A Night Beneath the Stars in Manipal

For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream. -Vincent Van Gogh

That the atmosphere scatters light is known to all. We associate this with the blue sky of the day but fail to consider the night and its intense lights. Even in a relatively small and isolated town like Manipal, these lights prevent all but a glimpse of a fraction of the heavens above. To give us a chance of better viewing the stars, The Astronomy club of Manipal organized a trip to Kundadri, set in the heart of the Agumbe rain forest, far from the towns and their conflagration of artificial luminescence.

At around 7 in the evening, our little procession of a minibus and three SUVs started on their way to the Western Ghats. Two hours, steep roads, and a good seventy kilometers later, we arrived at our destination. Through the tinted windows, I could already see a sky awash with an unearthly light.

Aleph-null somehow doesn’t seem to cut it.

When I got my first full look at the sky, I was staggered, overcome by the sheer number and density of the stars. It took me a good minute to find Orion the Hunter, a ubiquitous sight in the daily sky, now filled in by stars I’d never set my eyes on before. More stars than I’d seen in my entire life hung like luminous pearls, strung across the sky in a million combinations. No wonder the ancient Greeks had thought the night sky a cosmic tapestry. Not a single earthly cloud drifted in the sky, although a ghostly white cloud arced across the Southern skies; I was looking at the outer arms of the Milky Way, our own galaxy. At the zenith, directly above my head, lay a myriad collection of stars and a single unwavering point of light, the planet Jupiter. A few degrees off Jupiter, a curious smudge was visible, like an out of focus star. A pair of binoculars revealed it to be a beautiful cluster of stars and our star charts put it down as the Bee Hive cluster or the Messier object M44. As we set up our 12″ Dobsonian telescope, others pored through the charts, in search of galaxies and nebulae.

We saw objects through the telescope, that we’d only ever seen pictures of. The legendary Eagle nebula, the Andromeda galaxy, the Sombrero galaxy, the rings of Saturn and the bands of Jupiter were just a few of the wonders we saw through Galileo’s gift to man. To think that the light incident upon my retina originated millions of miles away, and to think that I was gazing 30 million years into the past while observing the Whirlpool galaxy, or to acknowledge that all the countless stars I could see with my bare eyes were just from a single arm of our curdling galaxy, was a near-impossible task. As our night vision bettered, we found that we could see the ground around us perfectly fine, we were walking around in starlight.

The Milky Way rising over the Jain temple in Kundadri, a hill set in the Agumbe rainforest.

At 3:30 in the morning, the skies were taken over by a glowing spectacle, a celestial gateway, the galactic center of the Milky Way. We were looking at the collective light from billions of stars, passing through interstellar dust; we stood transfixed, thinking about the mysterious black hole that was hidden from humanity’s curious eye, trying desperately and in vain, to peer through the dust clouds that blocked all visible radiation. As we looked at each star and each blurred point of light in the sky through the telescope, we found, hidden to the naked eye, hundreds of stars and galaxies. We’ve hardly begun decoding the nature of a few major bodies in our solar system. How many more mysteries does the universe hold for man to solve? And are we even meant to?

Every night after I returned to Manipal, I look up at the sky, with hardly a dozen stars and wonder how we ever managed to lose our most precious gift, and how our little town’s skies would look, adorned with the blazing glory of a million stars.

-Vishnu Deva for MTTN

(This piece originally appeared on MTTN in the March of 2015.)

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