By day, Puran Pandey works as a teacher at an ashram for girls in Kausani, India—some 10 hours from Delhi. But after 5 p.m., he is a guide at a Starscapes observatory, taking his audience on a voyage across the night sky, fusing science, history, and mythology into a 45-minute drama. And there is more of an audience than ever: At the onset of the pandemic, with restrictions placed on international travel, an increasing number of people in India discovered the joys of astronomy clubs, stargazing, and astrophotography.
“Astronomy has become cool again,” says Paul Savio, who cofounded Starscapes along with Ramashish Ray. “People are going back to the moon, India is doing so much more in space, and there are companies like SpaceX—so a lot of people are talking about it compared to 10 years ago.”
Astronomy enthusiasts, Savio and Ray had worked together on a variety of cosmos-themed projects for a number of years: They gave astro-tours to dark sky locations like the Sandhan Valley and led astrophotography workshops in numerous colleges and universities. But when the pandemic began in 2020 and international tourism dropped, Savio and Ray pivoted, launching Starscapes in 2021 as a way to make the cosmos more accessible to beginners. In addition to interactive plays, each Starscapes location—in Kausani and Bhimtal, along with a mobile unit in Jaipur—offers visitors the opportunity to build rockets, spot constellations in the night sky, learn about cameras, and model sundials.
Starscapes also organizes field trips for children from the local schools and universities, and the company has plans to open observatories in Coorg (southwest India, six hours from Bengaluru) and Udhagamandalam (in Tamil Nadu) this summer. By the end of 2022, they hope to have outposts in Munnar, Pondicherry, Shimla, and Goa. These are anything but random choices: All Starscapes locations are carefully determined by the level of light pollution, number of cloudless days, and accessibility from major cities. All also measure four or less on the Bortle scale, a universal measure of night-sky darkness. (A one is an extremely remote location.)
From the outset, Savio says he was also intentional about hiring locals that already lived near the observatory and training them to be guides—rather than, say, utilizing existing experts. As part of the program, star guides at Starscapes go through month-long training sessions before beginning work, and receive regular refresher courses from the team of trainers employed there. (Pandey, like other Starscapes guides, picked up astronomy with no previous experience. He is now one of the most popular guides at the observatory in Kausani.)
By employing locals, Starscapes also sees itself as contributing the the regions’ smaller economies: Other vendors gather around the observatories for more business, and eco-hotels are opening up to accommodate travelers who visit the region for astronomy.
Starscapes isn’t the only organization that sees a bright future for astrotourism in India: In February 2021, India’s Ministry of released a webinar series titled, “Astro-Tourism: The Next Frontier of Nature-Based Tourism” to promote the country as a sustainable travel destination. The Lt. Governor of Ladakh is quietly making plans to promote Ladakh as the premier astrotourism destination in the country—thanks to its prominent location and pollution-free environment—and there are similar initiatives to turn remote towns that have clear skies into “astro villages,” such as Benital, which is located 8,530 feet above sea level in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand.
“The whole idea is to get away from the city,” says Neeraj Ladia, the CEO of Space Arcade and a Chennai-based astronomer and astrophotographer who currently organizes stargazing events for astrophotographers and families. “But [in India] you don’t have to travel very far to experience the night sky.”