An Indian Space Odessey
On December 17, 2006, Sunita Williams, an Indian-American astronaut, a part of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)'s three-member crew for the six-month-long International Space Station (ISS) expedition went for a spacewalk, in a bid to rewire the ISS and to fix a troublesome solar array. She was the first woman of Indian descent to walk in space.
But then, when it comes to exploring the cosmos, Indians have always been noted for their stargazing abilities. Ancient Indians made remarkable observations and discoveries about our universe. This is the story about our journey to the stars.
Right - An 18th century Jain manuscript from Gujarat depicting the Hindu calendar
The Vedic legacy
The earliest references to astronomy are found in the Rig Veda, which possibly belongs to the 2nd or 3rd millennium BC. It may even be earlier. According to recent archaeological discoveries, the mighty Sarasvati River ceased reaching the sea before 3000 BC and dried up in the sands of the Western desert around 1900 BC. Rig Veda traces the route of this river from the mountains to the sea, so it must be at least as old as that epoch.
Stargazing was a part of life in the ancient civilisations. The different positions of the stars and constellations in different times of the year were used in conjunction (amavasya) or in opposition (purnima) with the Moon or Sun to fix agricultural and religious practices, which were celebrated in a grand way. The year, beginning with the full moon in the month Phalguna (or Chaitra), was divided into three four-monthly (chaturmasya) sacrifices. It was closed with rites to celebrate Indra Sunasira
(Indra with plough) to 'obtain the thirteenth month' and mark the first ploughing. This thirteenth month was interposed twice in five years to bring the lunar year in harmony with the solar year.
In India today, the science of astronomy is called KHAGOLA-SHASTRA, which translates literally as "system of the sphere of stars" (kha = stars, gola = sphere, shastra = system). The famous astronomical observatory at the University of Nalanda is also called Khagola. This is where the great 5th century Indian astronomer Aryabhata studied and extended the subject.
Moonstruck Indus Valley
The Indus civilisation gave greater importance to the phases of the Moon (tithi). India then had a lunar calendar like Egypt and Mesopotamia. But gradually, in the Vedic period Sun became more important because of the emphasis on agriculture and seasons. The Sun was considered as the prime supporter, controller and light-giver of the universe. The Moon is seen as the light of the Sun (surya-rasmi). Even the phenomenon of new- and full-moon as being related to Moon's elongation from the Sun was correctly guessed! The motion of the sun and the moon was tracked against the backdrop of the nakshatras.
Many scholars believe that the figures of animals in the Indus seals, real or mythological (such as bulls, elephants, rams, tigers, crocodiles and unicorns), and deities in human form divide the apparent path of the Moon by asterism (pattern of stars). The sky was divided into 12 segments (Adityas) and 27 segments (lunar nakshatras) where the nakshatra and deity names were used interchangeably. Thus, the analysis of texts reveals that much of Vedic mythology is a symbolic telling of astronomical knowledge. Yet, there was no systematic text compiled earlier than 1400 BC or so, when Lagadha compiled Vedanga Jyotisa. After Vedanga Jyotisa, there was Jaina literature.
The Jaina lull
The Jaina canonical texts like Surya-chandra prajnapti and Jyotiskarandaka, which belong to 2nd century or even earlier have records of post-Vedic astronomical traditions. This period is generally considered to be a dark period because these texts show no advancement in Indian astronomical tradition. The Jaina tradition is followed by the Siddhantic astronomy. There is a long gap of about two thousand years between Lagadha's Vedanga Jyotisa and the Siddhantas.
It can also be called the age of mathematical astronomy. The main focus of the astronomers was now on calculation of geocentric planetary orbits and development of algorithms for the solution of the mathematical equations that arose in the process. Many theoretical texts, called Siddhantas, evolved in this period. These Siddhantas and karanas (texts with simple algorithms) were used to make calendars and predict astronomical phenomena throughout the country. In the beginning, there were five main Siddhantas (Panchasiddhantika, Varahamihira).
And three more came into being over a period of about 500 years or so. These are Aryabhatta-siddhanta (Aryabhatta, AD 499), Brahmasiddhanta (Brahmagupta) and Surya-siddhanta (the latest version attributed to Asura Maya and considered the most accurate). Aryabhatta-siddhanta, the oldest of the three, is attributed to Aryabhatta one of the greatest Indian astronomer-mathematician. He was the first to discover that the Moon and the planets reflect the light from the Sun, and that the planets follow an elliptical (oval) orbit around the Sun.
Outcome of outsiders
Astronomy developed as a pure science and on practical lines in Europe during the 15th-18th centuries. European exploration of the four continents began in the later half of the 15th century. With this, astronomy became all the more important. Beginning with the use of magnetic compass, the mariners and cartographers employed astronomical quadrants to measure geographical latitude. Telescope was invented in Holland around 1608, and was used for astronomical observations by Galileo in 1610. It later developed, along with chronometers, as a device for measuring latitudes and longitudes. Astronomical studies were thus boosted commercially in almost all European countries.
But, what were then needed were accurate astronomical tables and charts for the motion of Sun and Moon, and star catalogues. Then astronomy flourished under government patronage. So when the Jesuits came to India, they introduced this knowledge of practical astronomy. They were the first Europeans to introduce modern Western astronomy into South and South-East Asia. When the fame of the Jesuits' scholarship reached the court of Emperor Akbar in 1568, he requested the viceroy at Goa to send missionaries to his court. Father Anthony Monserrate (1536-1600), one of the members of the first Jesuit mission to Akbar's court, was the first foreigner to compile a map of India in 1590.
However, the year 1757 was a crucial one, which witnessed the Battle of Plassey. It marked the ascendency of the East India Company (EICo). By 1765 it had gained virtual control of the whole of Bengal.
This boosted astronomical studies in India. Not because the East India Company was particularly keen on enlightening the Indians. Its aim was to gain knowledge of the Indian Subcontinent and its natural resources! It aimed to establish an efficient communication network, particularly for revenue purposes.
Since the available tables were not accurate enough and not based on systematic astronomical observations, the EICo promoted cartography with the aid of its own surveyors. Whatever the reason may be, the regular astronomical control of geographical surveying indirectly supported the modern astronomical activities in India.
In vedic timekeeping, a tithi is a lunar day, or the time it takes for the longitudinal angle between the moon and the sun to increase by 12 degrees. Tithis begin at varying times of the day and range in duration from approximately 19 to 26 hours. There are 30 tithis in each lunar month.
The etymology of Sanskrit phrases never ceases to amaze. For example, take the case of Atithi which means ‘guest’ in Sanskrit. But atithi also means the antonym of Tithi which denotes a specific time.
Atithi can, therefore, be interpreted as the person who may arrive at any random time, and should by implication be welcomed whenever he/she arrives. Imagine, all that meaning packed in one word simply by prefixing ‘a’?
Development of astronomical knowledge is closely related with the establishment of observatories.
Advent of the Observatories
The most significant impact of this growing interest in stargazing was the setting up of modern observatories. Some of these sceintific facilities, which compiled star charts using telescopes, were founded by Indian kings, while the rest were founded by the EICo.
Stone Observatories of Jai Singh: Sawai Jai Singh (1686- 1743) constructed five observatories in Delhi, Jaipur, Benaras, Ujjain, and Mathura. He installed astronomical instruments of pre-telescopic era. Some instruments were made out of metal but most were constructed of stone and masonry. Many instruments were his own invention such as Jai Prakasa Yantra, Rama Yantra, and Samrat Yantra.
Madras Observatory: Michael Topping (1746-1796), sailor-astronomer, who was a part of the Company’s Board of Directors, was the guiding force behind the construction of this observatory. He acquired several astronomical instruments such as achromatic refractors, astronomical clocks with compound pendulum, and an excellent transit instrument.
Calcutta Observatory: In 1825, the EICo established a small observatory in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to serve the Survey Department. It had a transit telescope, alti-azimuth circle and later an astronomical telescope.
Royal Observatory, Lucknow: Nasiruddin Haydar, king of Oudh (Awadh), established an observatory in Lucknow in 1832-1835. According to some reports, it was one of the best-equipped observatories in India at that time. It had a mural circle, a transit telescope, an equatorial telescope, and astronomical clocks.
Takhta Singhji Observatory: In 1882, Parsi physicist Kavasji Dadabhai Naegamvala established an observatory in Pune with the aid of a grant from the Maharaja of Bhavnagar. It was a premier spectroscopic observatory, possessing a 20-inch Grubb reflector for both visual and photographic work, spectroscopes, and sidereal clocks.
Wrapped in routines
But the astronomers were so overburdened with meteorological researches that they could barely focus on astronomical observations. Major Wilcox of Royal Observatory, Lucknow, was even ordered by the Governor General to keep meteorological and magnetic registers, and carry out these observations regularly. His argument that “meteorology is considered quite separate from the science of astronomy” was ignored. It was not surprising, therefore, that astronomy could not become an integral part of the Indian education system, in spite of the array of observatories. They remained in effect ‘alien outposts of a foreign science.’ The directors were naturally all Europeans and almost all the Indians employed there were kept for menial works.
Image left - Sundial structure at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, showing time sections perfectly aligned with the Su
The Sun God, Source of Heat, Light, and Life on our Planet
In Hindu Religious Literature, Surya is notably mentioned as the visible form of God that one can see every day. Furthermore, Shaivites and Vaishnavas often regard Surya as an aspect of Shiva and Vishnu, respectively. For example, the sun is called Surya Narayana by Vaishnavas. In Shaivite theology, Surya is said to be one of eight forms of Shiva, named the Astamurti.
In the Mahabharata, princess Kunti receives instruction for a mantra from sage Durvasa, reciting which she is able to summon any god and bear a child with him. Unable to believe the power of this mantra she tries to summon Surya. When Surya appears, she is overawed and requests him to go back, but Surya is compelled to fulfil the mantra before returning. Surya magically causes Kunti to bear a child immediately so that she, an unmarried princess, would not be subject to questions from the king or his court. Kunti discards this child, Karna, who grows up to become one of the central characters in the great battle of Kurukshetra.
Surya is the father of the twins known as the Ashwins, divine horsemen and physicians to the Gods. He also fathered the twins Yama Dev (the Lord of Death) & his sister Yami (associated with the river Yamuna). He also fathers Sani Dev (the planet Saturn) and the Monkey King Sugriva, who helped Rama and Laxman defeat Ravana.
See the sun
Make an Optical Projector to view transits and solar eclipses using a pair of binoculars.
Do Not Look Through the Binoculars!
Be Careful not to put your hand or anything flammable near the eyepiece! The concentrated sunlight exiting there can cause a nasty burn or set something ablaze!
Now You can Watch a beautiful, magnified image of the sun — during an eclipse, while a planet transits or just sun spots. You will have to adjust the tripod to account for the earth’s rotation.
However, with the turn of the century, an interesting combination of scientific developments and astronomical events heralded a major lead ahead. One was the solar eclipse of 1898, which was observed by Naegamvala. Another was the appearance of the Halley's comet in 1910. The common men and women in India were now getting curious about what went on inside the observatories.
Responding to this, Universities began to introduce programmes and courses related to astronomy. Kodaikanal and Nainital Observatories were set up around this time. They were different becasue their core activity was not metereological surveys, but scientific research on the whereabouts of the stars. And the application of these studies in real life. This is how it was done....
Kodaikanal Observatory: After the Madras famine of 1886-87, an inquiry commission appointed by the Government recommended to study the relation between sunspot activity (solar magnetic storms that appear as dark, irregular spots on the sun's surface) and the distribution of rains. The site for the solar observatory was selected in Kodaikanal and it began functioning from 1900. John Evershed, who became the director of the Kodaikanal Observatory in 1911, started a programme of photographing solar prominences and sunspot spectra. His observations led to two important discoveries in solar physics: the radial motion in the sunspots known as the Evershed effect, and the nature of the sunspot spectra.
Nizamiah Observatory: Nawab Zafar Jung, a wealthy nobleman in Hyderabad, acquired a 15-inch Grubb refractor and established an observatory at Begumpet, Hyderabad. It was taken over by the Nizam's government in 1908 and it soon got involved in an international programme of mapping the sky. 18 observatories with similar instruments took part in this carte-du-ciel programme. So, an 8-inch astrograph was acquired. Twelve catalogues containing 8,00,000 stars were published. T P Bhaskaran, one of the directors of this observatory, started a programme of observing variable stars with the 15-inch Grubb telescope. It was during his time that control of the observatory passed from the Nizam's Government to Osmania University. Akbar Ali, who succeeded Bhaskaran in 1944, introduced a programme of double star measurement. He also placed an order for a 48-inch telescope for the observatory.
Universe of universities
Much of the theoretical work was done at the three centres — Calcutta University, Allahabad University, and Benaras Hindu University. At Calcutta University, Professor C V Raman attracted a bright group of young physicists.
Among them was M N Saha, who formulated the theory of thermal ionization and its application to stellar atmospheres.
Saha moved to Allahabad University and constituted a group of scientists studying theoretical astrophysics. Another group inspired by V V Narlikar worked on cosmology at the Benaras Hindu University. His son J V Narlikar and his first student P C Vaidya made impacts in this field later. In 1946, a year before India's freedom, the first rocket with scientific pay-load was launched.
Astronomy in Independent India
After India attained freedom in 1947, astronomical researches gained momentum. A committee, which was set up in 1945 to draw up plans for the development of astronomical research and teaching in India was now revived, under the directorship of MN Saha.
The committee recommended the need for better, more advanced technology (such as telescopes with larger aperture) and laboratories. Its thrust was to integrate space research in the nation's education system, and introduce teaching of astronomy and astrophysics in the universities.
There was excitement and activity everywhere... Karl Jansky's experiments in radio astronomy led to the construction of the first Radio Telescope to study the Sun in 1952 at Kodaikanal. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) group developed instrumentation for x-ray and infrared studies.
And observatories at Naini Tal, Rangapur and Kavalur were established with modern equipment. At this time, the astronomical community in India was feeling the need of associations that could promote and encourage the study of astronomy, astrophysics and allied subjects.
So in 1952, the Indian Science Congress organised by the University of Calcutta formed the new Indian Astronomical Society. And In 1972, the Astronomical Society of India came into being, with its headquarters at Osmania University, Hyderabad. One of their main objectives was to bring out society journals that will carry original results in this field.
But the most significant development in this period was the formation of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 1969 under Department of Atomic Energy. This was the dawn of a new era in Indian astronomy.
Space for people
Today, in the 'astronomical' fraternity, ISRO is a force to reckon with. It has established two major space systems, Indian National Satellite (INSAT) for communication, television broadcasting and meteorological services, and Indian Remote Sensing Satellites (IRS) system for resources monitoring and management. It has developed two satellite launch vehicles, Polar Satellite
Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), to place INSAT and IRS satellites in the required orbits.
Launching the Future
So the next time an Indian woman goes spacewalking, she will probably take off from the Indian soil, in a spacecraft 'madein- India'. But ISRO and the rest of India's space research community will still have a long, long way to go.
They will have to keep toiling to develop a meteorological model that predicts the onset of monsoons more accurately; to come up with an advanced disaster warning system that can set the alarm bells ringing in the fisherfolk colonies in coastal belts before a tsunami strikes again; to set up state-ofthe- art remote sensing satellites that can monitor our fast-diminishing natural resources like forests and groundwater.
In other words, they will have to follow the beaten tracks — not of the western scientists, but of our ancestors who mastered the art of stargazing to know their own planet better.