Many Indias, and Just as Many Calendars: Choudhury

Four days ago, like many of you, I entered 2012 in a sentimental haze induced partly by alcohol, and partly by reflecting on the narrative threads that suddenly emerged from the events of the long, life-changing year gone by. The idea of a calendar is one of the most durable, global fictions of our lives, a common set of hooks on which to hang our days and years, and to mark endings and beginnings.

But in India the hegemony of a universal calendar is persistently subverted. To look at a calendar here is to see that one is living in a multitude of months, years and indeed eras; Indians are potentially always at some kind of end, middle or beginning -- a strangely warming and mind-expanding sensation. Our calendars probably have more text on them than any other in the world: They use the modern Gregorian calendar, the calendar of civil life, to map the different calendric systems used by Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains and Parsis.

Some of the best-known names in Indian publishing -- the Mumbai-based house Kalnirnay, for example -- don't publish books but calendars in all the major Indian languages. Cumulatively, they sell tens of millions of copies each year.

On Jan. 1, I hung up one of these calendars -- a Hindu "panchang," or calendar-almanac, which marks onto the Gregorian calendar the dates and times of religious and astrological significance for Hindus. I saw that, while the core of me was in the mental universe of the Gregorian calendar's 2012, I was also simultaneously in other calendric universes: in year 2068 of the Vikram Samvat calendar, used in India's north and west; in year 1933 of the Saka calendar, used in India's west and south; in year 1418 of the Bengali calendar, which is part of the mindscape of eastern India; and in year 1433 of the Islamic Hijri calendar.

Most of these calendars are lunar or lunisolar and are made up of 12 months of 29.5 days. Each month is divided into two halves pegged to the waxing and waning of the moon. How these calendars reconcile the 354 days of a lunar year with the 365 days of a solar year is part of their individuality.

In my own religion, Hinduism, an "adhika masa," or an extra month, is added to the calendar every 32 months. This means that festivals never appear on the same date every year, and Hindus must always reference their calendars. (For instance, the spring festival of Holi appeared on March 20 in 2011, and on March 1 in 2010, and is due this year on ... run to your calendar!)

The intimate place of the lunar calendar in Hindu daily life was usefully explained by Ram Gopal Ratnam for The Organiser in the 2010 essay "How Many New Years Do We Have?" He wrote:

The Earth’s movement around the Sun is not cognizable for a common man. We can infer the same by observing the climatic changes. We can merely know it is winter or summer or rainy season. ... It is a matter for the scientist or the astro mathematician who computes the Panchang. The solar calendar can be called a scientist’s calendar. ... The lunar movement is visible. Even a layman can observe and understand the lunar movement. You have to just observe the sky and do some simple calculations and you can arrive at the festival days. So, you can call this a common man’s calendar.

Indeed, when India became an independent nation-state in 1947, it wasn't just laws, constitutions, state boundaries and structures of land ownership that had to be reformed and assimilated into a single frame, but calendars.

In 1952, the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, instituted a Calendar Reform Committee to work out a "unified national calendar." In the committee's report, published in 1955, Nehru explained:

I am told that we have at present thirty different calendars, differing from each other in various ways, including the methods of time reckoning. These calendars are the natural result of our past political and cultural history and partly represent past political divisions in the country. Now that we have attained independence, it is obviously desirable that there should be a certain uniformity in the calendar for our civic, social and other purposes and that this should be based on a scientific approach to this problem.

Among the Calendar Reform Committee's recommendations was that India's unified national calendar should follow the Saka calendar. The committee chose to open the Saka Era on Chaitra 1, 1879, which corresponds to the Gregorian calendar's March 22, 1957.

In a magisterial essay published in 2000 called "India Through its Calendars," the economist Amartya Sen explained that the range of Indian calendars provides an index of the diversity of Indian worldviews:

The variety of calendars, divided not only by religious connections but also by regional diversity, seems to be deeply hostile to any view of Indian unity. However, it must be noted in this context that many of these calendars have strong similarities, in terms of months, and also the beginning of the year. For example, the Kaliyuga, the Vikram Samvat, the Saka, the Bengali San and several other calendars begin very close to each other in the middle of April. There is evidence that their respective beginnings were typically fixed at the same point, the vernal equinox, from which they have moved over the long stretch of time in the last two millennia, during which the "correction" for the integer value of the length of the year in terms of days has been slightly inadequate -- again in much the same way.

Further testing the achievement of a united calendrical perspective is the difficulty of identifying a principal meridian and a reference location (like Greenwich in the U.K.). The ancient city of Ujjain, the capital of several Hindu dynasties and the home of many literary and cultural activities through the first millennium A.D., seems to be the most durable reference location for many of India's calendars. The Vikram Samvat calendar, which began in 57 B.C., apparently originated in this ancient capital city. But it is also the base for the Saka system, which began in 78 A.D., and a great many other Indian calendars. Indeed, even today, Ujjain’s location is used to fix the anchor point of the Indian clock. Indian Standard Time, which governs our lives, still remains a close approximation of Ujjain time — five hours and 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.

Sen's essay also makes note of an attempt to devise a synthetic pan-Indian calendar well before the one sponsored by the nation-state in 1952: the Tarikh-Ilahi, or God's calendar, of the Muslim regent Akbar, launched in 1584.

To know an Indian calendar, then, and to understand its rhythms, is to know something untranslatable about India. In a globalizing time, this truth applies as much to Indians themselves as to those interested in India. In an end-of-the-year column on Dec. 23 last year, the writer Aakar Patel said as much, asking Indians to make a new year's resolution to "mark" the date as a way of enriching their lives:

Today is the last day of the Gujarati month of Magsar (what other Indians call Margshirsha), and it is the dark night of the new moon. U.R. Ananthamurthy once said “educated Indians have lost contact with their almanac.”

What a devastating observation. We live by the solar calendar, but our grandparents marked their days on a lunar year, because it was then important to know the amount of moonlight available. Because of this shift, we now know when Valentine’s Day arrives, but not when we should celebrate Sharad Purnima.

Fortunately, since we are vaguely familiar with the major festivals and where they fall, we only need to consult the almanac regularly to understand the rhythm of India.

And with that, I leave you today, Jan. 4 -- or the 11th day of the second half of the winter month of Poush -- and head off for a little reading-and-rambling vacation in the town of Ranikhet in the Himalayan foothills.

(Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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