The Phyang monastery in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas, plans to combine Western science with Buddhist cosmology to draw stargazing tourists to the desert region of Jammu and Kashmir state. In April, the monks at the monastery, which dates back to 1515, will open an “astrohub”. The inspiration for it came after one of their number visited a Ladakh homestay run by Astrostays, a hospitality chain that specialises in stargazing experiences. With Covid-19 restrictions limiting opportunities for international travel, Indians are discovering the joys of stargazing, eclipse chasing and domestic destinations explored through the lens of the night skies overhead. Being in the great outdoors following extended periods of lockdown is an added bonus. Catering to these converts is a slew of “astro resorts”, observatories and other skyward-looking start-ups throughout the country that are kindling interest in young and old alike. Astrostays was established in the village of Maan in Ladakh in 2019 with a single Dobsonian telescope (a low-cost type optimised for viewing deep-sky objects). Founder Sonal Asgotraa, 35, an electrical engineer, says she has long been fascinated by astronomy and when, on a night trek in Ladakh, local guides used the stars to find their way home, she was inspired to devise a project that would combine stargazing with community development. “All our guides are locals – some of them are just school dropouts – who have been trained in astronomy and taught to make use of the telescope,” says Asgotraa. Sun sets on Kashmir’s traditional houseboats as tourism, and Dal Lake, dry up Astrostays works with Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), a social impact tourism company that supports digital education and the installation of solar energy in remote areas. GHE, headed by Asgotraa’s husband, has so far brought power to more than 140 villages. About 1,000km (620 miles) to the south of Ladakh, the local authorities in Benital see the potential for astronomical tourism. At about 2,600 metres (8,500 feet) above sea level, in the Alpine meadows of Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, Benital is being developed as India’s first “astro village”, with cottages, tents and restaurants all designed to appeal to stargazers. A night-vision dome and large telescopes are being installed. The tourism department of the Uttarakhand resort town of Nainital is also getting in on the act. According to news reports, it will soon begin planning for projects in the villages of Takula and Devasthal, with the Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences supporting the technical aspects of the project. At 1,890 metres above sea level, Kausani is another Uttarakhand spot that is suitable for stargazing, as photographer and astronomy enthusiast Ramashish Ray discovered. Ray owned a cottage in Kausani and noticed the interest visiting friends and family showed in the telescope he had set up there. He decided to establish a small observatory offering ticketed shows. In 2017, he launched Starscapes together with Paul Savio, an amateur astronomer and management graduate, the pair running “astrotours” and astrophotography workshops at their observatory. Starscapes has since opened observatories in Bhimtal, Uttarakhand; Jaipur, Rajasthan; and Madikeri, in southern Karnataka state. They put on events, led by expert guides, that last for 45 minutes to an hour. “Our observatories are not just places where one can come and look at the night sky,” says Savio. “There are detailed shows blending science, history and mythology into a storytelling session. Tourists and guests can look forward to celestial night shows, star parties and even selfies with the stars.” In December, Starscapes partnered with the government of Uttarakhand to conduct an “astroparty” – two days of stargazing, planet and constellation identification and astrophotography lessons – on the site of the embryonic Benital Astro Village. The International Dark-Sky Association has certified 195 “ dark-sky places ” in the world (the nearest to Hong Kong is Hehuan Mountain, in Taiwan), but there are none as yet in India. The places in which Starscapes chooses to locate observatories “have fairly dark skies” says Savio. Dorje Angchuk, an engineer at the Indian Astronomical observatory at Hanle (4,300 metres above sea level) in Ladakh, is attempting to get some recognition for India’s night skies. “We are trying to develop astrotourism in Hanle and get it declared as a dark-sky sanctuary,” says Angchuk, the first Indian to attain honorary membership of the International Astronomical Union – recognition for non-scientists who make significant contributions in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics. “Ladakh is blessed with beautiful landscapes and the best night skies,” says Angchuk. “More people should come and experience it.” And come they probably will. Chennai-based astronomer and astrophotographer Neeraj Ladia attributes the surge in interest in astronomy not only to the pandemic but also to social media, which has shone a spotlight on a range of hobbies and experiences. The 33-year-old is the CEO of the Space (Science Popularisation Association of Communicators & Educators) Arcade and is by trade a mechanical engineer. “Our company has set up multiple ‘astroports’. These astronomy-themed retreats focus on stargazing and wildlife, with trained instructors who guide the guests through their night-skies experience,” says Ladia. “Special events are planned around meteor showers or eclipses.” Astroports have been established in places such as Sariska, in Rajasthan, which is a three-hour drive from Delhi, and near a protected tiger reserve and Corbett National Park. “The impediments to stargazing are clouds and ‘light pollution’,” says Ladia. “For clear skies and good stargazing we need to get out of the cities for at least 100km. The foothills of the Himalayas have some great stargazing spots. “There is a light pollution map available online which shows you the pockets where stargazing is good, with clear skies. I have organised stargazing trips to hill stations like Yelagiri and Kodaikanal in south India too.” Bangalore-based Sitara Srinivasan is among the many Indians trying to sow the seeds of interest in stars in students. The 23-year-old started Naxxatra as a collaborative space for research in physics and astronomy. Today this online community of more than 8,000 people is a learning platform that collaborates with scientists across the world, on virtual projects and learning modules dedicated to everything from astrophysics to radio astronomy. Short programmes designed for children cover stargazing and how to read the night sky, and include visits to observatories. Older children undertake projects on asteroids and other celestial phenomena. “Our emphasis is on training people to appreciate the world around them,” says Srinivasan. Why there’s an upside to coronavirus crisis for stargazers Delhi-based Ajay Talwar, 56, has been photographing the night sky for more than 25 years. “[I remember] watching Hailey’s comet in 1986 from Gangasagar, an island near Kolkata. I was into astronomy, astrophotography and making my own telescope from my college days, often being part of amateur sky-watchers associations,” says Talwar. “In those days of film rolls and developing, you could not correct mistakes. I used to maintain a logbook of my photographs of the night skies, and learn from my mistakes.” Today he owns a company that manufactures telescopes and conducts popular astrophotography tours. Sky Photo Trips are led twice a year, to different locations in the Himalayas. All necessary equipment is provided. “India is blessed with some clear night skies in places like the Himalayas, the Desert National Park in Rajasthan and the Rann of Kutch [salt marsh] in Gujarat,” says Talwar. ‘Ring of Fire’ solar eclipse thrills skywatchers in parts of Asia For a June 2020 annular solar eclipse, Talwar and his wife travelled across Punjab and Rajasthan before picking Sirsa, in Haryana state, as the perfect spot from which to film it. His live-stream was broadcast around the world. Boutique homestays that have installed telescopes to appeal to stargazers include Sanjay Austa’s Meena Bagh, which is in an apple orchard in Ratnari, 85km from Shimla, in Himachal Pradesh state. It offers mountain views and skies that are classified as grade two on the Bortle Scale, a night-sky measure that ranges from one – extremely remote locations – to nine: inner city glare. “We have a Dobsonian telescope and are building an observatory, which will be ready soon and will be open to tourists and to our guests with a guide for stargazing sessions,” says Austa, one of many entrepreneurs who see a bright future in India’s darkest skies.