For over a 100 years, a group of men have been chasing the Sun. Here's a peek into their lives and their relationship with one of the brightest stars in the Universe.
It’s the year 1903.
The sun is about to rise upon the hills of Kodaikanal. At an altitude of almost 8,000 feet, Parathasarthy is making his way to his source of light.
Just in time before the first rays of light fall upon the eucalyptus and pine trees, he is swiftly inching his way to the dome-shaped science laboratory.
Around two floors up the loft is his window to unlocking the secrets of our universe. The majestic six-inch telescope.
Legend has it that the six-inch telescope was brought on foot from villages of the Palani Hills in Tamil Nadu. Four men climbed steep valleys and braved the attack of wild animals, carrying the six-inch telescope on their shoulders for almost three months.
That’s how Kodaikanal earned its first telescope.
Parathasarthy climbs the spiral staircase leading up to his workstation. Traces of light start trickling in from the window of the dome-shaped structure.
He carefully inspects all the plates, the screws, the tools and clocks of his instrument, to ensure a smooth observation to follow.
It’s the crack of dawn. He takes position and aims his telescope upwards at the sky’s expanse. The portal of light slowly opens up and bright light fills the lofty shed of the dome.
Parathasarthy successfully traps the shadow of the first moments of sunrise on his disc plate; his eyes still fixed on the viewfinder.
Over a 100 years have passed.
The six-inch telescope is now among the treasured ancient relics guarded carefully by the protectors of the Sun and their descendants in Kodaikanal.
Parathasarthy’s grandson is carrying forward an ancient ritual: painstakingly recording everyday exploits of one of the brightest stars in our skies.
To capture the Sun’s brightest images, he has to work in the darkest room of the hills.
At the 115-year-old Evershed processing lab, he carefully peers over an archaic magnifier to develop the first observation of the day.
In an earthen pot beside him, lie the photo chemicals, which will bring the images to life. In worn-out trays, he places the negatives and gently immerses it in the processing liquids.
Raising the sheet against the red light, he strains to see the impressions of the Sun.
Ever so gently, he handles the solar records with the reverence of a devout worshipper.
Meanwhile time is ticking on an antique clock, still reflecting London time.
The elder scientists recall sending daily observations of the sun to Delhi headquarters every evening.
Over a 100 years of astronomical data has been communicated between India and England. It is said that the Post Office down the hill from the Observatory was built for this very purpose.
The charming little library down the slope from Evershed lab is a testament to the century-old history.
The history of the Sun is documented in thousands of books: graphs, diagrams, sketches and tedious calculations on the Sun… records dating as far back as the 1800s.
Prophecies on the Sun.
An era without the Sun.
A day when the Sun would devour the whole Universe.
Markings on the daily evolution of the Sun, on how it can possibly make or break our Earth.
All such mysteries, theories and near-accurate copies of the Sun’s surface have been meticulously recorded in books from observatories at Harvard and Paris. Home to one of the world’s largest logs of astronomical and stellar data, some of the brightest minds of the last two centuries have left their imprints behind in a forgotten solar observatory in the hills of South India.
In the distance, a lone man is walking the long stretch of an underground tunnel. Dust particles are playing with the beam of light, scattering it into many magical, myriad fragments.
He walks right through the light.
From the light emerges another tiny portal, shaped much like the Sun. He stands beside it, holds the edge of the frame and proclaims, “I can move the Sun anywhere I want.”
And sure enough, the very centre of our solar system now lies in his hands.
Upon the optical instrument the shadow of the sun befalls from a revolving mirror in a tower 60 feet above us. We are in an underground solar tunnel, where Devendran adjusts the spectrograph, an optical instrument that breaks light into spectrum for photographic records.
“How many times you have crossed the Sun along with Earth?” Devendran asks us… as we notice the shadow of the Sun moving sullenly; almost haunting in its precise passing on the instrument.
It takes us a moment to understand the question Devendran asked us.
A simple question strikes us like a bolt.
We aren’t just watching the mellow moves of the Sun, we’re experiencing the Earth’s journey around the Sun. Even as time stood still, as we held our breath, the Sun moved across the panel.
In other words, through the shadow of the Sun, we came to terms with our home planet’s orbit around the Sun.
We came face-to-face with our very own individual and personal journey around the Sun.
And at that moment, the distance of 150 million kilometers between us and the Sun diminished. We felt closer to the Sun than we ever did before.
In those 15 seconds, the Keepers of the Sun gave us a glimpse into their very intimate relationship with the source of light and life, the Sun.
Devendran’s father has spent over forty years tracing the evolution of the Sun.
From working as a peon, a lab technician, a solar reader to an assistant to meteorologist, he’s certainly been an important cog in the wheel of the Solar Observatory in Kodaikanal.
At the age of 75 years, the now-retired Paramasivan takes slow steps up the slopes of the hill, draped in his indigenous shawl. He wears an endearing smile as he tells us at the Observatory, “This place is like a temple for me.”
“There was no temple back then in Kodaikanal. We have been working here for our God,” Paramasivan tells us with utmost humility and compassion.
“In your period, have you ever seen any comet? No. But in my period, I saw three of them,” tales of his solar adventures keep us occupied for hours on end.
At times he’s reminiscent and cheerful, at other times, nostalgic and tearful.
“I worship the Sun. After my retirement I visited the Konark Sun temple in Orissa. I had a bath in the Ganges. I prayed to the Sun.”
What did you tell the Sun God in Orissa, I ask him.
“I told him: I joined this place. I took your photographs for almost fifty years. I’m very glad to come and worship you. I’m a fortunate person. And that’s why I am here at the Sun Temple, I have come to meet you.”
Dried leaves dance around little abandoned observatories dotting the landscape of the hills behind Kodaikanal.
History of the sun, the stars, and the universe remain trapped inside as whispers from the cosmos echo across the valleys. Ancient relics of maps lead the way to treasures… of the Gods of our Interstellar space.
We live at the mercy of the Sun. The messengers of the light are shading us from its flare.
Senior Observer Karuna Karan tells us, “I have studied the marvelous creation of God. I have recognised and experienced, how the Earth can be saved by the angry moods of the Sun.”
“Yet without Sun, there is no life. We are the children of the Sun.”
He tells me that studying the Sun is therapeutic. “It’s like meditation.”
As the last rays of the Sun fall upon the Observatory grounds, the Keepers of the Sun march back into their resting rooms. Through the night, they will ponder about the movements and magic of the Sun and craft the message that lies hidden beneath its solar flares.
Tomorrow is another day; another sunrise that waits upon their return to guard the secrets of the Sun.
Another chance to discover the source of light.
Another chance to conquer it. Another chance to honour it.
Another chance for keeping the light.
Indian Institute of Astrophysics and Kodaikanal Solar Observatory.
Special thanks to Devendran and Parmasivan’s family for their time.