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Tarakka: Ancient Monuments of Bhubaneswar as Reflections of Stars
By Deepak Bhattacharya 1 & P. C. Naik 2
Edited by Sharif Sakr

Introduction

The celestial bodies have fascinated man since his beginning. Not only has he observed and recorded celestial phenomena, but he also appears to have felt an urge to design and locate religious buildings in line with individual stars or constellations [2]. It is as if he wanted to make reflections of the heavenly bodies on earth. There are reports on the astronomical connections of historical monuments in Egypt, Central America, Northern Europe, Cambodia, Egypt, Indonesia, Polynesia and elsewhere. But none have been reported from the Indian subcontinent. This is strange, considering that India is the very geographical zone in which the Sanatana, Jaina and Buddhist religions, with all their abundant astronomical fascinations, flourished.

From the Vedic period, celestial observations in India evolved into a systematic science, called Siddhanta, which has survived even into modern times. Authorities like Aryabhatta, Varahamihira, Bramhagupta, Baskaracharya, Satananda, Samant Chandra Sekhar and many more have left invaluable contributions, including observations, calculations and instruments; thereby maintaining an uninterrupted tradition for about 1500 years. This tradition has exercised immense influence on society by way of elaborate prescription of ideal dates and times for observance of religious and social functions, including birth and marriage.

The Rig Veda contains a concise description of stars and constellations. It is indeed an ode to the cosmos, in limited diction, of unparalleled quality and antiquity. The Rig Veda refers to Orion as Kala Purusha, Yajna purusha, Yajna Soma, Rudra, Ekadasa Rudra, etc., and it emphasises the importance of this particular constellation. The abstract cosmic divinity of Orion in the Rig Veda assumes physical forms in anthropomorphic and zoomorphic chitrabasha artwork, which is found in abundance in Bhubaneswar. It also may be expressed through the aniconic symbol of the Siva Linga (the phallic stone within a circle, representing Siva-Shakti), the shape of which matches the Orion constellation when viewed from the side in two-dimensional profile (i.e. as it is represented in temple art). Expressed in these ways, Kalingan archaeology reveals a central importance of the Rudra and Kalapurusha stars, and of astronomy in general.

The ancient city of Ekamra/Bhubaneswar is a prominent Saivic site with hundreds of Siva temples, some of which are world-famous (the Lingaraj, Parasurameswar, Rajarani etc.). It was also centre of Kalingan trade networks, which extended across the Bay of Bengal and included the Indonesian Archipelago. Kalingan mariners were surely adept in identifying stars as navigational aids in the high seas. This knowledge could have spread into wider Kalingan society, reaching the educated elite including the royalty and master craftsmen, who together patronised and constructed the ancient Kalingan monuments.

The concurrency of Vedic astronomical traditions and astronomical maritime navigation practices with a long historical period of building activity begs the question of whether or not the Kalingan temple-builders were influenced by Vedic astronomical concepts. Did they attempt to align their temples with stars or constellations that are important in Vedic astronomy?

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Footnotes:

  1. For example, see Bauval & Gilbert (1998) and Hancock & Faiia (1998)

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