CELEBRATIONS marking 800 years of Vijaydurg (Fort Victory), one of the best marine forts along the West Coast, hardly created any ripples in the world of Indian tourism. The fort, also known as the Gibraltar of the East, was given its due by the locals last week, while the rest of the world was ringing in the New Year.
For me, Vijaydurg was always very significant because of its splendid past, its strategic location near the Arabian Sea, the first methodical naval experiments by King Shivaji and the fear created by Sarkhel Kanhoji Angria in the minds of European and British seafarers. Now, something more interesting has come up. It is being suggested that Vijaydurg was the place where astronomers obtained the first evidence of helium’s existence. The question being asked today is: Was it Sir J Norman Lockyer, the French astronomer Pierre-Jules-César Janssen, or someone else in their crew who got masonry platforms built for the eclipse photography in August 1868?
When I first heard about Lockyer’s possible visit to Vijaydurg and he getting the first photographic evidence of helium from this historic place, Vijaydurg turned into an enigmatic riddle for me. “They (the platforms) are still called sahebache katte (The Englishman’s platform),” my friend who was part of the Vijaydurg celebrations told me about a month ago. As I went on reading the notes on Lockyer and Pierre in encyclopaedias, science journals and assorted material I found on the Internet, the legendary astronomers’ tryst with Vijaydurg became hazier.
The total solar eclipse on August 18, 1868 is considered to be a milestone in Sun-related discoveries. Till Lockyer tried to decipher the spectrographs showing a yellow spectral line in the Sun’s corona, helium was unknown. Lockyer later named the chemical after the Greek word ‘helios’ meaning the Sun. During this eclipse that was visible from the Red Sea through India to Malaysia and New Guinea, British scientists James Francis Tennant, John Herschel, Norman Pogson with their French counterparts Jules Janssen and Georges Rayet studied the celestial marvel with spectroscopes. Not many of us are aware that the spectrographs that helped in discovering helium had anything to do with India. At least, I never did.
Interestingly, a search for Indian links with the discovery of helium took me to Guntur, a neighbouring Karnataka town. On August 18 in 2001, coinciding with the World Helium Day, the town celebrated the 133rd anniversary of the discovery of helium. A local industrial house marketed the day well in Guntur. The town had a Helium Walk and a few seminars. I found another reference to British and French teams of astrologers studying the 1868 eclipse together with the Madras Observatory team. “This observation in India was the first one made of helium. Recognised as a new element in the solar spectrum, it was 27 years later that Ramsay isolated it from the mineral cleveite,” writes veteran scientist M K V Bappu in one of his articles.
Now I think we need to work towards unveiling Vijaydurg’s contributions to the modern sciences that will add to its reputation of being a medieval military post. Locals believe that Vijaydurg was at the centre of the path of totality on August 18, 1868, and that the fort is at an ideal location for sky gazing. No explanations are available readily. Yet records show that the region indeed was in the path of totality. Even towns like Kolhapur, Ichalkaranji and Sangli also had witnessed total eclipse for over three hours on that day.
Today the fort completes 800 years of its existence since King Bhoj created this military post at the beginning of the 13th century, yet sahebache katte _ those actually were added much later _ remain ignored. I do not wish to comment on those lengthy speeches on making Maharashtra a tourism state and blending the pristine beauty of its mountains and jungles and rivers with its history to attract national and international tourists. But the fact remains that we have failed to showcase our culture and history miserably because myopic gains have dictated the course of our policies.
The Lonar Crater perhaps is the best illustration of colossal neglect. Lonar is the only meteoric crater on earth that has saline water. The ash mounds at Bori village in Pune district stand threatened because of unscrupulous handling. The day isn’t far off when these places would lose their significance, and mankind will lose its links with the past. It is important to for us to act fast, and tell the world how important it is to preserve places with historical or scientific importance. People would view the matter seriously only if they understand that these places can prove to be money-spinners just as religious destinations are.
I wish Vijaydurg should celebrate World Helium Day this August.
(First published in The Maharashtra Herald on January 5, 2006)