Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Gazing across Millenia

I asked myself the other day, 'How far does your gaze go?'. A fairly odd question, I thought, but nevertheless I found myself saying 'A few inches, most of the times'. A laptop or an iPhone screen is about as far as my gaze goes for a major part of the day. And then, a few hundred metres a couple of times a day, to scan for an incoming bus at the bus-stop.

Is that why it feels so different when my gaze soars over a valley from a mountain pass, or when I look at piling thunderclouds on the horizon on an evening? Perhaps. Perhaps that is also why I was so intrigued by my answer to how far is the farthest that I have glanced.

Stars are so far away that measuring their distance involves borrowing units from time. They are quite unlike anything else that we will rest our eyes upon. Here is something that is not a part of our man-made world, and -unlike much of our earth-a part of nature that we cannot even reach or touch, leave alone control. In fact, stars are not a part of our world - we are a part of theirs (and a very small one at that).

Star-studded skies are best watched on cold dark and cloudless nights, with company that is willing to shut-up talking about themselves. If there is someone who is interested in astronomy, knows the names of the stars and constellations, and their facts he is indispensable.

Even more interesting is the person who knows the mythology and the stories behind stars. Every culture has made its own attempts to relate to and identify with the mystical sparkling night sky through stories and beliefs. I think it is just our way of making these powerful unknown objects more human. Which is why people can see hunters, bulls, bears and scales in the skies.

The stories of Orion the Hunter, (Mruga, the Deer, in India), The Great Bear (Saptarshi, the Seven Sages, in India), and the Pole Star (Dhruva, the Steadfast, in India) are as interesting, if not more, than information about the distance in light years, the surface temperatures and the life-cycles of these stars. Told in the silence of the night, stretched out on the grass in an open glade, the stories can swirl up skywards, taking fantastic vivid shapes, as consciousness flirts with sleep.

Norwegian photographer Terje Sorgjerd's stunning time-lapse video of night sky and the Milky Way couldn't have captured the magic of star-gazing any better. Shot at El Teide, Spain's highest mountain, it follows the Milky Way, (or Aakash Ganga-Ganges of the Skies-at it is known in India) for a whole week.

The pursuit of astronomical or astrological knowledge aside, watching the stars with your own eyes is an experience that can silence even the most restless mouths and minds. It may have something to do with the atmosphere, the location far away from cities and crowds, and the unhurried silence. But I suspect it has more to do with the way they dwarf us in time and space, breaking right through our thoughts for once, and making us forget ourselves.
It is not for nothing that the starry night skies are called the Heavens, where we go after we shed our lives on Earth.

1 comment:

  1. I have had the good luck to spend one glorious night sky-watching with some very knowledgeable and very willing-to-share-it-with-lesser-mortals friends many ages ago. To lie back with your gaze turned to the sky in the middle of a deep silent cold night and watch the pageantry of jewel-bright constellations scattered across the sky with people who understand their beauty is one of the most memorable experiences ever. Your post brought to mind the memory of that night. Thanks!