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Old 29th October 2022, 22:36   #1
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Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

It was 1:30 AM in the last week of September. Location: Hanle, a remote place in Ladakh.

It's an open area and pitch dark. It's very cold and the temperature reads -2C. The wind is only making it worse. The 6 layers of clothing is not helping much! With eyes, nose and mouth exposed, the cold is taking a hit on the face.

But the face is tilted upwards, the eyes are scanning the night sky. This is supposed to be one of the darkest places in India and as is evident, the milky way arm is clearly visible to the naked eye. It has spanned from horizon to horizon. Unbelievable! I haven't seen this before! Our neighbor galaxy Andromeda is no more a difficult object to locate. It's there! You can't miss that!

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve-img_4228.jpg
Milky Way

By looking at so many stars, my mind is going through a flood of thoughts. Each of those stars are like our very own Sun. How many of those stars might have Earth-like planets?! Even if there are, those planets are nowhere in the picture! If someone from one of those planets looks at the sky, is there a guarantee that our Sun is visible?! What are the chances that the Earth is visible to them! What about the countries, powerful people, the celebrities, you and me, our favorite and expensive cars, our villas…The more I look at this vastness of cosmos, the less significant all these looks.

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve-zodiacal-light_hanle.jpg
Zodiacal Light

It's beyond imagination to even put the things in perspective. If each individual star exposes the insignificance of our pride, what about that other galaxy which is visible to the naked eye. That one galaxy itself has millions or billions of stars! But for us, it looks like a single source of light!

Where is my pride, where is my position in the society, my job title, my achievements and trophies in my cupboard, the very thought that I'm an important person in the society! Oh man! The universe is laughing at you! Did you ever look at poor ants with sympathy or care? You are not even ants for the universe. Just a shake from the universe, we are gone in a fraction of time!

The mind was restless with so many thoughts, but the body was constantly protesting that it cannot take the cold anymore. Finally it gave up. I had to pack and head to the nearest guesthouse and lie down on the bed. The coziness of the bed calmed down the body, but the mind started thinking about how it all unfolded.

It was sometime in June, the topic of going to Hanle for an Astronomy event popped up in a closed group. The star party is a common and yearly event conducted by Bangalore Astronomical Society or BAS as it is popularly called. However these events are conducted in the southern part of India and the public is invited to take part and get hands-on with binoculars and telescopes. The event in Hanle was different for the fact that it is a remote place at much higher altitude and weather would not be friendly at all. So this event was limited to a very few people who are very serious in visual observation or Astrophotography.

As a visual observer, I know the importance of a "darker" sky. The darker the place is, the better the observation is. Hanle is already popular because the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) has set up one of the biggest telescopes in India. So for Astronomy people, Hanle is nothing short of a pilgrimage trip!

I was bursting with excitement about the Hanle trip. Luckily nothing was planned on the personal front. Once the dates were finalized, I applied for 9 days leave in the company. Getting the leaves was only a part of this trip. Little I knew that the preparation would take a hell of a time!

I was going to face harsh weather. A Bengalurian doesn't even understand the extremes of weather! Ah, isn't that the reason why people like the city! We do have summer and winter, but it never goes to extremes. At Hanle, the night temperature was expected to be below zero, so I had to shop for 6 layers of winter wear! It was not only about clothes. I packed sunscreen, lip balm, moisturizer cream and what not. I also packed ORS packets, thermo flask, a bunch of medicines and many more!

Upon reaching Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, it was mandatory to stay for a minimum of 2 nights. This was to ensure that our body gets acclimatized to the altitude. Then our journey started to Hanle. Let me share a few snaps of landscapes in this route.

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve-20220924_120406.jpg

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve-20220924_152352.jpg

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve-20220924_152440.jpg

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve-20220926_105853.jpg

Once we reached Hanle, I did check my SPO2 level in the oximeter. It read 84! If it were in Bengaluru, I would be in the hospital at the very moment. But hey! It's quite normal here at Hanle! There is less oxygen, so chill!

Any extra physical task, you would experience lack of oxygen. My heart was pounding and I could hear the sound. Again I checked in the oximeter, the pulse rate was 125! My mind again reminded me "Hey, It's quite normal, just chill".

Hanle will be declared as India's first dark sky reserve and astro-tourism will be promoted by the government. We from BAS, teamed up with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics to conduct the first star party in this location. We were 15 in numbers - some of us are Visual Observers (like me), and others Astrophotographers. Our aim is to observe celestial objects such as planets, galaxies, nebulae and clusters through our eyes. Our other fellows try to capture these objects in their cameras.

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve-img_2523.jpg
The BAS Team

It was not about how many objects we observe or capture. It was about experiencing the place, enduring the cold and wind, understanding the difficulties in a remote place, and yet immersing ourselves in the cosmos and getting lost!

It was a lifetime experience and my heart and mind will cherish it for a long time for sure!

End note

Whenever I look at cosmos wide and far
It reminds me - how insignificant we are!!!

Oh Man! Your ego and pride! What the heck!
Remember, you are living in a speck!

Acknowledgements

Thanks to BAS members Sudash, Keerthi, Subendu and Shubankar for providing valuable inputs for preparation based on their previous experience.

A special mention about Sudash for arranging accommodation and logistics to transport telescopes and binoculars.

Thanks to the BAS members for helping each other in the entire trip.

Thanks to IIA for sponsoring local transport.

Night sky and milky way photographs were captured by Obuli Chandran, Astrophotographer from Coimbatore. Thanks to Obuli for allowing me to share the photos here.

Thanks to the clouds for staying away for 2 nights! :-)

Ending this write-up with a few pictures.

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve-20220925_143938.jpg
The Himalayan Chandra Telescope (HCT)

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve-20220925_125434.jpg
High Energy Gamma Ray Telescope (HAGAR)

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve-20220925_120305.jpg
Major Atmospheric Cerenkov Experiment Telescope (MACE)

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve-withganesh.jpg
With fellow Team BHPian graaja

Last edited by Payaniga : 29th October 2022 at 22:46.
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Old 29th October 2022, 23:24   #2
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

Thread moved out from the Assembly Line. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 30th October 2022, 00:23   #3
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

What a fascinating post! The incredible photos need to be praised. As a fellow lover of deep space, experiencing spots as dark as this is certainly on my bucket list.

Wonderfully written, too. Seeing stars in the night sky in the middle of Hyderabad is a somewhat difficult task on most nights, and even on relatively clear days, I only see a few scattered dots. I distinguish the stars from the planets (like Venus) by the way they flicker; stars do and planets don't.

An unobstructed view of the night sky is something that one needs to experience in their lifetime. Many Carl Sagan quotes come to mind; it's truly humbling to realise our insignificance in the sheer vastness of the cosmos! There are distances so large that light, the fastest thing we know so far, takes billions of years to travel, and so on... Fascinating rabbit hole I fell down as a 9-year-old.

Hats off for braving the insanely cold and thin air for this.

Last edited by GForceEnjoyer : 30th October 2022 at 00:29.
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Old 30th October 2022, 10:13   #4
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

Thank you for this beautiful post! Adding this to the bucket list.
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Old 30th October 2022, 10:37   #5
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

Wow! Everything in this post is spectacular. Your words and emotions, the pictures. Thoroughly enjoyed it. If you have more interesting pictures, please do add.
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Old 30th October 2022, 10:56   #6
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

Fantastic write up Payaniga. You have perfectly captured the experience of the Hanle, and the emotions when we see the vastness of the universe. It was great catching up with you and discussing a lot of topics. Looking forward to meeting you in the next star party soon.
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Old 30th October 2022, 11:50   #7
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

Excellent write up Payaniga. Adding this to bucket list along with Gurushikhar (mt abu).
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Old 30th October 2022, 12:04   #8
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

Great place and photos, gottaa start planning a trip!
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Old 30th October 2022, 14:04   #9
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

Thank you for sharing! It has been a great read. Will be fun to do some star trial photography.
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Old 30th October 2022, 14:22   #10
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

Fantastic captures. I was in Hanle during last week of September as well. Wasn't aware of this event though. It was part of the last leg of my weeklong Leh Ladakh trip. I wasn't having a camera that could capture these galaxies but watching them with my own eyes was a great feeling. Milkyway in particular. And I totally agree with your thoughts, in the perspective of the universe we are so tiny! Same thoughts were echoing in my mind as well. Thank you for sharing these.
On a different note after doing a Leh trip no other destination seems to be pulling my heart anymore. Feel like going back there again. Maybe next year!!
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Old 30th October 2022, 14:37   #11
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

This is spectacular! Thanks for sharing. Do you need to do any preparation (health wise) for such a trip? Would really love to go but not sure if I’ll be able to handle the lack of oxygen. Any way to check before going how well ones body would manage (or not).
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Old 30th October 2022, 21:18   #12
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

What a beautiful post, and especially the ending lines. Yes, I have often felt the same, just looking up in the sky. This week during Diwali I was in Wai, and occasionally glanced up the sky which was relatively clear, used the Stellarium app to locate the various objects and spotted Jupiter fairly cleanly . Just compared the vastness of Jupiter relative to Earth, its distance from us and the overall size of the Solar system. And then all the stars beyond. Its mind boggling, and as you said, a good way to crush our delusions, vanity and silly egos.
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Old 31st October 2022, 07:22   #13
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

Breathtaking pic of that milky way and nicely written. J&K and Ladakh are full of amusements. It's always in my bucket list to ride in my bikes to those places, now after reading your post Hanle is a must visit place. Need to spend at least one night there to see this magnificent views.
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Old 31st October 2022, 10:16   #14
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

Those photos and your words really makes me wish i could be there Amazing stuff!
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Old 1st November 2022, 08:54   #15
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Re: Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

Mesmerizing ode to the experience you had at Hanle. It is these experiences that help us realize and hopefully understand ourselves better. The vastness of the universe is a very humbling perspective on our own bloated egos, so thank you for sharing the experience and perspective.
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