Exploring ancient skies

Former Planetarium director studies stone inscriptions to understand past celestial events

Published: 22nd November 2020 04:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd November 2020 04:27 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

BENGALURU: Looking at the stone and understanding the sky is what she does. And she is leaving no stone unturned to understand the celestial events of the past. The celestial world has always fascinated B S Shylaja. And therefore, opting for astrophysics to understand the astronomical occurrences and phenomena was not at all surprising. In 1994, she joined as an educator in Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, Bengaluru. Till her retirement in 2017 as the Director of Planetarium, she taught basics of astronomy and astrophysics to graduate students.

But now she is busy studying inscription stones to know how much ancient people knew about celestial occurrences and how they followed and recorded some rare and common events. Usually Indian stone inscriptions are edicts for grants and donations of land and kind to individuals or temples. The tradition of getting edicts recorded on stone can be traced back to 3rd century BCE. Stone inscriptions have been studied, translated and published right from 19th century by Indian epigraphists, British scholars and is now continued by the Archaeological Survey of India.

However, these inscriptions also provide records of eclipses, solstices and planetary conjunctions, Shylaja informs. She has studied not only Indian inscriptions but extended her studies to South and South East Asia – Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand. This has thrown light on many new aspects such as the evolution of calendars independently from the influence of Indian system of time measurement as early as the 3rd century BCE.

Shylaja says, “We find a wealth of information on planetary positions in a limited geographical region. The words that are used to describe vary from place to place and from time to time. It must be possible to find many more records in India and nearby countries by a detailed scrutiny. Many interesting records of planetary conjunctions are also available.” This voluminous exercise has involved scrutiny of 38,000 inscriptions from 6th to 17th century and gathering of 1,100 useful information about celestial events.

The result of her effort has led to deciphering records of solar and lunar eclipses, solstices, equinoxes and planetary conjunctions. In all these cases, the dates and timings are meticulously written down while the details on the positions of planets are also available. She has also traced Kannada inscriptions to far off regions like Myanmar. She was assisted by Geetha K G (project assistant/co-researcher) for some discoveries in 2016.

Data was sorted out using software but was not an easy task. Astro-information was hidden as an adjective or as a simile in the long texts on praise of a donor/awardee.  Shylaja explains, “The event descriptions are very long, phrases are hidden, language tough with many technical terms. Simple phrases were hidden, difficult to scoop out. We undertook to scrutinize all inscriptions which require knowledge of astronomy and language command.

Our minute study has been useful in understanding observational tools and methods for eclipse predictions.” In the 2016 studies, Shylaja and Geetha mainly dealt with inscriptions found in and around Karnataka. Shylaja says, “A good number of Kannada inscriptions are found in AP, TN, Maharashtra and Goa. Many are bi-lingual. All inscriptions in Tirupati are in Kannada, Sanskrit and Telugu and at times, Tamil.

Three volumes from Tirupati cover 15-17th century -- the peak period of Vijayanagar empire. During Krishnadevaraya reign, every auspicious event was used as an opportunity to offer gifts and donations.”
Most inscriptions begin with information about dates. In some, an eclipse is mentioned in the beginning of the text or at the end. The earliest stone inscription of total eclipse in 754 CE has been found in Pattadakal. In fact, European visitors learned the procedures of calculations from Indians. Records of total eclipses have made for an exciting study for Shylaja.

The mentions of totality in eclipse records have provided data for understanding the variation of the speed of rotation of earth over centuries. Now how has ‘time’ been marked on inscriptions? They are recorded as Saka Year, Samvatsara (a cycle of 60 years), lunar month, tithi (the phase of the moon) and Vara (the week day). “We see examples of the naksatra citation (each day is associated with a star, naksatra, the one closest to the moon among the 27), while in some examples, lagna, the ascendant zodiacal sign is cited, giving the time of the day,” Shylaja says.

There is one prominent mention of planetary grouping in 1665 when there was a solar eclipse. This is recorded as śadgraha yóga – grouping of six planets. They are sun, moon, descending node (Kétu) considered as planet and the other three planets. This occasion was used to donate special grants called “tulāpurushadāna”, which means gold of weight equivalent to the weight of the king was disbursed. This particular record pertains to the then Mysore Maharaja.

Languages used in earliest inscriptions are Pali, Prakrit, Nagari and Sanskrit. Subsequent ones are in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Persian. Earliest Kannada inscription dated back 
to 450 CE


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