(This is part of the series Make History Fun Again, where the writers introduce historical facts, events and personalities in a fun way for parents to start a conversation with their kids.)
By Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia
It is that time of the year again. A time to think back to the year past, make resolutions for the new year ahead. Have you ever wondered why we mark the change of year at this time?
Today, everyone across the globe follows a year of 12 months of 365 days. This calendar is purely solar, meaning it depends purely on the movement of earth around the sun and was first introduced by that famous Roman Julius Caesar back in 45 BC. It is today called the Gregorian calendar.
Moon or Sun?
However, throughout most of history, most calendars were based on the moon and each waxing and waning of the moon would count as one month. One example of this is the Muslim Hijri calendar, which takes 12 lunar months.
However, 12 lunar months are only 354 days, which is 11 days shorter than a solar year. This creates a problem, because if people use a purely lunar calendar, the months in which spring, summer or winter occur will change from year to year (as the seasons depend on the earth’s movement around the sun). In fact, every few years, summer would occur in December!
So, for spring or summer to come at the same time every year, the lunar calendar needed to be somehow matched with the solar year.
The ancient Indians came up with a calendar that is a very interesting mix of these two.
Moon and Sun
The Hindu calendar is known as a lunisolar calendar. The 12 months move according to the moon and the year is 354 days long. However, every third year, 33 days (11 extra days * 3) are added by creating one extra lunar month of 29 days. The remaining four days are adjusted here and there.
The 12 Indian months are: Chaitra, Vaisakha, Jyeshtha, Ashadha, Shravana, Bhadra, Ashvin, Kartik, Agahana, Pausha, Magha, Phalguna. So every three years, one of these months occurs twice in the same year…it’s like having two Marches or two Julys in a year!
Indian months were also divided into two halves, one for the waning moon (Krishna paksh) and one for the waxing moon (Shukla Paksh).
So an example of a date would be: ‘Ekadashi, Shukla Paksh, Kartik mas, Vikram Samvat 2057’. This meant 11th day of the fortnight of waxing moon, the month of Kartik, year 2057 of the Vikram Era.
This Indian calendar was used not only throughout India, but spread to South-East Asia as well, and is still used to calculate religious dates there.
When does time start?
Today, along with the Gregorian calendar, most countries use the year of the birth of Jesus Christ as the zero year, but this was not the case until British rule over India.
Indian kings absolutely loved to declare new zero-dates when they started a new dynasty, to signify the beginning of a new glorious era. This new zero-date would be followed throughout their kingdoms, until they were replaced by a new dynasty and a new calendar was inaugurated with a new zero-date!
Across India, hundreds of such calendars were created over the centuries, including the Gupta Era beginning in 319 AD, and the Harsha Era beginning in 606 AD. This made comparing days and years impossibly confusing for historians studying India!
There are two main calendars in common use in India today, the Vikram Samvat with a zero point of 57 BC and the Shaka Samvat with a zero point of 78 AD. They are used for calculating the dates of all Hindu festivals like Diwali and Holi.
The really odd thing is that both the origins of these zero dates are really murky and unclear! The Vikram Era was founded either by the Shaka king Azes, or a legendary king called Vikramaditya, but we have no historical records of any Vikramaditya in that period. The Shaka Era is speculated to have been founded either by the Kushan king Kanishka, or the king Shalivahan of central India!
It is quite amazing that a billion people follow calendars with random zero dates. Why these two calendars with no real significance should have survived is a mystery. In other world calendars, zero points are extremely important dates for those cultures: the Christian Era begins with the birth of Christ, the ancient Roman calendar with the foundation of Rome, the Islamic calendar marks the migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina, and so on.
(For more fun journeys through India’s history, check out the newly released two-volume set, The History of India for Children Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, published by Hachette India, which is now available online and in bookstores across the country.)