Ad Astra Per Aspera

A trip to Benital in Uttarakhand does not go as planned, but there are rewards nonetheless
The Milky Way galaxy captured with a 15s shot
The Milky Way galaxy captured with a 15s shotPhoto: Shikhar Gupta

Carl Sagan once said humans are like butterflies; they flutter for a day and think it's a lifetime.

The space-time continuum collapsed in the two days I spent at the Benital AstroCamp—my Miller's planet from "Interstellar"—where my wristwatch and the clock at home no longer synchronised.

Time doesn't feel quite the same once you've attended the mourning of a Nebula under the sky, laid prostrate under an ocean of stars in a valley flanked by the Himalayas, contemplating the finitude of our existence.

Inclement weather threatened to disrupt expectations from the trip, and yet, through difficulties, I was the man who reached the stars.


My trip to Benital in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district was organised by Starscapes Experiences, an astro-tourism company founded by amateur astronomers Ramashish Ray and Paul Savio. "Some of these galaxies are 30 to 100 million light years away from us. That's the time it has taken for this light to reach your eyes," said Ray when we first met. "When you come on one of our trips, all you need is curiosity; we provide you with state-of-the-art telescopes and astro-modified cameras for a glimpse into another magical dimension."

Ray's interest in the cosmos started as a hobby, a niche interest in dark sky preservation, which he wanted to share with city folks, blinded by bright lights and digital devices ablaze with blue light. Astronomy tours, stargazing in observatories, astrophotography, workshops on astrophysics and space exploration are organised by Starscapes.


A three-hour-long star trail shot showing the earth's motion around its axis. The streaks at the bottom are the flaring up of satellites that crossed the frame
A three-hour-long star trail shot showing the earth's motion around its axis. The streaks at the bottom are the flaring up of satellites that crossed the frame

Curiosity made the long journey to Benital from Delhi seem less arduous than it was.

After a quick flight to Dehradun, our tour party headed out to Karnaprayag, 200 km and six hours away by car, where we would stay the night. This remote outpost is one of the Panch Prayag confluences where the Alaknanda and Pindar rivers meet.

Deeply exhausted after the journey, yet excited at the prospect of exploring the astro-tourism site the next day, I slept fitfully.

Ray and Savio had organised a small trek for our party around the meadows and plateaus around our camp. As I hiked up to the bugyal (meadow) in the late afternoon, wonder arrested my senses; it seemed straight from a Rembrandt painting. I sat at the plateau's edge listening to the chiming of cowbells, losing myself to the serenity.


A tent against the Chaukhamba Peak
A tent against the Chaukhamba Peak

Dusk fell fast; the winds picked up the speed, and peaks like Dunagiri, Hathi Parbat and Barmal stood menacing in their grandeur. The winds didn't abate; by 7 pm, the light went from the skies and our faces as a thunderstorm loomed. These are not the ideal conditions for a night of astrophotography.

We scrambled to cover the gear with tarpaulin and prepared to leave. The wind returned, hurtling towards us more viciously, packed with rain that lasted for a few hours.

Finally, it stopped raining, and with renewed optimism, the 8" Automatic telescopes and 4" Nextstar Celestron telescopes were set up, and our first astrophotography night commenced.

Even though we could not see constellations like Scorpio and Sagittarius because clouds were still showing up, and the only planet we could see was Venus shining bright, I was happy I could see the night sky as I had imagined.

The weather remained unpredictable throughout the night, and with a heart pining for more, after getting a taste of what was possible at Benital, I packed my bags and left for the hotel.


The green skies are due to a phenomenon called airglow
The green skies are due to a phenomenon called airglow

Everything came together on the last day of my trip. I packed for the unpredictable weather. As we reached the campsite, the Himalayas nudged roaring gusts of wind to our side, but this time the same pressure system that dictated the previous day's weather came into force a lot earlier, at around 5 pm. By now, we knew that rains at this hour meant the heavy clouds would recede just in time for our astrophotography and dark sky viewing.

Doomsday seemed near, and the stormy winds threatened to pull away our tents. Ray's friend Ashim Banik and I started trading magic tricks in the middle of this mayhem.

Just as I was about to perfect one of his tricks to make a coin disappear, someone alerted the camp that the first view of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks was visible. The sweet symphony of everyone's synchronous camera shutter sounds made me smile.

We saw the cloud covers lifting as twilight painted a dramatic gloom around us. The stars shone on us like petals opening to the rain, and I could've sworn every person bowed.

The night sky cleared up beautifully, and the instructors explained all the secrets of the night to us. Looking up at the universe made me think of a rushed, haphazard montage of my life until this point.

To imagine that this is what Van Gogh must've had as his muse, that millions of people have lived under this carpet of stars and that these wonders of the night have always been there under which human beings have lived out their brief lives.

It made me think of how I look at time:

Time telescopes,

The currency of our memories.

This Byzantine balance,

So hard to master,

All I have to do,

Is, for once, be wise.

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