Star gazing with astronomers of the past

Star gazing with astronomers of the past

Award-winning documentary Hidden in the mists of Time – The Travancore Observatory, brings the forgotten analysis facility from the 1830s to new mild

Trekking up the arduous path to the misty peak of Agastyakoodam, astrophysicist and educational Anand Narayanan, marvelled at the spirit of enquiry and journey that motivated John Allan Broun, a British astronomer, to make the similar journey greater than 150 years in the past.

“Broun, the second director of the observatory in Thiruvananthapuram (appointed in 1852), felt that an observatory post atop the Agastyakoodam, the second highest peak in the Western Ghats in Kerala, would be the best place to carry out studies on magnetism. We were tracing his footsteps to see if we could discover the post he had set up there,” says Anand, Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology.

Ever since Anand first heard about the ‘nakshatra bungalow’ in the coronary heart of Thiruvananthapuram metropolis from native historical past buffs, he was intrigued and tried to study extra about its location, work and historical past. “It still exists in the heart of the city but hardly anyone knows about its significance and the work of eminent scientists who had worked there,” he says.

A view of Thiruvananthapuram from the observatory

He started delving into the historical past of the observatory and skim annual reviews introduced out by the erstwhile Travancore Administration, the place they chronicle in nice element every thing that occurred in the kingdom throughout that 12 months. All of it’s preserved at the Public Library in the metropolis.

“I was able to read the report on the centenary of the observatory in 1937, where many dignitaries, like CP Ramaswamy Iyer, had gathered to celebrate the occasion. I realised that though it is a small facility, it had been through a lot of ups and downs, depending on the people at the helm,” says Anand.

Wanting extra folks to know extra about the place, he determined to make a documentary. The 27-minute brief, Hidden In The Mists Of Time — The Travancore Observatory, bagged awards for the best-researched movie and for the best-technically visualised movie (graphics, animation, and particular results) in the just lately concluded 10th National Science Film Festival of India, held from November 24 – 27.

The misty peaks of Agastyamala in the Western Ghats

Anand started his analysis for the movie in 2017. “We realised how fascinating regional history can be. Stories of the past are always around us but hidden from us at the same time. And that is where research becomes interesting. We talked to several local historians and the older generation who were associated with the observatory one way or the other. We then spent a lot of time finding documentary evidence to verify certain facts and fill the gaps,” he elaborates.

Steeped in native historical past

The observatory predates the University of Kerala, though it now comes below its aegis.

“This is perhaps the oldest scientific facility of the University and it had been commissioned by Swati Thirunal, then the reigning monarch of erstwhile Travancore, in 1837. He was keen on astronomy and was in his twenties when he decided to have an observatory in Thiruvananthapuram. There was a certain vision in his decision,” explains Anand. In 1832, Swathi Thirunal had met John Caldecott, the British business agent and persuaded him to arrange the observatory.

The Travancore Observatory set up in 1837 by Swathi Thirunal Maharaja

The Travancore Observatory arrange in 1837 by Swathi Thirunal Maharaja  
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

To make the movie, Anand approached the Department of Physics of the University of Kerala. They had been extraordinarily supportive, giving him permission for filming and for going by way of the archival materials in the observatory. The movie was financially supported by an outreach grant from the Kerala State Council for Science Technology and Education.“I gathered a team of students to help with the research. Reputed wildlife photographer Suresh Elamon sir joined in as cinematographer. I had no story board or script. We began randomly shooting everything related to the observatory. Somewhere along the way, I wrote a script,” he says. Rahul Rajiv, an engineer with a knack for visuals and science, did the modifying, and Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan, the voiceover.

Anand and his staff did the Agastyamala trek (about 69 km from the metropolis) in January 2019, following reported geographical coordinates of the magnetic observing station. “There were no tangible structures there. The reports mentioned that the structure was made of wood. It is likely to have perished in the humid, windy conditions close to the summit of the peak. We just filmed whatever was present at roughly the location mentioned — there was practically nothing,” he remembers.

The poster of the film directed by Anand Narayanan, which won two national awards for technical excellence in the tenth National Science Festival of India

The poster of the movie directed by Anand Narayanan, which received two nationwide awards for technical excellence in the tenth National Science Festival of India  
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

The staff consisting of Sreerag Jayakumar, Shajeer Rahman, Vivek Vijayan and Anand discovered the going powerful even now on account of the tropical vegetation and the steep climb. Academic and native historical past buff Achuthsankar S Nair mentions in the documentary that the staff led by Broun was given convicts to assist them lower a path to succeed in the peak.

Making the movie meant digging by way of the historical past of the metropolis. They discovered that the observatory was as soon as used for timekeeping and that the Travancore Broadcasting Station trusted the observatory for correct timekeeping.

“However, one of the many reasons why this facility, in our opinion, waned out is because its focus kept shifting over time from astronomy to magnetic field studies, to timekeeping, and meteorological measurements. It depended on who was in charge of the observatory and what their science interests were. At the same time, the city grew around that facility, the light pollution increased, and it became difficult to carry out scientifically worthwhile astronomical observations,” believes Anand.

He says the future of this place lies in reviving the facility right into a science historical past museum, and an astronomy public outreach facility and thus assist. . “This is probably the best way to help the future generations bond with local history. The place is of national importance; it is the second oldest modern astronomical observatory in India, after the Madras Observatory,” he asserts.

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