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Photo Story: Inside the Observatory of the Kodaikanal Sun Gazers

Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 

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In the early morning darkness, Devendran P walks up a hill to a solar observatory in the southern hill town of Kodaikanal, trudging the same path his father and grandfather had walked on, in a century-old family tradition of studying the sun. Photographer Danish Sidiqqui documents Devendran and this unique family occupation on a visit to his observatory.

Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
Devendran, a 55-year-old observer, positions the six-inch telescope at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory, India. (Photo: Reuters)

Once inside, he pulls a rope to open shutters in the dome, and positions a six-inch telescope, used since 1899, to photograph the sun and preserve a daily record of its activity.

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Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
An observer opens the dome of an observation tower. (Photo: Reuters)
Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
Devendran works inside the solar tunnel telescope. (Photo: Reuters)
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"The sun, like stars, has a lifetime of 10 billion years," Devendran says. "If you want to know about any small changes, you need to have a large amount of data."

Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
A technician holds a photographic film plate with observational data inside the archival digitisation lab at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. (Photo: Reuters)
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The observatory run by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Tamil Nadu, India, has a key role in providing a continuous stream of data on the sun and its influence on Earth and surrounding space, said R. Ramesh, a professor at the institute.

Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
A solar tunnel telescope dome is seen through a darkroom. (Photo: Reuters)
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"Some of the discoveries made, based on data obtained in the Kodaikanal observatory, are so fundamental to solar physics that they vastly improved techniques used at observatories today," Ramesh said.

Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
Observation records are seen inside the library at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. (Photo: Reuters)
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Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
Observation records are seen inside the library at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. (Photo: Reuters)
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Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
Observation plates are seen inside the library. (Photo: Reuters)
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Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
A technician works inside a darkroom. (Photo: Reuters)
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Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
A technician works inside the archival digitisation lab. (Photo: Reuters)
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Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
Devendran works under red light inside a darkroom. (Photo: Reuters)
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In the observatory library, shelves stretch to the ceiling, packed with volumes of handwritten records and thousands of film plates of the sun. Authorities have launched a project to digitise and preserve the data collected over the past century.

Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
Volumes of observation records are seen inside the library at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. (Photo: Reuters)
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Devendran's grandfather, Parthasarathy, joined the observatory in 1900, a year after it relocated from Madras, the state capital, to Kodaikanal, situated more than 2,000 metres (6,562 feet) above sea level, offering an ideal weather to study the sun.

Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
A portrait of Parthasarathy hangs on a wall of his ancestral house in Kodaikanal. (Photo: Reuters)
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Like his father and grandfather, Devendran has no formal education in astronomy. His interest was piqued during a visit to the observatory when he was only a child.

Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
Devendran (R) and his father Paramasivan, pose for a photograph inside an observation dome. (Photo: Reuters)
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Devendran became a full-time sun-watcher in 1986, and says the six-inch (15-cm) telescope has never failed his family. "It has never required any major overhaul, or change of parts, because we take care of it," he says.

Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
Sunlight beams through the dome of the solar tunnel telescope at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. (Photo: Reuters)
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Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
A six-inch telescope is seen inside an observation dome. (Photo: Reuters)
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More than three decades of observation has made Devendran feel close to the sun, despite the distance being more than 149 million km (93 million miles) from Earth.

It's a feeling enhanced by the devout family's worship of the Hindu sun god Surya, he says. "I feel more religious than other people, as I can see that there is a universal power which is controlling everything," he said.

Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
Paramasivan points to the statue of sun god Surya, at a temple outside the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. (Photo: Reuters)
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Devendran's 23-year-old son, Rajesh, expects to carry on the family tradition, but with one difference – he has a master's degree in physics. "I get amazed by what my father does here," said Rajesh. "I think observing the Sun is in my blood."

Four generations of Indian sun gazers from Tamil Nadu keep an intricate scientific process alive. 
Devendran walks out of the solar tunnel telescope. (Photo: Reuters)

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