Cosmic Quest in Benital

At India’s first astro-village in Benital, Chamoli, nestled in the mighty Shiwaliks, rare meteors and star sightings will be all the excitement you need.

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On a clear night, some lucky stargazers can witness rare, deep sky sightings such as double star clusters in Benital. Photo Courtesy: Shikhar Gupta/ Starscapes Experiences

High-range telescopes, guitars, bonfires, sightings of the deep sky and luminous alpine meadows, which locals call bugyals—India’s first-ever astronomical village, Benital, in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is a palimpsest of your childhood dreams stretched across blue nights.

After local authorities zeroed in on this village to curate a stargazing experience for proper enthusiasts in early 2021, astronomy outfit Starscapes Experiences, founded by Ramashish Ray and Paul Savio, eventually came aboard to develop Benital as India’s first astro-village.

“The choice of Benital is apt because it ranks very low in terms of light pollution,” says Ramashish Ray, founder and product head, Starscapes Experiences. “During the recce, we also realised that it is one of the rare bugyals that is easily accessible by road.”

Alongside a team of seasoned astronomers and trekkers, equipped with solar lights and the most advanced telescopes—the inauguration event for the astro-village at a chilly two degrees is a spirited ode to humanity’s perpetual childlike curiosity to see the past and present coalescing in the mysterious skies.

 

Touch The Sky

From a government guest house in the nearby town of Karnprayag, we reach Benital via road after nearly two hours. It’s almost sunset and the snowcapped Shiwaliks, surreal as always, are being hastily captured by a group of landscape photographers before the sun dissolves behind the Himalayas.

Through the Celestron spotting scope, we witness a glacier dramatically snaking its way down the peaks, the setting sun streaking it in just the right corners.

 

Cosmic Quest In Benital

Experts, equipped with the latest tech (top), guide visitors through the viewing; Comfortable tents serve as homes for the duration of the camp (bottom right); Between sightings, there’s time for bonfires (bottom left) and music. Photo Courtesy: Shikhar Gupta/Starscapes Experiences (telescopes), Photos by: Arman Khan (Coal fire and tents)

 

Around us, strips of light fire up like embers and dark blue tents, to house the organisers of the event, are pitched. When it’s nearly dark, the big guns are revealed.

“Nebula is the nursery of the stars,” says Prateek Sharma of Starscapes, as he adjusts a rare 11-inch Celestron EdgeHD telescope. “Along the edge of the stars, are all the elements present around us. Even the ring you are wearing finds its cousin in those stars.”

With that, we get perhaps the clearest sighting of Saturn and its rings that hold clues to the birth of the world as we know it. Himanshu Sharma, the district magistrate of Chamoli, is just as enthralled. “Are those rings so close? Isn’t the distance between them around 20 km?”

While we keep our eyes peeled for sightings of planets and galaxies through the telescope, we realise that the Milky Way is also cutting right through the sky above us—the spiral galaxy clear to the naked eye.

The next sighting leaves us all confused—none of us has seen anything like it. Two massive constellations of stars seem to be intersecting in the most magical deep-sky stunts.

“They are double clusters,” says Sharma, putting our amateur guesses to rest. “They are at a distance of nearly 7,500 light-years but never cease to stun us with their beauty. And the falling strip of light is the rare Leonard meteor.”

 

Cosmic Quest In Benital

A telescope captures the Beehive Cluster. Photo Courtesy: Shikhar Gupta/Starscapes Experiences

Cosmic Quest In Benital

Benital’s elevated alpine meadows are easily accessible, which makes it uniquely suited for stargazing camps. Photo Courtesy: Shikhar Gupta/Starscapes Experiences

 

Astronomical Dream

For Ray, India’s first astro-village was a culmination of years of efforts in astronomy, which traces back to his memories of witnessing the night sky when he slept on the roof of his IAS father’s government accommodation in Delhi.

“We would keep guessing the falling meteors, the planets and more,” he says. “It’s certainly a dream come true,” he says. “India has so much potential for deep sky observation and astronomy in general.”

Sharma hopes that the planned railway line to soon reach Karnprayag will be a shot in the arm for the project. “The locals are important stakeholders in this project,” he says, as we sit in a circle around a crackling bonfire outside one of the tents. “It is only with their cooperation that we can understand the landscape better and provide gainful employment to all involved.”

The grazing livestock has now retreated from the bugyals and, in their absence, a lone guitarist strums us away into the night, to the tune of romantic 90s Bollywood hits.

 

The feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India January-February 2022.

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  • Arman Khan is a freelancer journalist and editor who writes at the intersection of travel, culture, and queer and minority rights. When he’s not binge watching dystopian dramas, you can always find him foraging in the hills. His works have appeared in Them, Vogue, GQ, VICE, Architectural Digest, The Swaddle, The Caravan, India Today, CN Traveller, Grazia, and Femina.

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