August 29, 2012

Birla Planetarium, Calcutta

Walking down the road filled with buses, yellow-taxis & pedestrians carrying all kinds of loads & packages on their heads & in their arms, the people speak in their native tongue rapidly, not waiting to ensure that you understand. The buses too with their destinations painted on them in the local language. The entire city, with its hustle, confusion, & curiosity, conspires to make you lose yourself in the myriads of colours, shadows, tones & emotions that it has to offer. Welcome to Calcutta, the so called “City of Joy” & also for me the “City of Chaos”, filled with people whose language is considered to be one of the sweetest in the world, & yet quick to anger & argue, & apologise too if proved wrong. A city that oscillates between sudden bursts of happiness & celebration & of poverty & despair so widespread that naked beggars, crying orphans & destitute widows have become a common site around its railway & bus stations. & yet you are forced to come here time & again, attracted to it like a moth to fire, despite all the sadness & confusion the city opens itself to everyone irrespective of any worldly barriers.

Calcutta is perhaps the only city that can boast of a large serene Buddhist stupa in the middle of a busy traffic intersection. & if you aren’t amazed yet on seeing this white stupa, you will be as soon as you notice the long lines extending outside it, waiting for their turn to buy tickets to get in. As a large fountain sprays a mist around, one reads the crafted letters atop the stupa, informing visitors (in three languages – Hindi, English & Bangla) that it has been christened the M.P. Birla Planetarium (or the “Birla Taramandal” in Hindi/Bangla). Since this was my first trip to a planetarium in a long, long time (last I visited a planetarium, it was in Delhi when I was in class 5, that doesn’t actually count since I don’t recall half of what followed then), I was pretty excited & hopeful of an incredible show laced with nuggets of information about the universe – when I was young I had a great interest in learning about the Universe & the planetary system & beginning & their respective mysteries. But over time, the interest faded, to be replaced by a phase of interest in nature & photography that is still continuing today. Now I am in Durgapur, a suburb close to Calcutta, the night sky is clear here & stars visible in their entirety, yet sitting under the open skies just to count the stars & make out the constellations, as I used to do back in Delhi sitting in my mother’s lap, has become an occasional thing.

The Birla Planetarium

The M.P. Birla planetarium was inaugurated by Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, on July 2, 1963. It is one of the largest planetariums in the entire country with a seating capacity of more than 500 people & spread over 1 acre of land. The dome surmounting the planetarium itself is 27 metres in diameter. Specialized equipment imported from Germany is used to conduct the daily shows (again in the 3 languages – Hindi, Bangla, English) showcasing the creation & expansion of universe, providing knowledge about the planetary systems & other celestial bodies. The Planetarium conducts research & takes up various projects related to all phenomena astronomical, it even brings out a regular journal dealing with planetary information & has even introduced a Post-Graduation course in Astronomy & Planetarium Sciences in several colleges in Calcutta & its observatory boasts of a very powerful telescope called the Celestron C-14 Telescope further fitted with solar filters & ST6 cameras. The planetarium has also hosted several national & international seminars & conclaves on varied topics such as astrophysics, astrobiology, celestial mechanics, literature related to celestial bodies & so on.

One of the portraits in the outer chamber of the planetarium

We bought tickets for the English show that was about to start within 5 minutes of our reaching there (well, we skipped the line – telling the person in the beginning of the queue that you are in a hurry & on a very tight schedule always works (of course, with a puppy face!!)). Inside the planetarium, a black-painted bronze statue of Greek God Mercury carrying a flaming torch (obviously made of bronze too, duh!!) welcomed us. Beside it was a notice proclaiming (here comes the bad part) “Photography prohibited”.

Statue of Mercury

The viewing chamber was next to empty when we entered, soft music played on the speakers, & intermittently a lady’s voice announced time & again that photography is prohibited & the 35-minute show would start soon. In the dim light, the high circular roof that would soon transform into our screen looked enchanting. Its pale colour & vast size was appealing & soothing at the same time. A strange-shaped projector stood in the centre of the hall, blinking its myriad eyes & occasionally whirring & rotating (I later read about the planetarium & the equipment they use, the projector, built by Carl-Zeiss, Germany is more than 50 years old & has been in operation for upwards of 80,000 hours!!).

The projector (clicked secretly during the show)

The show began later than the lady had said it would, & was more of a description of solar system, nebulae & constellations. Sitting in the air-conditioned chamber & gazing at the artificially created night sky, with all the stars & constellations shining bright, was an ethereal experience. I certainly hope to see a similar night sky once in my lifetime, perhaps from the peaks of Himalayas. Patterns were emphasized on & information presented to the visitors (the hall had filled to full capacity) in a palatable manner. Sadly, we couldn’t enjoy the show. If we were a few years younger, it might have been interesting & informative to us, but most of the information was already known to us & we didn’t learn anything new. 15 minutes later, it had turned into a boring ride, & we were cursing ourselves for coming here.

& the projector's model

The lady announced time & again in the middle of her long monologue that photography is prohibited. We ran out as soon as the lights came on, the next chamber was decorated with life-size portraits of Hindu Gods & Demons related to the solar system – the Gods Surya (Sun) & Chandra (Moon), demons Rahu (the body-less demon causing eclipses) & Ketu (the demon Rahu's cutoff body), Sage Brihspati (Jupiter) etc. A side panel displayed photographs & information about various nebulae & constellations. An entire room besides the present one is dedicated to a souvenir shop where one can buy glass globes of various sizes, books, key rings & other saleables. I bought a pack of picture postcards. A small replica of M.P. Birla planetarium was placed in the centre of the room enclosed in a glass case (which perhaps hadn’t been cleaned in many days, given the amount of dust that had settled over it).

& the planetarium's model too is here

In its entirety, the trip to Birla Planetarium was not as interesting as we had anticipated. The only saving grace (I make all itineraries for my friend circle whenever we travel & one failed destination means me cursed to death!!) was that we had fun chit-chatting while the show was on (OK, apologies to the people in front of us). The statues & portraits, covered with dust & reflecting glass, coupled with lightning systems that instead of highlighting them made them act like large mirrors, certainly provided me with a challenging composition while taking photographs (Yes, I think up excuses like that to cover up my “not-so-good” photography!!). The planetarium design certainly won our hearts. If you heed my advice, visit M.P. Birla Planetarium but only from outside to marvel in its architecture (unless of course you are with small kids & you want them to know tidbits about the universe).


Location : Chowringhee Road, walking distance from the famous Victoria Memorial (see for more details & photographs of the Victoria Memorial) & right adjacent to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Nearest Metro Station : Maidaan
How to reach : The planetarium is walking distance from the metro station. Taxis & buses can also be availed from different parts of the city.
Open : All days
Show timings : Hindi – 12:30 PM, 2:30 PM, 4:30 PM, English – 1:30 PM & 6:30 PM, Bangla – 3:30 PM & 5:30 PM. Additional shows are organized on Sundays & other holidays at 10:30 AM (Hindi) and 11:30 AM (Bangla)
Entrance Fee : Rs. 20 per person
Photography/Video Charges : Strictly prohibited


  1. fab job as ever Sahil:))

  2. Interesting post. Liked the description of the place, I assume your "not-so-good-photography" is because these photos are taken again with your mobile phone camera..?

    1. Yep. These are old pictures. I visited the place almost a year back. Got the time to sift through the photos now.

  3. Ticket rate is now Rs 40/- per head.

  4. Show not start till now, renovation work doing till now by authority, please update in site as soon as possible to prevent harashment of people.

  5. Show not start till now, renovation work doing till now by authority, please update in site as soon as possible to prevent harashment of people.

  6. now tickets are in 70 rs.

  7. Now the show is very different from the earlier ones. you all will enjoy! And see many new things! Tickets cost around ₹70-80 per person.