“We live in reference to past experience and not to future events, however inevitable”, said H G Wells. No wonder our ancestors made special efforts to record their past. And that’s how evolved calendars. The Gregorian calendar has already been accepted internationally as the standard calendar. Before Christ, the Greeks used to measure years in terms of Olympiads. The various Hindu calendars too evolved out of the need to commemorate memorable incidents. In ancient India, kings and princes fond of splendor, had a special way of marking their successes and failures. Elaborate sacrificial rituals called Yajnas were performed amidst much pomp and show, and to solemnize such special dates they took recourse to calendars or shakas.
Before the traditional methods of counting dates pass into oblivion, let’s take a look at the various calendar systems of the ancient Hindus. One of them is the Vikram Samvat, started by king Vikrama, which observes the new year during Diwali, the festival of lights. The Samvat was initiated on the day of Kartik Pratipada (the day after full moon in the month of October) and presently it is 2056 by this calendar. Interestingly, even in the present times, stock markets in India mark the new year on the Vikram Samvat during Diwali. Legend has it that the business community of Gujaratis and Marwaris attached great importance to this day because it follows the worship of the goddess of wealth Lakshmi. This calendar is widely followed by the Hindus, while observing religious ceremonies and fixing muhurats or auspicious dates. Yugabdha, another ancient Hindu almanac scheme commenced in the age of the Mahabharata. The Yugabdha shaka cites the present century as the 52nd of the Kaliyuga, and the new year begins in mid-March. There is also another calendar—no more extant—that King Shalivahana started after him. History has it that the king once defeated his enemies in a fierce battle, by bringing to life earthen creatures to wage the war. The Shalivahana shaka commemorates this incident.
The Vedic almanac, known as panchanga or panjika, is almost always referred to by priests while fixing the time and date for important occasions, from worships to weddings. Panchanga, a Sanskrit word, means “five limbs,” which refers to the fact that every panchangam includes the five basic elements of tithi (lunar day), nakshatra (the constellation the moon is aligned with), karana (half-day), yoga (a particular angle of the sun and moon), and vara or vasara (solar weekday). Tithi deals with the stages of growth and decay, nakshatra is responsible for seizure of bad actions, karana shows the results of the work, yoga forms the cure of ill health, and vara gives the know-how of longer life.
One of the oldest books of ancient India, the panchanga dates back to around 1000 BC. It divides a solar year of 360 days into 12 lunar months of 27 days (according to the Taittiriya Samhita, the book that deals with the study of stars and constellations) or 28 days (based on Atharva Veda, the fourth Veda of Hindu scriptures). The panchanga also follows the movements of the sun – the Uttarayana, when the sun navigates the northern course, and Dakshinayana, when it goes the southern way. Earlier, there were two methods of calculation -the ‘Chandramana’ system based on the lunar year and the ‘Sauramana’ system based on the solar year. Around 1181 BC, the two were merged.
Based on some intriguingly complex calculations, ancient Hindu scholars created this well-documented book that relates human beings with the nature and natural phenomena. Though the panchanga does not enjoy the privilege of a holy book, it can be considered a sophisticated tool for planning. It is a remarkable piece of research work undertaken over several generations, and the tradition should continue.