A stellar wonder

A stellar wonder

A stellar wonder

Every year, in the Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple in South Bengaluru, thousands of devotees gather on the occasion of Makara Sankranti, the harvest festival, to witness a special event - when the sun's rays for a fleeting few minutes in the evening, pass through the arc between the horns of the sacred bull Nandi's statue, to touch the feet of Lord Shiva in a cave and then bathe him in light before slipping away.

Rare confluence

The temple has been the cynosure of the scientific and history communities for over several decades now. The occurrence of a natural phenomenon - of the sun changing its course - has been harnessed very admirably in a beautiful cave temple surrounded by intriguing huge stone monoliths is the perfect example in India of the confluence of science and religion.

While Kempe Gowda, founder of modern Bengaluru, is largely given credit for building this temple in the form that exists now, most historians  agree that the natural cave that houses the deity is itself thousands of years old. "It is believed that Kempe Gowda rejuvenated and rebuilt the temple," says Suresh Moona, historian and well-known Bengaluru chronicler. A painting by British artist James Hunter dating 200 years ago shows small pockets on the boulders with idols, he points out. The cave was made people-friendly over 400 years ago.

The four imposing monolithic structures in the courtyard - the trishula, damaru, two large discs - the suryapana and chandrapana, and a stone umbrella on a neighbouring hill, while may be of religious significance to Lord Shiva, were erected to study time and planetary movements, Moona reiterates. "I like to call this place the Jantar Mantar of Bengaluru," he says referring to the large astronomical study sites in Delhi and Jaipur built in the 18th Century.

In 2008, P Jayanth Vyasanakere, K Sudeesh and B S Shylaja of the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, Bengaluru, published a paper, 'Astronomical Significance of the Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple in Bangalore'. The paper contends that this is one of the unique temples in the country that records both the solstices. "In times when we didn't have a calendar, it was the duty of certain sections of society to meticulously watch the sun and prepare calendars. Festivals apart, these were important to agriculturists and helped them determine sowing and harvesting cycles," explains Shylaja.

Man-made marvel

There were simple everyday arrangements at home like observing the length of the shadows of a pole to tell the time of day, or of the year. But temples were seats of knowledge and it became the responsibility of the temple to determine these shifts in time and season. The temple entrance is also not oriented to the east, like most temples are, pointing again to the fact that this space was created for a specific purpose. Because it was a revered and honoured astronomical space, it came to be a temple, she contends.

Shylaja and the team have studied the phenomenon in this temple over three years (2005 to 2008) to believe that this occurrence, while largely celebrated on Makara Sankranti, also happens on November 30 or December 1, or Uttarayan, but has been overshadowed and forgotten due to the January celebration. Why then, is the festival celebrated much later? Shylaja says, "You need to understand that there is a gradual shift of the stars in the sky - a change of one degree in 72 years!" There was the added confusion that Makara Sankranti was Uttarayan.

A painting by British artist Thomas Daniell from 1792 shows that the cave did not have any windows. "But the temple was later modified by adding two windows. This arrangement was to fix the winter solstice," Shylaja says. The two large monolithic discs in the courtyard are aligned to record the dakshinayan or summer solstice on June 22.

While Suresh Moona agrees that this is a purely scientific phenomenon, the alignments of the arch, Nandi, windows created to make the sunlight fall precisely on the deity, he says, is a man-made marvel. "What remains an enigma for me, and I have been here continuously for three to four years to study this occurrence on January 13 or 14, is that even when there are clouds, or a slight drizzle, at the precise time of the sunlight beginning to move along the temple's arch, the skies always clear. It makes me wonder what is the role of nature in all this?"

He further adds that in India, often, a religious coating is given to a scientific truth, so that people respect it. "Once they practise it as religion, they also realise its scientific importance," he states the corollary.

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