauna, and high-altitude water lakes like Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso. In all likelihood, homestay accommodations may increase. However, it will be crucial to preserve the pristine surroundings.

Being in the cold desert region of Ladakh, Hanle’s USP is that it is cloudless for most nights in the year, making it an ideal location for stargazing. To think of it, who wouldn’t like to stargaze? The cluster of stars or a lone twinkling star intrigue and fascinate children and adults alike. 

Stargazing is not new to India. The states of Sikkim, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are known for stargazing spots and individuals are exploring this space by setting up observatories. Starscapes is one such effort that has put up observatories in hill stations that are low in pollution and have clear skies. Ramashish Ray, founder of Starscapes, was later joined by Paul Savio. Enthusiasts stargaze through the telescopes in the observatories, workshops throw light on advances in astrophysics and space exploration, and astrophotography sessions are also part of the agenda.

Then there’s the SPACE Foundation, initiated by Sachin Bahmba to promote space science and astronomy. An acronym for Science Popularisation Association of Communicators & Educators, the SPACE Foundation has started science clubs in schools across the country where students are encouraged to learn about and explore the wonders of astronomy and space science. They get an insight into specifics such as remote sensing and rocket flying through flagship initiatives like Astroport, AstroTourism and Leo Planetaria.

The government too has come forward with starry initiatives. The State Department of Art and Culture, Jaipur, has introduced a Night Sky Tourism project – high-quality telescopes at Jaipur’s Jawahar Kala Kendra and Jantar Mantar encourage people to stargaze. Mandu in Madhya Pradesh is gearing up to usher in an astro park, something that has happened since the first wave of Covid-19. All of this may create a demand for telescopes. As for the technology, Stellarium is a free open-source planetarium that shows a realistic sky in 3D.

Even before all this, India became home to dedicated astronomical observatories in the 18th century. Going back in time, the Rajput King Sawai Jai Singh II built five such astronomical observatories in Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, Varanasi and Mathura between 1724 and 1730. We know them as Jantar Mantar, or 'a calculating instrument'; in Sanskrit, Jantra means 'instrument' and Mantra means 'calculate'. Each observatory has been designed in a unique geometric form to facilitate astronomical measurements. Among them is the Jantar Mantar, which houses the world’s largest stone sundial. Called Brihat Samrat Yantra, the instrument is known for its accuracy. It gives the local time at the accuracy of two seconds and the structure is over 27m high. Understandably, it made it to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.

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