12th century sculpture of Agastya from Bihar. Source: LACMA
The earth was young, everything on it was minty fresh and newly created. The mountains and rivers and trees and wildlife had all just come to life. There were stars in the sky but constellations were just gathering together. The earth had just about been peopled with the first humans who wandered about wide-eyed and mystified. Everything and everyone was left to their own devices to figure out their place under the sun. And if there was a conflict, as was often the case when roles and genders and life in general was as fluid as it was those days, one consulted a Rishi. Some of these were the manas-putras of Brahma and within them they held the algorithms of world-creation.They rushed about creating and procreating and problem-solving and troubleshooting and we owe them the world as we know it. They were Kashyapa, Atri, Vasistha, Vishvamitra, Gautama, Jamadagni and Bharadvaja – the Saptarishis who incidentally, are still out and about, meditating, wandering, waiting for the Kaliyuga to end and their jobs to be done. But there are other mega-powerful Rishis too, Durvasa, Parashurama and the biggest gun among them all, Agastya.
The tales of Agastya’s superhuman deeds are numerous and steeped in symbolism. He has no human mother and was born of two divine men – Varuna and Mitra, when they emptied their seed into a earthen pot. He was indirectly responsible for Ganga flowing on earth. Once in a bid to expose the demon king Kalakeya in his abyssal lair, Agastya swallowed and digested all the oceans of the world. It took King Sagara and his illustrious descendants, ending with Bhaghiratha, thousands of years of arduous penance, to finally refill them by bringing down the heavenly Ganga. Then there’s the tale of him wanting to satisfy his wife Lopamudra’s desire for finery befitting the king’s daughter that she was and for that reason he ate and digested with a satisfied burp the powerful demon Vatapi, who had the power of regeneration upon death. In utter awe, Vatapi’s brother Ilvala, handed over his overflowing coffers to the tiny sage. The story I’m about to tell, is an oft-repeated one. So common in fact, that it is easy to stop paying attention to the nuances and layers typical of our Puranas and dismiss it as a child’s tale.
The earth was young and Vindhya was the greatest mountain range known to man. It clearly divided the North from the South. Its passes were impassable and its ranges were insurmountable. The forests that grew on it were so thick and thorny and impermeable, even the wind had trouble entering them. But things were still growing or being created and soon enough, the wily Cosmic traveller Narada Muni was whispering into Vindhya’s ears about a young, upstart mountain range, Himalaya, growing in the far North. So tall, that no forest could grow on him and he had some cold white stuff on him they were calling snow. Vindhya wasn’t having any of this new-fangled nonsense. He was going to retain his numero uno status of impassability, by hook or by crook. And so he started growing and growing and growing – now this is where a department of rules and regulations would have come in handy, but bureaucracy hadn’t yet been invented. Vindhya grew taller and wider and generally became a public nuisance by blocking the path of the Sun and Moon and other celestial bodies that were going about their business peaceably. Agastya Rishi was meditating in his ashram in Rishikesh, by the banks of Ganga when an indignant bunch of Devas rushed in and began their litany of complaints against Vindhyachala.
‘Right, said Agastya. I’ll get Vindhya to settle down. He’s a nice chap, if a bit hot-headed. But just know that if I leave for the South, I won’t be returning to these parts any time soon’.
And so he and his wife Lopamudra took leave of their sylvan ashram and set off on the long and arduous journey southwards till they bumped into the large and looming Vindhya.
‘Hey’, said Agastya politely to Vindhya, who peered myopically back at him. Agastya was particularly tiny, even as humans go.
‘Hey, Gus’, boomed Vindhya, ‘ Been a while. Are you here to ask me to stop growing? Cos, I don’ wanna’.
‘No, dude. I just want to get to the other side. Could you bend a bit, so I can cross over’?
‘Sure’ , said Vindhya agreeably. ‘But when do you return? ‘Cos it takes me a long time and to bend and straighten and if you are only going to be short while, I’ll just stay bent till you return’.
‘Bas yun gaya aur yun aaya’, said Agastya, wincing as Lopamudra hissed – ‘liar’.
Thus the legend goes, that Agastya has stayed on in the South doing many illustrious things like materialising the Kaveri river, creating the language of Tamil and generally being the first guy to bind the North and South of the country into Bharatvarsha, long before the tall tales of Aryan invasions took root. And Vindhya, bent double, became the gently rolling hills that mark the distinct two halves of our country.
I’m ashamed to say that only very recently did I learn that the brightest star in the Southern Hemisphere, Canopus, has an older Indian name – Agastya. That’s when my brain cells slowly began firing, making the connection between mythology and the history of our earth. I’m usually wary of going down the slippery slope of seeking historical validation for our Puranas. It is unnecessary, shows a lack of confidence in our unique heritage and now with the uber nationalist seeking to appropriate religion and mythology without any real understanding or study, very embarrassing. But this story literally blew my brain at just how deeply our forefathers and foremothers understood astronomy and geosciences at a time when there was no such thing as Western science.
In a phenomenon called Precession of Equinoxes or Earthly Precession, the axis that our earth spins around, also slowly moves in an arc that takes a total of approximately 25000 years to complete one whole circle. Which means, in around 12-13000 years our axis, which is now pointing true North at the Dhruva Tara, will rotate towards the star Vega, which will then become our true North. And slowly but surely in an another 13000 years go back to pointing to Dhruva again. This precessional movement also means that stars in the skies that weren’t visible to us a few thousand years ago will come into view gradually and gradually disappear as surely as the earth spins around itself.
As Agastya and party stood atop the Vindhya mountains 7500 years ago or at around 5500 BCE, they would have spotted an extraordinarily bright star, rising just above the horizon. Hitherto unseen, brighter than anything else around it, second only to Mrigavyadha or Sirius. This was Canopus, which due to the Precession, had only then become visible at the latitude of about 25 Deg North at the top of the Vindhya.
Stop for a minute, look through the eyes of the ancient explorer and imagine the magnitude of this discovery. It’s darker than pitch dark on a moonless night. No ambient light pollution from streetlights or headlights in 5500 BCE. A rag-tag bunch of North Indians have camped on top of one of the hills. An exhausting journey on foot, running into months, perhaps even years, battling the unknown and unseen seems to be at its end. And as they settle down for the night, around the dying embers of a fire, there rises in the horizon a star of extraordinary beauty, it’s shimmering silvery fires outshining every star around. Everyone’s breath is caught in their throats as they all turn to look at the dwarf- sage whose eyes are as luminous as the star as he looks on in quiet contentment.
This was an event of such cosmic importance that the ancient Indian recorded it in the only way things are ever recorded in our country: in a story, knowing that the stories would endure as science eventually deigned to play catch-up.
A story, part history, part metaphor, of a mountain so impassable, that it blocked the transition of celestial bodies. It took Vindhyakuta, the bender of Vindhya, Agastya, to achieve the unachievable. And when the mighty mountain bent to the will of the Sage, an extraordinary celestial body was made visible. And so, the brightest star in the Southern skies, was named after one of the greatest Indians of all time.
It is always argued that the Greeks were the earliest astronomers responsible for naming and identifying constellations. But this event of spotting a star for the first time and recording it in story clearly predates all Western civilization
On a personal level too, this story was where my flights of fancy found and met my mariner husband’s deep, abiding love for astronomy. I took this story excitedly to him and watched his eyes light up as he explained it back to me in a sciency way that took me weeks to grasp and then too not very firmly. Those among you who are interested in the science of Earth’s precession, do read on in his voice:
“When we need to pinpoint a place on the earth’s surface, we use a system of coordinates called Latitude and Longitude. For e.g. Mumbai is 19 deg north (latitude north the of the equator) and 72 deg east Longitude (east of the Greenwich meridian). Similarly to fix a point on the celestial sphere / space / sky we use declination (latitude) and RA (longitude), and the equator becomes the Equinoctial. This is used to fix the positions of stars / planets we see in the night sky.
For some time now we have grown used to the north pole of the earth pointing in a fixed direction, towards the Pole Star / Dhruv Tara. What that means is in the night sky, when you locate the pole star, you will not see it rise or set, but it remains fixed in the north direction. Mariners have used this for the last 2 or 3 epochs to navigate. All other stars are seen to rise and set around the fixed pole.
But this is a not a certainty for all time. The earth’s geographical poles will slowly shift in a westward arc and then again come back again to point to the pole star in about 25,000 years. When a top is spinning on its sharp end, and when you see it from above, there is slight wobble that can be noticed. The earth’s axis moves westward in the same wobble, but this process takes approximately 25,000 years.
This is called the Precession of the equinoxes or Earthly Precession. As the poles slowly shift, our seasons as per the calendar and fixed stars will change. After 12,500 years, the North Pole will be about 47 deg on the opposite side of its present position.
In the present era, the star Canopus (Agastya) has a declination of 52 deg south (which means it is 52 deg south of the earth’s equator when projected in space – the equinoctial). This means it is visible at night from about a latitude of 34 deg North, approximately Srinagar in Kashmir. Further north of that, it will not be seen.
As the poles shift due to the precession, the declination of Agastya will change slowly to about 82 deg south and then again come back to about 52 deg south in 25K years. As the declination changes from 52 to 82 and the star moves further south, the star will disappear from Kashmir, Vindhyas and Chennai. Once the star travels north again from 82 to 52, the star will be visible again from all the above places.
The Vindhya mountain range lies approximately about at 25 deg North latitude, which means from the Vindhya range the star Canopus can be seen just about 14 deg above the horizon at night. So with mathematical calculation, it can be said that the star became visible at the Vindhya about 7500 years ago and will be visible for another 7500 years and then will disappear from the Vindhya.
The first time that a northerner would have seen the Canopus would be about 5500 BC. This would be at the approximate time that Agastya Muni crossed over the Vindhya mountains”.