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Beginnings of indian and chinese calendrical astronomy.

A purely lunar calendar is out of step with the seasons, so the Muslim Ramadan circulates around the year. A solar calendar is needed to determine the seasons. Ancient astronomers therefore observed the changing position of the sun on its heavenly path, the ecliptic. In Egypt and the Near East they looked directly for which star the sun rises with. In this heliacal observation the star is visible very briefly. The Chinese and Indian astronomers therefore resorted to luni-solar observation. When the moon is full, it is exactly opposite the sun. Calendar asterisms were chosen so that they form opposing pairs (cf. Filliozat 1962: 350). The sun's stellar position could then be seen easily from the full moon's conjunction with the opposing star. Selecting twenty-seven or twenty-eight marking stars made it possible to label also the days of the month, as the moon had a different lodge each day of its monthly journey.

The Indian and Chinese star calendars sharing these fundamental structures have long been thought to have a common origin, but their source has been much debated (cf. Needham 1959: 184,252-59). Both calendars begin with the Pleiades, suggesting that their rise with the sun at the vernal equinox started the New Year. This astronomical event took place in the second half of the third millennium B.C.E. (cf. Needham 1959: 245-46). But Indian texts mentioning calendar stars date from just about 1000 B.C.E. In China the oldest date could be about 1300 B.C.E., when oracle bone inscriptions mention asterisms later marking the quadrants of the year, such as the "Bird star" identified with the later "Red Bird."

This was the situation in 1959 when Joseph Needham published the astronomy volume of his Science and Civilization in China. Archaeological discoveries made thereafter in China now make it probable that the Chinese started developing their calendar independently of others in the early third millennium B.C.E. From a tomb dated to 433 B.C.E. we now have the earliest list of all the twenty-eight hsiu constellations on the cover of a lacquered wooden

This paper was read at the 223rd Annual Meeting of the American Oriental Society in Portland, Oregon, 17 March 2013. It is published here with minimal changes; only some annotation has been added. A much extended version, with detailed documentation and illustrations, has been published in the meanwhile with the title "Beginnings of Indian Astronomy, with Reference to a Parallel Development in China" in the open access on-line journal History of Science in South Asia (HSSA) 1(2013): 21-78; it can be downloaded at I would like to thank David Pankenier for his generous help with early Chinese astronomy. box. The star names are written in seal script around the large character dou denoting "Ursa Major." The names are flanked by two images, the tiger of the west and the dragon of the east, animals associated with the autumnal and vernal equinoxes (cf. Pan.kenier 2013: 133 fig. 4.3). In a Neolithic Yangshao culture elite tomb excavated in 1987, the south-north oriented corpse was flanked by two large shell mosaic images depicting a tiger and a dragon or crocodile (cf. Pankenier 2013: 39 fig. 2.1).

Because opposing asterisms can only be found with the help of circumpolar stars, which are always in the sky. the Pole Star and Ursa Major play a dominant role in Chinese astronomy and cosmology (cf. Needham 1959: 230). Besides astral palaces of the quadrants, the Chinese distinguish a fifth, central palace, a celestial archetype cosmically empowering the Emperor. 500 B.C.E. Confucius (Lunyu 2,1) equates the King with the -Northern Asterism," which "occupies its place, while all other stars revolve around it" (Pankenier 2004: 288).

Turning now to Indian calendar astronomy. I start with noting that the ritual context in which the naksatras are first listed (for the early lists, cf. Kirfel 1920: 36) connects them with special naksatra bricks laid down in fire altars (cf., e.g., Staal 1983: I, 494-95, fig. 40 & table 13). Vedic Sulvasutras describe elaborate geometry and orientation methods used in the construction of these brick altars, which are totally unknown to the Rgveda (cf. Kulkarni 1983). In my view, the calendar and the ulvasiitra tradition are likely to go back to the Harappans, who lived for a millennium in brick-built cities.

In Deciphering the Indus Script (Parpola 1994) and elsewhere (1990, 2012), I have argued for Harappan origins of Indian astronomy. Here I skip most of what I have said before and concentrate on new insights. I focus on the Pole Star, called in Sanskrit dhruva 'firm, fixed'. The only star matching this name before our own Polaris is Thuban, alpha Draconis, which in 2780 B.C. was just 0.6 degrees from the heavenly Pole (fig. 1). This date links it with the Harappan tradition. My main theme is that astronomy and the Pole Star played a significant political role in early India too. I argue for its connection with kingship, claiming that there is Harappan heritage in the Vedic royal consecration and its model divinity, King Varuria.

Calendrical astronomy requires whole-year observation of sunrise in the horizon and the shadow of the sunstick. This is possible only in settled communities. Indus urbanization began with the Early Harappan culture about 3200 B.C.E. One of its first towns, Rahman Dheri, is oriented according to the cardinal directions (cf. Durrani 1988: 210 pl. 6.) Akinori Uesugi (2011) has shown that the Early Harappan culture spread with a new type of stamp seal. Four sets of "concentric circles" are placed in the four corners of this kind of seal, but a common variant has a fifth set in the center. "Rays" occasionally surrounding the concentric circles suggest astral or solar symbolism (cf. the seal from Rahman Dheri illustrated in Dur-rani et al. 1994-95: 207). A bowl from Mehrgarh is divided into four compartments. each occupied by a very sun-like circular image surrounded by "rays" (cf. Jarrige et al. 1995: 160), probably depicting the quadrants of the sun's yearly course.

The seal is an instrument of administration, and its motif reflects political ideology. In the Vedic royal consecration the king takes a step in each of the five directions, therewith symbolically ascending the zenith and appropriating the whole universe (cf. Heesterman 1957: 103-5): "from the quarters he goes to the heaven" says the Maitrayani Sarhhita (4,4,4). The atapatha-Brahmana (5,4,1,8) explains: "It is the seasons, the year, that [the adhvarytt priest] thereby makes [the king] ascend; and having ascended the seasons, the year, he is high, high above everything here."

In The Sky Garment (Parpola 1985) I argued that the tarpya garment of the Vedic king, ascribed to his model, God Varuna, continues the royal robe that the Harappans adopted from Mesopotamia. The astral "trefoil" decorates statuettes of the "Bull of Heaven" and divine and royal garments in both Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. The tarpya garment is decorated with images of daynyas. This word denotes both 'priestly fireplace' and 'star'. Vedic and epic texts explain that the stars are ancient pious sacrificers transferred to the sky with their fireplaces.

Vedic Varuna is not only the god of royalty, but also the lord of waters as in later Hinduism, where he rides a crocodile or a fish. In classical Vedic ritual the water buffalo is sacrificed just to Varuna. Pre-ggvedic Aryan immigrants evidently replaced with their Varuna the divine king of the Harappans, who had the fish, crocodile, and water buffalo among his most important animal symbols (cf. Parpola 201 I a: 322-23).

Sir John Marshall (1931) suggested that the famous buffalo-horned "Proto-Siva" is three-faced. I opt for the alternative that he rather has four faces like giva as caturrnukha-litiga symbolizing the axis mundi, or the four-faced Hindu God Brahma, whom architectural texts connect with the center (cf. Wessels-Mevissen 2001: 4-5). The four animals depicted on the seal are probably guardians of the quarters, like the four animals surrounding Agoka's Sarnath pillar (cf. Agrawala 1964) and the Chinese animals of the four quadrants of the year.

The first naksatra of the Vedic calendar, the Pleiades, was closest to the equinoctial point in 2240 B.C.E. Due to precession. Agvini marked the vernal equinox by 80 C.E., when Indian astronomers made the naksatra list start with Agvini. The Harappans seem to have similarly adjusted the calendar after 2500 B.C.E. Albrecht Weber (1862: II, 275-77) plausibly but with much hesitation suggested that the earliest New Year star was Rohini, the large red star Aldebaran closest to the equinoctial point in 3054 B.C.E. Brahmana texts tell that the Moon was punished with waning disease because he neglected his other astral wives and cohabited only with Rohini.

The Atharvaveda (AVg 13,1,22) calls Rohini the devoted wife of Rohita, the rising sun, which suggests heliacal observation. The Rgvedic myth in which Soma robs Brhaspati's wife (RV 10,109) could refer to the changeover from solar to luni-solar calendar, if Brhaspati was the rising sun (cf. Parpola 1994: 263) and not the planet Jupiter as later (for the later variant, cf. Kirfel 1952).

Opposite to Aldebaran is another red star, alpha Scorpii, which the Taittiriya texts call Rohitti, other texts Jyestha. Weber (1862: II, 310 with n. 2 and 291-92) suggested that jyegha abbreviates the Atharvavedic star name jye.ythaghni 'she who slays the eldest (son)'. This latter name reminds of the Sunabgepa legend of the royal consecration (cf. Aitareya-Bramana 7,13-18), in which Varupa grants King Harikandra a son on the condition that Harikandra then offers this first-born son in sacrifice to Varuna. Varuna as the god of waters and fertility is connected with the crocodile. A Harappan tablet depicts a male gharial apparently impregnating a woman with its long and narrow snout; this snout has phallic symbolism, ending in a swelling protuberance, hunted as a potent aphrodisiac (cf. Parpola 2011 b: 30 and fig. 28). Before the British stopped the cruel practice, childless Hindu parents worshiped crocodiles and vowed to throw their first-born baby to the crocodiles, believing that this would secure them additional offspring (cf. Ward 1811). A tablet from Dholavira suggests that Harappans too offered children to a crocodile god (cf. Parpola 201 lb: 41, fig. 48).

In some Bengali iva temples at the vernal equinox a large crocodile is made of mud and a clay baby is placed near its mouth that has been daubed red with vermilion (cf. Mahapatra 1972: 132-33). The red star jye.ytha, which the Maitrayani Samhita (2,13,20) ascribes to Varuna, may have represented the mouth of the heavenly crocodile discussed below; mukha 'mouth' also denotes 'beginning' and is used of the first asterism. Thus the heavenly crocodile would be eating the baby sun, newly born at the vernal equinox. King Harikandra's first-born son is called Rohita, 'the red one', as is the rising sun. If the Harappans indeed made the Pleiades the new-year star after Rohini, the myth of the sun's birth was also transferred, the Krnikas becoming the mothers or wet-nurses of Skanda. Both Skanda and his Vedic predecessor Rudra are called Kumara 'baby boy, youth', synonymous with their Old Tamil counterpart Murukan.

A unique crocodile cult still prevails in fifty tribal villages of southern Gujarat. In order to get offspring and the fulfilment of other wishes, these tribals have a wooden crocodile made and installed horizontally upon a wooden pillar going through the tail and allowing the crocodile to turn. This linga-like pole is the husband of the crocodile goddess; they are consecrated in a marriage ceremony, daubed red with vermilion, and offered animal victims (cf. Fischer and Shah 1971). The cult's Harappan origin (cf. Parpola 2011b: 25-30) can be seen from a Mature Harappan painted pot from Amri depicting crocodiles similarly set on poles (Casal 1964: II, fig. 75 no. 323).

The Jaiminiya- (JB 3,193-4) and Paricavirpga-Brahmpas (PB 14,5,14-15) tell of a s'iaurnara rfi, who attained heaven, being the constellation called arkara. Literally fiktmeira means 'baby-killer'. In the Taittiiiya-Arapyaka (2,19,3) it is a heavenly mighty crocodile (divyah s'akvarah s'is'utnei rah), which has a tail of four sections. It is worshipped with a prayer at dusk, addressed to the Pole Star, dhruva. Later Puriina texts (cf. Vismt-Purina 2,9,1) tell that God appears in the sky in the shape of a starry crocodile, with the Pole Star in its tail (cf. Kirfel 1954: 27, 260). This matches the position of the pole in the tail part of the crocodile images of Gujarati tribals and the Harappan pot from Amri. The heavenly crocodile turning around in the sky with the Pole Star as its pivot apparently devours the sun and other planets like the later crocodile-shaped eclipse demon Rahu, possibly represented by the Harappan images of the fish-eating crocodile.

King Harigcandra's name denotes the 'moon': his thousand wives apparently stand for stars, and his son is called Rohita like the rising sun. Weber (1853: 237) plausibly suggested that gunaldepa too has an astral denotation. Its meaning 'Dog's tail' corresponds exactly to Greek Kuvocroupa and its Latin translation Canis cauda; these are names of Ursa Minor (cf. Scherer 1953: 176-77). Sunabgepa thus probably substitutes for an older Dravidian name for a circumpolar constellation that included the concept of tail.

Immediately after mentioning the starry crocodile with the Pole Star in its tail, the Puraps describe the Pole Star as the hub of the entire stellar system, upholding all stars and planets, which are bound to it with cords of wind (cf. Kirfel 1954: 67, 76, 259-60). I have elsewhere argued at length for the Harappan origin of this conception (cf. Parpola 1994: 231-36, 24046), and here just a few hints must suffice. The recurring sequence of Indus pictograms 'fig tree' + 'fish' can be read in Dravidian as yap= 'banyan fig' plus min 'fish'. This yields the compound vata-min, which in Old Tamil denotes the 'north star'. Dravidian vata 'north' is homophonous with the word for 'banyan tree', which is derived from Dravidian vatam 'rope, cord'. Rope-like air roots characterize the banyan. Vara-min thus means besides 'north star' also 'rope star' and 'banyan star'. In addition to the Puranic "aerial cords" binding all stars to the Pole Star, it explains the heavenly banyan tree held up in the sky by King Varukia, mentioned in a Rgvedic hymn ascribed to Sunabgepa (RV 1,24,7; cf. Geldner 1889). These ideas seem to be reflected in the Early Harappan painted bowls focusing on a central point, from which issue figs and fish, stars being conceived as fish swimming in the heavenly ocean (cf. Parpola 1994: 192 fig. 10.20b), while a Harappan tablet depicting a fig tree seems to indicate its heavenly nature by two stars flanking it on either side (cf. Parpola 1994: 244 fig. 14.5).

Some Grhyasiatras prescribe that the bridegroom should address the Pole Star with a mantra that undoubtedly preserves an otherwise lost component of the royal consecration (cf. Parpola 1994: 245-46):

I know thee as the nave of the universe. May I become the nave of this country.

I know thee as the center of the universe. May I become the center of this country.

I know thee as the string that holds the universe. May I become the string that holds this country.

I know thee as the pillar of the universe. May I become the pillar of this country.

I know thee as the navel of the universe. May

I become as the navel of this country. Thus the construction of a luni-solar calendar has in India, as in China, led to the conception that the king is the earthly counterpart of the Pole Star. But this seems to have happened independently of each other in the two countries.


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Author:Parpola, Asko
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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