Reaching for the Stars, Literally

How a young astronomy enthusiast from a remote Ladakhi village is smashing gender stereotypes
Night sky over Namgyal Tsemo Gompa in Leh
Night sky over Namgyal Tsemo Gompa in Leh

I&rsquove always been curious about the stars.

Growing up, our elders narrated beautiful stories about the Pole Star &ndash the king of the night sky &ndash and his children. When two specific stars come close to each other, we believe a marriage is on the cards Losar, the Ladakhi New Year, is also a festival associated with the stars. 

My village Maan, on the shores of Pangong Lake in Ladakh, is a special place for stargazing. There are no clouds here, no light or air pollution. Only a sky full of thousands of stars, twinkling in the silence of the night.

Growing up here, I learnt that women in our village take care of household chores, work on the farm, raise children and weave handicrafts. Men usually go to Leh and other towns to work as guides or travel agents. So as a woman, I had two options to get married or to find labour intensive work. 

I knew I wanted to be self-independent in life, but there was no visible path for that. I wanted a better life than what our elders had &ndash and they encouraged me to pursue that dream. So I continued to study, hoping to find my own path.

They say fortune favours the brave. The stars aligned for me one eventful day, when I was selected among several other women, for an astronomy training session by the scientists of the International Astronomical Union.

After all these years of looking at the stars with naked eyes and hearing stories about them, we were excited to be trained on the basics of astronomy, the technicalities of operating a telescope and interacting with travellers. I was thrilled to hear that the first telescope of the project would be installed in my village.

Since then, our group of 5 women have been conducting stargazing sessions every night on the shores of Pangong Lake. On a regular night in Ladakh, we can see constellations like the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, and the Pole Star. Sometimes we can spot the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, zoom into the craters of Earth&rsquos moon and identify numerous other stars and constellations. During the sessions, we like to share stories about the stars that we heard growing up. 

We try to learn continuously and keep our knowledge up to date. Our supporting partners share documents, websites and practical applications for us to expand our knowledge of the night sky.

We now also have a network of homestays called &ldquoAstrostays&rdquo. Through Astrostays, we have found employment, a steady source of income and a clear path towards self-dependence.

Today when I look at young girls in my village, I realize how things have changed for the better. Girls have started attending school regularly, and the marriageable age has gone up to 23-24 years. I hope to inspire and motivate them through my own journey.

Whether in astronomy or something else, I hope the stars will align for them one day too.

About the Storyteller 

Stanzin Dolkar is a resident of Maan village, where she is part of the astronomy team. She completed her primary education till 5th grade in Maan, then moved to a nearby hostel till 10th grade. Since there are not many options for higher education in nearby areas, she is currently pursuing her 11th grade from IGNOU. She has a family of 10. Dolkar loves to sing and dance on local Ladakhi music. She is also a known knitting expert in her village.

Supported by - Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE)

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