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«1995) Astronomy in India: A Perspective (New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy), Chap.1 1 Historical perspective India, as can be expected from ...»

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Kochhar, Rajesh & Narlikar, Jayant (1995) Astronomy in India: A Perspective (New Delhi: Indian

National Science Academy), Chap.1


Historical perspective

India, as can be expected from an ancient culture, has a long astronomical

tradition. The oldest astronomical text in India is the Vedanga Jyotisha (astronomy as

part of the Vedas), one part of which is attributed to Lagadha. It is dated about 1400 BC

on the basis of the statement in the book that the winter solstice took place at the star group Shravishtha (Alpha Delphini). A later astronomer of the same school is Garga who is placed at about 450 BC on the basis of his observation that `the sun is found turning [north] without reaching the Shravishthas’. The earliest interest in astronomy was in observing equinoxes and solstices for ritualistic purposes, in making rather inexact luni-solar calendars, and in observing starts (Nakshatras) as a guide to the motion of the moon and the sun.

Siddhantic astronomy The development of mathematical, or Siddhantic, astronomy came about as a result of interaction with Greece in the Post-Alexandrian period. (Siddhantha literally means the established end). The leading figure in the modernization was Aryabhata I, who was born in AD 476 and completed his influential work, Aryabhatiya, in AD 499.

The main occupation of Indian astronomers for the next thousand years and more was the calculation of geocentric planetary orbits and developing algorithms for the solution of the mathematical equations that arose in the process. Illustrious names in Indian astronomy following Aryabhata are Latadeva (505) who was Aryabhata’s direct pupil;

Varahamihira (c.505) a compiler rather than a researcher, and an expert on omens;

Bhaskara I (c.574); Aryabhata’s bête noire Bharmagupta (b.598) whose works were later translated in Arabic; Lalla (c.638 or c.768); Manjula or Munjala (932); Shripati (1039);

and Bhaskara II (b.1114), the last of the celebrated astronomers (Table I).

There was also a host of commentators including such well-known names as Prithudaka (864) in Kannauj, Bhattotpala (966) in Kashmir, and Parameshvara (1380-

1460) in Kerala, who were astronomers in their own right. There ware also a number of astronomers whose own work 1 Kochhar, Rajesh & Narlikar, Jayant (1995) Astronomy in India: A Perspective (New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy), Chap.1 is not extant, but they are cited by others. There is an Indian astronomer Kanaka who is unknown to Indian sources but appears in the Arabic bibliographic tradition as Kanak al- Hindi. He is said to have been a member of the embassy that was sent from Sind to Baghdad to prepare Zij al-Sindhind (translation of Brahmagupta’s Brahma-sphuta- siddhanta). In the absence of any reliable information on him, a large number of legends have grown around him, making him a personification of the transmission of science from India to the Arabs.

In addition to the Siddhantas there are in Sanskrit and allied languages books called Karanas. If Siddhantas are the text books, Karans are the made-easy books (Table 2). They give practical rules for carrying out computations. A noteworthy feature is the Karanas choose a contemporaneous epoch rather than follow the Siddhantas in starting from a Kalpa or a Yuga. As early as about AD 1000, A1 Biruni (973-1048) noted that there were innumerable Karana works. One of the most influential has been Ganesha Daivajna’s Graha-laghava (1520). Karana activity continued right up to the 19th century, and was even sponsored by the British. There are tertiary texts also associated with Siddhantas and Karanas. They are the Koshtakas or Saranis, which provided ready-made specialist astronomical tables for use by astrologers and almanac makers.

Work on observational aspects has been rather limited. Parameshvara made eclipse observations from 1393 to 1432, and later Achyuta Pisharati (c.1550-1621), also in Kerala, (c.1730-1800) wrote a four-chapter treatise Uparagakriyakrama on lunar and solar eclipses. In the 18th century Nandarama Mishra (c.1730-1800) prepared a Karana work, Grahana-paddhati, on eclipses.

The Siddhantic school was mildly influenced by the British presence in India.

Indian assistants at British Indian observatories tried to update Siddhantic elements.

Kero Lakshman Chhatre(1824-84) started his career at Colaba Observatory in 1851, became the professor or mathematics and natural science at Poona College in1865, and was made a Rao Bahadur in 1877 two years before his retirement. In 1860 he brought out in Marathi a handbook Graha-sadhanachi-koshtake, based on the 1808 work of R.S.

Vince. An assistant at Madras Observatory, Chintamani Ragoonatha Charry (1828-80), completed his Tamil work Jyotisha-chintamani, and also on almanac, called Drig-ganitapanchanga, based on the Nautical Almanac. Many young men from families with tradition of Sanskrit studies took to modern astronomy. A school teacher Venkatesh Bapuji Ketkar (1854-1930) compiled a modern astronomical almanac Jyotir-ganita in Sanskrit, with the year 1875 as the epoch. Ketkar is however better known in India for his published prediction (1911) of the existence of a planet beyond Neptune.

It is a matter of historical curiosity that the last of the classical Siddhantic astronomers

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1. Asterisk denotes appearance in Table 1 also.

2. The number in bracket after the work is the year of its composition or the epoch chosen for computations.

lived right into the present century. Samanta Chandrasekhara Simha (1835-1904) was born in a princely family in the small village of Khandapara in western Orissa.

Introduced to the ancient Siddhantic literature in the family library, he soon noticed that the predictions did not match observations. Following instructions in the old texts, he made his own instruments. His main instrument was a tangent-staff, made out of two wooden rods joined together in a shape of a T. ‘The shorter rod was notched and pierced with holes at distances equal to the tangents of angles formed at the free extremity of the other rod’. Calling it Mana-yantra (measuring instrument) he used it with a precision which was more due to his innate abilities rather than the instrument’s. Using Bhaskara II as his role model he then set out in 1894 to write on palm leaf his Siddhanta-darpana, consisting of 2284 shlokas of his own composition to which were added another 216 called from old Siddhantas, especially Bhaskara II’s Siddhanta-shiromani and Suryasiddhanta.

Throughout the Siddhantic period instruments and observations played second fiddle to computations. Observational results were not explicitly recorded, the description of astronomical instruments was condensed in a single chapter, Yantraadhyaya. Although Bhaskara II is credited with devising a rather versatile instrument, Phalaka-yantra, there is not gainsaying the fact that observational astronomy came to tits own only in the medieval times thanks to India’s interaction with central and west Asia.

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Zij astronomy This phase of post-Siddhantic world astronomy may be called Zij astronomy, because the main occupation of its astronomers was the preparation of Zijes that is astronomical tables. Zijes fall into three categories: (i) Zij-e-Rashadi (direct tables) based on actual observations; (ii) Zij-e-Hisabi (calculated tables) obtained by correcting observational tables for erfrors, precession, etc.; and (iii) Zij-e-Tas’hil (simplified tables) which were simplified versions of other tables, for example, for the moon alone. The Zij period began in the 9th Century of Baghdad with the translation of Brahmagupta’s Sanskrit works into Arabic, and essentially came to an end in India, with the compilation of Zij-e-Muhammad Shahi in 1728 by Raja Jai Singh Sawai. Siddhantic and Zij astronomies flourished simultaneously.

Zij astronomy made its debut in India under the patronage of King Ferozshah Tughlaq who ruled at Delhi from 1351 to 1388. Arabic and Persian Zijes were copied and commented upon. Several books on astronomy were written during his reign, and astrolabes constructed. On this orders, an astrolabe was placed on the highest tower in his capital Ferozabad (in Delhi). In addition, Ferozshah also took steps to Sanskritize instrumentation astronomy. On his orders, Mahendra Suri, head astronomer at the royal court, prepared in 1370 Yantra-raja, a monograph on astrolabe. This was the first Sanskrit work exclusively devoted to instrumentation, and was the subject to many later commentaries. Table 3 lists Sanskrit texts exclusively devoted to astronomical instruments.

From 18th century, we have Raja Jai Singh Sawai’s treatise on instruments, Yantra-prakara, essentially completed before 1`724, with some additions made up to 1729 In 1732, his astronomer Jagannatha translated Nasir al Din al Tusi’s (1201-74) Arabic recension of Ptolemy’s Almagest into Sanskrit under the title Samrata-siddhanta, To it, he added a supplement describing various instruments. Jai Singh went on to establish a number of (pre-telescopic) masonry observatories. The Delhi Observatory set up during 1721-24 was followed by a bigger one at his new capital Jaipur (1728-34). He built smaller ones at Mathura, Ujjain and Varanasi between 1723 and 1734. (All dates are estimates). The Varanasi Observatory was housed in an already existing building; it is probable that Jai Singh renovated an old observatory. Jai Singh’s instruments and observations have been extensively dealt with in the literature.

Jai Singh’s edifice of science did not survive for long. In 1745, two years after Jai Singh’s death, Emperor Muhammad Shah invited Father Andre Strobel to come to Delhi and take charge of the Observatory. He declined. In 1764 the Observatory was severally vandalized, when Javahar Singh, son of Suraj Mal, the Jat Raja of Bharatpur, Plundered Delhi. More than 150 years later,

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the then Maharaja of Jaipur perfunctorily renovated the Observatory to give it a presentable look at the time of 1911 Delhi darbar of King George V. (The Delhi and Jaipur Observatories are now in a rather dilapidated state and no more than popular tourist spots.

Perhaps the most telling commentary on Jai Singh’s dedicated but largely irrelevant scientific enterprise comes from the rather disconcerting fact that his grandson converted Jaipur Observatory into a gun factory and used his ancestral 400kg astrolable for target practice.

Advent of modern astronomy

Modern astronomy came to India in tow with the Europeans. The earliest recorded used the telescope in India was rather a typical; it was in the field of pure astronomy rather than applied. The observer was an Englishman, Jeremiah Shakerley (1626-c.1655). He was one of the earliest followers of Kepler and viewed the 1651 transit of Mercury from Surat in west India. He could however time neither the ingress nor the egress. His observation therefore was of no scientific use and remains a curiosity. More representative of the things to come was the work of the Jesuit priest Father Jean Richaud (1633-93) who in 1689 discovered from Pondicherry that the bright star Alpha Centauri is in fact double.

Early use of telescopic astronomy by the Europeans as a geographical aid in India was desultory, sporadic and often motivated by personal curiosity. The 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus were perceived as a continuation of the ongoing rivalry between Finance and England, and brought many instruments and a general awareness of astronomy of colonial India. What however led to the institutionalization of modern astronomy in India was not the love of stars, but rather the fear of the Coromandel coast.

Rocky and full of shoals, and devastated by two monsoons a year, India’s east coast became the graveyard of many a sailing ship. It survey literally became a matter of life and death for the British. Accordingly, a well-equipped, trained surveyor – astronomer Michael Topping (1747-96) was brought to Madras in 1785.

Madras Observatory (1786) Next year, perhaps more by design than chance, there came up at Egmore in Madras a small private observatory. Its founder was William Petrie (d.1816), an

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enlightened and influential company officer, who later officiated as the governor of Madras for a few months. It was used by Topping as a reference meridian and on Petrie’s persuasion was taken over by the company in 1790. Two years later the Observatory moved to its own campus at Nungambakkam in Madras, where some of its old remnants can still be seen. A hundred years later, in 1899, astronomical activity was shifted to Kodaikanal, and the Madras Observatory became a purely meteorological observatory. One of the instruments that Petrie bequeathed to the Observatory was a pendulum clock by John Shelton. Believed to be made for the 1769 transit of Venus and identical to the one used by Captain James Cook in his voyages, it is still ticking at Kodaikanal, a witness to the advent and growth of modern astronomy in India.

In the early years Madras Observatory not only provided the reference meridian for the work of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (GTS) but also manpower and instruments.

Increasing overseas involvement of Britain required familiarity with the southern skies.

Accordingly, in 1843, after 13 years of painstaking work with the newly acquired transit instrument and mural quadrant (both by Dollond and with 4 inch aperture telescopes), Thomas Glanville Taylor (1804-48), former assistant at Greenwich, produced the celebrated Madras Catalogue of about 11000 southern stars. It was hailed by the Astronomer Royal Sir, George Biddell Airy as the greatest catalogue of modern times. (It was revised in 1901.)

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