Follow the Hindu Moon

                                                                             A guide to the festivals of south India

                                                                                Soumya Aravind Sitaraman

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Pooja Basics

Embracing the Almighty

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Celebrate! Festivals

Hindu Cosmology

Path to God

Festival Food



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Hindu Cosmology




Understand Moon Phases

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NASA Spectacular  November skies

NASA Watch the skies

Amazing Space: Fast Facts on the Moon

Moon Phases for 6000 years


Understand Moon Phases

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.

There 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.

Uttarāyana begins with the winter solstice on 22 December. May the coming months prove fruitful, with the blessings of the Gods showered on all that we endeavor.














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A Random House India Publication

Soumya Aravind Sitaraman (c) 2007. All Rights Reserved