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Indian Journal of History of Science, 53.2 (2018) 251-252 DOI: 10.



Workshop on Importance of Eclipses in the History of Astronomy

BS Shylaja*

A workshop on ‘Importance of Eclipses consequences of climate changes, which may have

in the History of Astronomy’ was held on March time scales of the order of one hundred years or
3, 2018, at the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, less. The records from ancient observatories,
Bengaluru. As is well known, one of the challenges therefore gain importance in understanding
of the astronomers of yester years faced was the climate change in historical time scales. During
prediction of eclipses. It began with the systematic ice ages, the earth rotated faster and conversely
observations and the recognition of periodicities. when the sea level rises the rotation is bit sluggish.
Thus we find a wealth of records from many The values of Delta T, can be deciphered from
observatories all over the world. This workshop ancient eclipses. Scientists infer the changes in
was aimed at the contribution of these records the sea level from geochemical measurements of
towards the study of long period variations in the radioisotopes derived from ice cores, sediment /
orbital parameters of the earth and the moon. rock cores, coral growth rings and tree rings; the
B V Sreekanthan, Visiting Scientist, eclipse records take us back to about thousand five
National Institute for Advanced Studies and hundred years. Tanikawa and his team have been
Former Director, TIFR, in his opening remarks, determining the value of Delta T since 2001. From
highlighted the importance of maintaining the beginning, they have monitored the nature of
observational records. He described several early variations of Delta T and the relation to climate
experiments on cosmic rays that were carried out changes at different time scales. The talk mainly
in India. He also remembered with gratitude the emphasised the method of determining the value
pioneering efforts of Homi Bhabha and Vikram of Delta T using basically the solar eclipses by
Sarabhai which laid the foundation to the imposing two conditions on the data: (1) eclipses
development of technology in independent India. should be deep (total or annular) and (2) there are
contemporaneous eclipses observed during less
Kiyotaka Tanikawa from National
than say, ten years. He showed many examples
Astronomical Observatory of Japan, delivered a
using this technique.
talk entitled ‘Short-term variations of Delta T and
climate changes’. This was an introductory lecture B S Shylaja’s lecture on ‘Stone inscrip-
explaining the definition and geometry of Delta tions as Sources of astronomical events’ was based
T, which is the imprint of perturbations in Earth’s on an extensive survey of stone inscriptions in
rotation. The variations of Delta T are the result South India and it explained the wealth of data
of the variations of the inertial moment of the that can be mined from these unconventional
Earth. We interpret the latter variations as coming sources. The inscriptions record solar and lunar
from the sea level changes which are the direct eclipses as well as astronomical phenomena like

* Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, T. Chowdaiah Road, High Grounds, Bengaluru-560001, Email:

solstices, equinoxes and occultation of bright stars special types of eclipses called occultation. His
like Rohīni (Aldeberan) by the Moon, although team has been investigating the variation of the
they were written for non astronomical purposes Earth’s rotation speed using ancient solar eclipses.
like release of a grant or donation. They provide Lunar occultation of planets and bright stars were
information on different types of calendars, often observed and recorded in ancient times, but
different methods of notations of numerals. They visible areas of lunar occultation are usually wide,
are seen all over India and extends from about 3rd and therefore they are rarely usable for our studies
Century BCE to about 1800CE. She showed that of the Earth’s rotation. He described how the lunar
the solar eclipse inscriptions in South India with occultation of Venus on 5 August 503 and of Saturn
a special mention on totality have contributed to on 22 August 513 recorded in China play an
the understanding of the small changes in the important role for our studies because the former
rotation speed of earth. By comparing the was observed just after the Moon rose in the east
predicted path with the observed sites we can infer and the latter just before the Moon set in the west.
the minute differences in the motion of Earth. The The results from the occultation are compared with
study extended to all over South Asia, to include those from the contemporary solar eclipses. There
countries like Cambodia, Srilanka, Indonesia, is also the question on whether or not the Moon’s
Nepal and Myanmar from 3rd Century BCE. It tidal acceleration has been constant from ancient
throws light on many new aspects such as times from solar eclipses and occultation, and we
evolution of calendars apart from the influence of will also show the results about it. The moon is
Indian system. Many interesting records of moving away from the earth at a rate of about 3.8
planetary conjunctions are available. cm per year as we know today. Their study of
ancient records of solar eclipses between 198 and
Balachandra Rao, Honorary Director,
181 BCE in China and in Rome show that the lunar
Gandhi Centre of Science and Human Values,
tidal acceleration that is consistent with the current
Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, described the records of
eclipses from many texts of the medieval period
in his talk entitled ‘Eclipse Dates from Literary M N Vahia, TIFR, Mumbai, could not
Sources’. He also explained the difficulty in the attend the workshop. His talk ‘Traditional
interpretations since different parts of the country astronomies and their expression’ was presented
followed different types of calendars. He cited by Dr Shylaja. It described the impact of
many examples of eclipses, mainly in the astronomy on human culture, which is far more
commentaries of major Sanskrit texts, by the complex than normally understood. Examples
medieval Indian astronomers; he explained how were drawn from common astronomical beliefs
the circumstances of these are worked out using of various tribes in different parts of India and
improved Siddhāntic Procedures. The eclipses extended to historical periods where astronomical
considered are from the works of Puthu- impressions are traceable in coins and art. Various
dakasvāmīn (c.862); Mallikārjunasūri (c.1178), manifestations of human activity and belief system
Parameśvara (c.1360-1455); Nīlakaha Somayāji are projected on the sky. The introduction of the
(born 1444); Yallaya (c.1472); Sumatihara ingenious postulation of Rāhu and Ketu in the
(c.1600) and Viśwanātha Daivaj–a (c.1610) and skies and their use in astronomical calculations
many others. can be considered as a path breaking achievement.
It is interesting to see that the astronomical ideas
Mitsura Soma also from National
have influenced great artisans and hence the art.
Astronomical Observatory of Japan, delivered a
talk entitled ‘Earth rotation determined from The lectures were well received and
occultation records’. He discussed the small followed by rigorous discussions by enthusiastic
changes in the motion of the moon as deduced by audience, over seventy, mostly youth.