Wish you all a happy Makara Sankranti. And Pongal, Uttarayan, Lohri and all the other festivals celebrated today.
Did you know that the sun entered Makara rashi (the zodiac sign of Capricorn) over 3 weeks ago? That is literally what Makara Sankranti means. Yes, Makara Sankranti was on the 21st/22nd December. And it has been that way every year during our lifetimes.
December 21st was also the Winter solstice, which marks the start of Uttarayan – the annual tilt in the earth’s axis towards the sun (to be accurate, the northern hemisphere tilts towards the sun, and the southern hemisphere tilts away. You can observe this yourself in how the path of the sun changes day by day.
So, if Makara Sankranti and Uttarayan have already happened weeks ago, why are we celebrating them today?
To answer this, we have to journey back in time, nearly 2000 years to about 100-300AD. If you don’t want to take the scenic route, here is the short version.
The seasons line up almost exactly with the zodiac. Almost.
The seasons change faster than the sun can complete a circle around the zodiac – by about 20 mins each year! Over the few thousand years since systematic calendars were established, Uttarayan has advanced by 23 days relative to the sidereal calendar (which is based on the position of the fixed stars).
The seasons change a bit earlier each year with respect to the sidereal (based on the fixed stars) calendar, at the rate of around 20 mins each year, or a day every 72 years. But the solar calendar follows the seasons, so it stays in step with the seasons and advances every year relative to the sidereal calendar. Our Indian calendars follow a combination of solar and sidereal (as well as lunar for certain things) systems. Around 2000 years ago, the 1st day of Makara was the same according to both the Solar calendar and the Sidereal (fixed stars) calendar. It was the day of the winter solstice and the start of Uttarayan. This day was widely celebrated as a seasonal, harvest festival. Since then, the seasons have been advancing a day every 70 or so years until it is now a full 23 days ahead. So the solar calendar is now 23 days ahead of the sidereal calendar. But we still celebrate this festival as per the sidereal calendar, which is now 23 days behind.
Here is the longer version.
Usage of zodiac (sidereal) calendars became widespread around 2000 years ago.
The first few centuries AD was a period of great advances in astronomy in India. The fundamental principles and methods of calculation had been known for centuries previous to that – there is historical evidence of sophisticated calendars from at least the time of the Buddha and Mahavira (around 500BC) and strong indications of even earlier dates. But the first few centuries after Christ saw social and technological changes that put calendars and time measurement in an important role. Many of our calendar systems originate from this period. For example, the Shaka Samvatsara (calendar). Solar and Lunar calendars continued to be used for day-to-day things like farming, scheduling meetings(!), religious ceremonies etc. But the sidereal calendar that was initially used mainly for astronomy, became increasingly the calendar for the more high-brow, and for their activities including some religious ceremonies.
Ok, but when will you get to the point about Makara Sankranti?
I’m almost there
People have celebrated Uttarayan for millennia – it meant the passing of peak winter, with longer days ahead and Spring on its way. It was a seasonal festival and was celebrated by observing the sun.
From the 1st century AD onwards, sidereal (zodiac based) calendars started becoming more and more integrated into people’s lives, and they started measuring days, and hours and minutes (or rather muhurtam, ghati, vighati, etc.). The Uttarayan celebrations became associated with a particular date on the calendar – much like Christmas is always celebrated on December 25th.
In 13,000 years we will be celebrating Christmas (December 25th) in mid-summer.
Mostly, this was not a problem. The people devising the calendars were sophisticated enough to adjust for the additional 5 days (365 days not 360), the leap year (365 and a quarter days), a host of other things to keep in step with the seasons.
But the calendar did not adjust for the precession of the earth’s axis (Google it!). Though it was known at the time, and astronomers and astrologers routinely adjusted for it in their calculations, it just wasn’t worth introducing this complication in the regular calendar. It didn’t make much difference over small time periods.
The earth’s spin is tilted relative to the sun. And this tilt doesn’t stay pointing the same way all the time. The tilt itself spins around (picture a spinning top gently making circles on the floor).
The earth’s tilt changes ever so slightly every year, and takes around 26,000 years to do a full circle. The sun (as seen from the earth) completes a full circle of the zodiac every year. But because of this change in the earth’s tilt, the seasons change slightly faster than that – by about 20 minutes every year, or a full day every 72 years.
Over almost 2000 years, Uttarayan has advanced by 23 days relative to the solar calendar, but the Indian system uses the sidereal calendar (based on the fixed stars).
As per the sidereal (fixed stars) calendar, today is the 1st day of Makara and hence today is Makara Sankranti. But even Uttarayan (northwards movement in the earth’s precession cycle)? The actual Uttarayan started 23 days ago, no matter what calendar we follow. We celebrate Uttarayan today because we have become accustomed to celebrating Uttarayan on Makara Sankranti day.
By the year 10,000 AD, the month of Makara will be at the beginning of summer! I am sure we will have made some adjustments to our calendars by then to make things line up again. After all, human beings are nothing if not ingenious.