Report: Star Party @ Om Shanti Dhama

By p6; Published 14 Nov 2007

First observation at BAS in a while, The Melkote trip being long forgotten. Our first lucky break with the skies clearing up and adhering obediently to the Weather predictions, This really was one session we were in dire need of.

While assessing the sky conditions at Om Shanti Dhama - An ethnic vedic gurukula located at about - 100KM distance from Bangalore, off Mekedatu Sangama - was our primary motive, We managed to infuse a lot of adventure into the whole scheme of things. I daresay, it's positives all around. The skies fared really good with the Naked Eye Limiting Magnitude hitting the 6.0+ threshold easily. Apart, the venue is rich in natural beauty, especially that it's on one of the more pristine banks of the Kaveri.

The BAS attendees on the occassion included the lot of myself, Sathya, Amar, Chandrashekhar, Akarsh, Naveen, Shashank, Neetesh & Supratim. We were heartily welcomed by Mr. Suvichar and the folks at Om Shantidhama upon reaching there. Earlier, we had managed to haul the lot of us, and Hemant's 12" f/4.5 Dob through the 100KM route passing through Kanakapura and the rather tracherous stretch leading upto the Sangama and finally to Om Shanti Dhama. While we had managed to set off after packing up the heavy paraphernalia at about 3:30PM, We reached our final destination no earlier than 7PM.

The first thing that struck us about the clear dark skies at the venue, was the exceedingly bright Cygnus Milky Way. While the thicker Saggitarius patch was amidst haze and sinking into the evening twilight lit south-western horizion, The northern milky way of Cygnus and Aquila shone blazingly bright with dark rifts being aparrent even to our unadapted eyes.

Unfortunately, we hadn't the time to admire the show with naked-eyes for too long. We immideately got ourselves working on the ardrous task of unpacking telescopes and setting them up. The 12" Dob took a fair amount of time, As we had to work up an arrangement for the missing Teflon Pads that bear the Altitude axis. We also discovered a near calamity that the 1.25" adapter on the focusser had gone missing! Our only solace was the 32MM 2" Barrell eyepiece and we had to stick to the Two Degree field all night without switching magnifications. Amidst it all, Sathya had managed to set his barndoor tracker up, while shashank managed to setup & align his 4" short-tube equatorial.

At about this juncture, We called the gurukula students in to participate in our sessions. Our first object for the night was none other than Comet 17/P Holmes. The view, mesmerizing as much to us, as it was for them was truly one of a kind. The comet covered a major portion of the 32mm plossl's wide field. Most first timers managed to notice the intricate gradients in the comet's coma. Questions regarding comets followed, which later generalized into ones from various walks of astronomy and we promptly dealt with them as intelligbly as we could.

After the mandatory brief retirement for dinner, we got back to our scopes. While Shashank and Sathya took to their photographic setups, Akarsh, I and amar went about taking peeps at the obligatory Messier DSOs. M31 wasn 't really stretching out of the eyepiece field as it does at it's usual best, but M110 - it's satellite shone far brighter than usual. Many of us also noticed that M33 - The Triangulum Galaxy- was distinctly naked eye, Much to go on to prove that we had a pretty good sky after all. The Pleaides, The H&Chi Persei Double cluster, Open clusters in Cassiopeia, Auriga and elswhere provided good sights as usual. Crab Nebula was an unfathomable ghostly patch of light low down the horizon owing to haze. M42 managed to raise a few eyebrows as ever, even though it wasn't close to as good as it could have been. All through, Enthusiastic students and staff tagged along with us in sizeable numbers.

The better part of the DSO-Pursuit only began much later with the Galaxies in Eridanus. Akarsh, Amar and Shashank managed to polish off a bunch of NGCs from their star atlases while the rest of us took peeps at the eyepiece. The hallucination-inducing cluster of Galaxies in the Eridanus-Fornax region provided quite a challenge for our hallucinatory skills and eye acuity in unision. NGC 253 - The Sculptor Galaxy, provided a pretty good sight as well, As did it's globular neighbour NGC 288.

While we were initially taken aback by the quality of the skies, Much later, We began to notice a faint but conspicous background glow. We can owe this to a lot of factors, Possibilities including Humidity, Haze and plain bad luck. On the other hand, This could just be that time of the year.. as have we noticed with various other locations in the month of November. The sky darkness and contrast only deteriorated thereafter, possibly due to fog-accumulation. Nonetheless, the fact that we were (barely) able to spot M33 naked eye, and that we were sighting near-mag-11 galaxies with fair ease would definetely give the sky at Om Shanti Dhama contendership for a Bortle Sky Class 4 on a bad night and 3 on a better one. Earlier in the eveing, we had clearly managed to see the conical zodiacal light warping the western horizon nearly till the zenith.

Most of us retired to bed early, given that the journey had been strenuous. This was at about 3'O Clock in the morning on Sunday. We woke up to an eventful dawn and some of us managed to catch a beautiful misty fog-shrouded Kavery at 6:30AM. The late-risers joined in no sooner and we spent the time interacting with the kids. We set off on a little trek around the gurukula estate after breakfast and only returned towards late afternoon. We spent much of this time exploring this really picturesque part of the world, later coupled with a splash in the steady rapids of Kaveri. The whole experience was aesthetically fulfilling and sensual. The river, the landscapes, The prosperous green vegetation and the abundant wildlife was mesmerizing. We were welcomed to a much needed and filling lunch on getting back at the gurukula.

After more interaction with the student-folk post-lunch, We finally did get done with the process of packing our paraphernalia up, Rather involuntarily. Most of us hadn't really gambled on staying up there till lunch, but after all that we had done through the day, We had really fallen in love with the place and had to really press ourselves to make the effort to set-off back to Bangalore. All cell-phone networks were non existant much to relieve us of the anxiety to make frantic phone calls on the change of plans.

A word of mention about the Gurukula. It truly is a blend of modernity and ancient wisdom. While it's the gurukula-system in place when it comes to the lifestyle and that the Vedas are taught, It provides the mandatory mainstream education with the CBSE syllabus being taught by the day. Students at this school are selected purely on the basis of merit with no reverence to caste and religion. All this, coupled with the geography of the environment is a truly blissful experience. The institution is the brainchild of a philanthropic, charitable society. This is a unique concept and the success speaks for itself. Mr. Suvichar of the gurukula has also gladly expressed positives on the proposition of a long term affiliation.

We finally started back to Bangalore at about 2:30PM in the afternoon. On the way, we managed to add more adventure to the day by heading off on a detour towards Chunchi Falls. After much trekking around this place, and a much needed feasting on Masala-Dosas at Kanakapura, The lot of us managed to reach our homes at around 9PM in the evening. We were just 12 Hours delayed on our originally proposed schedule!

Our sincere grattitude to Mr. Prahlad and Mr. Ramesh of the Om Shanti Dhama trust, without whose cooperation none of this would've worked out.