P Manikandan, or Sathish, assists scientists with valuable record-keeping at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory (KSO). Following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, grandfather and father before him, he is the fourth generation of support staff for KSO. Photo: Solita Deb.

Hidden Spaces: Inside Kodaikanal’s Solar Observatory

It’s 9 am on a bright, sunny morning in Kodaikanal. P Manikandan, or Sathish, as he is known to colleagues and friends, stands at his desk at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory (KSO) and carefully takes out a postcard-sized plate of glass as thick as a windowpane from an aged envelope. He slides the glass plate under a yellow light. Immediately, an image snaps into view: it’s a photograph of the sun from 13 November 1932—a moment from a past long gone. Sathish scans the photograph in a massive space-age scanner, as part of the digitisation project underway at the observatory, which aims to scan and upload all the archives going back to 1904. This is the start of a typical day in Sathish’s life, going back in time—and space.

‘There are students too, doing research here, who visit the lab. I digitise their latest observations or help them locate older data in the archives,’ Sathish says. He has been working at the KSO since 2009, digitising the photographic glass plates of the sun, along with sun charts—hand-drawings of the sun, usually in pencil, highlighting sunspots and other features. But Sathish’s association with the observatory goes back much further than 2009, all the way to his great-grandfather who joined the place in the early 1900s, when it was first set up.

The Kodaikanal Solar Observatory (KSO) is a solar observatory owned and operated by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, located in Kodaikanal. Founded in 1899, its head office is now located in Bengaluru. In the hills, at almost 2500 metres above sea level, Indian scientists and engineers have been using a series of six telescopes to observe the sun. Photo: Marcus334/Wikimedia Commons.

‘My great-grandfather V Poomban hails from Poombarai. He was hired by the British as a peon,’ Sathish says. Since then, Poomban’s son, grandson and great-grandson have all ended up working at this historic institution, either as support staff or directly assisting the scientists in observing the sun every day. 

My first visit to the KSO was back in early 2020, when I initially visited Kodai, right before the pandemic. When I entered the campus, strategically situated at one of the highest points in Kodaikanal, the sounds of traffic slowly faded amidst the towering oaks and pines. I took the museum tour with a gaggle of school children and marvelled at the live solar image, shifting in real time as the Earth spun, and the various charts and graphs with information on the closest star ordering our days. After the tour, I snuck away to roam the sprawling grounds with its massive domed telescopes and tall trees, the soft February breeze whispering in my ears.

Sathish grew up roaming these grounds. ‘I have peered through the windows, watching the scientists and technicians work, since I was a child,’ he says.

Staring at the sun: solar observatories such as the one in Kodaikanal help us get a better understanding of solar activity; this is vital as it affects the planet’s magnetic field, communications systems, and power grids. A 12 metre-high solar tower with a modern spectrograph was set up in 1960, enabling pioneering helioseismology investigations, and measurements of vector magnetic fields followed. Photo: Solita Deb.

The KSO is a pioneering institution for solar physics. It celebrates turning 125 this year with a series of events which began this February. Its earliest claim to fame lies, in part, with the late John Evershed, an English astronomer who first observed the flow of gases across sunspots from here in 1909. This phenomenon was christened the Evershed Effect. This study was so comprehensive and foundational that ‘little has been added to our information on it in the subsequent half century,’ according to the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) website. When I ask him about it, Sathish gets excited. ‘My great-grandfather worked with Evershed,’ he says, beaming.

The KSO opens up its spaces for special programming from time to time. Recently, on National Science Day 2024, 28th Feb 2024 around 1400 visitors were invited to participate in a series of activities, 700 of them school students from more than 20 different schools (watch a video on their YouTube channel). Photos: KSO.

The sun has been studied over the last few centuries for various reasons, including solar eclipses, sunspots—cooler regions on the sun’s surface that emit electromagnetic radiation—and sometimes solar flares, which affect the earth’s atmosphere. A guide at the KSO museum explained to us that the appearance of sunspots is thought to be connected to the monsoon patterns on Earth. In fact, the KSO came into being through the relocation of the erstwhile Madras Observatory to a higher, sunnier location after the Great Famine of 1876–1878 in South India, which occurred after an intense drought and subsequent crop failure and led to the loss of 5.6 million–9.4 million lives, according to some estimates. This tragedy, along with pressure from European solar scientists ‘who wanted the benefit of India’s sunny days for their research’ led to the establishment of a new observatory in the hills of South India.[1]

Since the early 20th century, the KSO has continued to facilitate crucial research in solar- as well as astrophysics. The observatory, started in a small shed in 1901—it is now spread out over numerous buildings and telescopes—has been recording images of the sun daily for more than a century. This means it has one of the oldest and most exhaustive archives of the sun in the whole world. And Sathish and his family have been working behind the scenes of this remarkable endeavour throughout, whether it is assisting the scientists, handling security or digitising the archives to enable further research. 

Early photographs of staff at KSO date back to the 1900s, when it was established by the British government, such as an image of John Evershed working with the spectroheliograph at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory (image 1); initially found under the Madras Observatory, the institution was shifted to Kodaikanal so it could take advantage of the town’s altitude, with a sizeable team of scientists, technicians, and support staff (images 2 and 3). Photos courtesy IIA archives.

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According to a 1928 KSO bulletin, it was Poomban, Sathish’s great-grandfather, who first spotted a brilliant daylight comet—thought to be De Vico’s comet, which shows up in our skies every 74 years—one early December morning in 1927. While setting up the facility for the scientists, Poomban noticed ‘something bright quite near the sun’ and immediately alerted the observatory staff. The scientist in-charge, P R Chidambara Ayyar, writes, ‘There was the bright head and there was the tail directed away from the sun. The head was clearly brighter than Venus seen some distance ahead in the west.’ Ayyar went on to draw the comet by hand, as it could not be observed through the telescope because of the glare of the sun ‘flooding the instruments’. Unfortunately, the express telegram dispatched to the Madras Observatory that morning to verify the ‘apparition’ never reached its recipient, so valuable observations of the comet were lost. The only other observation of the De Vico comet until then had occurred in 1846, when it was discovered. The next official observation occurred only on 25 June 1996. Poomban almost made history that day in 1927.

This was the start of a curious family legacy that has endured for more than a century. ‘My grandfather P S Subramanian joined the observatory at the age of 24, sometime after he left the military in 1946. He was the head peon.’ There is not much more information about his grandfather’s time at the observatory, but Sathish credits Poomban for passing down his dedication to the KSO to three further generations. After Subramanian, his son S Padmanabhan (Sathish’s father) joined the observatory in 1974 as a security guard. Two years later Subramanian passed away. Padmanabhan continued to work there for the next 36 years and retired as the head of security in 2014.

Dated archives at KSO are stored on photographic glass plates, ranging from the 1900s to today, in addition to records on paper. Over 1.5 lakh solar observations are preserved here, carefully handled with gloves by its small team of technicians. Photos: Solita Deb.

Today Sathish has followed in his ancestors’ footsteps. Despite having no formal training in physics (he is an MBA graduate), he joined the observatory in 2009 and started out cleaning the photographic glass plates that had images of the sun. Later, with encouragement from his scientist colleagues, he even made observations through the 6-inch twin telescope (one of the oldest extant scientific telescopes) that is housed in an unassuming pale yellow building on campus.

Now, Sathish is project assistant of the digitisation programme at the observatory. ‘I have learnt these processes out of interest,’ he says. ‘People who have worked here for 35 years have taught me how to digitise the glass plate images of the sun, draw sun charts and so on.’ There are approximately 2,00,000 glass plates in the KSO archives, dating back to 1904, and Sathish, along with the digitisation team, has set down all of these records that astrophysicists and solar physicists use till this day, for posterity.

Sathish takes a break on the grounds of KSO on a sunny day. Of the 365 days, nearly 220 days are clear for good solar observation from the hill station. Earlier this year, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) sent the Aditya-L1 spacecraft nearly 15 lakh kilometers away; it will be able to observe the sun year-round and complement data from KSO. Photo: Solita Deb.

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The process of choosing a suitable location for an observatory to replace the one in Chennai was long and drawn-out. Finally, the government astronomer for Madras Michie Smith arrived at two options: Kotagiri and Kodaikanal. After extensive observations of the sun (including the steadiness of its image), Venus, Saturn, star clusters, star trails and nebulae at both locations, and considering their altitudes, he declared Kodaikanal the clear winner, with the most suitable climate. The spot chosen by Smith was ‘more than a 1,000ft higher than the highest spot in Kotagiri’. And thus, ‘Books and instruments were transferred from Madras to Kodaikanal and sent up the ghaut in the dry weather before end of March 1899. About 1,000 coolie loads reached Kodaikanal.’

More than 100 years and ten solar cycles later, Sathish is working assiduously to digitise and preserve all the invaluable data at KSO for current and future generations.

The KSO archives, with more than a century of invaluable data, are extraordinary in themselves. A short YouTube documentary shows temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms with endless wooden cabinets full of glass plates encased in paper envelopes.

Sathish maintains the archival room with the utmost dedication and attention to detail. ‘You won’t get this quality of data anywhere else,’ he says. ‘If you see the images of solar flares and prominences on glass plates, they are crystal clear, better than the digital CCTV observations that are in use now.’ The KSO is also known for its collaboration with a number of other observatories in Europe and the US, who use its solar and astronomical data for research.

The rooms of the KSO are full of invaluable information and equipment, such as sun charts (image 1) and invaluable texts (image 2). Photographs are being digitised for long-term studies of the last ten solar cycles (image 3). Photos: Solita Deb.

Awestruck by the historic and scientific scale of his and his colleagues’ work, I ask Sathish the obvious question: How does he feel about his job, after a decade at KSO?

‘I like that the observations I digitise are published in prestigious journals. I compile the raw data and send it to IIA, Bengaluru. When my work is acknowledged in scientific publications, it gives me immense satisfaction,’ he replies. Sathish and his observatory colleagues’ work has led to crucial breakthroughs in solar physics, including the discovery of the migration of sunspots to the solar equator, helping predict future solar cycles and the discovery of oxygen and hydrogen lines in the solar atmosphere, to name a few.

It isn’t just the recognition for him, though. Sathish dearly values the years of hard work put in by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, along with their peers. ‘They worked here with very limited resources and facilities, and their efforts must not go to waste.’

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These days the sun shines brightly over the Palani Hills, I’m told, bringing respite to locals after a gloomy winter. The sunshine and clear weather, however, also herald the wildfire season, threatening crops and livelihoods. Personally, this time of the year is forever tied to my first memories of Kodai: traipsing around in spring–a month before the pandemic would swallow us–my city eyes popping in disbelief at the shocking reds, blues, yellows, greens and purples (jacarandas, hydrangeas, poinsettias, angel’s trumpets etc.) of the hillside, reading by the lake, watching the sunrise from Greenlands, easing out of heartbreak.

For a year-and-a-half, I watched the sun (and moon) rise from my tiny cottage, cooked meals, worked on my book, sat with myself. I lived by daylight, wrapping up errands in town by lunchtime, and inevitably retired to my room by nightfall. And although I find it hard to believe in a god, there is something sacred in this rhythm. It taught me things about myself, my mistakes, my desires. Now, almost six months after leaving Kodai behind for a new life, I wonder what it means to live and die by the sun.

Sathish wears the weight of this legacy lightly. I ask if someone else will follow in his footsteps and keep the family tradition of watching ‘the sun god’—which he likens to a ‘prayer’—alive.

‘I am married with two daughters,’ Sathish says proudly. Then pulling out his phone, he shows us photos of them. A tiny girl in a shiny dress is pointing excitedly at a white light image of the sun on a computer. ‘I hope my daughter can join the observatory someday.’

Visit the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory’s astronomy museum through the week, all year, 9 am – 4 pm. Their daily night skywatch is usually held from 7 – 9 pm. For more information, call 04542 240 588 or visit the Indian Institute of Astrophysics website. To follow KSO’s activities and for updates, follow them on Instagram.

Kartikeya Jain

Kartikeya Jain is a freelance writer, editor and translator from Delhi. Kartikeya is a 2022 South Asia Speaks fellow and their work appears in Scroll.in, The Deccan Herald, Thelallantop.com and Nether Quarterly.

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