Quest for the right date By

Shivaprasad M Khened, Curator Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai

Introduction At the dawn of the New Year, which we all look up to with a hope that it will bring in peace prosperity and fulfill all our desires, it is time to spare a thought for the calendar. The calendar is a system designed to reckon time in periods convenient to the conduct of civil life. We experience three natural cycles of time: the day, the month and the year. It is natural to assume that these are related but the illusion of stability that attends them belies the comedy of errors and false hope that is their history. Most of the energy spent in calendric pursuits has gone in the essentially fruitless task of reconciling the cycles of the sun (agriculture) and the moon (religion) using the doubly irreconcilable unit of the day. Calendars and human society Calendars are generally based on the natural cycles of moon phases and seasons. Moon has always influenced the timing of different religious festivals, and seasons, and the Sun has influenced the time of sowing and harvesting. Calendars based on Moon observations and study (called the lunar calendars), and those based on the observations of the Sun (Solar calendar) were used widely in different cultures of the world. Even the economic activities depended heavily on the calendars and continue to do so even in the modern days. Therefore it would not be overstatement to state that calendars are inextricably linked with the human society. Throughout history, different civilizations have devised numerous ways of keeping track of time, and documenting the days as they pass, culminating into various calendar systems. History of Calendars The history of the calendar begins with the fascinating history of the human endeavour to organize their lives in accordance with the sun and stars. The celestial bodies play an important role in the formulation of the calendars. Most calendars are founded upon some combination of celestial events. The Earth’s rotation determines the day, the lunar cycle a month, and a revolution of sun by our planet, a year. The current system of usage of calendars internationally followed for all trade, commerce & other international dealings is the Julian calendar with Gregorian Correction or simply called the Gregorian calendar.

Calendars of antiquity Uses of various calendars have been known for a very long time. One of the oldest & classic calendar systems is our very own Hindu calendar system estimated to have been used from around 1000 B.C. It’s based on the lunar revolutions and has adjustments (intercalation/extracalation) to solar reckoning. History has also shown that calendars have been around for many years in various other civilizations and cultures. Of the variety of other calendars in use even today, probably the most well known, are the Chinese, Hebrew, Islamic, and Gregorian time keeping systems. While each of these systems is unique in how it is used, they all share a set of common features, even borrowing from each other in ways that are not easily recognized. Like all great efforts that require the dedicated collective work of a group of people, the establishment of a time-keeping system is no trivial matter. It required knowing how to make observations, knowing which observations to make, and knowing how to keep records over a long period of time. Hindu calendar The earliest of the Hindu calendar is known from the texts of 1000 BC. It divides an approximate solar year of 360 days into 12 lunar months of 27 days according to the Taitriya Samhitas and also according to the Atharva Vedas. The resulting discrepancy was resolved by the intercalation of a leap month every 60 months. The year was divided into three thirds of four months, each of which would be introduced by a special religious rite, the chaturmasya. Each of this was further divided into seasons or Rtu: spring (Vasanta), from mid March until mid May; summer (grisma), from mid May until mid July; the rains (varsa), from mid July until mid September, autumn (sarad) from mid September until mid November and winter (hemanta) from mid November until mid January and the Dews (sisira), from mid January until mid March. The months were counted from full moon to full moon and were divided into two halves Shukla paksa of waxing period and krsna paksa of waning period. The new moon days were observed as amavasya and full moon as purnimas. The month had theoretically thirty days (tithi) and the day (divasa) thirty hours (muhurta). A new form of astrology that is in vogue today is based on the old Hindu calendrical system, which did under go a change in its classic from according to the Surya siddhanta in 4th century AD. The calendar has not always been the way it now is. It has been changed many times, and may change again because problems in calendar making are astronomical. This concept has even been evidenced in ancient Indian mythology. In India the reference of the calendars and their controversial interpretation can be traced back to the period of great epic Mahabharata. We have all heard or read about the Vanavasa (period of exile) and agnyatavasa (the period of incognito living) that the Pandavas were supposed to take in obeisance


of Yudhisthar’s promise. The battle of Kurukshetra was fought with a consideration that the Pandavas according to Duryodhana failed to keep their promise. Duryodhana claims that the Pandavas had failed to keep their agreement to stay in exile for twelve years and in hiding for one. However Bhisma reckoned that they have kept the agreement, and Bhisma substantiated his argument with the fact that the calendar adds an extra month every five years. The interpretation of the calendar or the complications involved in the calendar making was perhaps one of the reasons for the great battle of Mahabharata. This episode elucidates the complications associated with the calendars and their rightful interpretation. Measurements of Day, Month and Year For the early calendar makers’ sunrise and sun set provided the day, while full moon, the month. Today, the celestial bodies provide the basic standards for determining the precise measurement of the day, month and the year. The day can be measured either by the stars or by the sun. If stars are used, then the interval is called the “Sideral day” and is defined by the period between two passages of a star across the meridian. The mean Solar day is 24 hours, 3 minutes and 56.55 seconds long. The month is determined by the moons passage around the earth. There are two kinds of measurements for the month, first the period taken by the moon to complete an orbit of the earth and second, the time taken by the moon to complete a cycle of phases. The first is defined as the orbital month the problem with this is that the moon's orbit is elliptical and it will be travelling faster when closer to earth (nearest = perigee) and slower when further away (furthest = apogee) and therefore has anomalies. The Anomalistic month is the time between perigees (27.55455 days mean value). The second measurement of the month is called the synodic month (synod = meeting, in astronomy it means conjunction or lining-up) with an interval of 29.53059 days; the synodic month forms the basis of the calendar month. Calendar makers’ problem also results from the length of a year. The Earth does not rotate whole number of times for each revolution of sun. The Sidereal year is the time for the Earth to return to the same position relative to the fixed stars (365.25636 days mean value increasing by 0.00000012 days per century). Because it is slightly longer than the tropical the equinoxes will gradually creep westward around the ecliptic by 1 in 71.71 years or 360 in 25800 years. The common year is called the Tropical year meaning the time between spring equinoxes (365.24219 days mean value decreasing by 0.00000614 days per century). Because the Earth's orbit is elliptical it will travel faster at perihelion (closest, now early January) and slower at aphelion (furthest, now early July). This means that the season around perihelion will be shorter than the one around aphelion. Currently the gaps between equinoxes and solstices are, starting at the Northern Hemisphere Spring Equinox, 92.72, 93.66, 89.84, and 88.98 days. The


southern hemisphere gets a few extra days of winter and the northern hemisphere gets a few extra days of summer. Choosing either of the years leaves the calendar maker in an awkward position of having the following New Year beginning in the middle of the day. Julian Calendar A prominent predecessor of the Gregorian calendar is the Julian calendar. Of the several calendars of antiquity, the Egyptian and the Roman calendars developed into the Julian calendar, which was used for more than 1500 years. The Roman republican calendar, introduced around 600 BC, was a lunar one, short by 10.25 days of a Tropical year. It included an extra intercalary month, every two years, which fell in late February. Nonetheless, by around 50 BC, the lunar year had fallen eight weeks behind the solar one, and it was clear that the Romans were out of Sync. There was total confusion when Julius Caesar came to power as the Roman’s 355 day lunar calendar was 80 days out of sync with seasons when Caesar took the throne. Julius Caesar it is believed got acquainted with the Egyptian calendar on the same trip during which he got to know Cleopatra. He then came in contact with the famous Greek Egyptian astronomer, Sosigenes. In the year 46 BC, Sosigenes convinced Julius Caesar to reform the calendar to a more manageable form. Sosigenes' message to Caesar was that the moon was a nice god but knew nothing about when things happen. Armed with this information Caesar returned to Rome and made big changes. The old lunar system with intercalary months was abandoned and a new solar system was introduced with fixed month lengths making 365 days and an intercalary day every forth year in February which would have 29 or 30 days. To shift the equinox back to March 25 he added three extra months to 46 BC making it 445 days long ('the year of confusion') and the Julian calendar began on 1st January 45 BC. In recognition of his contribution to the calendar reforms the month of July is named in his honour. Caesar’s nephew Augustus (originally named Octavius) also did some cleaning up of the calendar details of which are not clear. One source (Britannica) suggests that the priests got the leap years wrong having one every third year for forty years so he had to skip a few until 8 BC. In recognition of this, they renamed Sextilis with August in his honour but had to pinch a day from February to make it the month of August have the same length of days as July. The tradition has lasted until today and therefore contrary to any logic the immediate months of July and August have 31 days each. Anno Domini Things went smoothly for a while; the seasons were finally put in proper place in the year and festivals were happening at sensible times - almost. At the Council


of Nicea in 325 AD, Easter was decreed to be the first Sunday after the full moon after the vernal equinox. The early Christians were keen to cleanse contrary ideas (like the spherical Earth) so in 526 AD; the Abbot of Rome, Dionysius Exiguus proclaimed that the birth of Christ should be the event from which years are counted. He also calculated the event to be from December 25 and asserted that it should be called 1 AD (Anno Domini = in the year of our Lord) and the year preceding it should be called 1 BC (now meaning Before Christ) with prior years counted backwards. The omission of a year zero was a dumb idea. About this time the seven day week was introduced. Although it may have appeared earlier in the Jewish calendar and also in the Hindu calendar it was tidied up in the fourth century. Cycles of from four to ten days had previously been used for organising work and play. Seven was chosen apparently in acknowledgment of the Genesis story where God rested on the seventh day although there is a strong suggestion that it also reflected the seven gods visible in the sky as the planets, sun and moon. Pope Gregory XIII By the middle ages the seasons had slipped again. Pope Leo X tackled the problem in 1514 AD by engaging a number of astronomers, including the famous Copernicus who quickly recognised that there was a more fundamental problem than rearranging the calendar and suggested the rearrangement of the universe by putting the sun at the center as against the earth. The Church though did not accept the suggestions. Half a century later Pope Gregory XIII was sane enough to have another go to sort out the discrepancy and assembled a team of experts led by the German mathematician Christoph Clavius(1537-1612) and Italian physician and Astronomer Aloisius Lilius who spent ten years finding a solution to the problem. By 1582 AD the Julian calendar was full 13 days behind the seasons. By then the Christian churches had scheduled certain of its feasts, such as Christmas and the saint’s days, on fixed dates. The Julian calendar, which was running 13 days behind the sun, had little or no effect on the lives of the ordinary folks, but it disturbed the functioning of the Church, because it pushed the holy days into wrong seasons. This prompted the church to issue clearance to Pope Gregory XIII to implement necessary changes in the calendar. Gregorian Calendar The change made by Gregory XIII to the calendar was this: skip ten days sometime to bring the seasons back in line and skip a few leap years now and again. The extra day every fourth year is too much so skip the leap year at the end of the century. This is now a touch short so put back a leap year every fourth century. The rule is: a year is leap if it is a multiple of 4, it is not leap if it is a multiple of 100, it is back to being leap if it is a multiple of 400. Since this still produces an error of a day in 3,323 years we will also skip the leap year in 4000 AD. So in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII, decreed that the day after October 4, 1582,


would be October 15, 1582. And according to the prescribed rule 1600 was a leap year but 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not and the year 2000 AD was again a leap year. The changeover to the Gregorian calendar was not smooth. France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal changed in 1582; Prussia, Switzerland, Holland, Flanders and the German Catholic states in 1583; Poland in 1586 and Hungary in 1587. The Protestant countries weren't too keen to follow, so for nearly two centuries there were two calendars running in Europe ten days apart. Matters came to a head in 1700 when the Protestants had a leap year and the Catholics didn't, increasing the gap to 11 days. Denmark and the German Protestant states changed in 1700 and Sweden came up with the brilliant plan of simply skipping all leap years until they caught up in 1740. England and America switched over in 1752, skipping 11 days by making September 3 as September 14 and shifting the start of the year to January 1. There was much unrest - 'give us back our eleven days' was a popular campaign slogan. Many other countries were slow to adopt the standard and it was not until the early twentieth century that the entire world was finally synchronised. Japan changed in 1872, China in 1912, Bulgaria in 1915, Turkey in 1917, Yugoslavia and Rumania in 1919 and Greece in 1923. The Gregorian calendar is now recognised world wide although there are still many other calendars running alongside it for religious purposes. The Millennium confusion When did the 21st century begin? Because we have no zero year the first century comprised years 1 to 100, the second, years 101 to 200, the third years 201 to 300 and so on. Clearly 2000 AD is the last year of the 20 th century and 2001 is the first year of the 21st century. The new millennium technically has begun on 1st January 2001. This technicality however did not deter people from feeling that 1st January 2000 was the millennium changeover just as they did in the Middle Ages for 1000 AD. Calendars in India In India calendar reform took place in 1957. The National Calendar of India is a formalized lunisolar calendar in which leap years coincide with those of the Gregorian calendar (Calendar Reform Committee, 1957). However, the initial epoch is the Saka Era, a traditional epoch of Indian chronology. Months are named after the traditional Indian months and are offset from the beginning of Gregorian months. In addition to establishing a civil calendar, the Calendar Reform Committee set guidelines for religious calendars, which require calculations of the motions of the Sun and Moon. Tabulations of the religious holidays are prepared by the Indian Meteorological Department and published annually in The Indian Astronomical Ephemeris.


Despite the attempt to establish a unified calendar for all of India, many local variations exist. The Gregorian calendar continues in use for administrative purposes, and holidays are still determined according to regional, religious, and ethnic traditions. Years are counted from the Saka Era; 1 Saka is considered to begin with the vernal equinox of 79 AD. The reformed Indian calendar began with Saka Era 1879 AD, Caitra 1, which corresponds to 22nd March, 1957. Normal years have 365 days; leap years have 366. In a leap year, an intercalary day is added to the end of Caitra.

Conclusion: Calendars have held sacred status for they help in maintaining social order, provide the basis for planning of agricultural, economic and industrial activities. Calendars also provide basis for maintaining cycles of religious and civil events. Irrespective of what their scientific sophistication is, calendars must ultimately be judged as social contracts, not as scientific treatises. Because calendars are created to serve societal needs, the question of a calendar's accuracy is usually misleading or misguided. A calendar that is based on a fixed set of rules is accurate if the rules are consistently applied. For calendars that attempt to replicate astronomical cycles, one can ask how accurately the cycles are replicated. However, astronomical cycles are not absolutely constant, and they are not known exactly. In the long term, only a purely observational calendar maintains synchrony with astronomical phenomena. However, an observational calendar exhibits short-term uncertainty, because the natural phenomena are complex and the observations are subject to error. ********************************************************************************************