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Alibag Observatory

Alibag is a coastal town in the Konkan region of the state of Maharashtra in India, situated about 30 km south of Mumbai. It has the administrative headquarters of the Raigad district (previously known as Kulaba district).  It is famous for three things: its beautiful beach, the imposing Kulaba fort and the renowned Alibag magnetic observatory. At low tide, one can walk across the beach to the fort, but can get trapped there if high tide sets in. The observatory is just on the beach and its reflection can be seen in the sea waters from the fort side.

The Kulaba fort was the main base of Shivaji’s navy under Kanhoji Angre, built in 1680 for protection against British, Dutch and Portuguese naval threats from the Arabian Sea.

The Alibag Magnetic Observatory, established in 1904, has provided an uninterrupted record of geomagnetic observations for over a century and it has since been serving as one of the primary magnetic observatories that form a global network.

The first magnetic observatory in India was set up at Colaba, Bombay (now Mumbai), in 1840, not exactly on purpose but by chance. The original plan was to set it up at Aden (now Yemen), which was a major port under the British Empire. For some reasons, the Aden site could not be made ready in time and the instruments that had already been shipped were sent to Bombay instead. A meteorological and time determination observatory had been functioning there at Colaba since 1826, and so the instruments were installed at the same place. The Colaba magnetic observatory started regular observations only in 1846.

Arthur Bedford Orlebar, Professor of Astronomy at the Elphinstone College, Bombay, started the Colaba magnetic observatory and in 1842, he was succeeded by Dr George Buist. In 1865, Mr Charles Chambers of the Indo-European Telegraphic Service took over and he was designated as Director of the Colaba observatory in 1868. He continued as the Director until his death in 1896, when Dr Nanabhai Ardeshir Framji Moos assumed charge as the first Indian Director. Dr Moos had an Engineering degree from the Science College, Poona (now Pune), and had obtained a B. Sc. degree with distinction from the University of Edinburgh. The Colaba observatory came under the purview of the India Meteorological Department in 1899, prior to which it had been under the Government of Bombay.

Restrictions had been imposed around Colaba on the use of electricity and large masses of iron so that the magnetic observations were not vitiated. However, the city of Bombay was growing rapidly and in the year 1900, plans were made to replace horse-drawn tramcars by a tram service running on electric power drawn from overhead wires. Apprehending that this would affect the magnetic observations, the India Meteorological Department, which was operating the Colaba magnetic observatory, decided to move it away.

The location chosen as an alternative was Alibag, a coastal town about 30 km south of Bombay, on the basis of several considerations, like proximity to Bombay, topography, nature of the soil, its sparse population, etc. It was then thought that magnetic observations could be carried out there without electric interference at least for a century.

The Alibag magnetic observatory building was built with Porbandar sandstone, and such care was taken that every individual stone was tested for traces of magnetism. The room housing the instruments was designed to have such a good insulation, that the diurnal variation of temperature would remain within just 1 degree Celsius.After the building was ready and a new set of instruments installed in 1904, parallel observations were made for two years at Colaba and Alibag. This ensured that the Alibag observations would be compatible with those made at Colaba earlier. The Colaba and Alibag measurements together, from 1846 till today, constitute one of the longest series of geomagnetic data in the world.

Only after the two-year parallel data for Colaba and Alibag was analysed and compared, and the results found satisfactory, were Bombay trams given permission to run on electric traction from May 1907.

This story has a personal ending. My father, Ratnakar Hari Kelkar, was born at Alibag in 1901, and he spent his childhood years watching the construction of the observatory with awe and wonder. He used to tell me how throughout his schooling, he had to study and read in candlelight and in the dim illumination of kerosene lamps, until he left for Bombay in search of a job. The growing population of Alibag remained deprived of the benefits of electricity until 1954, when the restrictions on the use of electricity at Alibag were relaxed.

– R. R. Kelkar, May 2007

18 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Muhammed Kutty
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 08:58:02

    Hi Dr. Kelkar,
    Thanks for this blog post. That the magnetic observatory was supposed to be constructed at Aden is a new information to me. May I know the authenticity of that? Other details, to my knowledge, are true. By the way I am a PhD scholar at Indian Institute of Geomagnetism, New Panvel. I visited Colaba and Alibag observatories in my own interest.

    The story of an unexpected setting up of magnetic observatory appears to be a break through. Because I suppose if it was set up at Yemen, India must have lost a great name which is cited in geomagnetic and space research community widely.

    Will you be kind enough to give me the details of this particular history?

    Thanks in advance…

    Your blog is awesome, I am a visitor here, even though not frequent.

    Reply

    • Prof R R Kelkar
      Feb 06, 2014 @ 16:17:04

      Dear Kutty,
      The source is the publication “Hundred Years of Weather Service” published by IMD in 1975. Since you are in IIG you may find this publication in your library. Or it may be in the library of IMD at Colaba.
      Thanks for visiting my blog.
      Best wishes,
      R R Kelkar

      Reply

  2. Mayank A. Sharma
    Jan 04, 2014 @ 12:09:57

    Hello Sir,
    We are planning a visit to Alibag, and came across to your blog. Is this observatory open to general public?
    If YES, are there any permissions required for this visit?

    Thank You in advance

    Best Regards,
    Mayank A. Sharma

    Reply

    • Mayank A. Sharma
      Jan 04, 2014 @ 12:11:41

      We just checked the other comments and found that you have already answered a similar query.

      Thank You!

      Reply

      • Prof R R Kelkar
        Jan 04, 2014 @ 12:14:44

        Dear Mayank,
        Thanks for visiting my site.
        Have a good trip to Alibag!
        R R Kelkar

  3. Ravi Potdar
    Dec 23, 2013 @ 11:37:16

    It was really enlightening to know about the history, I stumbled upon this site while reading the history of Colaba which i had long Presumed that the name has origin in the word KULABA(Fort In Alibag) because of the similarity and the association because of the Observatory.
    I believed that the Instruments were wrongly shipped to Alibag instead of Colaba(As told to me by a worker working at the observatory).
    But the blog cleared my misconceptions.
    Cheers 🙂

    Reply

    • Prof R R Kelkar
      Dec 23, 2013 @ 11:40:38

      Thanks for your comment.
      Ranjan Kelkar

      Reply

  4. Sandeep sir
    Nov 25, 2013 @ 11:44:22

    dear sir
    when we will come and see the museum with my students or any other procedure to reach there?

    Reply

    • Prof R R Kelkar
      Nov 25, 2013 @ 13:16:03

      Dear Sandeep Sir,
      Thanks for visiting my site. I do not live in Alibag nor am I associated with the Magnetic Observatory there. If you are interested in visiting the place, please send an email to moabg@iigs.iigm.res.in
      Best wishes,
      Ranjan Kelkar
      Pune

      Reply

  5. Dhiraj Mahadev Patil
    Feb 16, 2013 @ 07:02:34

    Dear Sir,

    my grandmother from alibaug after her marriage she was stay in mumbai, my grandfather was died in 1950, in her illness she stay in alibaug & also died at the same place. Because of some property issues i want the dealth certificate of my grandmother. So can you advice me at which place i get all these details.

    Reply

    • Prof R R Kelkar
      Feb 16, 2013 @ 08:31:59

      Dear Mr Patil,
      Thanks for visiting my site and for your comment. However, I will not be able to help you in the matter as I do not live in Alibag.
      Birth and death certificates are issued by the local municipality/corporation. So I suggest that you contact the Alibag Municipal Council for obtaining the death certificate of your late grandmother.
      Regards,
      R R Kelkar

      Reply

  6. ayaz memon
    Dec 28, 2010 @ 14:50:49

    Dear Dr Kelkar

    We have a house in Agarsure, just after Chondi (going towards Mandwa). I would like to know if the Alibag observatory is full functional today and where are its temperature readings etc published, if at all.

    Thanks and regards

    Reply

    • Prof R R Kelkar
      Dec 28, 2010 @ 15:40:34

      Dear Mr Memon,

      What is traditionally called the Alibag Observatory is essentially a geomagnetic observatory. It is now a part of the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism, Panvel, Navi Mumbai. However, a meteorological station is also fully functional there and observations are reported regularly. You may visit the web site of the Regional Meteorological Centre, Mumbai, at http://imdmumbai.gov.in/, then click on ‘Regional Weather Reports’. In the ‘Daily Regional Weather Report’ you will find the weather data recorded at Alibag.

      Regards

      R R Kelkar

      Reply

  7. Shipra
    Oct 03, 2010 @ 14:58:12

    Hi,
    I wil be visiting Alibag in less than a month’s time and am superexicted. It is a very enriching experience to read about the same here…. Thanks

    Kind Regards,
    Shipra

    Reply

  8. Prof R R Kelkar
    Nov 21, 2008 @ 00:45:43

    There used to be two Directors at Colaba in those days. One Director was in charge of ‘Colaba and Alibag’ magnetic observatories. The other was ‘Regional’ Director in charge of all meteorological observatories in the Bombay Region. Can you recall whom you met in January 1961? I can then try to find out the name.

    Thanks for your interest in my blog.

    Kelkar

    Reply

  9. bosko loncarevic
    Nov 20, 2008 @ 16:21:25

    Dear Sir
    As a member of the International Indian Ocean Expedition i visited Colaba Observatory in January 1961. i was received warmly by the staff there and had a pleasant chat about Dr. Jeffreys and cambridge University with the Director there.

    I would like to find out the name of the director of Colaba Observatory in January 1961. Could you help.

    Thank You – bdl

    Reply

  10. Dr. Satish C. Tripathi
    Feb 21, 2008 @ 05:58:08

    Dear Prof Kelkar,

    I had been to Alibag Observatory twice in connection with palaeomagnetic study of Bagh Limestones M.P. published in Geophy J International. However, I was unaware about so much details about it. Thanks. Kind regards.

    Satish C Tripathi

    Reply

  11. mira esposito
    Jun 21, 2007 @ 11:04:20

    Dear Doctor Kelkar,

    I have enjoyed reading about the Alibag’s Observatory, about the construction technology and about your father.
    I will be visiting Alibag in few months for the first time.

    Kind Regards

    Mira Esposito

    Reply

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