The Chinese Calendar


Chinese New Year is the main holiday of the year for more than one quarter of the world’s population. Although the People’s Republic of China uses the Gregorian calendar for civil purposes, a special Chinese calendar is used for determining festivals. Various Chinese communities around the world also use this calendar. At right, a large dragon lantern glows at a festival for Chinese New Year at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. Taipei, Taiwan.

The beginnings of the Chinese calendar can be traced back to the 14th century B.C.E. Legend has it that the Emperor Huangdi invented the calendar in 2637 B.C.E.

The Chinese calendar is based on exact astronomical observations of the longitude of the sun and the phases of the moon. This means that principles of modern science have had an impact on the Chinese calendar.


What Does the Chinese Year Look Like?

The Chinese calendar – like the Hebrew – is a combined solar/lunar calendar in that it strives to have its years coincide with the tropical year and its months coincide with the synodic months. It is not surprising that a few similarities exist between the Chinese and the Hebrew calendar:

(+) An ordinary year has 12 months, a leap year has 13 months.

(+) An ordinary year has 353, 354, or 355 days, a leap year has 383, 384, or 385 days.

When determining what a Chinese year looks like, one must make a number of astronomical calculations:

First, determine the dates for the new moons. Here, a new moon is the completely “black” moon (that is, when the moon is in conjunction with the sun), not the first visible crescent used in the Islamic and Hebrew calendars. The date of a new moon is the first day of a new month.

Secondly, determine the dates when the sun’s longitude is a multiple of 30 degrees. (The sun’s longitude is 0 at Vernal Equinox, 90 at Summer Solstice, 180 at Autumnal Equinox, and 270 at Winter Solstice.) These dates are called the Principal Terms and are used to determine the number of each month:

  • Principal Term 1 occurs when the sun’s longitude is 330 degrees.
  • Principal Term 2 occurs when the sun’s longitude is 0 degrees.
  • Principal Term 3 occurs when the sun’s longitude is 30 degrees.
  • Principal Term 11 occurs when the sun’s longitude is 270 degrees.
  • Principal Term 12 occurs when the sun’s longitude is 300 degrees.
    Each month carries the number of the Principal Term that occurs in that month.
    In rare cases, a month may contain two Principal Terms; in this case the months numbers may have to be shifted. Principal Term 11 (Winter Solstice) must always fall in the 11th month.
    All the astronomical calculations are carried out for the meridian 120 degrees east of Greenwich. This roughly corresponds to the east coast of China.
    Some variations in these rules are seen in various Chinese communities.

What Years Are Leap Years?

    Leap years have 13 months. To determine if a year is a leap year, calculate the number of new moons between the 11th month in one year (i.e., the month containing the Winter Solstice) and the 11th month in the following year. If there are 13 new moons from the start of the 11th month in the first year to the start of the 11th month in the second year, a leap month must be inserted.
    In leap years, at least one month does not contain a Principal Term. The first such month is the leap month. It carries the same number as the previous month, with the additional note that it is the leap month.

How Does One Count Years?

    Unlike most other calendars, the Chinese calendar does not count years in an infinite sequence. Instead years have names that are repeated every 60 years.
    (Historically, years used to be counted since the accession of an emperor, but this was abolished after the 1911 revolution.)
    Within each 60-year cycle, each year is assigned name consisting of two components:
    The first component is a Celestial Stemm. These words have no English equivalent:

    1. jia 6. ji
    2. yi 7. geng
    3. bing 8. xin
    4. ding 9. ren
    5. wu 10. gui

    The second component is a Terrestrial Branch. The names of the corresponding animals in the zodiac cycle of 12 animals are given in parentheses.

    1. zi (rat) 7. wu (horse)
    2. chou (ox) 8. wei (sheep)
    3. yin (tiger) 9. shen (monkey)
    4. mao (hare, rabbit) 10. you (rooster)
    5. chen (dragon) 11. xu (dog)
    6. si (snake) 12. hai (pig)

    Each of the two components is used sequentially. Thus, the 1st year of the 60-year cycle becomes jia-zi, the 2nd year is yi-chou, the 3rd year is bing-yin, etc. When we reach the end of a component, we start from the beginning: The 10th year is gui-you, the 11th year is jia-xu (restarting the Celestial Stem), the 12th year is yi-hai, and the 13th year is bing-zi (restarting the Terrestrial Branch). Finally, the 60th year becomes gui-hai.
    This way of naming years within a 60-year cycle goes back approximately 2000 years. A similar naming of days and months has fallen into disuse, but the date name is still listed in calendars.
    It is customary to number the 60-year cycles since 2637 B.C.E., when the calendar was supposedly invented. In that year the first 60-year cycle started.

What Is the Current Year in the Chinese Calendar?

    The current 60-year cycle started on 2 Feb 1984. That date bears the name bing-yin in the 60-day cycle, and the first month of that first year bears the name gui-chou in the 60-month cycle.
    This means that the year wu-yin, the 15th year in the 78th cycle, started on 28 Jan 1998. The 20th year in the 78th cycle, started on 1 Feb 2003.
    The following are dates for Chinese/Lunar New Year’s day:
    Chinese year Zodiac animal Gregorian calendar
    4693 Boar January 31, 1995
    4694 Rat February 19, 1996
    4695 Ox February 7, 1997
    4696 Tiger January 28, 1998
    4697 Hare/Rabbit February 16, 1999
    4698 Dragon February 5, 2000
    4699 Snake January 24, 2001
    4700 Horse February 12, 2002
    4701 Ram/Sheep February 1, 2003
    4702 Monkey January 22, 2004
    4703 Rooster February 9, 2005
    4704 Dog January 29, 2006
    4705 Boar February 18, 2007
    4706 Rat February 7, 2008
    4707 Ox January 26, 2009
    4708 Tiger February 10, 2010
    4709 Hare/Rabbit February 3, 2011
    4710 Dragon January 23, 2012
    4711 Snake February 10, 2013
    4712 Horse January 31, 2014
    4713 Ram/Sheep February 19, 2015
    4714 Monkey February 9, 2016
    4715 Rooster January 28, 2017
    4716 Dog February 16, 2018
    4717 Boar February 5, 2019
    4718 Rat January 25, 2020

What about the year 2033?

    In the early 1990s, Chinese astronomers discovered that there was an error in the Chinese calendar for 2033. The traditional calendar claimed that the leap month would follow the 7th month, while in fact it comes after the 11th month. It is very unusual that the 11th month has a leap month, in fact it hasn’t happened since the calendar reform in 1645 (before 1645, all months had the same probability for having a leap month). But many Chinese astronomers still claim that there will never be a leap month after the 12th and 1st month. In addition, there will be a leap month after the 1st month in 2262 (in fact, it should have happened in 1651, but they got the calculations wrong!) and there will be a leap month after the 12th month in 3358. Since the Chinese calendar is an astronomical calendar, predictions require delicate astronomical calculations, so my computations for 3358 should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

When did the calendar really start?

    If the Chinese calendar started in 2637 B.C.E., why is the current year 60 years too late? (e.g., in 1999, the current year was 4697? and not 4637)?
    The Chinese calendar does not use a continuous year count! They used a 60 year cycle and a system of regional years (starting with each emperor). Before the 1911 revolution, Sun Yat-sen wanted to establish a republican alternative to the imperial reign cycles. According to Chinese tradition, the first year of the Yellow Emperor was 2698 B.C.E., so he introduced a counting system based on this. Under this system, 2000 is year 4698. An alternative system is to start with the first historical record of the 60-day cycle from March 8, 2637 B.C.E. Based on this system, 2000 is year 4637.

What was the Early Chinese calendar?

    Two oracle bones
    Shang Dynasty in China
    (c. 1800 – 1200 BCE)
    Evidence from the Shang oracle bone inscriptions shows that at least by the 14th century BC the Shang Chinese had established the solar year at 365 1/4 days and lunation at 29 1/2 days. In the calendar that the Shang used, the seasons of the year and the phases of the Moon were all supposedly accounted for.

    In China, the calendar was a sacred document, sponsored and promulgated by the reigning monarch. For more than two millennia, a Bureau of Astronomy made astronomical observations, calculated astronomical events such as eclipses, prepared astrological predictions, and maintained the calendar. After all, a successful calendar not only served practical needs, but also confirmed the consonance between Heaven and the imperial court.

    Analysis of surviving astronomical records inscribed on oracle bones reveals a Chinese lunisolar calendar, with intercalation of lunar months, dating back to the Shang dynasty of the fourteenth century B.C.E. Various intercalation schemes were developed for the early calendars, including the nineteen-year and 76-year lunar phase cycles that came to be known in the West as the Metonic cycle and Callipic cycle.
    From the earliest records, the beginning of the year occurred at a New Moon near the winter solstice. The choice of month for beginning the civil year varied with time and place, however. In the late second century B.C.E., a calendar reform established the practice, which continues today, of requiring the winter solstice to occur in month 11. This reform also introduced the intercalation system in which dates of New Moons are compared with the 24 solar terms. However, calculations were based on the mean motions resulting from the cyclic relationships. Inequalities in the Moon’s motions were incorporated as early as the seventh century C.E., but the Sun’s mean longitude was used for calculating the solar terms until 1644.
    Years were counted from a succession of eras established by reigning emperors. Although the accession of an emperor would mark a new era, an emperor might also declare a new era at various times within his reign. The introduction of a new era was an attempt to reestablish a broken connection between Heaven and Earth, as personified by the emperor. The break might be revealed by the death of an emperor, the occurrence of a natural disaster, or the failure of astronomers to predict a celestial event such as an eclipse. In the latter case, a new era might mark the introduction of new astronomical or calendrical models.
    Sexagenary cycles were used to count years, months, days, and fractions of a day using the set of Celestial Stems and Terrestrial Branches. Use of the sixty-day cycle is seen in the earliest astronomical records. By contrast the sixty-year cycle was introduced in the first century C.E. or possibly a century earlier. Although the day count has fallen into disuse in everyday life, it is still tabulated in calendars. The initial year (jia-zi) of the current year cycle began on 1984 February 2, which is the third day (bing-yin) of the day cycle.

Details of early calendars

    One of the two methods that they used to make this calendar was to add an extra month of 29 or 30 days, which they termed the 13th month, to the end of a regular 12-month year. There is also evidence that suggests that the Chinese developed the Metonic cycle (see above Complex cycles) — i.e., 19 years with a total of 235 months–a century ahead of Meton’s first calculation (no later than the Spring and Autumn period, 770-476 BC). During this cycle of 19 years there were seven intercalations of months. The other method, which was abandoned soon after the Shang started to adopt it, was to insert an extra month between any two months of a regular year. Possibly, a lack of astronomical and arithmetical knowledge allowed them to do this.

    By the 3rd century BC, the first method of intercalation was gradually falling into disfavour, while the establishment of the meteorological cycle, the erh-shih-ssu chieh-ch’i (Pinyin ershisi jieqi), during this period officially revised the second method. This meteorological cycle contained 24 points, each beginning one of the periods named consecutively the Spring Begins, the Rain Water, the Excited Insects, the Vernal Equinox, the Clear and Bright, the Grain Rains, the Summer Begins, the Grain Fills, the Grain in Ear, the Summer Solstice, the Slight Heat, the Great Heat, the Autumn Begins, the Limit of Heat, the White Dew, the Autumn Equinox, the Cold Dew, the Hoar Frost Descends, the Winter Begins, the Little Snow, the Heavy Snow, the Winter Solstice, the Little Cold, and the Severe Cold. The establishment of this cycle required a fair amount of astronomical understanding of the Earth as a celestial body, and without elaborate equipment it is impossible to collect the necessary information. Modern scholars acknowledge the superiority of pre-Sung Chinese astronomy (at least until about the 13th century AD) over that of other, contemporary nations.

    The 24 points within the meteorological cycle coincide with points 15º apart on the ecliptic (the plane of the Earth’s yearly journey around the Sun or, if it is thought that the Sun turns around the Earth, the apparent journey of the Sun against the stars). It takes about 15.2 days for the Sun to travel from one of these points to another (because the ecliptic is a complete circle of 360º), and the Sun needs 365 1/4 days to finish its journey in this cycle. Supposedly, each of the 12 months of the year contains two points, but, because a lunar month has only 29 1/2 days and the two points share about 30.4 days, there is always the chance that a lunar month will fail to contain both points, though the distance between any two given points is only 15º. If such an occasion occurs, the intercalation of an extra month takes place. For instance, one may find a year with two “Julys” or with two “Augusts” in the Chinese calendar. In fact, the exact length of the month in the Chinese calendar is either 30 days or 29 days–a phenomenon which reflects its lunar origin. Also, the meteorological cycle means essentially a solar year. The Chinese thus consider their calendar as yin-yang li, or a “lunar-solar calendar.”

When were foreign calendars introduced?

    Although the yin-yang li has been continuously employed by the Chinese, foreign calendars were introduced to the Chinese, the Hindu calendar, for instance, during the T’ang (Tang) dynasty (618-907), and were once used concurrently with the native calendar. This situation also held true for the Muslim calendar, which was introduced during the Yüan dynasty (1206-1368). The Gregorian calendar was taken to China by Jesuit missionaries in 1582, the very year that it was first used by Europeans. Not until 1912, after the general public adopted the Gregorian calendar, did the yin-yang li lose its primary importance.

    Western (pre-Copernican) astronomical theories were introduced to China by Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century. Gradually, more modern Western concepts became known. Following the revolution of 1911, the traditional practice of counting years from the accession of an emperor was abolished.

Published in: on December 6, 2008 at 5:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Mayan Calendar


Among their other accomplishments, the ancient Mayas invented a calendar of remarkable accuracy and complexity. At right is the ancient Mayan Pyramid Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. The Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá, constructed circa 1050 was built during the late Mayan period, when Toltecs from Tula became politically powerful. The pyramid was used as a calendar: four stairways, each with 91 steps and a platform at the top, making a total of 365, equivalent to the number of days in a calendar year. The Maya calendar was adopted by the other Mesoamerican nations, such as the Aztecs and the Toltec, which adopted the mechanics of the calendar unaltered but changed the names of the days of the week and the months.

The Maya calendar uses three different dating systems in parallel, the Long Count, the Tzolkin (divine calendar), and the Haab (civil calendar). Of these, only the Haab has a direct relationship to the length of the year.

A typical Mayan date looks like this:, 3 Cimi 4 Zotz. is the Long Count date.
3 Cimi is the Tzolkin date.
4 Zotz is the Haab date.



What is the Long Count?

    The Long Count is really a mixed base-20/base-18 representation of a number, representing the number of days since the start of the Mayan era. It is thus akin to the Julian Day Number.

    The basic unit is the kin (day), which is the last component of the Long Count. Going from right to left the remaining components are:

    uinal (1 uinal = 20 kin = 20 days)
    tun (1 tun = 18 uinal = 360 days = approx. 1 year)
    katun (1 katun = 20 tun = 7,200 days = approx. 20 years)
    baktun (1 baktun = 20 katun = 144,000 days = approx. 394 years)

    The kin, tun, and katun are numbered from 0 to 19.
    The uinal are numbered from 0 to 17.
    The baktun are numbered from 1 to 13.

    Although they are not part of the Long Count, the Mayas had names for larger time spans. The following names are sometimes quoted, although they are not ancient Maya terms: 1 pictun = 20 baktun = 2,880,000 days = approx. 7885 years
    1 calabtun = 20 pictun = 57,600,000 days = approx. 158,000 years
    1 kinchiltun = 20 calabtun = 1,152,000,000 days = approx. 3 million years
    1 alautun = 20 kinchiltun = 23,040,000,000 days = approx. 63 million years

    The alautun is probably the longest named period in any calendar.

When did the Long Count Start?

    Logically, the first date in the Long Count should be, but as the baktun (the first component) are numbered from 1 to 13 rather than 0 to 12, this first date is actually written

    The authorities disagree on what corresponds to in our calendar. I have come across three possible equivalences: = 8 Sep 3114 BC (Julian) = 13 Aug 3114 BC (Gregorian) = 6 Sep 3114 BC (Julian) = 11 Aug 3114 BC (Gregorian) = 11 Nov 3374 BC (Julian) = 15 Oct 3374 BC (Gregorian)

    Assuming one of the first two equivalences, the Long Count will again reach on 21 or 23 December AD 2012 – a not too distant future.

    The date may have been the Mayas’ idea of the date of the creation of the world.

What is the Tzolkin?

    • a numbered week of 13 days, in which the days were numbered from 1 to 13
    • a named week of 20 days, in which the names of the days were:
  • The Tzolkin date is a combination of two “week” lengths.

    While our calendar uses a single week of seven days, the Mayan calendar used two different lengths of week:

    0. Ahau 1. Imix 2. Ik 3. Akbal 4. Kan
    5. Chicchan 6. Cimi 7. Manik 8. Lamat 9. Muluc
    10. Oc 11. Chuen 12. Eb 13. Ben 14. Ix
    15. Men 16. Cib 17. Caban 18. Etznab 19. Caunac

    The diagram at right shows the day symbols, in the same order as the table above.

    As the named week is 20 days and the smallest Long Count digit is 20 days, there is synchrony between the two; if, for example, the last digit of today’s Long Count is 0, today must be Ahau; if it is 6, it must be Cimi. Since the numbered and the named week were both “weeks,” each of their name/number change daily; therefore, the day after 3 Cimi is not 4 Cimi, but 4 Manik, and the day after that, 5 Lamat. The next time Cimi rolls around, 20 days later, it will be 10 Cimi instead of 3 Cimi. The next 3 Cimi will not occur until 260 (or 13 x 20) days have passed. This 260-day cycle also had good-luck or bad-luck associations connected with each day, and for this reason, it became known as the “divinatory year.”

    The “years” of the Tzolkin calendar are not counted.

When did the Tzolkin Start?

    Long Count corresponds to 4 Ahau. The authorities agree on this.

What is the Haab?

    The Haab was the civil calendar of the Mayas. It consisted of 18 “months” of 20 days each, followed by 5 extra days, known as Uayeb. This gives a year length of 365 days.

    The names of the month were:

    1. Pop 7. Yaxkin 13. Mac
    2. Uo 8. Mol 14. Kankin
    3. Zip 9. Chen 15. Muan
    4. Zotz 10. Yax 16. Pax
    5. Tzec 11. Zac 17. Kayab
    6. Xul 12. Ceh 18. Cumku

    In contrast to the Tzolkin dates, the Haab month names changed every 20 days instead of daily; so the day after 4 Zotz would be 5 Zotz, followed by 6 Zotz … up to 19 Zotz, which is followed by 0 Tzec.

    The days of the month were numbered from 0 to 19. This use of a 0th day of the month in a civil calendar is unique to the Maya system; it is believed that the Mayas discovered the number zero, and the uses to which it could be put, centuries before it was discovered in Europe or Asia.

    The Uayeb days acquired a very derogatory reputation for bad luck; known as “days without names” or “days without souls,” and were observed as days of prayer and mourning. Fires were extinguished and the population refrained from eating hot food. Anyone born on those days was “doomed to a miserable life.”

    The years of the Haab calendar are not counted.

    The length of the Tzolkin year was 260 days and the length of the Haab year was 365 days. The smallest number that can be divided evenly by 260 and 365 is 18,980, or 365×52; this was known as the Calendar Round. If a day is, for example, “4 Ahau 8 Cumku,” the next day falling on “4 Ahau 8 Cumku” would be 18,980 days or about 52 years later. Among the Aztec, the end of a Calendar Round was a time of public panic as it was thought the world might be coming to an end. When the Pleaides crossed the horizon on 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, they knew the world had been granted another 52-year extension.

When did the Haab Start?

    Long Count corresponds to 8 Cumku. The authorities agree on this.

Did the Mayas Think a Year Was 365 Days?

    Although there were only 365 days in the Haab year, the Mayas were aware that a year is slightly longer than 365 days, and in fact, many of the month-names are associated with the seasons; Yaxkin, for example, means “new or strong sun” and, at the beginning of the Long Count, 1 Yaxkin was the day after the winter solstice, when the sun starts to shine for a longer period of time and higher in the sky. When the Long Count was put into motion, it was started at, and 0 Yaxkin corresponded with Midwinter Day, as it did at back in 3114 B.C.E. The available evidence indicates that the Mayas estimated that a 365-day year precessed through all the seasons twice in or 1,101,600 days.

    We can therefore derive a value for the Mayan estimate of the year by dividing 1,101,600 by 365, subtracting 2, and taking that number and dividing 1,101,600 by the result, which gives us an answer of 365.242036 days, which is slightly more accurate than the 365.2425 days of the Gregorian calendar.

    (This apparent accuracy could, however, be a simple coincidence. The Mayas estimated that a 365-day year precessed through all the seasons twice in days. These numbers are only accurate to 2-3 digits. Suppose the days had corresponded to 2.001 cycles rather than 2 cycles of the 365-day year, would the Mayas have noticed?)

    In ancient times, the Mayans had a tradition of a 360-day year. But by the 4th century B.C.E. they took a different approach than either Europeans or Asians. They maintained three different calendars at the same time. In one of them, they divided a 365-day year into eighteen 20-day months followed by a five-day period that was part of no month. The five-day period was considered to be unlucky.

Published in: on December 6, 2008 at 5:12 pm  Comments (3)  


“In a hundred ages of the gods, I could not tell thee of the glories of the Himalaya”

.. Thus does tradition call down to us from the Puranas. The Himalaya, is a spectacle of awesome dimensions… ranges upon ranges, tiers of rock, sharp sky piercing peaks and canyons, deep beyond measure…….how did this come about, whence rose these citadels of ice…how did this three thousand kilometer long mountain range come into existence?, for the Himalaya is not only the most impressive of all the mountain chains, but also the youngest.

You have to stretch your imagination a bit to comprehend the cataclysmic events that led to the formation of the Himalayan ranges.

According to the most accepted geological theories, India once belonged to an Island continent called Gondwanaland and was separated from the Eurasian continent by the primordial Tethyan ocean. One billion years ago, the Aravallis, whose eroded remnants are visible around Delhi, formed a chain higher than the Himalayas today. Over millions of years these mountains suffered the forces of erosion and their sediments were deposited in the Tethyan ocean. Then 140 million years ago, India began it’s northward movement, on a collision course with the Eurasian continent.

The point where the two continents were joined is known, appropriately, as the Indus- Yarlung Suture zone, marked by the courses of these two greatest rivers of the Kailash. After 60 million years, the Indian and Asian plates became closely welded along this suture zone. The northward movement of India continued but at a slower rate – 2-3 centimeters per year.

And what birth pangs…. as a result of the collision itself, and the related contraction of the Tethyan ocean, all the rocks of this area, from the mountains of then northern India to the oceanic crust, and the deep sea sediments of the Jurassic and Cretaceous ages, joined in the formation of the Himalayas.

This then is the result of those ancient events ….. each layer tells the story of the play of millions of years of brute force by nature.

The Himalayas as we see them today went through some distinct epochs of uplift. First came the Trans. Himalaya. South of this is the high Himalayan region, where the range reaches it’s highest points. Here we find old crystalline rock, the oldest core material in the entire Himalayas, almost 2 billion years old, the bottom layers of the compacted Tethyan sediments. This is known as the main central thrust.

As the Himalayas rose the forces of erosion kept pace, leading to the formation of a contiguous lower range of hills known as the Shivaliks. Made of erosion material from the still rising Himalayas, their sediments reflect the history of the up thrust of the emergent Himalayas. Numerous fossil finds allow the Shivaliks to be dated with accuracy and provide evidence of the comparative youth of the Himalayas.

In the second phase of upheaval, further uplift of the central axis took place. It was now that the great peaks of the Garhwal himalaya..Nanda devi etc achieved their present eminences. In this period, intrusions of young granites, known as leucogranites because of their whitish colour, took place in the highest peaks.. such as the Bhagirathi sisters and Shivling.

The last up thrust affected not only the Himalayas, Transhimalaya and the Karakorum, but also the whole of the Tibetan region. With an area of 2.5 million square kilometers, this region is the highest land mass on earth and in the last 1 million years it has risen by nearly 5,000 meters, an average of 4-5 millimeters per year.

The uplift continues even today at a measurable 10 meters every hundred years. Mount Everest has itself risen 8.2 meters in the last 100 years.

Very little is known about the start, duration and extent of the Ice ages in the Himalayas. Geologists have however determined that the second last was the most severe. The period after this major ice age saw a marked retreat of the glaciers and this was also the period that most Himalayan lakes came into being, amidst the ice polished rock landscape. The Pangong and the Chandratal are classic examples of such glacial remnants.

Large lakes were also formed as rising rivers were blocked by the emergent ranges. As the rising Pir panjal blocked the Jhelum it turned, what we know as The Vale of Kashmir, into a lake. This primeaval lake, called the Karewa, drained, and from it’s sediments, pieces of primitive tools have been recovered – our only evidence of a pre ice- age culture in the Himalayas.

All the major rivers of the Himalayas have their source in the holy Kailash region. The Indus to the north, the Yarlung -Brahmaputra in the east, the Sutluj in the west and the Ganga, Karnali streams to the south and southwest. This amazing situation, making Mt. Kailash the literal lynchpin of the Himalaya, is the result of a 30 million year old upthrust of the Kailash range at a time when the Himalayas were in the slow, initial phase of their formation.

Two of these great rivers, the Indus and the Yarlung-Brahmaputra, were forced to flow along the lines of the suture zone in an east west direction, only penetrating the range at it’s eastern and western extremities.

To further confound matters, this penetration takes place at points of highest uplift, Nanga Parbat in the west and Namche Barwa in the east. The cutting action of the other rivers kept pace with the rising Himalaya and they come right through the range at some of the highest points.

In the East, the Yarlung Tsangpo parallels the Himalaya till it comes to the great axial bend at Namche Barwa. Then, cutting one of the deepest gorges on earth, three times as deep as the Grand canyon, it enters the plains of Assam.

The sources of all major Himalayan rivers lie, therefore, on the north side of the great range and besides the Kailash group, include most larger Himalayan rivers.

These rivers are the principal architects of the Himalayan landscape and each river system has created it’s own unique geomorphology. The Indus and it’s tributaries like the Zanskar and the Suru in the transhimalaya. It’s major Himalayan tributaries which are river systems in their own right … the Chenab, Ravi, Beas and the Sutlej. Further east the Garwhal himalaya is the domain of the Ganga and it’s feeder streams while the Teesta drains the Sikkimese himalaya. Beyond, in Arunachal is the true lower catchement of the great Brahmaputra river system.

The gradual rise of the Himalaya took place in a series of long, curvilinear, parallel folds, and in this stupendous upthrust of the earth’s crust, was created a mountain range that contains all the worlds mountains over 7,000 meters in height, and constitutes the line of demarcation between two of the world’s great faunal realms – the Oriental to the south and the Palearctic to the north. Here we find compressed into a few tens of kilometers, the most abrupt environmental changes in the terrestrial world.

Geographically the range has been traditionally divided into :-

  • The Punjab Himalaya……. consisting of the catchement basins of the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutluj.
  • The Garhwal Himalaya …… consisting of the catchement basins of the the Yamuna and the Ganga.
  • The Kumaon Himalaya
  • The Nepal Himalaya
  • Sikkim ….. the basin of the teesta
  • The Eastern Himalaya…. the Brahmaputra and it’s left bank tributaries.

Broadly they are classified into western, central and eastern Himalaya.

The Western Himalaya, from Himachal Pradesh onwards, has a much greater depth or width, than the Eastern Himalaya. A transverse section drawn from the plains of Punjab, through Kashmir, onto the Karakorums is three times longer than anywhere in the Eastern Himalaya.

The Eastern Himalaya is also climatically very different. High rainfall and gentler conditions make the eastern Himalaya a recognised haven for biodiversity.

Although we tend to talk of the Himalaya as a monolith, nevertheless the fact remains that in their 3000 kilometer length, they present endless variation in terms of climate, geomorphology, flora and fauna. From the tropical jungles of Arunachal to the cold desert of the Nubra.. ..primulas and rare orchids to the equally rare edelweiss… frozen waterfalls and verdant forest ……bare rock and glacial wastes …the Himalaya have it all…..

Published in: on June 29, 2008 at 5:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

The River Ganga (Ganges)

The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her
    people, round which are intertwined her memories, her hopes
    and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her
    defeats. She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture
    and civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever
    the same Ganga.
	- Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India, born
	  in Allahabad on the Ganges. 


he Gangotri Glacier, a vast expanse of ice five miles by fifteen, at the foothills of the Himalayas (14000 ft) in North Uttar Pradesh, is the source of Bhagirathi, which joins with Alaknanda (origins nearby) to form Ganga at the craggy canyon-carved town of Devprayag. Interestingly, the sources of Indus and the Brahmaputra are also geographically fairly close; the former goes through Himachal Pradesh and fans out through Punjab and Sind (Pakistan) into the Arabian Sea. The latter courses for most of its tremendous length under various names through Tibet/China, never far from the Nepal or Indian borders, and then takes a sharp turn near the northeastern tip of India, gathers momentum through Assam before joining the major stream of the Ganga near Dacca in Bangladesh to become the mighty Padma, river of joy and sorrow for much of Bangladesh. From Devprayag to the Bay of Bengal and the vast Sunderbans delta, the Ganga flows some 1550 miles, passing (and giving life to) some of the most populous cities of India, including Kanpur (2 million), Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna, and Calcutta (14 million). Dacca, the capital of Bangladesh is on a tributary of the Brahmaputra, just before it joins the Ganga to form Padma. A large number of tributaries join and flow from the Ganges to drain the Northern part of India and Bangladesh.

The Yamuna, which originates less than a hundred miles east of the Bhagirathi, flows parallel to the Ganga and a little to the south for most of its course before merging with the Ganga at the holy city of Allahabad, also known as Triveni Sangam (literally, Three-way Junction, the third river being the mythical Saraswati which is also supposed to be an underground river). New Delhi, capital of India, and Agra, site of the Taj Mahal, are two of the major cities on the Yamuna.

The largest tributary to the Ganga is the Ghaghara, which meets it before Patna, in Bihar, bearing much of the Himalayan glacier melt from Northern Nepal. The Gandak, which comes from near Katmandu, is another big Himalayan tributary. Other important rivers that merge with the Ganga are the Son, which originates in the hills of Madhya Pradesh, the Gomti which flows past Lucknow, and the Chambal made notorious by the ravines in its valley which are noted for lawlessness and banditry, including the recent Phoolan Devi, and earlier bandits who held sway over large territories (to the extent of having their own currency).

The delta of the Ganga, or rather, that of the Hooghly and the Padma, is a vast ragged swamp forest (42,000 sq km) called the Sunderbans, home of the Royal Bengal Tiger , who still kill about 30 villagers each year. The silt-carrying waters of the Ganga stains the Bay of Bengal a muddier hue for more than 500 km into the ocean.

Dams on the Ganga

There are two major dams on the Ganga. One at Haridwar diverts much of the Himalayan snowmelt into the Upper Ganges Canal, built by the British in 1854 to irrigate the surrounding land. This caused severe deterioration to the wateflow in the Ganga, and is a major cause for the decay of Ganga as an inland waterway.

The other dam is a serious hydroelectric affair at Farakka, close to the point where the main flow of the river enters Bangladesh, and the tributary Hooghly (also known as Bhagirathi) continues in West Bengal past Calcutta. This barrage, which feeds the Hooghly branch of the river by a 26 mile long feeder canal, and its water flow management has been a long-lingering source of dispute with Bangladesh, which fortunately is likely to be resolved based on discussions held with the new Hasina government in Bangladesh in 1996 when I.K. Gujral was the Foreign Minister in India, Failure to resolve this has caused harm to both sides of the border for nearly two decades now. Bangladesh feels that the lack of flow in the summer months causes sedimentation and makes Bangladesh more prone to flood damages. At the same time, proposals for linking the Brahmaputra to the Ganges to improve the water flow in the Ganges is hanging fire. Also, the water management problem may actually involve a number of other riparian countries such as Nepal (where there has been tremendous deforestation, leading to greater silt content). (Click here to read about causes of floods in Bangladesh [long].)

It is likely that Ganga carried more water around the time of the Roman Empire, when Patna was the major port city of Pataliputra. Even in the eighteenth century the ships of the <!– East India Company would come to call at the port city of Tehri, on the Bhagirathi, one of the main source river of Ganga.

Another dam is proposed to be built on the upper reaches of a tributary of the Ganga, Mahakali, This Indo-Nepal project, the Pancheswar dam, proposes to be the highest dam in the world and will be built with US collaboration.

The upper and lower Ganga canal, which is actually the backbone of a network of canals, runs from Haridwar to Allahabad, but maintenance has not been very good and my personal experience is that it probably trickles out into a small river a little beyond Kanpur.


The major polluting industries on the Ganga are the leather industries, especially near Kanpur, which use large amounts of Chromium and other chemicals, and much of it finds its way into the meager flow of the Ganga. Unfortunately, this is a boom time for leather processing in India, which many view as a form of eco-environmental dumping on the third world, and with the lax and lubricable implementation systems of the U.P. Government, it does not seem likely that this will go down. The world bank report 1992, which focussed on the environmental issues, mentions the dissolved-oxygen and riverborne decomposing material at two points on the Ganga.

However, industry is not the only source of pollution. Sheer volume of waste – estimated at nearly 1 billion litres per day – of mostly untreated raw sewage – is a significant factor. Also, inadequate cremation procedures contributes to a large number of partially burnt or unburnt corpses floating down the Ganga, not to mention livestock corpses, which I have personally counted at about one every two hours at the Ganga in Bithoor, a holy site where Sita was supposed to have lived for a period during the Vanaprastha, and site of much of the Indian savagery during the Civil War of 1857.

The Ganga Action Plan has been set up under the Indian Government bureaucracy, and is attempting to build a number of waste treatment facilities, under Dutch and British support, and to collaborate with a number of voluntary organizations. Surprisingly, the Hindu political parties in India are not very active in the efforts to clean up the Ganga, and it is not very high in the general religious agenda. If you are looking to donate money to some organization, there may be a number of deserving groups I can find out about (send mail to the address below).


The Ganga has an exalted position in the Hindu ethos. It is repeatedly invoked in the Vedas, the Puranas, and the two Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Ganga is a goddess, Ganga devi, one of two daughters of Meru (the Himalayas), the other being Uma, consort of Shiva. In her youth, Indra had asked for Ganga to be given to heaven to soothe the Gods with its cool waters. The story of its descent to earth appears in slightly different forms in Ramayana (Bala Kanda: Vishwamitra narrates it to the child Rama), Mahabharata (Aranya Parba: Agastya narrates it to Rama), and in the Puranas. These myths are variously dated between 2000 to 400 BC (you may be interested in this over-detailed dateline for Rama’s life). The general outline of the story is:

The king Sagara had two wives. By a favour of the lord Shiva, one wife bore him sixty thousand sons, all of whom were to die simultaneously, and the other bore him one son, Asamanjas, who would continue the dynasty. The sixty thousand sons grew to be great warriors, while the mighty Asamanjas caused so much misery to the populace that his father the king had to expel his own son, though a grandson, Ansuman, was left behind. King Sagara once performed the horse ceremony, in which a horse is allowed to roam at will, and is followed by warriors. Stopping the horse is a challenge to war; not stopping it is a compact of obeisance. In this instance, the sixty thousand sons were following the horse, but surprisingly, the horse was lost. After much recrimination, they dug up the entire earth and the underworld, the oceans, searching for the horse. Eventually it was found in a deep cavern, loitering close to where the sage Kapila sat in radiant meditation. The sons gathered the horse but they disturbed the great Kapila (Vasudeva), who was very annoyed, and instantly burnt them to ash with his fiery gaze.

Sagara heard of this fate through Narada, the heavenly wanderer, and sent the grandson Ansuman to undo the harm. Ansuman descended to the underworld and met Kapila, who was much pleased with the youth’s bearing and conversation. He granted that the soulse of the sons of Sagara may be released by the waters of Ganga, then resident in heaven. Despite much austerity and prayer, neither Sagara, nor Ansuman after him, nor his son Dilipa, could get Ganga to appear on earth. Finally it was Dilipa’s son Bhagiratha, who after severe austerities, propitiated the Goddess, and she agreed to come down to earth. However, the impact of her fall would be so severe, that it could be borne by none less than Shiva himself. Therefore Bhagiratha went into meditation again and obtained Shiva’s consent after many more austerities. Finally, the river came down and fell into Shiva’s matted hair, and thence to earth. This is the presumed site of the present-day temple at Gangotri. Bhagiratha led the way on horse back and the river followed. In this manner they reached the spot where lay the ashes of the six thousand sons. They were thus liberated, and an ocean formed from the waters there. This is the Sagar Island of today, where the Ganges flows into the Bay of Bengal (“Sagara’ is also Sanskrit for ocean).

Many other tales are associated with the Ganga and points on it. Hari (Lord Vishnu) himself bathed in its waters at Haridwar, which is so holy that sins as great as the murder of Brahmins may be washed away by bathing here. Hindus to this day use the water of the Ganga to cleanse any place or object for ritual purposes. Bathing in the Ganga is still the lifelong ambition of many of India’s believing masses, and they will congregate on its banks for the tremendously overcrowded Sangam, Sagar Mela or Kumbh Mela which are held on auspicious dates every few years.

The Ganges has many names associated with its many roles in Sanskrit mythology. Bhagiratha himelf is the source of the name Bhagirathi (of Bhagiratha), which is its initial stream, but is also another name for the Hooghly. At one point, Bhagiratha went too close to the sage Jahnu’s meditation site, and the disturbed hermit immediately gulped up all the waters. Eventually, after more persuasion from Bhagiratha, the sage yielded the waters, but Ganges retained the name “Jahnavi”. Another explanation for the same name is based on the word for knee in Sanskrit, Janu (akin to genus in latin), + the case form for “born of” yield Jahnavi; this is from a version of the story in which the saint released it through a slit at the knee.

Water from the Ganga has the recursive property that any water mixed with even the minutest quantity of Ganga water becomes Ganga water, and inherits its healing and other holy properties. Also, despite its many impurities, Ganga water does not rot or stink if stored for several days (This is true, I think, though it may have alternate explanations).

Published in: on June 28, 2008 at 4:40 am  Comments (3)  


Sigiriya rock is the hardened magma plug from an extinct and long-eroded volcano. It stands high above the surrounding plain, visible for miles in all directions. The rock rests on a steep mound that rises abruptly from the flat plain surrounding it. The rock itself rises 370m and is sheer on all sides, in many places overhanging the base. It is elliptical in plan and has a flat top that slopes gradually along the long axis of the ellipse.[6]

Sigiriya consists of an ancient castle built by King Kasyapa during the 5th century AD. The Sigiriya site has the remains of an upper palace sited on the flat top of the rock, a mid-level terrace that includes the Lion Gate and the mirror wall with its frescoes, the lower palace that clings to the slopes below the rock, and the moats, walls and gardens that extend for some hundreds of metres out from the base of the rock.

The site is both a palace and fortress. Sufficient remains to provide the visitor with a stunning insight into the ingenuity and creativity of its builders.

The upper palace on the top of the rock includes cisterns cut into the rock that still retain water. The moats and walls that surround the lower palace are still exquisitely beautiful.

Site plan

Sigiriya is considered as one of the most important sites of urban planning of the first millennium, the site plan is considered very elaborate and imaginative. The planning had combined concepts of symmetry and asymmetry to intentionally interlock the geometrical plan and the natural form of the surroundings. The west side of the rock lies a park for the royals which is symmetrically planned, the park contains water retaining structures which includeds sophisticated sub/surface hydraulic systems of which some are working even today. The south contains a man made reservoir, these were extensively used from previous capital of the dry zone of Sri Lanka. Five gates were placed at entrances. The more elaborate western gate is thought to be reserved for the royals.

The Gardens

The landscape of the Sigiriya city is considered to one of the most important aspects of the site, the gardens are one of the oldest landscaped gardens of the world. Gardens take three distinct but linked forms they are Water, Cave and boulder gardens. The water gardens are the more sophisticated in design and can be seen in the western precinct. The water gardens contained pools of various depths with streams flowing over slabs of marble. Underground hydraulic systems provide water into the fountains which even operate today. Other water gardens found combines pavilions with water courses which were used to cool the pavilions. Boulder gardens had a different design concept to the water gardens, the gardens included pathways, pavilions etc.


John Still in 1907 had observed that; “The whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery… the largest picture in the world perhaps”.

The paintings would have covered most of the western face of the rock, covering an area 140 meters long and 40 meters high. There are references in the graffiti to 500 ladies in these paintings. However, many more are lost forever, having been wiped out when the Palace once more became a Monastery so that they would not disturb meditation.

Classified as in the Anuradhapura period but the painting style technique used to paint is considered unique. The line and application style of the paintings differ from the Anuradhapura paintings. The lines are painted in a form which enhances the sense of volumeness of figures. The paint has been applied in sweeping action strokes using more pressure on one side giving the effect of a deeper colour tone towards the edge. Other paintings of the Anuradhapura period contains similar approaches to painting but they do not have the sketchy nature of the sigiriya lines as the painting of the Anuradhapura period has a distinct line which was the artists boundary which does not resemble that of the Sigiriya style.

Published in: on June 24, 2008 at 5:54 pm  Leave a Comment