Concerns over 'renovation'

Print edition : June 19, 1999

EVEN as the Kodaikanal Observatory gears up for its centenary, there are expressions of concern from some quarters about the nature of the "renovation" work being undertaken on the Main Hall, which is being converted into an auditorium to hold an interna tional colloquium.

The roofing of the spacious Main Hall, the historical building which is the heart of the observatory, was removed in May; in more than one of its rooms, the floor was found to have been dug up to a depth of a few feet. Some of the invaluable plates with the sun's images, which were displayed in the drawing room, had been brought down; others hung precariously on the wall. The plate vault, where the plates are preserved, remained under lock and key. It was unclear whether the dust and rubble from the roo f had affected the plates.

However, Indian Institute of Astrophysics Director Prof. Ramanath Cowsik told Frontline in Bangalore that the roof of the Main Hall had been pulled down as part of "renovation" work and that this was done because it was leaking. The Main Hall woul d be converted into an auditorium where scientists who are to attend the colloquium would gather, he added. "I am not destroying anything," said Cowsik. "We want to preserve the original look of the building." He added that "every effort is being made an d will be made to preserve the historical significance." Senior engineers and "people who are familiar with the place" had been consulted, he said. "I have spent something like 100 hours of study," Cowsik said and added that "nothing can be farther from the truth" than the implication that "we are trying to do something wrong".

As part of "renovation work", the roofing of the Main Hall was removed in May.-K. GOPINATHAN

Some scientists at the IIA, however, expressed the fear that after pulling down the walls of the Main Hall, space would be taken from the plate vault and a toilet to build the auditorium. An astronomer pointed out that many national and international sem inars had been held on the observatory campus, even when the Main Hall was with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) before it came under the IIA's control. He added that the Main Hall, a landmark site where the study of solar physics began in South India, should be preserved.

Meanwhile, three antique instruments lay unattended near a corner of the mechanical workshop of the IIA in Bangalore. According to an IIA scientist, they are a photoheliograph, which was made to observe the 1874 transit of Venus and subsequently used in Kodaikanal from 1900 to 1912; a transit circle telescope, which was made in 1857; and a polar siderostat, which was reportedly brought from England in 1897 and which has a rotating mirror arrangement which neutralises the effect of the earth's rotation a nd helps astronomers focus better on an object. An astronomer at the IIA said: "Anywhere else in the world, these instruments would have been prize exhibits in a scientific museum."

Asked about the instruments, Cowsik said: "Every effort is being made to make use of all the instruments ... No instrument is being destroyed."

But among the staff at the Kodaikanal Observatory and the scientists at the IIA, the mood is one of despondency. In their view, the "renovation" work at the Observatory has ravaged its soul.

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