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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 15 March Equinox 1995

Archaeoastronomy and Cultural Astronomy in India
by J McKim Malville

A continuity of culture covering at least 2500 years, a culture that is "thick" with texts, an archaeological record including 1000 year old temples that are still in worship and the largest ruined city of the world, and extensive festival and pilgrimage traditions with astronomical overtones are some of the pleasures that India provides for the archaeoastronomer. One of the earliest archaeoastronomical investigations of South Asia to be reported in the western press was of Angkor Wat (1). The work had almost a "Stonehenge" quality to it, reminiscent of the early days of archaeoastronomy. Preforming no fieldwork at the site, working exclusively from the maps of others, the author concluded that there was a basic unit of measure, a Khmer cubit, the hat, and that the buildings contained mathematical ratios of the great yungas of Hindu time and solar and lundar periods as well as alignments to solstice, lunar standstill points, and stellar risings. None of their conclusions could be verified by concurrent texts or by ethnography. Neither have similar geometries been verified in other temple complexes in the Hindu world. The results results have not been accepted by Indian or Western art historians, and though fascinating issues were raised, the jury remains out.

In most cases, India does offer the opportunity of combining a hugh archaeological record, extraordinarily varied living traditions, and abundant texts. It also demonstrates the usefullness of considering the total context of a site, i.e. the combination phenomena of the celestial sphere, the local topography including "sacred" hills and rivers, and the human microcosm consisting of cities, temples, texts, and ritual. I summerize three case studies that illustrate the following points: (1) (as if we needed to be reminded) archaeoastronomers as well as archaeologists need to combine the archaeological record, texts, and ethnographic fieldwork to avoid some of the interpretive pitfalls of ethnocentrism; (2) the ancient city was not just the product of kings but was often the product of the combination of ceremonial traditions of both kings and commoners; (3) "ordinary" people, e.g. pilgrims, maintain complex ceremonial traditions that may become embedded in the archaeological record with a complexity that rivals the results of formal city planning.

Early in my studies of India I was intrigued by the tradition of suryapuja in the temples of Tamil Nadu. (Surya is the sun god and puja implies his worship.) We located over 70 temples that are constructed in such a manner that on days close to the equinox, the light of the rising or setting sun passes through long colonnades to tou`ch the image of the main diety of the temple, most often a Shivalinga (2). Most of these are "old" temples, probably constructed prior to the 11th century, and all are still in worship. The nature of the suryapuja festival varies greatly from one temple to another, depending mostly upon the energy, knowledge, and entrepreneurship ofthe hereditary priests in charge. In some cases, the festivals are elaborate and dramatic, as hundreds may line tha pathway of the sun to view the beam of light falling upon the brightly faces of the linga in the sanctum. The beam of light is outlined in clouds of incense and accomp[anied by the sounds of bells, drums, and Verdic chanting. In many temples, archetectural symmetry has been broken to allow passage of light into the sanctum; in one temple the priests described with great enthusiasm, a second "miraculous" illumination of the linga that occurs when sunlight is reflected off the waters of the eastern temple tank.

Some temples have manuals that describe the traditions of the temple and have priests who can provide their own interpretation. The suprise of this work was that thwe sun was not the object of worship at all; instead, people gathered to watch the sun prostrate himself in worship of Lord Shiva. The sun was actually asking forgiveness for his lack of compassion for human suffering for which he had been inflicted with leprosy. My colleague, Dr Swaminathan, at Annamali University in Chidambaram, has compiled a list of 170 Shaivite temples in Tamil Nadu, many of which are probably suryapuja temples; we have lots of opportunities for more field work!

While these suryapuja temples have turned the notion of sun worship on its ear, there are other occasions when the sun is clearly the object of worship and gratitude, such as every morning at Varanasi on the west bank of the Ganga, or once a year at the sun temple of Konarak when 50,000 people gather to watch sunrise over the Bay of Bengal.

The ruins of Vijayanagara have been the object of considerable fieldwork, much of it jointly with the archaeologist John Fritz. Once the capital of an empire that covered the lower third of India, the city was destroyed following a disasterous battle in 1565. Although the city reached a population of 500,000, it never recovered, and remains abandoned today. The city contains a mixture of symbolic and visual astronomy, associated with both kings and citizens. Although much was destroyed in the final holocaust including its libraries, textssurvived elsewhere in the empire. We find that Kings related themselves to Rama, the archetypal Indian monarch, and the citizens and soldiers became Hanuman, the monkey god who is the perfect devotee (3). A ceremonial gateway divides the Royal Center into two parts for the king and queen. (consistant with a major theme of Rameyana) and established an accurate north south axis that crosses the summet of Matanga hill, a placw that figures prominently in the creation myths of the city. On the summit of that mountain, is a temple to Virabhadra, a "fierce" form of Shiva, appropriate for a military empire. Descendants of the devotees of Virabhadra during the days of the empire, remained in the neighborhood and demonstrated their "fierceness" by an annual festival in which they pierced cheeks and toungs with large needles. Elsewhere in the city, we find evidence of Hanuman shrines and temples aligned to sunrise on the day of zenith crossing, ceremonial "car" streets aligned to the rising point of Sirius, and alignments involved in other major hills, including the birthplace of Hanuman. Local "folk" traditions influence city designs as much as the "high" mythology of the rulers.

Going to the Urban opposite of the imperial city of Vijayanagara, we have made GPS studies of the city of Varanasi, (Banaras), a dense and complex city of shrines built not by kings, but by the millions of pilgrims who, for millennia, have flocked to the city from all over the country. My colleague, Dr. Rana Singh of the Geography department of Banaras Hindu University, and I located the remains of fourteen major sun templesof the city that had been destroyed after the 1192 Muslim invasionof North India (4). These are represented by broken fragments of the original images of the sun set into the walls of homes, narrow alleys, and small shrines. It is a remarkable revelation of the power of the place, that pilgrims remember the sites of the original temples, and continue to visit their putative locations. In our mapping of these temples, we discovered that they are largely organized along the sides of a triangle that encircles the ancient, but now largely ignored and forgotten original center of the city and cosmos. Reading the Sanskrit texts that describing the city, we were able to verify the locations of the temples and piece together some of the histories of these temples, from which it appears that astronomical phenomena were recorded in the temple traditions. One temple was built to commemorate a total solar eclipse in 1054 and another marked the appearance of naked eye sunspots and a meteor shower on 1078-1080. Here is another example of the growth"organic" geometric order in a city, revealing the power of the ceremonialism of the people.


    Stencel, R. F. Gifford, and E Moron, "Astronomy and Cosmology at Angkor Wat", Science, 193, 281-287, 1976.

    Malville, J. M., "Sun Worship in Contemporary India", Man in India: A Quarterly Journal of Anthropology, 65. 207-233, 1985.

    Malville, J. M., "The Compleat Devotee and the Cosmic City: Hunaman at Hampi" in Art: the Integral VCision, edited by B. N. Saraswati, S. C. Malik, M. Khanna, D. K. Printworld, New Delhi, pp 147-164, 1994.

    Singh, Rana and J. M. Malville, "Cosmic Order and Cityscape of Varanasi (Kashi): Sun Images and Cultural Astronomy, National Geographical Journal of India, 41, 69-88, March 1995.

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