Follow the Hindu Moon
A guide to the festivals of south India
Soumya Aravind Sitaraman
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Hindu festivals primarily occur at specific solar, lunar or stellar configurations. The occasional ‘third Friday of a month’ kind of observance, although very prominent for fasts, is comparatively rare when considering festivals. Pinpointing strategic and specific dates in a year based on the three stellar variables—the sun, the moon and the stars—must have taken enormous consideration. There was very basic logic and scientific reason behind each choice. Although much of this reasoning is obscure to most of us today, the choice of time for any feast or fast is certainly not an arbitrary hit on a cosmic dartboard. For one, there existed the concept of cosmic evolution and dissolution. This is very similar to the Big Bang and the Great Deluge theories when examined in the relatively small time frame of a few billion years. There is more to reckon with as the circles expand.
Uttarāyana Punya Kālam
Uttarāyana Punya Kālam
brings, our ancients tell us, everything fortuitous, auspicious and
bountiful. The most fabled reinforcement of this idea is the story of
Bhishma in the epic Mahabharata. Bhishma lay on a bed of arrows at the
Kurukshetra battlefield for fifty eight nights councelling Yudhishtira,
passing on his immense knowledge of the vedas, kingship and philosophy as
he waited for Uttarāyana to release his soul from its bondage to his
body in the lunar month Magha.
What is Uttarāyana and what marks the advent of Uttarāyana? Uttarāyana is the apparent movement of the sun north, Uttara, for one half of the year, ayana. As the Earth revolves around the sun in orbit, the tilt of the earth on its axis causes a gradual change in where the direct rays of the sun fall. During the winter solstice, southern hemisphere tilts towards the sun. The sun the rays of the sun appear to fall directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. The southern hemisphere experiences the longest day and shortest night and the northern hemisphere experiences the opposite, i.e., the shortest day and longest night.
As the earth travels along its orbit, the length of the day in the northern hemisphere increases gradually until half a year later, the northern hemisphere experiences the longest day and shortest night, the summer solstice. The northern hemisphere now tilts towards the sun and the rays of the sun appear directly over the Tropic of Cancer. From our perspective on Earth, the sun has apparently traveled between the Tropic of Capricorn to the Tropic of Cancer, Uttarāyana. The return journey is called Dakshināyana.
The Rishis, scientist sages, observed that the longer daylight after the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere due to the apparent movement of the sun north, uttara, towards the tropic of Cancer brought with it warmth, light, productivity, agricultural bounty and prosperity. This must have been an extremely significant aspect of their lives as they lived through the chill and darkness prevalent during the Ice Age in the Treta Yuga. Therefore this was certainly an occasion to celebrate.
Uttarāyana begins with the winter solstice, a date that is now December 22.
Bhishma waited for this period of release and then surrendered his soul to
Krishna. Times change. For example, uttarāyana for Bhishma was in the lunar month Magha, a
period that coincides with the modern calendar’s February-March period.
The Tamizh panchangam, unlike the purely lunar panchangams followed by the
Kannadigas and Andhras, pegs the beginning of uttarāyanam
with Makara Sankranti. This was accurate 1728 years ago, during the last
correction for the precession of the equinoxes made for this calendar.
Since then, the real winter solstice got pushed back a little bit
at a time from January 15, to where it is now, 22 December, when the sun
transits Dhanu, Sagittarius and not Makara, Capricorn.
are very real social, political
and cultural consequences to this discrepancy. Some communities consider
the last month of Dakshināyana now codified as between mid-December
and mid-January, as inauspicious. For those who believe in the concept of uttarāyana,
but do not comprehend the astronomy that codifies the date, death during
this time, mid-December
and mid-January, is extremely undesirable as the fear of not obtaining
moksha and the blessings of the deities run deep. People similarly defer
business deals and wait for ‘Uttarāyana’ during Makara sankranti
to clinch deals, an unnecessary delay as Uttarāyana by ancient and
modern celestial definition now begins on 22 December.
Uttarāyana, then and now, means the end of the days of darkness in the northern
hemisphere. The six months of darkness at the north pole ends and the six
months of light begin. These six months of human time are considered to be
one “day” of the Devas. The Devas awaken from their slumber and shower
their blessing on us. The first month of Uttarāyana, the pre-dawn of
the devas, we spend euologising the Gods, with song, and prayer. We line
our streets with the festive kolams as welcome to this wonderful period as
we publicly display our joy. We strive to celebrate all that is important
during this time like the viviha and the upanayana. We begin new ventures
with the hope that the Devas witness these life passages of ours and
shower their blessings on our efforts. Vaikunta Ekadashi, or Moksha
Ekadashi is during this period, the dawn of the devas, when Vishnu awakens
to embrace his devotees and grant them moksha from the cycle of rebirth.
begins with the winter solstice on 22 December. May
coming months prove fruitful, with the blessings of the Gods showered on
all that we endeavor.
coming months prove fruitful, with the blessings of the Gods showered on all that we endeavor.
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Soumya Aravind Sitaraman (c) 2007. All Rights Reserved