Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Indian calendar (solar)

India follows both the lunar and solar calendars. Both use the actual movement of the moon or the sun during the current year. That is, the start of the month and the number of days, have to be calculated afresh each year. The traditional system was lunar. The religious ceremonies, even now, are mostly based on that. Some parts of India, still, follow it socially also.

The Solar calendar

Luckily, the question is on the Malayalam calendar followed in Kerala.

Indians use the signs of the Zodiac, called “raaSi” for astrological purposes. This is, of course, solar. We, in Kerala, follow the “raaSi” for the calendar.

This solar system uses the twelve signs of Zodiac. The names of constellation as known in the west are given below. The Sanskrit names with the meaning are given in brackets: Aries (Mesha – ram), Taurus (rshabha – bull), Gemini (mithuna – twins), Cancer (karkitaka – crab), Leo (simha – lion), Virgo (kanya – maiden), Libra (tula – scales), Scorpio (vriscika – scorpion), Sagittarius (dhanus – bow), Capricorn (makara – shark or crocodile), Aquarius (kumbha – water pot), Pisces (meena – fish) .The meaning differs somewhat in English and in Sanskrit. E.g. Virgo = woman (kanya – maiden). Sagitarius = archer (dhanus – bow). Capricorn = horn of goats (makara – shark or crocodile), Aqvuarius = figure of water carrier (kumbha – pot)

The name of months as used in Kerala is close to the Sanskrit name of “raasi”, but, not exactly the same.

New Year

The day in summer on which the sun came right on top of the equator (the spring equinox) was taken to be the start of the year. Thousands of years ago that happened on the start of Aries (mesha) which was around the middle of April. Later astrologers (astronomers) have realized that the calendar needed correction (by about a month). But, the old system prevails.

One king in Kerala, 1183 years ago, arbitrarily decided to shift the new year to the first of Leo (“sinha”). So, the new calendar starts with “sinha”, but, the new year remains as the 1st of “mesha”.

Several other places in India, understandably, base their calendar on the same system. But, the name of months is different. The start of the year also changes by a few days. The difference must only be due to the difference in calculating the movement of the sun.

Variable days

There is something peculiar about this system. Months have days varying between 28 and 32 and the number of days can differ from year to year. This is because the calendar is not one that is fixed arbitrarily. Instead, the actual position of the sun (and hence, of the earth) with respect to the twelve constellations is calculated afresh every year.

One advantage of the system is that it does not have to bother about the complexity of leap year. The correction on that account is absorbed in the number of days in months each year.

It goes without saying that this system will never meet the Julian calendar. There is almost a fixed difference in the start of the year.

I am trying to get information on the solar calendar followed elsewhere in India. The lunar calendar shall be posted separately.

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