09 Jan 2023

Bhutan: The Stars That Look Down On Us


Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky.

Born in 1934, Carl Sagan, American astronomer, cosmologist and intrepid traveller in the night skies was all his life driven by the awakening of his curiosity and wonderment about the stars. Kindled when he was just five years old, his quest for discovery about the stars remained an abiding obsession, pushing him to find the answers about them. Dazzled by his many findings as a scientist, he wrote: “The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first time we are becoming a part of it.”

There’s the child in us who never goes away and our fascination with the stars, triggered off by that simple childhood nursery rhyme, can become a lifelong itch that begs to be appeased, just as it was for Sagan. This is richly evident in the rising number of stargazing travellers, steeped in the grammar of the glittery stars and constellations, who set out to search the darkest places in the skies to connect with the cosmos, like Sagan.

Bhutan is one of the world’s most exciting places for star gazing. Because of the lack of nightglow, minimal pollution and high Himalayan altitudes, it’s got some of the darkest skies in Asia. The sky is held in deep veneration and a new moon (namgang) is held highly sacred.

You will love Bhutan’s starry skies because, even randomly, in a clearing by a road you might have the theatre of a clear night sky all to yourself. Low light pollution, crisp mountain nights offer many thrilling terms of engagement with your binocs, or travelling telescope and tripod! The best nights are when the moon is in a crescent or gibbous phase, so it doesn't pollute the sky with light.

Did you know that there’s a space programme founded by His Majesty the King which is designed to encourage Bhutan’s youth to “think beyond our limits–and to reach for the stars”? In 2020, the celebrations of the 40th birthday of His Majesty were kicked off with lots of fun activities with space–including stargazing, seminars, quizzes, exhibitions, model development et al.

Guidance by the stars has been fundamental to Bhutan’s historical narratives shaped by centuries of readings by astrologers to inform decisions on everything from which colour car to purchase to government policy. Take the 8km drive from Thimphu to Pangri Zampa, the 6th century monastery which houses the kingdom’s premier astrological institution, the Druk Phudrangding College for Astrology. It calculates and interprets celestial movements and phenomena to guide activities on Earth. Every year, the college determines and releases the nation’s official calendars and calculates auspicious dates for key national events. Even His Majesty’s coronation and wedding dates–and the best date for launching Bhutan’s Covid-19 vaccination programme were decided after thorough astrological consultation.

From Thimphu, take the one hour drive to the 3,116-metre-high Dochu La, the Himalayan pass that falls on the road between the national capital and Punakha. On a new moon night the temples in the passes fill with the burgeoning number of worshippers bumping shoulders with astronomers. Dust off your personal telescope to navigate the settings of the clear night sky as you search here for remote planets such as Uranus and Neptune. In December, the clear days reveal the Himalayan pinnacles of Masaganang (7,200m), Kangphugang (7,170m), Tsendagang (6,960 m), Jejegangphugang (7,158m), and Terigang (7,060 m).

In the remote Phobjikha Valley spend the day in Gangtey in the company of monks at the 17th century Gangtey Monastery lighting butter lamps and stringing up prayer flags. You should use your time well here. Drive down the picturesque route of this isolated glacial valley to the Black Neck Crane Visitors Centre for a rare experience amongst its revered wintering guests–the Thrung Thrung Karmo, a rare and endangered avifaunal species. Legend, treasured for centuries in local folklore, has it that the cranes arriving from the Tibetan Plateau in late October circle the skies around Gangtey Gompa thrice before descending to the wetlands for their winter sojourn. Gangtey Monastery even arranges a crane festival each year in its centuries-old courtyard.

Even when the day is done, the adventures never stop at Gangtey. The night skies spread across the glorious expanse of the Gangtey valley offer stargazers, memories of a lifetime. Rolling towards the distant horizon are untrammelled views of the valley and the dark canvas of the sky shimmering with nebulas and galaxies that are light-years away to ponder over. To aid you on your adventures in the night skies, there are astronomy apps you can download on your phone to identify the constellations with the landmark planets and the moon, to get your bearings.

Man’s quest for unravelling the marvellous mysteries and mystiques, not just of Planet Earth, but the heavens too, is an unquenchable thirst. So wherever you may roam, chasing the night skies to follow the stars remember Sagan’s words: ‘Exploration is in our nature… We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.’

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