- In 1905, John Eliot director-general of Indian observatories decided that India’s meridian should be 5 hours 30 minutes east of Greenwich Meridian. Author Sahana makes a case for the Indian Meridian to pass through Ujjain.
In school, we all learn about the Greenwich Meridian and
Greenwich Mean Time. We are also informed assiduously that Greenwich is not to
be pronounced as Greenwich but as Grenich. And thus, we Indians struggle with
another English word that is spelled in one way and pronounced in another.
What many people do not know is that Greenwich in the
United Kingdom became the zero degree longtitude of the world less than 150
years ago. Before that, for thousands of years, the prime meridian of the
ancient world passed through the city of Ujjayani, now called Ujjain (also
known as Avanti in ancient times) in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The
capital of great kings such as Vikramaditya, the grand city was an acclaimed
centre of astronomical study.
The oldest text on astronomy in the world Surya
Siddhanta refers to Avanti as the Prime Meridian. The text also lists Rohtak, Kurukshetra and Lanka among the places lying on the zero degree meridian. Lanka was regarded as the city at the intersection of the Equatorial line and the Prime Meridian. Today’s Sri Lanka is not the one referenced in the ancient texts according to Indian astronomers.
Surya Sidhhanta Chapter 1 -62 mentions Avanti (Ujjain) lying on the zero degree meridian. Pic courtesy author.
Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia followed the Surya Siddhanta in their astronomical calculations and borrowed most of the technical terminology. The zijes or astronomical books in Arabic from the medieval period also used Ujjain under the name Arin as the prime meridian, according to Dr C.K. Raju who analysed E.S. Kennedy’s “Survey of Islamic Astronomical Tables”.
The most important landmark of Ujjain is the Mahakaleshwar Temple
situated on the banks of the River Shipra. The temple contains one of the
sacred lingas representing Bhagwan Shiva known as Jyotirlinga. There are 12
such sacred Jyotirlinga temples all over India but the one in Ujjain is the
only one which faces South-the direction of death.
The form of Shiva housed in the Mahakaleshwar Temple is that of the
Lord of Time. He rules over Time itself and a darshan of his linga at this
temple is said to impart the blessing of not having to face an untimely death.
Though this temple was destroyed by an army of Islam in 1234 and the Jyotirlinga
was thrown in a pond nearby, it was reconstructed by Maratha general Ranoji
Shinde in the 1740. Mahakaleshwar permeates the consciousness of the entire city of Ujjain and people here do not greet each other with the characteristic Namaskar but with “Jai Shri Mahakaal” or “Jai Mahakaal”.
Not far from this temple is another one Kark Rajeshwar Temple. The
Tropic of Cancer is called Karka Rekha
in Sanskrit. This location is known to be intersection of the zero degree
longitude with the tropic of cancer. However, as I discovered later, the point
of intersection has changed over the years.
Ujjain had an ancient observatory where some of the best
mathematical minds came together to study the skies and carry out elaborate
calculations. The mathematical ideas churned out by the brilliant scholars of
Ujjain such as Varahamihira, Bhaskara I, Brahmagupta and Bhaskara II were far
ahead of what European mathematicians grappled with centuries later.
Read Renowned
Mathematicians of India
Let’s consider just two of the professors who headed the observatory in different time periods-Brahmagupta (born 598 CE) and Bhaskara II (born 1114 CE).
Brahmagupta (who hailed from Rajasthan) worked on trigonometric formulae, quadratic equations, area of cyclical quadrilaterals, arithmetic progression and on improving Aryabhata’s sine tables. He explained solar eclipses in terms of shadows cast by the moon and earth. He expounded on the average and real motions of planets, the distance of the sun from celestial bodies, various planetary conjunctions and a plethora of concepts that literally caused a knowledge revolution.
Today, we take zero for granted. But, can you imagine a
time when the world had no idea about the notion of zero or negative numbers?
It was a huge leap of human thinking for Gurus in India to visualize zero.
While Aryabhata had already used zero as a placeholder in his calculations, it is Brahmagupta
of Ujjain who first treated zero as a number in its own right not merely a
placeholder digit. He established the basic mathematical rules for adding zero to a
number, subtracting zero from a number and multiplying zero with a number which
we still use today.
The idea of zero percolated from Ujjain to Baghdad where Brahmagupta’s works translated into Persian played a path breaking role in transforming mathematics and astronomy in the Arab world. Since mathematics and astronomy were inextricably a part of Hindu Dharma, the theories and methods were categorized by the Muslims as Hindu mathematics. When the idea of zero crossed over to Europe, it met with massive resistance. In those years of Christian Crusades, any knowledge that came from Arabs, even if it be mathematics, was treated as false. In fact, zero was banned along with other Indian numerals (which they called Arab numerals) in 1299! But the Dark Ages eventually passed and Europe not only soaked in the knowledge from India that came via Arab lands, but they also found the direct route to India, one of the richest countries of the time.
Bhaskara II or Bhaskaracharya (born in Karnataka) is
another phenomenal polymath who became one of the brighest jewels of Ujjain and
later, via the Arabs, the world itself. His treatise Siddhantasiromani is
a monumental one which is divided into four parts- Lilavati, Bijaganita, Goladhyaya
and Grahaganita-each dealing with important aspects of mathematics such as algebra, spherical trigonometry, permutations and combinations, ideas of differential calculus and astronomy. According to mathematicians J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson, Bhaskaracharya “reached an understanding of the number systems and solving equations, which was not to be reached in Europe for several centuries”. What’s more, he infused mathematical exercises with delightful poetry which enchanted learners so much that Lilavati was a textbook for
centuries. How many mathematicians do you know today who can communicate
theories and formulae through engaging poetry?
In October 2023, Indica, a non-profit focused on Indian Knowledge Systems collaborated with me to conduct a conference titled “Pedagogy and Educational Heritage of India”. We chose Ujjain as the venue in order to highlight the zero meridian of the pre-colonial world, which was also a thriving hub of educators and students intent on discovering the mysteries of the universe. It was a successful conference and many interesting papers were presented on the pedagogical tools used in ancient India for teaching dance, music, medicine, language, logic and mathematics.