The Calendar Conundrum: Is it 2018, 1939 Or 2074?

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A Hindu calendar from Rajasthan, for the year 1871 (Image: Public Domain)
Thanks to the multiplicity of calendars, India lives in the past, present and the future, depending on what we choose.

The easiest way to travel through time is to cycle through each of the Indian states. For, each region follows their own versions of solar and lunar calendars.

Thus, in North India, you would find yourself celebrating the New Year between April 13 and 15 each year, on Vaisakhi. The states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh all follow this calendar, call this system Purnimata.

To the West, Gujarat follows the Western Amanta, celebrating the New Year on the second day of Diwali.

Maharashtra follows the Southern Amanta calendar along with Goa, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. It’s a lunisolar calendar, similar to the Chinese one, where months are called from new Moon to new Moon. New years usually fall at the end of March.

Wrapping up the list are the Southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the Eastern and North-Eastern states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam; all of which follow solar calendars. In Kerala, the new year begins on the first day of Spring, usually mid-April. Likewise, Tamil Nadu follows this system, as does Tripura.

Considering that these dates match up to the broader regional groupings in India, it seems like a system that works amidst diversity. But following Indian independence, there was a far more chaotic system in place. To start with, nobody could agree on which year it actually was. As the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in the preface to the Report on the Calendar Reform Committee in 1952:

I am told that we have at present thirty different calendars, differing from each other in various ways, including the methods of time reckoning. These calendars are the natural result of our past political and cultural history and partly represent past political divisions in the country. Now that we have attained independence, it is obviously desirable that there should be a certain uniformity in the calendar for our civic, social and other purposes and that this should be based on a scientific approach to this problem.

The committee was given the task of examining all the existing calendar systems and return with an all-India solution. It’s worth noting that these calendars vary both within religions as well as between them. And so, in the Islamic Calendar, the year is 1439 AH; to the Zoroastrians, it is 1387 AY (or even 3755 AZ according to the Fasli seasonal calendar), to Hindus following the Vikram Samvat system it is 2074 VS; to those following the Saka Samvat it is 1939; and to those counting from the beginning of the Kali Yuga, it is the 5119th year of said Yuga).

In ‘The Argumentative Indian‘, Amartya Sen highlights how the turn of the millennium was, in reality, a multiplicity of dates in India: the year 6001 in the Kaliyuga calendar, 2544 in the Buddha Nirvana calendar, 2057 in the Vikram Samvat calendar, 1922 in the Saka calendar 1407 in the Bengali San calendar and the year 1176 in the Kollam calendar! Of these, the Kali Yuga system lays claim as the most ancient.

Why Saka was chosen brings ancient history back to play. The Vikram Samvat calendar counts from the reign of the legendary king Vikramaditya. Likewise, the Saka calendar counts from the accession of Chastana, the Karddamaa Ksatrapa ruler of Gujarat. The Calendar Committee found that the Saka system was the most prevalent in Hindu astrology, and adapted it to begin from the Saka year 1878 (March 21, 1956). The Hindu calendar makes up for leap days by adding an extra month every few years.

That the government is involved in defining time in India has now become commonplace. In fact, because so many festivals rely on accurate predictions of solar and lunar phenomena, the committee recommended each government (state and centre) to take the advice of Pancanga-makers. These almanack-setters usually rely on traditional texts but they also take note of the government’s Indian Astronomical Ephemeris published since 1958.

India’s rulers have shaken up its calendars in the past. The Mughal emperor Akbar was having trouble syncing his land tax collections based on the lunar Islamic Hijri calendar to the seasonal growth patterns in India. In response, he devised Tarikh-e-Ilahi – blending both Islamic and Bengali calendars. His calendar didn’t survive in the rest of India but is still in use today in Bengal.

In common parlance, India follows the Gregorian system and very few will name the date as anything other than that. Traditional calendars remain in use for agricultural activities, however. The duel system is used by the government, such as in press releases announcing important events:

The Ministry of Defence requests the pleasure of all…. at the Beating Retreat by the Massed Bands of the three Services at Vijay Chowk on Tuesday, the 29th January 2013 (9 Magha 1934) at 5.00 pm

With no shortage of years to choose from, India remains a country that exists in the past, present and future all at once.

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