An Astronomically Enlightening Trip

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A tour of Sariska, Rajasthan might come across as uninteresting to many, particularly those who’ve known it only for its not-so-appealing safari. Spending the weekend there would surely seem boring, right? Well, not when you realise it’s home to a unique ‘Astroport’, offering some of the most breathtaking views of the night sky in the country! Add to that a sweet little visit to a village and a one-of-its-kind pathshala Phunsuk Wangdu would be proud of, and you know you’re in for an experience likely to be anything but ordinary.

That’s enough motivation to get up early on a Saturday morning, as the twenty of us did. The long drive provided us time aplenty to acquaint with the new faces, and get to know the familiar ones even better. The usual travel games got us going, and by the time we entered Sariska, we knew who was good at acting or singing or storytelling. The property at Astroport was better than we’d imagined, and there was some fine Rajasthani folk music to welcome us. An early evening trek followed a good lunch, but it was really the night that mesmerised us.

The session on astronomy, most of us had reckoned, would be similar to those school trips to the planetarium. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The galaxy of scintillating stars right above us left us astounded. Thanks to Delhi’s dreadful air, a clear sight of the night sky is alien to us, and it was hard to believe it was real (seemed more like a giant 3-D roof strategically placed just to impress us). Not since Brisbane had I seen those twinkling objects in their full glory. As we marveled at the sheer brilliance of nature, there were cheeky remarks flying all over. While pin-pointing the constellations with his Star Wars-like super laser light, the innocent instructor told us tales of how the movement of stars helped our great ancestors to correctly estimate time, directions and the arrival of different seasons. He termed this the art of making out (yes, “making out”) those early humans naturally possessed, thanks to their observational skills. “What shapes can you see when you look at the stars?”, he asked. “Modi”, someone quickly replied (and chants of Modi followed)! “Sunny Leone”, uttered another! Constellations, like beauty, lie in the eyes of the beholder.

This was quickly followed by a presentation on DSLR camera and its features – something we had thought had the potential to bore us. Yet again, we were surprised. Not only did we gain new insight and discover features that were hitherto unheard of, but also got to try out those features and hone our skills at night photography (or astro-photography). We then made good use of a couple of powerful telescopes to get up close and personal with the likes of Orion and Andromeda, and gaze at the captivating spark of Sirius – the brightest star up there. (Sadly, the telescopes weren’t sharp enough to show us Modi or Miss Leone, but I’m sure they’re working on building better ones.)

That wasn’t it. The night had just begun. A great performance by a handful of Rajasthani folk artists at bonfire awaited us post dinner (it was Lohri after all; the bonfire just had to be there). From Kesariya Balam to Pallu Latke and Rashke Qamar, they played it all. It was the child dancer, though, that caught everyone’s attention, and even taught us a few steps. Once this was over, and as the weather got chillier, our own singers helped build up a nice mehfil. The folk instruments gave way to Ankit’s guitar, and the singer within each of us awoke. The shouting and howling continued as we moved into the tents, and the decibels further shot up at the stroke of midnight, as we gathered to wish Golu (our photographer-cum-entertainer, who had just bid adieu to his teenage years) a happy birthday.

There was a four-planets-in-a-row sighting planned for the next dawn (supposedly a very rare occurrence), but as you could very well imagine, none of us men turned up for the 5 am thing (barring Sarthak, who had all the ladies in the group for company – a big enough incentive to compromise on some sleep). We did get up in time for the solar session, and although the lecture seemed a tad too long, the incredibly fierce energy emitted by Earth’s nearest star left us dumbfounded. The instructor, in his quest to explain why we shouldn’t look at the sun directly (let alone through the telescope), carried out a simple but mind-numbing experiment. He plucked a leaf and held it up in front of the lens of the telescope (pointed towards the sun), and in no time, we could see smoke coming out of the burning leaf. None of us were ‘Rajinikanth’ enough to dare to look into that lens.

Soon after breakfast, Disha came up with a touching speech, and shared with us the purpose of setting up ‘Kutumb’, her start up. She then gave us an easy but important task – writing a small letter addressed to each of our parents and/or our siblings, expressing therein a feeling of gratitude for all they’ve done and continue to do everyday, and conveying other feelings we may not ordinarily express, but should. We then made the most of the available sports equipment and the inviting field, and some football and cricket, and even cycling, made it a fine Sunday morning, before we checked out of the place (obviously not before getting a thousand pics clicked). It was by no means the end of the adventure though, as we set out for Agar, a nearby village. The bus commute gave way to a joyous tractor ride, and shortly thereafter, we arrived at the hut that had some tasty desi lunch prepared for us. The buffalos and goats greeted us at the entrance (well, in their own way), as did more than a dozen kids. We had garma-garam puris served to us on patte ki plates, with some kadi and delicious kheer. Among the ladies who prepared this for us were Anna and Johanna, from the Netherlands (with whom I had a brief discussion on Dutch football and Ajax), and Maya from California served the food along with the locals.

Now, all this wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for Gautam Khandelwal, a CA and SRCC graduate who left a lucrative career by quitting his job at Arthur Andersen to start teaching, and later, set up a unique school to impart joy and knowledge to the kids of Agar, coupled with other initiatives to improve the life of an Agarmach (no, that’s not how a dweller of that village is known), in what little ways he could. We had met him the previous day, but that was too little a time to spend with, and learn from, a gentleman as inspiring as him. We then proceeded to check out his tiny school – aptly named ‘Masti ki Pathshala’, where we flew kites on the terrace (what better way to celebrate Makar Sankranti!). Some hot rabri was the parting gift, as we boarded the tractor to get back to our bus.

A long, intense session of dumb charades got the return journey underway, with some new movie names being invented on the spot. Shortly thereafter, the 5-member organising gang came up with small speeches, and random talks and jokes followed. As we tried to do a quick recap of this wonderful expedition and bring out some highlights (it was so good in its entirety that it was tough to pick up highlights), we unanimously agreed that it was a weekend very well spent. Who says CAs are boring? Well, maybe they are, but there’s also a vivacious community like ours, often doing things one wouldn’t normally associate with a finance professional. And this tour was unique in many ways (how often do you get to meet 3 Sarthaks and just 1 Ankit in a group of 20?). It was enlightening and enriching.

Muchas gracias, amigos! Eagerly awaiting the next trip already.

(Editor’s Note: A big Thank You to the people of Agar Village and the staff at Astroport for hosting us. Thank You Gautam Khandelwal for sharing your time and knowledge with us. Also Thank You Disha for your wonderful session and Sarthak Taneja for the photos. Photos clicked by Sarthak shall be uploaded soon.)

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About Author

Kartik Malhotra is a CA, working with Ernst & Young as a tax consultant. A sports fanatic, he's also a music & movie buff and an avid traveller. He's a contributing writer & editor at Wikipedia, and a proud member of FinSocial.