Sri Lanka Planetarium.

The Planetarium is one of those places in Colombo that’s stayed more or less the same since 1965, give or take a bit of furniture revamping and the opening of their new website. The building still looks fantastic, the feeling you get when the lights dim is still exciting, most of the graphics are unfortunately still outdated, and the ticket is still cheap.

Location

The Sri Lanka Planetarium was set up in February 1965 and designed by Dr Kulasinghe, who for some reason, wanted it to look like a lotus flower if you fly above it. It’s apparently 100 feet tall, has got 32 pillars (or lotus petals) and is made out of pre-casting shipped over from Singapore. It’s on the University of Colombo campus itself, in the Law/Arts department, although it has its own gate directly opposite the back-entrance of Independence Square.

There’s loads of greenery all around the planetarium – it’s a haphazard space of big trees, bushes and uncut grass, and some random concrete benches here and there. We were told all of the garden space will undergo proper planning come February of 2015. Right now there’s also a mysterious statue outside of a man holding a book in one hand and raising his fist in the air. Nobody could tell us who he was neither was there any kind of plaque around him. Some say he was probably part of the opening of the planetarium, while others claim he was a rebel in the University riots a long time ago.

The show

The show was not as exciting as I remember it when I was 9! I will blame this on Final Fantasy and all Michael Bay movies who have made our general standard of graphics impossibly high. After buying your ticket for 50 bucks (100 on weekends) you have to go around the building and stand in a queue – usually full of school children and school teachers. When you get in, you walk past a series of nifty hand-made science projects before entering the main auditorium.

The Planetarium projector

The ceiling is dome-like obviously, and it looks like a cloudy sky at first. The seating is not that comfy, they’re just wooden chairs with slightly curved neck-rests (also wooden), so it can get tiresome after a while. The lights dim and a female voice starts talking in Sinhala. The show consists of a lesson about the planets, the sun, the solar system, and star constellations. The images of the planets are unimpressive and are still from the 1990s, but the thunder and lightening and the night-sky full of stars – they’re still as godayata magic mesmerizing as we remember. Unfortunately, as the lady’s voice keeps talking about the night-sky, a tiny rocket-shaped cursor comes and ruins the illusion by shakily pointing at different stars, turning it into a bit of a school lesson (which it is, considering most of the audience).

The show lasts an hour. It’s generated by a huge awesome looking projector in the centre of the room – we were told more projectors have been brought in from Germany (you’ll see them in wooden boxes outside the auditorium), and that these will facilitate badass 3D effects; they will be set up by early 2015.

Christie the Planetarium Guy

Probably one of the coolest people you’ll ever meet

Christie Pillai is a lecturer and has been at the planetarium since its inception – 49 years ago. Interestingly enough, he was the Secretary of the Sri Lanka Astronomical Association set up by sci-fi veteran Arthur C. Clarke and worked with Clarke closely. He lectures with Anuradha Fernando and Nalaka Abeysekera at the Astro IT Lab on planetarium premises, for kids grade-six and upwards. His eyes light up with mad enthusiasm if you ask him to explain something about outer-space or aliens or alternate evolutionary patterns.

During a chat, he told us “”There are more planets out there than all the grains of sand in all the continents. We are dust.”” That’s some deep shizzle. Christie is a huge fan of Carl Sagan and believes in aliens, so basically a bucketload of fun to hang out with if you’re a science geek. He does the Tamil voice-over for planetarium shows when school kids from Jaffna visit, and the English one too on the rare occasion.

Conclusion

The Planetarium is going to be properly jazzed up in early 2015 – Christie tells us 100s of lakhs are being spent by the government on its maintenance. Right now still, it’s probably the best you can do in the city with 50 rupees, and is a fun outing with kids or even without if you’re up for a debate with Christie about life in outer-space.

Side note: If you’re into this kind of thing, you might enjoy the seminar today (31st July) by world-renowned astronomer Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute Auditorium at Independence Square. It’s on Extraterrestrial Life and the Future Trajectory of Humanity. 5.15PM, entrance is free.

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