The moving solstice

Today is “Makara Sankranti”. If the name doesn’t already strike you, “Makara” is the Sanskrit name for “Capricorn”. The Makara Sankranti is supposed to represent the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, or the day when the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.

However, we know that the winter solstice falls on the 21st or 22nd of December every year. Then why is it that the Indian version of the Winter Solstice falls on 15th of January?

I’m not sure if you remember, but a few years back, Makara Sankranti would usually fall on the 14th of January. After some back-and-forth movements, it has now settled on the 15th of January. You might have already noticed that this is unlike other Indian festivals such as Deepavali or Ganesh Chaturthi, whose dates according to the Gregorian calendar move every year (typically in a -11, -11, +19 cycle) over three years). This is because unlike Deepavali or Ganesh Chaturthi, which are observed according to the Lunar calendar, Makara Sankranti follows the solar calendar!

I recently read a book called “Solstice at Panipat”, about the third battle of Panipat in 1761 (my review is here). The Marathas went to battle four days after celebrating the Winter Solstice. The battle was fought on the 14th of January 1761, which means the solstice was observed that year on the 10th of January. So you see that the solstice, which is supposed to be observed on the 21/22 of December, was observed on 10th of January in 1761, and on the 15th of January in 2014.

This shows that there is an error in the Indian solar calendar. This error amounts to about 20 minutes a year, which means that the rate at which we are going, about 10000 years from now the Makara Sankranti (“Winter Solstice”) will fall in June, the middle of the summer!

That we know that the error in the Hindu solar calendar is 20 minutes a year allows us to calculate the last time the calendar was calibrated – we can date it to around 285 AD. Back in 285 AD, the calendar was calculated accurately, with the Winter Solstice falling on the actual Winter Solstice. After that, the calendar has drifted, and one can say, so has Indian science.

I’m informed, however, that this 20 minute error in the Hindu solar calendar is deliberate, and that this has been put in place for astrological reasons. Apparently, astrology follows a 26400 year cycle, and for that to bear out accurately, our solar calendar needs to have a 20 minute per year error! So for the last 1700 or so years, we have been using a calendar that is accurate for astrological calculations but not to seasons! Thankfully, the lunar calendar, which has been calibrated to the movement of stars, captures seasons more accurately!

I’ll end this post with a twitter conversation (I’m off twitter now, btw) where I learnt about this inaccuracy :

Update: The link to the tweet doesn’t show the entire thread. See that here.

Update: Here is a piece by astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar on the Makara Sankranti. Basically due to a change in the earth’s axis, our divisions of the night sky into 12 constellations are not stationary, and hence the date when the sun moves from “Dhanur” to “Makara” is no longer the solstice date.



Today is Shivarathri. It is a holiday for the National Stock Exchange, which has made it an optional holiday for us (there are 10 such days of which we can choose 3). And I’ve chosen to exercise this option today. Sitting at home and battling internal demons. And saying goodbye to winter.

My mother says that the fact that it has become considerably hotter today points to the greatness of God. “It is ordained that on the day of Shivarathri, winter will cry ‘shiva shiva’ and run away, and that it has suddenly become hot today is an indication that God still makes nature obey ‘the laws’ “.

I agree with her argument but not with her conclusion. I say that the fact that winter seems to be on its way out today, on the day of Shivarathri, points to the greatness of the people who made our calendar. That they managed to study the stars accurately, and came up with a sustainable forecast regarding the closing date for winter that is valid even thousands of years hence is a good indication of how brilliant they were.

Like that coffee bite argument used to say, the argument continues.

Today being Shivarathri also means that it should be a night dedicated to the lingam – the most commonly worshipped form of Shiva. I wonder how many people are currently looking at their hands and thinking of a form of Vishnu that is worshipped in Puri.

This morning, my neighbour went to a nearby Shiva temple, to take part in something like “linga abhishekam”. She took along a mixture of milk, ganga jal (water from the Ganga; not H2SO4 of Bhagalpur) and sugar to do the pooja. Later on, my mother was on the phone with her sister, and after a long philosophical discussion they concluded that women doing the “linga abhishekam” is not part of South Indian Brahmin culture.

Twenty Six

The reason I’m writing this so late in the day is that I’ve been confused as to what to call this post. I started from a short list of maybe a dozen names, and then brought the list down to two – “twenty six” and “twenty fucking six”. Finally I decided to go for the former since the swearword in the latter doesn’t seem to add much value.

If I were to count my years using letters of the English alphabet, I would today increment it from Y to Z, taking into consideration that the Gregorian calendar may not be perfectly accurate. However, for this kind of a time horizon, and given our desired least count, it is definitely more accurate than the Hindu calendar so we will stick to it. Ok, if you have still not got the point, “aaj mEra happy birthday hai“. Imagine me wearing a yellow suit and shouting that line upwards as you look down from your balcony.

My original plan was to write about birthdays itself, as to how they seem to have lost significance, and as I’ve grown older, and started feeling old, they seem to have been reduced to a counter. I was planning to write about how I have to go really long back in order to find a memorable birthday, and about how it’s generally been a disappointment in recent time.

Vyshnavi Doss, who is older than me by ten days, decided to use her Twenty Sixth by writing something on these lines. It was as if she was exploiting her seniority by taking away words from my fingers. Here is a quote, but I urge you to read the whole thing. I completely empathise with the first part of the essay.

Now this is going to sound nutty, but I used to feel more pressure than elation on my birthday. Not counting my school years of course. That was when by default, either you distributed sweets to everyone at school, or your mom hosted a party for you and you got all the attention and gifts. Your birthday was announced at the assembly, your classmates sang for you, and you pretty much owned the day! Those were the protected years. Then I got into college where I had to work my way up towards making friends. I am a confirmed ambivert. I am a friendly person, but not necessarily popular in the zillion people on my friend-list sense of the term. So the birthday situation after I left school had always been very iffy – there was noone to really ensure it was special. To give me that “Surpriiiiiiseee!!!” People have always mattered a lot to me, and I believe that a good birthday is made up by the people around you. And while my birthdays after school were simple and pleasant, my expectation of something utterly out of the world remained the same. So the worry on my birthday could be attributed to mainly two things – a small closeted social circle, and high ambitions. Often my expectation has been met with disappointment. Don’t get me wrong – of course my parents, my relatives and my close friends have made all the effort in their capacities to make my day special. And I have been happy. But I think I’m quite a tough-to-please person. I’ve always wanted that climax.

Instead, I think I’ll do one of those this-day-that-year things. Given my superior long-term memory, I think this is the kind of stuff that I’m likely to be good at. Here are some excerpts.(rest under the fold)

Continue reading “Twenty Six”