Keeping Time with the Indians – Ananya Grover

“When were you born, grandma?”

“In the month of Phalguna, child. Sometime after Holi.”

“But Nani, the date of Holi keeps changing every year! Why don’t you know the date on which you were born? Mumma told me I came into the world at 9.57am on 15th November 2001.”

“It was not considered of significance, dear, and our calendar was not the same as the Western one you use.”

“What do you mean? I thought there was only one calendar!”

Grandma smiled, her eyes crinkling. “Oh no, every group of people in the world– every community, culture or religion– has had their own calendars with different days, months and years.”

Time provides us a way to pinpoint when something happened: When was the world created? What came before and what came after? How long does a ‘day’ last? A ‘month’? A ‘year’? While for animals, living by the sunrise, sunset and change of seasons may suffice, as we humans evolved, our reasons to tell the time grew infinitely more vast, complex and precise.

Thus, arose the vital need to measure time–– assigning numerical values to a previously unquantifiable concept, using specialised devices to count the passage of every unit, and organising the smaller units into larger patterns of ‘months’ and ‘years’ to give a formal structure to human life.

But have we always counted down the seconds and enumerated the years passing by in the same way?

MEASURING SMALL:

In India, for instance, a day was divided into eight ‘pehers’ of three hours each– four each of the day and the night–or thirty ‘muhurats’ of 48 minutes each. The day commences at sunrise and the night at sunset, which are the two points where muharats and pehers coincide. Now you know why the afternoon is referred to as ‘do-peher’ in Hindi and the timings of auspicious occasions are directed by the priest’s deduction of the right ‘muhurat.’

Now, people had to abide by the scriptures and determine exactly when a religious ceremony or festival had to be performed. They needed to devise an easy and reliable mechanism to tell the time. While a simple stick on the ground could be used as an ingenious sundial, relying on the constant presence of sunlight posed a problem. Thus, locals invented an indigenous clock based on water, called the ‘Ghatika Yantra’.

Ghatika Yantr

In all the important towns, a group of men called ghariyalis– those who measured the ‘ghari’– were appointed to measure time. To measure time, a vessel with a hole at the bottom was placed over another big vessel containing water. When the holed vessel was filled with water, they used to strike the ghariyal, a thick brass disc hung at a high place with a mallet. This indicated a certain period of time.

Note that this entire explanation is, in fact, a gross oversimplification: Since ancient times, there exists in India a system of time measurements ranging from microseconds to trillions of years, including familiar units like ‘pala’, ‘ghari’, and larger ones such as ‘yugas.’ Most Indians see time as cyclic, repeating itself forever.

This illustrates that throughout the countless years of human existence, our perception of time has rarely remained as fixed and standardised as it is, currently, in the modern era.

MEASURING BIG:

Consider calendars. The Gregorian calendar was never the one prevalent in India– in fact, it is hard to say that one single calendrical system was ever dominant over a substantial portion of the Indian subcontinent! As every major religion has it’s own calendar or calendars, rather, the people of India have always measured time in different, yet similar, ways.

Vikram Samvat

The Kaliyuga calendar, Buddha Nirvana calendar, Vikram Samvat calendar, Saka calendar, Vedanga Jyotisa calendar, Bengali San calendar, Kollam calendar, are a small sampling of the variety of calendar systems used in this country. It is fascinating how the year 2544 in the Buddha Nirvana calendar may coincide with 1407 in the Bengali San and 6001 in the Kaliyuga!

How could we simultaneously be in such vastly disparate millenniums?

To sum up, in beach calendrical system fixed a different point of origin, a zero point, and used different methods to determine the length of days, months and years.

For instance, the calendar we’re accustomed to measures time according to the time it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Earth (and hence is a solar calendar), while calendars like Kaliyuga are ‘lunisolar,’ whose date indicates both the moon phase and the time of the solar year. Recognisable names like Chaitra, Vaisakh, and Phalguna are, in fact, lunar and not solar months, which last for a period between successive new moons (roughly 29 1/2 days). To accommodate for the slightly extra leftover hours after the Earth’s rotation, Indian calendars add an entire month every couple of years, instead of a day!

At this point, you’re supposed to ask why should you care for these time measurements and calendars when they are no longer in use (at least according to most people belonging to the urban middle and upper classes)?!

Firstly, it demonstrates the astonishing developments in science and technology centuries ago in this country. The degree of inventiveness shown through several timekeeping instruments and the mathematical exactness of some figures offered is truly perplexing. For instance, the renowned 6th-century mathematician Varahimihira measured a year to be 365.25875 days– even if not exactly right, the number is close to accurate.

Varahimira

Further, the study of this immense amount of diversity in how people understood time reveals a deeper truth about the history of India as a home to people of a multitude of identities and cultures.

“The Indian civilisation had not only produced Buddhism and Jainism (and later on, the Sikh religion as well), but India had the benefit of having Jews much longer than Europe, had been host to sizable Christian communities before Britain had any, and provided a home to the Parsees right from the time when religious persecution began in Iran…The different calendars associated with these religions– Buddhist, Jain, Judaic, Christian, Parsee –were already flourishing in India, along with the Hindu calendars, when the Muslim conquest of the north led to the influence of the Hijri calendar. Islam’s arrival further enriched the religious– and calendrical –diversity of India.”

–Amartya Sen, India through its Calendars, Little Magazine (May 2000)

Calendars offer an unlikely case of unity in diversity: despite being so different, most of the main Indian calendars treat Ujjain, once a flourishing capital city of several kingdoms, as their fixed meridian or reference location! Most also share similarities in months and the beginnings of each year. Analysing these calendars offers us insight into the culture and traditions of the people who lived, and continue to live, by them, and contradicts the popular perception of ancient India as a purely ‘Hindu nation’.

Thus, we can conclude that human structuring of time is not even remotely universal; it is arbitrarily designed to serve our own needs and wishes.

As a generation kept alive through fast food, instant coffee, and one-day delivery, while ourselves being perpetually late by adhering to the sacred IST (read: Indian Stretchable Time)–– perhaps taking a moment to understand how our ancestors saw time, to wonder at human diversity, and to ponder at our growth and innovation, could benefit us all.

 

-Ananya Grover, Amity International School, Noida

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. The sheer number of units they defined is astounding, honestly. I think they cared mostly for religious purposes; rituals and ceremonies were performed quite meticulously. Also for other things like cropping seasons, though for that they must’ve used bigger units or relied on seasonal weather changes.

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