Three to four peculiar structures stand erect at a small ridge a little above the Aathrai Rural Municipality of Tehrathum district in east Nepal. Made of rocks, these stone structures look like large umbrellas or overgrown wild mushrooms.
Locals refer to them as Chhate Dhunga (Umbrella Rock). Etched on these structures are some oddly shaped celestial bodies such as the sun and the moon. In his 2005 article, Saur Jagat, former Director General of Survey Department, Punya Prasad Oli likened Chhate Dhunga to the Stonehenge of England.
Since then, several journals and scholarly articles have cited his paper stating that these supposed remnants of stone structures were in fact ancient Nepali astronomers’ way of tracking the position of the Sun (solstices and equinoxes).
But the inhabitants of Aathrai paint a different picture. A stone inscription, as per Khagendra Adhikari, who made a short documentary on the destination, clearly states that the structure was built in 1981 BS by a man named Sukalal Kandangwa. In 2009, Suresh Bhattarai, the current Chairperson of Nepal Astronomical Society (NASO), also ventured to the distant village.
Before his journey, though, he had a sit down with Tehrathum-native, KP Sharma Oli, our current Prime Minister himself. “Back then he told me that as a child he used to go to visit Chhate Dhunga and flick stones to the top of the structure,” says Bhattarai.
Even to this day, people flock to Chhate Dhunga not to marvel at its presumed astronomical importance but to flick stones at the structure. There is a widely held belief that if you can land a stone on the top of the structure by throwing it over your head, it will bring you good luck and prosperity.
Far from being ancient, Chhate Dhunga is not even hundred years old. “Academic articles have been misleading to present a 1981 BS-structure as a 2000-year-old astronomical monument,” says he.
The fact that such misleading information continues to circulate to this day provides an insight into the academic study on Nepali astronomy or the lack thereof. The study of astronomy might not be 2000 years old but it has had a long and illustrious history. “Even before the unification of Nepal in 1793, texts — such as Sumati Tantram (576-880), Sumati Siddhanta (1409), Bhaswati Baal Bhodhini Tika (1494) by Balbhadra of Jumla, Bhaswati Tika (1514) by Ratna Dev, Mathematical Astronomy (1663) by Gaureshwor Joshi — were some of the significant contributions to the history of Nepali astronomy,” informs Bhattarai.
Since these historical treatises, Nepal has come a long way and many Nepalis have made significant impact internationally in Astronomy and Astrophysics (A&A). However, the country is lagging when it comes to promoting astronomy education at different levels.
The modern astronomy movement is believed to have started when an oﬃcial observation programme of Haley’s comet was organised by Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) in 1986 under the initiative of Er. Rishi Shah, who is also dubbed as the father of observational astronomy. “It was a huge event that greatly helped instill a sense of wonder and interest among young Nepalis in astronomy,” he reminisces.
Before pursuing his Master’s degree in Electrical Power Engineering from Germany, Shah studied B.Sc. in TU in the early 70s. “Back then, Tribhuvan University offered Mathematical Astronomy under undergraduate honours, which was later excluded from the curriculum, due to lack of professional instructors,” he says.
To this day, there is no separate department or Institute for A&A in Nepal. TU is the only institute offering Gravitation and Cosmology as an elective course in the second year of Master’s Degree in Physics since 2007. “So far, about 10 batches of over 2000 students have graduated,” informs Dr. Binil Aryal, the leading astrophysicist of Nepal.
“More than half of these graduates, though, relocate abroad, particularly to the USA for better prospects since there isn’t much scope for astrophysics here in Nepal,” adds Dr. Aryal, who has also been running a research group in TU since 2005.
Talking about scope, in 2016, National Geography listed Sagarmatha National Park as one of the world’s five best stargazing sites on the planet. “The University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory in Chile is the highest observatory in the world at an altitude of 5,640 m. But with some of the highest elevations, Nepal also has the potential to be the centre of observational astronomy.
It can attract and foster academic and observational research but so far no initiatives have been taken, as a result of which passionate astrophysicists have no choice but to relocate abroad,” explains Aryal.
An exception to the case is NASO’s chairperson Bhattarai, who doesn’t want to move abroad but to create an environment here to encourage youngsters to pursue astronomy. With this in mind, in 2020 Nepal became a part of the International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Education (OAE) to promote astronomy in education. NASO and its Patron Rishi Shah have been relentlessly trying to incorporate astronomy in school curriculum to instill scientific thinking among young students.
There is a belief that one cannot pursue astronomy in Nepal, but it is really a matter of one’s passion, believes Shah.
As per Shah, astronomy is an all-encompassing subject. “It touches upon so many facets of skills. The scope is ever expanding as people begin to understand the universe with each passing year,” he states.
“It’s a common misconception that you can’t be an astrophysicist staying in Nepal. In today’s world an astronomer can be an engineer, a meteorologist, a data scientist,” claims Bhattarai, who himself completed his Master of Science (Physics) from St. Xavier’s College, Maitighar.
While there is astronomy in school curriculum, a more practical approach is sorely lacking. In school, astronomy starts from Grade IV. There is one unit in each class generally with the chapter named ‘The Earth and the Universe’ until Grade X. The chapters include information about planets and its satellites, artificial satellites, the moon, the sun, the solar system, constellations, black holes, etc.
According to Bhattarai, most students find +2 science extremely difficult because scientific knowledge isn’t given much emphasis at school level. Realising this, the Government of Nepal launched an additional course in science from 2073 B.S. But while every academic institution provides optional maths, optional science is a subject unknown to many. “There are hardly any private schools that offer optional science.
The subject would offer a proper transition for young minds interested in science but it remains unknown despite being introduced four years ago,” bemoans Bhattarai.
“Nepal needs to boost astronomy education at all levels as it acts as a proxy for promoting scientific temper, besides addressing fundamental questions about our place in the universe,” elucidates academician Shah.
Fortunately, the country has seen a massive surge in the number of amateur young astronomers, thanks to outreach programmes like National Astronomy Olympiad and Asteroid Search Campaign.