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Wonders, Mysteries and Misconceptions in Indian Astronomy – V

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Wonders, Mysteries and Misconceptions in Indian Astronomy – V
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In the previous article we read about the Kali-Yuga and had a brief glimpse into some of the fascinating frameworks of time created by the ancient Indians, unmatched by any other ancient culture.

In this article I invite you to join me in exploring a fascinating ancient puzzle.

This mystery, which is related to Indian Astronomy, has its roots in the Middle East – in Ancient Iraq, to be specific.

Let us journey to that ancient land between the two rivers to get a background of the puzzle.

Mystery #2 – The Mesopotamian Connection

Historians inform us that ancient Man, after living in small tribal communities for many thousands of years, progressed to form increasingly larger societal units, that eventually led to the emergence of nation-states.

We are told that these nation-states first arose around 4000 BC or thereabouts, centered around large bodies of fresh water. There were three incubation zones, the so-called Three Cradles of Civilization – India, China and the Fertile-Crescent in the Middle East.

Scholars are nowadays inclined to accept that there was a fourth cradle as well – the civilization of Meso-America.

The Fertile Crescent

American archaeologist James Breasted first coined the term “Fertile Crescent” in 1914, to describe the banana-shaped region in the Middle-East that encompasses: 1) the upper reaches of the Nile river in the west; 2) the parts near the Jordan river of the Levant in the middle; 3) the great plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the east, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Fertile Crescent

In an otherwise semi-arid region, these lush areas, with plentiful water and fishing resources, contain unusually fertile soil that produces an abundance of edible plant species. According to western scholars, it was in this region that mankind first began the cultivation of grains, around 10,000 B.C.

Mesopotamia 

The eastern limb of the Fertile Crescent is called Mesopotamia, which means ‘land between the rivers’ in Greek (meso=middle, potamos=river), the said rivers being the Tigris and the Euphrates.

The Arabs call it ‘Al-Jazeera’ (the island).

The vast region, which today falls in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Kuwait, has been home to some of the most ancient cultures known to history.

In Figure 2, we zoom in on Mesopotamia.

Figure 2: Mesopotamia

On the left, we see the current political divisions that comprise the region. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are seen to come as close as 30 miles from each other in the central region near Baghdad (red spot), before diverging again. The two rivers finally meet further downstream to form a single flow, the Shatt al-Arab, that flows into the Persian Gulf.

Geographically speaking (right side of figure), the region is bordered by the Zagros mountains of Iran in the east, and by the Taurus mountains of Turkey in the north. To the south and west is the great Arabian desert.

Nestled in-between these formidable barriers lie the lush, green, fertile plains of Mesopotamia.

The Tigris, whose source is at a high altitude, flows faster and with greater volume in almost a straight line. The Euphrates, on the other hand, meanders it way, zig-zagging slowly through the region. It comes as no surprise that the first ancient cities grew around the shallow, slow-moving Euphrates.

Historians usually divide Mesopotamia into two zones: 1) Northern Mesopotamia – the region north of the pinch point (Baghdad); 2) Southern Mesopotamia – the area south of Baghdad.

Distance from India

To begin with, we ask a simple question – How far was Mesopotamia from Ancient India? Was there any communication between the India and Mesopotamia?

Figure 3: Indus Valley and Mesopotamia

Figure 3 shows the southern coastline of Asia. The distance from the mouth of the Indus near Karachi to the southern edge of Mesopotamia is about 1200 miles – not an impossible journey. The average sailboat can travel between 70 and 100 miles a day depending on wind. Assuming an average speed of 85 miles a day, a distance of 1200 miles will take only 2 weeks. In addition, this is not a deep-sea voyage, but an easy one hugging the coastline with many stops along the way.

The presence of the world’s oldest shipping docks at the Indus Valley site of Lothal in Gujarat tells us that the Indus people were an enterprising, commerce-led, sea-going lot.  

So, in summary, we can state with some confidence that trade and communication between Ancient India and the Persian Gulf, including Mesopotamia, is a certainty.

Pre-History of Mesopotamia

Historians declare the pre-history of the region to be from 12000 BC to 6000 BC. Archeologists have unearthed artifacts from Northern Mesopotamia (near Syria/Turkey) which indicate that hunter-gatherers lived in this region in small independent settlements during this period.

This was followed by the Ubaid Period (6000 BC – 4000 BC), in which small villages appeared, each covering about 20 acres, consisting of 100 people or so. Small-scale farming had started with simple irrigation canals. Southern Mesopotamia was a marshy region at this time, often inundated by the flow from the two mighty rivers. It was more or less uninhabited.

Then, around 4000 BC, due to climatic changes, flow in the two great rivers diminished quite a bit.

As a result of this, the extent of the marshy region in the south reduced, and more land became available for settlement and cultivation.

And here we come to the first mystery. During this period unknown, mysterious people started arriving in large numbers in Southern Mesopotamia.

The Sumerians

The Sumerians, as these unknown people are called, were of a non-Semitic racial stock, in contrast to the northern Mesopotamians, who were Semites of Turkic origin.

The northerners called the new southern arrivals “black-headed people”.

Some historians have suggested that the Sumerians were a West Asian people, and others that they were North African. However, recent genetic studies of skeletal DNA have shown that the Sumerians were from India, possibly related to the original (Dravidian?) settlers of India.

These southern newcomers were far more advanced than the northerners.

Unlike northern pottery, Sumerian pottery was of a refined and sophisticated character, which indicated that they had invented the pottery-wheel by this time, and, by extension, the wheel for transport purposes.

The Sumerians also had developed the world’s first system of writing, using cuneiform symbols, that was used for recordkeeping of various kinds. In addition, they had also invented a 60-base number system, the so-called Sexagesimal System for counting purposes.

Recent findings also tell us that the Sumerians loved Beer! They made and consumed it in large quantities. 

Were these new arrivals escaping persecution in their homeland? Or fleeing wars/invasions? Or simply looking for a better life? Clearly, the marshy region south of Baghdad was not a migrant heaven. The Sumerians must have migrated there out of some compulsion.

Whatever the reason, a few centuries after they first arrived, by 3200 BC or so, their population had swelled to about 50,000, and the world’s first city, URUK, came into being on the banks of the Euphrates. The city featured a great encircling wall, and had temples, great columns, and public art.

In a short time, several nearby cities also came up, as seen in Figure 4. The dashed blue line shows an ancient branch of the Euphrates that has since dried up. By 3000 BC, the entire region of Southern Mesopotamia was firmly under the control of the Sumerians. It contained several independent city-states like Uruk, Eridu, Kish, Nippur, Lagash and Ur.

Figure 4: The first cities of Sumer

Figure 5, on the left, shows a statue of Sumerian King Gudea discovered at Lagash, dated about 2100 BC. On the right is the famous statue discovered from Mohenjo-daro in Sindh dated about the same period (2000 BC).

Figure 5: King Gudea of sumer and IVC priest-king

What is striking in both figures is of course the similarity of wearing the upper garment draped over the left shoulder and under the right arm. The IVC figure, whose arms are missing, may have had a similar pose to King Gudea with palms clasped in front.

Much as we would like to explore further the fascinating history of Mesopotamia, we must regretfully turn our attention to the main topic, astronomy.

Sumerian Astronomy

How should one evaluate an ancient culture from the astronomy point of view? Three basic items are agreed upon by all scholars.

Firstly, we look for an accurate knowledge of the length of the year, and consequently, an accurate seasonal calendar.

An accurate seasonal calendar is a requirement for agrarian societies; in nomadic societies, not so much. For a nomad, the exact length of the year is of no great use and hardly of importance. In the Islamic tradition, for example, the year is of 354 days – fully 11 days shorter than the actual year.

Secondly, we look at how a culture manages the two conflicting cycles of the Sun and the Moon.

The yearly cycle of the Sun takes 365.25 days, while the monthly cycle of the Moon is of 29.5 days. These two numbers are not quite compatible. You can fit 12 Moon cycles (12×29.5=354 days) in a year and still have 11 days left over.

So, if your lunar months are numbered 1-12, then the first year will start with Month-1, no problem. Three years later, it will have lagged behind by 3×11=33 days, so that the year will now start with Month-2, and so on. We see this occurring with the Islamic month of Ramzan, and indeed the entire Moslem Calendar, which shifts forward perpetually by 11 days every year.

In a desert climate, this may not be such a big deal. But in a more varied climate it can lead to chaos. For example, people used to celebrating Christmas in December will eventually be forced to celebrate it in July. Ideally, one would like the year to always start at the same month, and festivals and holidays to fall at the same time of the year.

Can the two cycles of the Sun and the Moon be brought into agreement? A culture capable of solving this problem is to be rated highly on the astronomy index.

Incidentally, the modern calendar resolves this problem by simply abandoning the Moon. It is a purely Solar calendar. The modern month-lengths (Jan=31 days, Feb=28, March=31, etc.) are set arbitrarily, and do not match the Moon cycle.

Thirdly, and this goes even higher on the astronomy scale, one looks if the culture has made the subtle discovery that there are two kinds of years – Tropical and Sidereal – which differ by only 20 minutes!

The Year is defined as the time it takes the Sun to go around the Zodiac, and return to the origin. There are however two ways to define an origin: 1) the Equator as origin; 2) some Star as origin. Using the equator, we get a year length of 365.2422 days (tropical year), while using a star it comes to a slightly larger value of 365.2564 days (sidereal year) – a difference of 20 minutes.

This small but important difference is due to an effect called Precession, and is of great consequence in astronomy. A culture that is aware of Precession, and is able to measure it accurately, gets high marks.

Figure 6: Ancient Sumerian Star Chart

The ancient Sumerians score high on all three points.

They had an accurate calendar. The Sumerians used the Moon cycle to count 12 lunar months as a year. To make up for the difference between the lunar and solar years they inserted an extra month in the calendar once every three or four years. The early Egyptians, Greeks, and Semitic peoples copied this calendar.

They recorded positions of the Sun, Moon and stars, month-after-month, year-after-year, for centuries together. These have been found in clay-baked tablets, whose decipherment by Jesuit scholars Strassmaier, Epping and Kugler was a most significant achievement in modern archeology. The data in these tablets show that the ancient Sumerians were aware of the Precession of the earth.

An interesting question is this – did the Sumerians discover all this in Mesopotamia? Or did they bring all (or some of it) from their original homeland? If the latter, then Sumerian astronomy may be nothing but an offshoot of the astronomy of the Indus Valley, about which we know nothing at the present time.

The Sumerians Vanish

The northern region of Mesopotamia was referred to as Akkad. In an earlier period, the Sumerians appear to have marched northward with their armies and taken over Akkad, and a mingling of races, language and culture occurred.

Sometime later, the reverse happened, as the Sumerians were overwhelmed by mass migrations of Semitic people from the north into their southern lands, followed by direct invasions by Akkadian Kings around 2270 BC.

The Sumerian language was now relegated to sacred rituals, and understood only by scholars and scribes, while Akkadian took over the countryside. Native Sumerian rule did come back briefly, about 2100–2000 BC, before reverting back to the Akkadians.

In the new society structure, the military element consisted of Akkadians, while the Scribes and Scholars were Sumerian.

In the centuries that followed, it appears that poor agricultural practices increased soil salinity, and reduced agricultural produce in the south, that greatly reduced the population there (due to migration). Did some of these people migrate back to India? A good question.

The last king of the Akkadian Empire died in 2193 BC. and Mesopotamia went through a century of unrest, with different groups struggling for control, including mountain tribes from Iran (the Guts).

And here we come to the second mystery – into the unstable region of Mesopotamia arrived, a few centuries later, another mysterious people called the ‘Kaldu’.

The Chaldeans

The Chaldeans were a migrant group of people that moved into the region of Southern Mesopotamia starting around 1600 BC. By 1000 BC, they had established their kingdom and their power even extended over Babylon for a short period of time.

The timing of their arrival in Mesopotamia coincides with another event, which can lead us into some speculation. The demise of the Indus Valley Civilization occurred about 2000 BC to 1500 BC. Historians often speculate what happened to the IVC people. The standard theory is that they migrated eastwards, into the Gangetic Plains.

Is it possible that some of the IVC folks migrated westwards (as shown in Figure 7)?

Figure 7: IVC Migration

These newcomers to Southern Mesopotamia were even more advanced, astronomically speaking, to the existing Mesopotamians of the time. This advanced astronomy featured the following:

  1. The planets were not merely observed, but Tables were created to predict their future or past positions. There were two kinds of tables – Lunar and Planetary, with numerous advanced parameters.
  2. Star positions were now given in longitudes and latitudes, using degrees and Signs (30-degree intervals).
  3. The variable movement of the Sun was known
  4. Sun and Moon were called Sha-mash and Sha-sin.
  5. Apart from the solar day, they also defined a lunar day.
  6. They made use of the Gnomon (vertical stick) whose shadow is used to calculate astronomical parameters.
  7. They had defined time-cycles of 60, 600, 3600 and 432,000 years.

All these features of the ‘new’ astronomy in Mesopotamia are very closely related to Indian astronomy.

The most striking of these are: 1) the names of the Sun and Moon in Chaldean (above), have matching Sanskrit terms (Shamash for Sun, and Shashin for Moon); 2) The duration of Kali-yuga is 432,000 years; 3) A Lunar day, called Tithi, is central to Indian astronomy; 4) Longitudes are measured in Signs (Rashi – 30 deg intervals).

Also, some names in Mesopotamia, and some words, bear an uncanny resemblance to Tamil. Words like Ur, Elam or Arrashi-ilu (King’s servant) can be instantly recognized by people who understand Tamil.

To summarize, there are 5 items of interest to us regarding the Chaldeans:

1) The origin of the Chaldeans is a mystery to this date. All that is known is that they were not native Mesopotamians.

2) The timing of their arrival into Mesopotamia (1500 BC-1000 BC) matches closely the demise of the Indus Valley Civilization (about 1500 BC).

3) Their choice of a settlement place, in the remote marshy south-eastern corner of Mesopotamia, which is the closest location to the Indus Valley, is remarkable. It hints that they must have originated from east of Mesopotamia.

4. They were experts in Astronomy and Astrology. Indeed, the word ‘Chaldean’ came to mean Astrologer.

5. Their Astronomy was unique and formerly unknown in Mesopotamia. It represented a major advancement over that existing in Babylon at the time. This new astronomy in Mesopotamia has several direct and unquestionable links to Indian astronomy.

Mystery Summary

The history of Mesopotamia, and its possible link to Ancient India, is a fascinating area of research. Recent skeletal DNA analysis of the ancient Sumerians points to a definite Indian link.

The circumstantial evidence in our possession leads us to propose, very humbly, the following points for consideration:

The Indus Valley people (not all, but some fraction) migrated to Southern Mesopotamia in two waves: 1) the first around 4000 BC; 2) the second during the collapse of the IVC, around 1500 BC.

The former were the Sumerians, and the latter the Chaldeans.

Closure

The Indus Valley script has not yet been deciphered. Can we look at ancient Sumerian for clues?

Featured Image: Science News

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

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Anil Narayanan

Anil Narayanan is former scientist at ISRO, now working as a consultant in Washington DC. His hobby is ancient astronomy to which he devotes most of his spare time. He is the author of the book 'History of Indian Astronomy: The Siamese Manuscript'.