Friday, September 11, 2009

Astronomy In Nepalese Culture

-Rishi Shah & Suresh Bhattarai

Astronomy has played a crucial role in the development of our civilisation and culture. Early astronomy involved observing the motions of visible celestial objects, especially the sun, moon, stars and planets visible to the naked eye. Their altering appearances in the course of the year were used to establish the agricultural or ritual calendar, which influenced the chores of our daily lives. In some cultures, astronomical data were misinterpreted equivocally for astrological prognostication.

Indus Valley Civilisation (2600-1900 BC) had flourished around the Indus River basin in South Asia. Vedic civilisation had extended from the second millennia BC to the 6th century BC. The extensively astronomy-rich sacred texts of the Indo-Aryan civilisation were presumably compiled then. The Iron Age in the Indian subcontinent succeeded the late Harappan culture.

The Neolithic age in China could be traced back as early as 10,000 BC. During the imperial era of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Araniko popularly distinguished as astronomy-enthusiast Balabahu of Nepal, had visited China at the invitation of Emperor Kublai Khan. He had assisted the legendary Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing exhaustively while constructing astronomical equipment.

Book of astronomy

Vedic cosmology hypothesizes that the universe is created and destroyed cyclically. One day of our deity Brahma, the creator, is referred to as one Kalpa (4.32 billion years or the approximate life span of our earth). According to the Veda, we are now passing through the 52nd century of Kaliyuga which started in 3102 BC. Vedic Jyotish is considered as the principal book of astronomy in the Indian subcontinent. Garun Puran teaches that the earth is spherical and the sun is an indispensable source of energy to all forms of life on earth.

Both the Rigveda and Brahmanda Purana expound the universe as rhythmic (oscillating) and infinite. It expands and then collapses constantly from baffling the concentrated point dubbed the . The universe, as an enigmatic living entity, is bound to the perpetual cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It is mentioned that the earth had evolved from the Navi (belly button) of Bishnu, inferring the Navi as the galactic centre.

The Hindu cosmological time cycles are described in Surya Siddhnata, which is probably 5,000 years old. Astronomer Arya Bhatta (476-550 AD) had theorised the revolutionary heliocentric solar system in 500 AD long before this concept was proposed by Copernicus in the western community in 1543.

Neolithic tools found in the Kathmandu Valley indicate that people have inhabited Nepal for about 9,000 years. One of the earliest confederations of South Asia was that of the Shakya clan. Its capital was Kapilvastu. Siddhartha Gautama (563 - 483 BC), who renounced his royalty and lead an ascetic life, came to be known as the Buddha (the enlightened one). He was born to the Shakya King Sudhodhan. By 260 BC, most of North India and southern Nepal were under the rule of the Maurya Empire. Maurya Emperor Ashoka the Great, the legendary Buddhist proselytiser and ruler (273 BC-232 BC), visited Kathmandu, Patan and Lumbini. He erected four Ashoka Stupas in Patan and the Ashoka Pillar at Lumbini, the birth place of Gautam Buddha.

From the findings at Handigaun, it appears that the Lichhavi rulers were in power from the 3rd to the 5th century and again from the 8th to the 13th century. A well-preserved life-size sandstone sculpture of King Jaya Varman, discovered at Maligaon of Kathmandu, contains inscriptions dating from 185 AD. Licchavi writings carved on the broken pillar at the Pashupati Temple reveal 459 AD and the Changu Narayan pillar engravings of King Manadeva refer to the year 464 AD.

There are good and meticulously detailed descriptions of the Kingdom of Nepal in the account of renowned Chinese Buddhist pilgrim monk, Xuanzang, dating from circa 645 AD. The Malla Dynasty ruled the Kathmandu Valley from the 12th to the 18th century. Peculiar stone structures in Tehrathum in eastern Nepal, which were probably used for time keeping and astronomical observation, were established during the Lichhavi era and are estimated to be 2000 years old.

About 500 metres from this area are five ponds. Umbrellas in the temples of Achham in west Nepal could have been utilised for time measuring purposes as well. All these precious artifacts bear testimony to the dominance of astronomy throughout our culture.

Mathematical astronomy had prospered in Nepal with the help of some sagacious astronomers of Nepal. The first engrossing astronomy book written in Nepal was Sumati Tantra in 576-880 AD and was published in the Kathmandu Valley. Another famous astronomer Shree Pati (1019-1066) had chalked numerous mind-boggling books on mathematical astronomy in Nepal. Siddhanta Siromani (1150) was propagated by Indian astronomer Bhaskaracharya. It had impressed upon Nepalese astronomy tremendously.
In 1409, astrologer Dharmapati Bardhan translated Sumati Tantra as Sumati Siddhanta in the form of an astrologer’s book. Even in the Malla era, for forecasting the future and to make calendars with ease, astrologers rigorously consulted these fabulous books. Sumati Tantra was inked in simple Sanskrit whereas Sumati Siddhanta is drafted in a mix of Newari and Sanskrit.

In 1494, Balbhadra of Jumla wrote Bhaswati Baal Bhodhini Tika in Sanskrit in a lucid manner so that students could easily understand the theory. In 1514, Ratna Dev formulated the Bhaswati Tika. Mathematician and astronomer Ganesh Daibajya disseminated Grahalaghava, Brihat Chintamani and Laghu Thiti Chintamani in around 1520.

Gaureshwor Joshi produced three different books (Graha Darpan, Laghu Darpan and Graha Dipika) on Mathematical astronomy in 1663. Laxmipati Pandey divulged Bhaswati Ko Nepali Tika in 1793 and built remarkable sun-dials. It was the first smart astronomy book addressed fully in Nepali.

In 1822, Pandit Padmanath Pant brought forward Laghudrig Ganit. Shiva Sankar of Dhankuta authored Sukhabodh in 1853. Gopal Pande composed Byakta Chandrika (1883-1914). He was awarded the Royal Honour in 1884 by Prime Minister Ranadeep Singh for correcting the mistake regarding the lunar eclipse in the first ever Nepalese calendar printed on hand-made Nepali paper. Pandit Hari Pokhrel in 1901 claimed that our calendar was not precise, because the calculations of the equinox had not been incorporated. Sparse reports on observational astronomy have been traced only from the 20th century in Nepal.


Symbols of the stars and planets are inscribed on our temples. Teachings of the Vedas and Puranas are chanted during Hindu festivals. Our unique lunar-solar calendars that predict the time of an eclipse, solstice and star positions with their nexus to our festivals are based on Vedic astronomy.

Mathematical astronomy that has encouraged the calculation of cosmic events needs modernisation regarding their accuracy and interpretations. There is growing interest in astronomy in our country. Many academic and social institutions as well as professionals have stressed on knowing more about the history of Nepalese astronomy and its contribution to Asian astronomy and to the world community.

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