‘The calendar’, argued Meghnad Saha, the distinguished scientist and the leader of calendar reform in India, ‘is an indispensable requisite of modern civilized life.’ He could have gone further than that. The need for a calendar has been strongly felt – and well understood – well before the modern age. The calendar, in one form or another, has been an indispensable requisite of civilized life for a very long time indeed. This explains why so many calendars are so very old, and also why most civilizations, historically, have given birth to one or more specific calendars of their own. The multiplicity of calendars within a country and within a culture (broadly defined) has tended to relate to the disparate preoccupations of different groups that coexist in a country.
Calendars as Clues to Society and Culture
The study of calendars and their history, usage and social associations can provide a fruitful understanding of important aspects of a country and its cultures. For example, since calendars often have religious roles, there is sometimes a clear connection between regional religions and domestic calendars. Indeed, even the global calendars of the world are often classified as ‘Christian’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Buddhist’ and so on. The connection between calendars and cultures, however, goes well beyond this elementary linkage. Since the construction of calendars requires the use of mathematics as well as astronomy, and since the functioning and utilization of calendars involves cultural sophistication and urbanity, the history of calendrical progress can tell us a lot about the society in which these developments occur.
Furthermore, given the fact that local times vary with the exact location of each place within a country, the use of a shared time and a common calendar requires the fixing of a reference location (such as Greenwich for Britain) and a principal meridian (in the case of Britain, the one that runs through Greenwich, giving us the Greenwich Mean Time, GMT). The determination of a reference location and a principal meridian is also, if only implicitly, a political decision, requiring an integrated view of the country. When GMT was imposed as the national standard in late-nineteenth-century Britain (the clinching statute came in 1880), it was not an uncontroversial decision: those in opposition included the Astronomer Royal, and also self-confident institutions that valued their independence and the ‘accuracy’ of their respective local times. The great clock of Christ Church in Oxford continued, for a while, to show, through an extra hand, both GMT and its local time – five minutes behind GMT – and the college tradition allowed the belief that ‘one is not late till five minutes past the appointed time, that is till one is late by Oxford mean solar time as well as Greenwich’.1 When, in 1884, at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, DC, the meridian through Greenwich was given the status of being ‘the prime meridian for all nations’ (by which GMT also acquired its official international position), Britain’s dominant standing in world affairs certainly played an important political part.
Because of these associations, the nature, form and usage of calendars in a particular society can teach us a great deal about its politics, culture and religion as well as its science and mathematics. This applies even to as diverse a country as India, and it is in this sense that there will be an attempt in this essay to try to understand India through its calendars.
Millennial Occasions and Akbar’s Concerns
This essay is being written as the second millennium of the Gregorian calendar comes to an end. That moment of passage has been interpreted in two distinct ways. In one system of counting, the Gregorian second millennium will end on 31 December 2000, but the glittering celebrations that have already occurred on 31 December 1999 indicate that the other view – according to which we are already in the third millennium – has its devoted supporters, at least among the fun-loving world population.
Even though the divisions of time that any particular calendar gives are quite arbitrary and dependent on pure convention, nevertheless a socially devised celebratory break point in time can be an appropriate occasion for reflection on the nature of the world in which we live. Different ways of seeing India – from purely Hinduism-centred views to intensely secular interpretations – are competing with each other for attention. The calendars relate to distinct religions and customs.
It is worth recollecting in this context that a little over four hundred years ago when the first millennium in the Muslim Hijri calendar was completed (the year 1000 of the Hijri era ran from 9 October 1591 to 27 September 1592), Emperor Akbar was engaged in a similar – but very much grander – exercise in the Muslim-dominated but deeply multi-religious India. Akbar’s championing of religious tolerance is, of course, very well known, and is rightly seen as providing one of the major building blocks of Indian secularism. But in addition, Akbar’s actions and policies also related closely to his enquiries and interpretations of India, and in that investigation, the calendrical systems had an important place.
Indeed, Akbar tried to understand the different calendars known and used in India, along with trying to study the different religions practised in the country. He went on, in the last decade of the millennium (in fact, in 992 Hijri, corresponding to 1584 CE), to propose a synthetic calendar for the country as a whole, the ‘Tarikh-ilahi’, just as he also proposed an amalgamated religion, the ‘Din-ilahi’, drawing on the different religions that existed in India. Neither of these two innovations survived, but the motivations behind the two moves – interrelated as they are – have received attention over the centuries and remain very relevant today. The present millennial occasion may well be an appropriate moment to return to some of Akbar’s questions and concerns, presented at the end of a different millennium.
Arjuna hits the target: Daswant, described by Abul Fazl as the greatest Indian painter in Akbar’s court, depicts in Moghul style and letters a scene from the Mahābhārata
To this, I shall return at the end of the essay. But first I must examine the principal calendars that have governed the lives of Indians, and try to use that information for whatever understanding of India it offers. This perspective can provide clues to many different aspects of the science and society of India as well as its cultures and practices.
The Indian Calendars
India provides an astonishing variety of calendrical systems, with respective histories that stretch over several thousand years. The official Calendar Reform Committee, appointed in 1952 (shortly after Indian independence), which was chaired by Meghnad Saha himself, identified more than thirty well-developed calendars in systematic use in the country.2 These distinct calendars relate to the diverse but interrelated histories of the communities, localities, traditions and religions that have coexisted in India. If one wanted confirmation of the pervasive pluralism of India, the calendars of India would provide fine evidence in that direction.
The authoritative Whitaker’s Almanack reduces this long list to seven principal ‘Indian eras’. It also gives the translation of the Gregorian year 2000 into these selected major calendars. Since, however, the beginning of the year in different calendars occurs at different times and in different seasons (for example, the Śaka era, the most widely used indigenous calendar in India, begins in spring, in the middle of April), these translations have to be seen in terms of substantial overlap rather than full congruence. The Gregorian year 2000 CE corresponds, Whitaker’s Almanack reports, respectively with:
Year 6001 in the Kaliyuga calendar;
Year 2544 in the Buddha Nirvāṇa calendar;
Year 2057 in the Vikram Saṃvat calendar;
Year 1922 in the Śaka calendar;
Year 1921 (shown in terms of five-year cycles) of the Vedāṇga Jyotiśa calendar;
Year 1407 in the Bengali San calendar; and
Year 1176 in the Kollam calendar.
To this list, we can of course add other major calendars in extensive use in India, including the old Mahāvīra Nirvāṇa calendar associated with Jainism (in use for about the same length of time as the Buddha Nirvāṇa calendar), and later additions, such as the Islamic Hijri, the Parsee calendar and various versions of Christian date systems (and also the Judaic calendar, in local use in Kerala since the arrival of Jews in India, shortly after the fall of Jerusalem).
Ancient India and Its Calendars
It is clear from the table of Indian calendars in Whitaker’s Almanack that the Kaliyuga calendar is apparently much older than – and quite out of line with – the other surviving old calendars. It also has a somewhat special standing because of its link with the religious account of the history of the world, described with mathematical – if mind-boggling – precision. (It is the last and the shortest of the four yugas, meant to last for 432,000 years, and has been preceded respectively by three other yugas, which were in length – going backwards – two, three and four times as long as the Kaliyuga, making up a total of 4,320,000 years altogether.) It is, of course, true that the Vikram Saṃvat and the Śaka calendars are also sometimes called ‘Hindu calendars’, and they are almost invariably listed under that heading, for example in The Oxford Companion to the Year. But they are mainly secular calendrical systems that were devised and used – for all purposes including, inter alia, religious ones – by people who happened to be Hindus. In contrast, Kaliyuga is given an orthodox and primordial religious status. Furthermore, as the ancientness of Hinduism is not in doubt, and since ancient India is often seen as primarily Hindu India, the temporal seniority of the Kaliyuga has also acquired a political significance of its own, which has a bearing in the interpretation of India as a country and as a civilization.
Interestingly enough, according to Whitaker’s Almanack Kaliyuga too, like the Gregorian, is at the end of a millennium – its sixth. This ‘double millennium’ seems to offer cause for some jollity (such coincidences do not occur that often), not to mention the opportunity of inexpensive chauvinism for Indians to celebrate the completion of a sixth millennium at about the same time that the upstart Europeans enjoy the end of their modest second millennium.
How authentic is this dating of Kaliyuga in Whitaker’s Almanack? The Almanack is quite right to report what is clearly the official date of the Kaliyuga calendar. Indeed, that dating is quite widely used, and even the Calendar Reform Committee reported the same convention (noting that year 1954 CE was year 5055 in Kaliyuga, which does correspond exactly to 2000 CE being 6001 Kaliyuga). However, this numbering convention raises two distinct questions, which deserve scrutiny. First, does the official Kaliyuga date correspond to the ‘zero point’ of the analytical system of the Kaliyuga calendar? Second, does the zero point of the Kaliyuga calendar reflect its actual historical age?
I fear I have to be the kill-joy who brings a doubly drab message. First, the zero point of Kaliyuga is not 6,001 but 5,101 years ago (corresponding to 3101–3102 BCE). Second, this zero point (5,101 years ago) is most unlikely to have been the actual date of origin of this calendar.
The first point is not in any kind of dispute, and the defenders of the pre-eminence of the Kaliyuga calendar rarely deny that the zero point is 3102 BCE. The zero point can be easily worked out from a statement of Āryabhaṭa, the great Indian mathematician and astronomer born in the fifth century, who had done foundational work in astronomy and mathematics, particularly trigonometry, and had also proposed the diurnal motion of the earth (with a corresponding theory of gravity – later expounded by Brahmagupta in the sixth century – to explain why objects are not thrown out as the earth turns). He noted that 3,600 years of the Kaliyuga calendar were just completed when he turned 23 (the year in which this precocious genius wrote his definitive mathematical treatise).3That was the year 421 in the Śaka calendar, which overlapped with 499 CE. From this it can be readily worked out that 2000 CE corresponds to year 5101 in the Kaliyuga calendar. This tallies also with what the Indian Calendar Reform Committee accepted, on the basis of all the evidence it had. This robs us of the opportunity of celebrating a double millennial occasion – the Gregorian second and the Kaliyuga sixth – but it still leaves the seniority of the Kaliyuga over the Gregorian quite unaffected, since 5,101 years is quite long enough (at least for chauvinistic purposes).
It is, however, important to take note of the often-overlooked distinction between a calendar’s historical origin, and its zero point as a scaling device. To illustrate the distinction, it may be pointed out that the zero point in the Christian calendar was, obviously, fixed later, not when Jesus Christ was born. The zero point of the Kaliyuga calendar is clear enough, but in itself it does not tell us when that calendrical system, including its zero point, was adopted.
It has been claimed that the origin (or year zero) in Kaliyuga was fixed by actual astronomical observation in India in 3102 BCE. This has not only been stated by Indian traditionalists, it also received endorsement and support in the eighteenth century from no less an authority than the distinguished French astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly, who computed the orbit for Halley’s comet. But as the great scientist and mathematician Laplace showed, this hypothesis is not likely to be correct. There is a clear discrepancy between the alleged astronomical observations (as reported for the zero year) and what would have been seen in the sky in 3102 BCE. Laplace had the benefit of contemporary astronomy to do this calculation quite precisely. This old calendar, ancient as it undoubtedly is, must not be taken, Laplace argued, as commemorating some actual astronomical observation.
The Indian Tables indicate a much more refined astronomy, but everything shows that it is not of an extremely remote antiquity … The Indian Tables have two principal epochs, which go back, one to the year 3102, the other to the year 1491, before the Christian era … Notwithstanding all the arguments brought forward with the interest he [Jean-Sylvain Bailly] so well knew how to bestow on subjects the most difficult, I am still of the opinion that this period [from 3102 BCE to 1491 BCE] was invented for the purpose of giving a common origin to all the motions of the heavenly bodies in the zodiac.4
Let me pause a little here to note two points of some general interest. First, Laplace is disputing here the astronomical claims – often made – as to what was actually observed in 3102 BCE, and the critique is thus both of history (of the Kaliyuga calendar) and of applied astronomy (regarding what was observed and when). Second, Laplace does not treat the dating of 3102 BCE as purely arbitrary. Rather, he gives it an analytical or mathematical status, as distinct from its astronomical standing. Backward extrapolation may be a bad way of doing history, but it is an exercise of some analytical interest of its own.
Indeed, Laplace can be interpreted as adding force to the view, which can receive support from other evidence as well, that it is mathematics rather than observational science to which ancient Indian intellectuals were inclined to give their best attention. From the arithmetic conundrums of the Atharvaveda and the numerical fascination of the epics to the grammatical tables of Pāṇini and the numbering of sexual positions by Vātsāyana, there is a remarkable obsession in ancient India with enumeration and calculation. The plethora of Indian calendars and the analytical construction of their imagined history fit well into this reading of Indian intellectual tradition.
Returning to the Kaliyuga calendar, it is also perhaps of some significance that there is no corroboration of the use of the Kaliyuga calendar in the Vedas, which are generally taken to date from the second millennium BCE. There is, in fact, plenty of calendrical discussions in the Vedas, and a clear exposition of a system in which each year consists of twelve months of thirty days, with a thirteenth (leap) month added every five years. While the oldest of the Vedas, the Rigveda, outlines the main divisions of the solar year into months and seasons (four seasons of ninety days each), the more precise calculations, including the ‘leap’ (or intercalary) months, can be found in the Atharvaveda.5 But the exact accounting system used in the Kaliyuga calculations is not found anywhere in the Vedas – at least not in the versions that have come down to us. It appears that there is no overt or even covert reference to the Kaliyuga calendar in the Rāmāyaṇa or the Mahābhārata either. Consideration of this and other evidence even prompted Meghnad Saha and his collaborators in the Calendar Reform Committee to suggest that the Kaliyuga calendar might have taken its present form precisely at the time of Āryabhaṭa, in 499 CE. Indeed, they speculated that its analytical system is ‘a pure astronomical fiction created for facilitating Hindu astronomical calculations and was designed to be correct only for 499 AD’.
This may or may not be exactly right, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Kaliyuga has not been in use much longer – if at all longer – than other old Indian calendars. The Vikram Saṃvat calendar, which is quite widely used in north India and in Gujarat, is traced to the reign of King Vikramāditya, and has a zero point at 57 BCE. But many of the accounts of the magnificent Vikramāditya are so shrouded in mystery, and there is so little firm evidence of its early use, that it is difficult to be sure of the exact history of the Vikram Saṃvat. In contrast, however, we do know that the Śaka calendar, which has a zero point (not necessarily its historical origin) in 78 CE, was in good use by 499 CE. Indeed, we know from Āryabhaṭa’s own dating of the Kaliyuga in terms of the Śaka era (421 Śaka year) that at least by then the Śaka era is well known and in good use. While there is very little written evidence that survives on the use of the Śaka calendar (or indeed any other old calendar), it is worth noting that one well-known record (the Badami inscription) dating from 465 Śaka era or 543 CE does confirm the use of the Śaka era (not very long after the Āryabhaṭa statement, dated at the 421st Śaka year, or 499 CE).
It is hard to resist the conclusion that, unlike what appears from the table in Whitaker’s Almanack, the Kaliyuga is not a lone forerunner of all the other extant calendars. In fact, it is even possible that among the surviving calendars today, the Buddha Nirvāṇa calendar (with a zero point in 544 BCE) may actually be significantly older than the Kaliyuga calendar. And so, quite possibly, is the Mahāvīra Nirvāṇa calendar of the Jains (with a zero point in 527 BCE). While the first uses of these calendars are hard to identify, there is solid evidence of the use of the Buddha Nirvāṇa calendar in Sri Lanka from the first century BCE – earlier than any that point firmly to the use of the Kaliyuga calendar.
Since I have been quite critical of the claims of priority of the Kaliyuga calendar as an old Indian calendar, I should make a couple of clarificatory observations, to prevent misunderstandings. First, it is not my purpose to deny that the Kaliyuga calendar may have a very old lineage. There is much evidence that it draws on older Indian calendars, including those discussed in the Vedas. But this ancient Indian inheritance is shared also by the Buddha Nirvāṇa calendar and the Mahāvīra Nirvāṇa calendar. We have to remember that ancient India is not just Hindu India, and there is an ancestry that is shared by several different religions that had their origin or flowering in India. The often-repeated belief that India was a ‘Hindu country’ before Islam arrived is, of course, a pure illusion, and the calendrical story fits well into what we know from other fields of Indian history.
Second, even though the sensual pleasure of celebrating the completion of the sixth Indian millennium, compared with the ending of the second Gregorian millennium, may be denied to the Indian chauvinist, it is clear that by the time of the origin of Christianity, there were several calendars competing for attention in the subcontinent. What are now known as Christian calendars did not, of course, take that form until much later, but even the Roman calendars on which the Christian calendars (including the Gregorian) draw were going through formative stages over the first millennium BCE, precisely when the inheritance of the old Indian calendars was also getting sorted out. There is indeed much give and take between the older civilizations over this period, and it is difficult to separate out what emerged through an indigenous process in the subcontinent – or anywhere else – from what was learned by one culture from another.
There is evidence that Indians got quite a few of their ideas from the Greeks (there are several fairly explicit acknowledgements of that in the Siddhāntas), as did the Romans, but then the Greeks too had insisted that they had received a number of ideas from Indian works. As Severus Sebokt, the Syrian bishop, said in 662 CE (in a different country, in a different context): ‘There are also others who know something.’ If the Kaliyuga calendar loses its pre-eminence in critical scrutiny, the temptation of national chauvinism does much worse (while Hindu chauvinism does worse still).
Variations and Solidarity
The immense variety of systematic calendars in India brings out an important aspect of the country, in particular its cultural and regional variation. Yet this can scarcely be the whole story, since, despite this high variance, there is a concept of the country as a unit that has survived through history. To be sure, the presence of this concept is exactly what is denied in the often-repeated claim that India was no more than a large territory of small to medium fragments, united together, later on, by the cementing powers of British rule.
The British often see themselves as having ‘authored’ India, and this claim to imaginative creation fits well into Winston Churchill’s belief (cited earlier) that India had no greater unity than the Equator had. It is, however, of some significance that even those who see no pre-British unity in India have no great difficulty in generalizing about the quality of Indians as a people (even Churchill could not resist articulating his view that Indians were ‘the beastliest people in the world, next to the Germans’). Generalizations about Indians have gone on from the ancient days of Alexander the Great and Apollonius of Tyana (an early ‘India expert’) to the ‘medieval’ days of Arab and Iranian visitors (who wrote so much about the land and the people), to the early modern days of Herder, Schlegel, Schelling and Schopenhauer. It is also worth noting that an ambitious emperor – whether Candragupta Maurya or Ashoka or Alauddin or Akbar – has tended to assume that the empire was not complete until the bulk of the country was under his rule. Obviously, we would not expect to see, historically, a pre-existing ‘Indian nation’, in the modern sense, waiting anxiously to leap into becoming a nation state, but it is difficult to miss the social and cultural links and identities that could serve as the basis of one.
To this much debated issue, we can ask, what does the calendrical perspective bring? 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 Saṃvat, the Śaka, the Bengali San and several other Indian 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.
The fact that the integer value of 365 days to the year is only approximate was, of course, known to the Indian mathematicians who constructed the calendars. To compensate for this, the periodic adjustments standardly used in many of the Indian calendars take the form of adding a leap or intercalary month (called a mala māsa) to bring practice in line with the dictates of computation. But the adequacy of the correction depends on getting the length of the year exactly right, and this was difficult to do with the instruments and understanding at the time the respective calendars were initiated or reformed. Indeed, the sixth-century mathematician Varāhamihira gave 365.25875 days as the true measure of the year, which, while close enough, was still slightly wrong, since the length of the sidereal year is 365.25636 days and the tropical year is 365.24220 days. The errors have moved the different north-Indian calendars away from the intended fixed points, such as the vernal equinox, but they have tended to move together, with considerable solidarity with each other.
There are, of course, exceptions to this show of unity in slight error, since the south-Indian calendars (such as the Kollam) and the lunar or luni-solar calendars (such as the Buddha Nirvāṇa) follow different rules. Indeed, it would be hard to expect a dominant uniformity in the calendrical – or indeed cultural – variations within India, and what one has to look for is the interest that different users of distinct calendars have tended to have in the practices of each other. I shall argue later that this mutual interest extends also to the calendars used by Indian Muslims after Islam came to India.
One of the tests of the presence of a united perspective in calendrical terms, already discussed, is the identification of a principal meridian and a reference location (like Greenwich in Britain). It is remarkable how durable has been the position of the ancient city of Ujjayinī (now known as Ujjain), the capital of several Hindu dynasties of India (and the home of many literary and cultural activities through the first millennium CE), as the reference location for many of the main Indian calendars. The Vikram Saṃvat calendar (with a zero point in 57 BCE) apparently originated in this ancient capital city. But it is also the locational base of the Śaka system (zero point in 78 CE) and a great many other Indian calendars. Indeed, even today, Ujjain’s location is used to fix the anchor point of the Indian clock (serving, in this respect, as the Indian Greenwich). The Indian Standard Time that governs our lives still remains a close approximation of Ujjayinī time – five hours and thirty minutes ahead of GMT.
A contemporary visitor to this very modest and sleepy town may find it interesting to note that nearly two millennia ago the well-known astronomical work Paulisa Siddhānta, which preceded the definitive Āryabhāṭiya, focused its attention on longitudes at three places in the world: Ujjain, Benares and Alexandria. Ujjain serves as a good reminder of the relation between calendar and culture. We have wonderful descriptions of Ujjayinī in Indian literature, particularly from Kālidāsa in the fifth century, perhaps the greatest poet and dramatist in classical Sanskrit literature.
The elegance and beauty of Kālidāsa’s Ujjayinī even made E. M. Forster take a trip there in 1914. Forster wanted to reconstruct in his mind what Ujjain looked like in the days that Kālidāsa had so lovingly described. He recollected passages from Kālidāsa, including the stirring account of evenings when ‘women steal to their lovers’ through ‘darkness that a needle might divide’. But he could not get the old ruins there to reveal much, nor manage to get the local people to take the slightest interest in his historical and literary search. Ankle deep in the river Śipra, so romantically described by Kālidāsa, Forster abandoned his search, and accepted the prevailing wisdom: ‘Old buildings are buildings, ruins are ruins.’6 I shall not speculate whether in that abandonment of historical exactness, there is something of a unity (perhaps illustrated even by the already discussed factual uncertainty of the Kaliyuga despite its mathematical exactness). But certainly there is something very striking about the constancy of Ujjain’s dominance in Indian time accounting, even though the focus of political power, and of literary and cultural pre-eminence, shifted from Ujjain itself, a long time ago.
Interaction and Integration
One of the contrasts between the different Indian calendars relates to their respective religious associations. This was a matter of particular interest to that original multiculturalist Akbar, as I have already discussed. He was especially concerned with the fact that as a Muslim he was ruling over a country of many different faiths. To that particular concern, I shall presently return, but I would like to clarify that, even before the arrival of Islam in India, India was a quintessentially multicultural and multi-religious country. Indeed, nearly all the major religions of the world (Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism) were present in India well before the Muslim conquests occurred. The Indian civilization 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 sizeable Christian communities before Britain had any, and provided a home to the Parsees right from the time when religious persecution began in Iran. In fact, Jews arrived shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, Christians appeared at least as early as the fourth century, and Parsees started arriving by the eighth. 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.
The pioneering multiculturalism of Akbar included his taking an interest in the religion and culture of each of these groups. In his ‘House of Worship’ (Ibadat Khana), the people from diverse religions who were encouraged to attend included – as Abul Fazl noted – not only the mainstream Hindu and Muslim philosophers (of different denominations), but also Christians, Jews, Parsees, Jains and even members of the atheistic Cārvāka school.
Akbar’s attempt at introducing a combined calendar paralleled his interest in floating a combined religion, the Din-ilahi. On the calendrical front, Akbar may have begun by just taking note of various calendars (Hindu, Parsee, Jain, Christian and others), but he proceeded then to take the radical step of trying to devise a new synthetic one. In 992 Hijri (1584 CE, Gregorian), just short of the Hijri millennium, he promulgated the brand new calendar, viz. the Tarikh-ilahi, God’s calendar – no less. The zero year of Tarikh-ilahi corresponds to 1556 CE (the year in which Akbar ascended to the throne), but that is not its year of origin, which was 1584. It was devised as a solar calendar (like the Hindu and Iranian/Parsee calendars of the region), but had some features of the Hijri as well, and also bore the mark of a person who knew the calendrical diversity represented by Christian, Jain and other calendars in local use in Akbar’s India. The Tarikh-ilahi became the official calendar, and the decrees of the ruling Moghal emperor of India (thefarmans) henceforth carried both the synthetic Tarikh and the Muslim Hijri date, and occasionally only the Tarikh.7
Even though Tarikh-ilahi was introduced with a grand vision, its acceptance outside the Moghal court was rather limited, and the subcontinent went on using the Hijri as well as the older Indian calendars. While Akbar’s constructive calendar died not long after he himself did, his various synthesizing efforts left a lasting mark on Indian history. But has the calendrical expression, in particular, of Akbar’s synthesizing commitment been lost without trace?
Not so. There is a surviving calendar, the Bengali San, which was clearly influenced by Tarikh-ilahi, and which still carries evidence of the integrating tendency that is so plentifully present in many other fields of Indian culture and tradition (such as music, painting, architecture, and so on). It is year 1407 now (as I write in 2000 CE) in the Bengali calendar, the San. What does 1407 stand for? Encouraged by Akbar’s Tarikh-ilahi, the Bengali calendar was also ‘adjusted’ as far as the numbering of year goes in the late sixteenth century. In fact, using the zero year of the Tarikh, 1556 CE (corresponding to year 963 in the Hijri calendar), the Bengali solar calendar, which has a procedure of reckoning that is very similar to the solar Śaka system, was ‘adjusted’ to the lunar Hijri number, but not to the lunar counting system. That is, the ‘clock’ of this solar calendar was put back, as it were, from Śaka 1478 to Hijri 963 in the newly devised Bengali San. However, since the Bengali San (like the Śaka era) remained solar, the Hijri has marched ahead of the San, being a lunar calendar (with a mean length of 354 days, 8 hours and 48 minutes per year), and the Bengali San – just turned 1407 – has fallen behind Hijri as well.
Like the abortive Tarikh-ilahi, the more successful Bengali San too is the result of a daring integrational effort, and its origin is clearly related to the synthetic experiment of the Tarikh-ilahi (and thus, indirectly, to Akbar’s multicultural philosophy). When a Bengali Hindu does religious ceremonies according to the local calendar, he or she may not be quite aware that the dates that are invoked in the calendrical accompaniment of the Hindu practices are attuned to commemorating Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina, albeit in a mixed lunar-solar representation.
The tradition of multiculturalism in India is particularly worth recollecting at this moment in Indian history, when India’s secularism is being sporadically challenged by new forces of intolerance and by politically cultivated fanaticism of one kind or another. What is under attack is not only some ‘modern’ notion of secularism born and bred in post-Enlightenment Europe, or some quintessentially ‘Western’ idea brought to India by the British, but a long tradition of accommodating and integrating different cultures which had found many articulate expressions in India’s past – partly illustrated by India’s calendrical history as well.
Caught as we are in India today in conflicting attempts to interpret Indian civilization and society, the calendrical perspective offers, I believe, some insights that are relevant and forceful. The calendars reveal, in fact, a great deal more than just the months and the years.