Archaeoastronomy can be simply explained as a study of the relationship between astronomical phenomena and how humans, from times long gone by, inculcated these into their lives, cultures, stories and even scientific studies. It is not just about the science part of it, it is also about the social influence and interpretations that different people and cultures had for similar astronomical phenomena. Whether we speak about the cardinal alignments of popular ancient sites like the sun temple, or how the constellation Orion has different stories attached to it in different cultures, archaeoastronomy tries to study this multi-faceted and multidisciplinary relationship between humans, as they evolved, and how they understood the sky and everything within and outside. India is home to several such sites.
1. Bomai and Burzahom (Kashmir)- Did you know that the beautiful state of Kashmir holds a secret? Ancient carvings found in this region date back to pre-historic times and indicate the formation of crater lakes due to a meteor shower impact that may have occurred anywhere between 40,000-6000 BP.
The stone slab obtained from Burzuhama indicates 2 suns in the sky along with a hunting scene. It is postulated that this is not a hunting scene but actually represents a sky-map with the positions of prominent constellations on that day when a supernova was observed in 4,600 BC. One of the hunter figures is the same as Orion, and the animal is Taurus. When placed against a sky map, they align, much to our amazement. Could this be the oldest sky chart of a supernova record?
2. Lonar Crater– Located in the Buldhana district of Maharashtra, Lonar crater is the 3rd largest hyper-velocity impact crater caused due to a meteor collision. The crater is nearly 4000 feet in circumference and approximately 450 feet deep, and is unique in the fact that it one of the largest craters in Basaltic rock known in the world. A trek into its depth will reveal a serene green crater lake at the bottom and several ancient, beautifully carved temples dating back between 6th-12th century. Earlier the impact was pegged at 50,000 years ago, but a study published in 2010 has indicated that the meteor strike may have happened nearly 5+ lakh years ago!
3. Jantar Mantar– Ordered to be built by Maharaja Jai Singh II, there are 5 of these observatories located in New Delhi, Jaipur, Mathura, Ujjain and Varanasi; built between 1724 and 1735. The Jantar Mantar’s are a collection of sundials and various other instruments, designed for measuring celestial movements. This highly educated ruler conceived an observatory with the stability and permanence of masonry, and opted for large scale to aid accuracy. Isn’t it wonderful that our historical rulers used their positions to further science? A visit to the Jaipur Jantar Mantar, the largest of them all, will yield much fascination as one uses the world’s largest sundial-known as the Vrihat Smarat Yantra or ‘supreme instrument’.
4. Mudumal, Telangana– This newly formed state probably holds the distinction of having one the oldest megalithic structures in India, dating back 7000 years. In fact, archaeologists state that this is one of the rare sites where a depiction of a star constellation has been found. The site consists of 80 massive menhirs and about 2000 alignment stones, making it one of the largest concentrations of menhirs excavated anywhere in India. The constellation depicted has been identified as Ursa Major.
5. Junapani,Nagpur,Maharashtra– Over 300 stone circles have been excavated in the region of Junapani, an ancient burial site with megalithic structures dated from 1000 BC to 300 AD. About 150 of these circles have been studied and documented. The several relics that were found indicated its nature of being a burial site, but it is the cup marked stones in the circles which also suggest astronomical significance. This is derived from the fact that the cup-marked stones align with specific directions. It is postulated that these stones could be oriented to indicate the rising and setting of stars, weather changes over seasons, and the setting of the monsoon season in particular. These circles are in fact, large enough to be seen on Google Earth.