A walk through the stunning history of Festivals and Astronomy

Festivals form a very essential part of Indian culture. Although each festival is celebrated in its unique way, there is a very uncanny astronomical basis for each of these festivals. Keeping a track of time and date has been the greatest challenge for humankind, however, with the invention of the calendar, the task became easier. But we often forget about the time when our ancestors would look into the sky to know what time it is.

Indian culture has been around the world for a very long time, and in the ancient days, rituals were a very important part of life, as they represented securing the divine approval for future endeavors or forgiveness for a sin committed. As a result, people were very careful that these rituals need to be effective. Hence, the distinction of auspicious and inauspicious time was made to ensure that the rituals are carried out in well-defined times. 

Festivals and Astronomy

Nature is a mystery and has several wonders in it. Similarly, nature has provided us with three very convenient and effective tools for timekeeping. 

  1. Every spin of Earth represents a day 
  2. Moon’s orbit around Earth represents a month
  3. Earth’s orbit around the Sun represents a year.

You must be wondering why know all these things? Well, the answer is quite simple, these things show that ancient Indians have been using the location of stars and planets for a very long time and for varied purposes. Hence, it’s not very surprising that the festivals celebrated to date in India have an astronomical basis. 

Before diving into the festivals let’s learn a few basic information. “Chandaramasa” also called lunation represents the time period from one full moon or new moon to the next. At the same time in ancient times, the solar system was assumed to be Geo-centric, thus it was believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth in an elliptical orbit. This orbit is divided into 4 imaginary points, namely

  1. Spring Equinox, the day and night are equal (20-21 March)
  2. Summer Solstice, the day is the longest (20-21 June)
  3. Autumn Equinox, the days and night are equal (22-23 September)
  4. Winter Solstice, the night is the longest (21-22 December)
Astronomy and Tithi

Out of these four, Spring Equinox and Winter Solstice are considered to be the most ideal and common points to start tracing the orbit of the Sun. At the same time using these the year in the ancient times was divided into two parts 1. Uttarayan, where the Sun moves in the north direction and lasts from Winter to Summer Solstice. 2. Dakshinayana, here the Sun moves in the south direction and lasts from Summer to  Winter Solstice. 

Now let’s take a look at how all these terms and positions decide the dates of our festivals. 

To make things easier in terms of calculations, a lunation is divided into 30 parts of unequal duration. The problem is that the tithi can begin at any time. At the same time, to determine when exactly a festival must be celebrated the calculations are done with the help of tithi. Now the major challenge is assigning the tithi to date according to the English calendar. This complexity is what gives rise to confusion about when exactly a festival must be celebrated either today or tomorrow. 

Moreover, a lunation period is also divided into two equal parts, called the “paksha”. One being the Shukla paksha and the other Krishna paksha. The Sukhla paksha is the period from Amavasya to Purnima and the Krishna paksha is from Purnima to Amavasya. The reason for this is Shukla means bright and the moon in this period keeps getting brighter day by day. In contrast to this Krishna means dark and the moon in this period keeps getting darker day by day. 

Phases of moon

For the Vikrami calendar which is a lunar-solar-based calendar, the new year starts with the ending of Amavasya which precedes the Spring Equinox. The initial nine days of the first month together are known as Navratri and are designated to worship. It is important to note this is true only for the Vikrami calendar.

All these nine tithis are devoted to different gods or deities in the Hindu religion. For instance, the ninth tithi is celebrated as Ramnavmi in honor of Lord Rama. Not only Hindu festivals but also Christian and Jewish festivals such as Easter and Passover (which are considered to be the same) respectively are associated with the Moon. Both festivals fall on Sunday after the Spring Equinox or after the full moon. 

As Ramnavmi and Good Friday are celebrated in relation to the Spring Equinox, these two festivals usually fall in the vicinity of each other. The autumn equinox which comes six months after the spring equinox again begins with the Navaratri. Before this, we witness the ceremony called the “Shraadh” which is performed to give respect to the departed ancestors. The eighth tithi of this new month is devoted to the goddess Durga. Once the Navratri is over, the next day is celebrated as “Vijayadashami” also called Dussehra. Every year 20 days from Dussehra comes to the Amavasya signifying the celebration of Diwali. 

The Purnima following Diwali is celebrated as the Guru Nanak Jayanti, the founder of Sikhism. Now towards the end of the Vikrami year a night before the Amavasya is celebrated as the Shivratri. On this day the moon appears to be very thin, sometimes not visible at all. The last Shivratri of the year would be a tithi before the first Navratri. The one prior to this in the 11th month is recognized as Mahashivratri. The Purnima following this is Holi and is the last Purnima of the year. 

This was all about the festivals associated with the Sun and Moon. However, there’s a very important festival associated with the planet Jupiter. Jupiter’s entry in the Kumbha (Aquarius) Rashi is celebrated as the Kumbha Mela which takes place in Haridwar. It’s important to note that the period of orbit of Jupiter is about 12 years so it enters Kumbha Rashi once in 12 years, hence, the main Kumbha Mela takes place once in 12 years. 

Festivals form an integral part of any culture and religion and their association with astronomy is undeniable. 

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1 Comment

  • Angele
    Posted July 29, 2022 9:12 am 0Likes

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