Travel to India’s first astro-village: The road to stars goes via Uttarakhand
Benital, a tiny hamlet near Karnaprayag, is so far from artificial light that the only light you can see here comes from light years away
There can be no better and bigger a sight than the colourful picture of the night sky. But from most cities of India, all you can see is the Moon, Venus, Mars, a couple of constellations (Saptarishi, or Ursa Major, and Orion), and bright stars such as Sirius.
Air pollution has reduced visibility, but even during clear weather not much is visible — the culprit is light pollution. According to Gurgaon-based Science Popularisation Association of Communicators and Educators (SPACE), visibility of stars has dropped by an average of 5% every year over the last 30 years.
There are, however, places in India away from both light and air pollution, and the government of Uttarakhand is developing a place called Benital as India’s first astro-village.
What is an astro-village?
Astro-tourism is a new travel trend. It combines people’s interest in astronomy, photography of the night sky, and exploring remote locations. Multiple places are being developed as astro-sites — in Ladakh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand — but Benital is being developed as India’s first astro-village by the district administration of Chamoli in collaboration with Starscapes (a start-up that offers a holistic astronomy experience and has a chain of observatories).
It fulfils all qualities of being an astro-village — it doesn’t have light or air pollution, it is at least two hours away by car from the nearest city, it’s on top of a hill with 270-degree views of the Himalayas, and it will have permanent telescopes installed. default
Himanshu Khurana, district magistrate, Chamoli, told FE that Benital is a rare gem with minimal human activities and low light pollution, offering an undisturbed view of the night sky. “Our vision for Benital as an astro-village encompasses two objectives: Firstly, we aim to instil a sense of pride in the local community, showcasing the unique offerings of this remarkable place. Secondly, we want to economically empower our youth, enabling them to engage in astro-tourism activities,” he said. “The involvement of the local community in preserving the pristine nature of the place plays a big role in developing this hamlet as a dark sky location.”
How to reach?
It’s quite far from Delhi — about 450 km and 12 hours nonstop by car. The nearest city is Karnaprayag and there is no public transport. We drove an Audi Q3, and discovered that there is much more to Benital than merely the night sky. While the drive from Delhi to Karnaprayag is mostly via national highways, the last 30 km is possibly one of the emptiest roads in India. It’s so empty that in this 30 km, two-hour journey, we didn’t find even a single car, and saw just three villagers.
“It’s as rare as India can get,” Ramashish Ray, the founder of Starscapes, told FE. “That’s the reason only the most serious tourists come here. Our mission is to promote and preserve dark sky locations in India.”
This emptiness also made us bond better with the car, making us realise that the Q3 corners well, glides over poor roads, returns decent fuel efficiency of 14 km/litre, and its refined petrol engine doesn’t really break the silence.
What will you learn?
Watching the stars at night and Sun during the day (yes, they have telescopes to view the Sun) can give you a new perspective about life. It’s about size. Things you see and admire as huge — a skyscraper, India’s largest mall, a big office complex or even the new Parliament House — are not even specks of dust in this endless universe.
And things you admire as long-lasting — the Pyramids, for example — are not even a fraction of a second in this timeless universe.