Saturday, January 4, 2014

Which Calendar are You?

First published on NewsYaps

This New Year and the celebration around it reminds me of some rather contrarian graffiti outside my engineering college in Ranchi from many moons ago. It read, in bold, angry crimson Devanagri letters, “Angrezi saal hataao” (or something to that effect, at any rate).
That was all there was: a three-word angry rant. There was no real solution. The protester did not bother telling us what he wanted in place of this Gregorian calendar he so disliked. Did he want to go back to Bengali Calendar that was in place in Jharkhand before the “Angrezi Saal” became popular? The calendar was introduced by Akbar as a tax collection tool and did a wonderful job of helping him siphon of revenue from the rich lands of Greater Bengal to the imperial capital of Agra. To Akbar’s credit the calendar still does a wonderful job of telling Calcuttans exactly when Durga Pujo is to be held, so maybe it wasn’t all that bad. But maybe the megalomania inherent in the calendar—its year 1 is dated from Akbar’s coronation—might have put off our local graffiti artist. He seems a bit of nonconformist, really.
So then do we go back even further into Mughal history to the Hijri or Islamic calendar? It is probably the only purely lunar calendar still in use which gives the whole exercise a wonderful air of surprise since months no longer confirm to seasons. Some years, Ramzan might fall in the winter, making the dawn-to-dusk fast easier and shorter. Some years, during the summer, making thirst a major problem and the wait for sunset never ending. Unfortunately, what is ‘surprise’ to the optimist is ‘inaccuracy’ to the glass-half-empty sort. Due to its nonconformity to the solar calendar and consequently, stuff like harvests and seasons, most places on the globe, even Islamic countries, have traditionally not used it as a civil calendar.
But our search for calendars in a land as diverse as India would be a short one. India has no less than 30 traditional calendars (the most popular one being the Vikram Samvat which is still used widely as a Hindu liturgical calendar in North India). Once upon a time they were used for purposes both religious and secular but in today’s godless times, most of them have been relegated to setting festival dates. This multiplicity of calendars was sought to be remedied after Independence by Nehru using a by now predictable “scientific approach”. But fighting the forces of time and history is not easy and for that the Government of India had to unsheathe its most powerful weapon: the committee. The Calendar Reform Committee appointed by the Government of India in 1952 and was headed by a person no less than Meghnad Saha. All of this resulted in something called the Indian National Calendar which you’ve probably never heard of. Not to worry—neither has anyone else.Science is all very fine but India, after trying out Hindu and Islamic calendars, wanted a Christian calendar not some anodyne “science” calendar. Try as Nehru might, India was going to go for the Gregorian calendar.
The popular perception of the Gregorian calendar as a “Christian” calendar, though, is a bit of a misnomer—the origins of the calendar are more imperial than religious since it is itself a modification of the Julian calendar introduced by Julius Ceasar. Inaccuracies in the Julian calendar though meant that Christian festivals like Easter were veering dangerously off course, a fact that much alarmed the Catholic Church. The Julian calendar was reformed in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII leading to, you guessed it, the Gregorian calendar. While an obvious improvement over the earlier Julian calendar,Protestants were suspicious of this new innovation as a plot to convert them to Catholicism(a variant of this conversion technique has been adopted by companies such as Pirelli and Kingfisher whose calendars have some very staunch devotees). Due to this apprehension it took almost two centuries for the Protestant British to adopt it by which time things had really gotten out of hand with the inaccurate Julian calendar. As a correction it was decided to knock out 11 whole days from the Julian calendar as Britain update itself to the Gregorian one. As a result, in the year 1752, the 2nd September was not followed by the 3rd of the month but by the 14thof September—one of my personal favourites, when it comes to odd facts.
In spite of this minor hiccup, the Gregorian calendar was remarkably accurate, producing an error of only a day in about 3,000 years, with respect to the solar year. Pretty good for the average Joe. And of course, once this had been adopted by the British Empire,it was just a matter of time, some brutal colonisation and Empire before almost the entire world (Ranchi included) had adopted it.
All that didn’t impress our graffiti artist though, for whom this calendar business was strong enough motivation to whip out his can of paint and begin painting. But for the rest of you who don’t mind Pope Gregory’s invention, have a great 2014.

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