My journey with Astronomy – Part 2

I continue here from my previous article. If you haven’t read that yet, please do.

The science behind ಮಕರ ಸಂಕ್ರಾಂತಿ (Makara Sankranti):

Indian traditions follow two approaches to the calendar – the sun-based ಸೌರಮಾನ (sauramaana) approach and the moon-based ಚಾಂದ್ರಮಾನ (chaandramaana) approach. The time measured using each approach is based on the apparent position of the Sun and the Moon respectively. 14 January is a fixed date of the Sun’s entry into the ಮಕರ (Capricornus) constellation. It is the same every year based on the Sun’s apparent change in position as seen from the Earth, over 365 days of the year. This is the reason why Makara Sankranti always occurs on a fixed date.

Time and traditions:

The other Hindu festivals are celebrated based on the Moon’s position in the foreground of constellations. This position is the Moon’s apparent proximity (Line of sight effect) to the star in the constellation. Our ancient astronomers made detailed studies of these positions and used this knowledge to measure the time since a significant event like birth or death. The birth chart – Horoscope – was a record of the apparent positions of the Sun and planets when a child was born. Then using the data of the change in positions of the planets, the time since birth – age – could be determined to the exact minute. So, the horoscope was like a birthday card that could help find the age of a person. The word ‘horoscope’ originates from hora – time and skopos – observer. Literally, ‘observing time’. So, it was a watch and nothing more.

Then somewhere in history, the time and luck due to the position of planets got mixed up and the branch of ‘Astrology’ evolved out of Astronomy. There is no scientific evidence that the position of planets has anything to do with our life choices. This has been proved through rigorous experimentation.

Coincidence or not!

Having said that, let us look at some of the coincidences in Indian names the planets. My favourite is Saturn. The Indian name for Saturn is ಶನಿ (shani), which means ‘to slow down’. This correlates well with the time Saturn takes to go around the Sun, which is close to 20 Earth-years. In Hindu mythology, shani is the son of Sun. If we observe the physical structure of Saturn, aside from the fact that it is a non-luminous object, it is a replica of the Sun and the solar system. In essence, the Saturn system is a miniature version of the Solar system. The central object, the planet, the rings and the large number of satellites going around it – are exactly like the Sun with the planets, asteroid belt, and comets going around it. My logical brain tells me it should be a coincidence as our ancestors did not have a physical observational mechanism to have observed the Saturn system so closely and assign the appropriate name and story to it. Is it really a coincidence? We probably will never know.

Evolution of calendars:

Coming back to Earth, the festivals and events observed by ancient Indians were always closely associated with the ಪಂಚಾಂಗ (panchaanga), the almanac. So, daily routines were based on the position of the Sun, the planets, the Moon.

The Hindu new year, ಯುಗಾದಿ (ugaadi), is celebrated around 21 March of every year. This date is the first point of Aries – the first intersection point of the celestial equator and the ecliptic. This is astronomically significant as the right ascension and declination of celestial objects (something like longitude and latitude on the Earth) are measured with this point as the reference point. So, starting the new year on 21 March would be an appropriate astronomical choice. In the Hindu calendar, the first month is ಚೈತ್ರ (chaitra) starting from ugaadi.

The ancient Roman calendar of 10 months also started with March as the first month. April was the second month and so on, September was seventh, (sept -7), October was eighth, (oct – 8), November was ninth, (nov – 9), and December was tenth (dec – 10). This means that our global ancestors only had 10 months initially in one calendar year. Also, the months had 30 or 31 days.

There were many reforms to the Roman calendar later, it evolved into a 12-month calendar. Julius Caesar (1st century BCE) is credited with one of the reforms which resulted in the Julian calendar. This was the widely accepted calendar in the Roman world and most of Europe for 15 centuries. Also due to the influence of the Catholic Church, in most European countries, the beginning of the new year was aligned to be closer to the birthday of Christ. Hence 1 January became the beginning of the new year. The next major calendar reform was the Gregorian calendar, which was gradually adopted all over the world and is the civilian calendar system used globally today.

A celestial journey:

I am simply amazed by the influence of Astronomy on every aspect of our lives. Coming back to the Indian calendar, the phases of the moon, especially the full moon and the new moon are of great significance to us. All happy festivals are celebrated around the full moon and mourning ceremonies of remembrance and offering prayers to ancestors are during the new moon. Other common reference periods in Indian calendar – the ಉತ್ತರಾಯಣ (uttaraayana) and the ದಕ್ಷಿಣಾಯಣ (dakshinaayana) also use the apparent positions of the sun. The dakshinaayana period is the duration of the Sun’s journey towards and in the southern hemisphere, this journey starts on 22 June and ends on 21 December, every year. The uttaraayana period is the duration of the Sun’s journey towards and in the northern hemisphere, this journey starts on 22 December and ends on 21 June, every year. These two dates 21 June and 21 December also coincide with the summer and winter solstices – the longest day and the longest night respectively, on Earth.

Then, the Equinoxes – equal duration of the day and night – on 21 March and 21 September is significant too. The darkest night or the new moon around 21 September is called the ಮಹಾಲಯ ಅಮಾವಾಸ್ಯೆ (mahalaya amavasya) the day that offerings are given to our deceased ancestors. Our ancestors used this event as a symbolic gesture of sending their respect to their dear departed using the Sun as their messenger. This is because the Sun crosses the celestial equator and heads towards the southern hemisphere which our ancestors believed was the way to ಯಮಲೋಕ (yamaloka). The Sun would deliver all our offerings to our ancestors in yamaloka and safely return in 3 months, at the time the uttaraayana journey started.

As we celebrate ugaadi in quarantine this year, let us use this time to marvel at the beauty of the celestial universe. Stay home, stay safe, and look towards the sky. I will return in the next article with thoughts on the power of periodicity.

Featured image credits: Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

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Sriraghavan S M

Sriraghavan S M

Sriraghavan (Raghu) is an Astronomer by qualification (MSc, Astronomy, Bangalore University) and a teacher by passion. He is a trained counsellor and psychotherapist. His firm belief and conviction to transform the education system in India led him to be an entrepreneur through NumberNagar®. His core work at NumberNagar® revolves around product presentations, academic content, and training. He teaches Maths and Science to young students, rubbing off his passion to them. He trains teachers as well, inspiring them to better themselves. He has taught Physics in educational institutes, during his early career days. He has travelled extensively all over Karnataka, training teachers and popularising Astronomy. He advocates multiple intelligence and is constantly on the lookout for new things to learn. He is ambidextrous and enjoys sketching. He was an avid cricket player in his younger days. He is an enthusiastic biker and uses long solo motorcycle rides as means of reflection and rejuvenation.

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