Chandrasekhar Samanta: India’s Eye in the Sky

Chandrasekhar Samanta: India’s Eye in the Sky

As human beings, we have always been curious about the world around us, especially the heavens, whose distant and mysterious allure makes it an even more compelling challenge. Utterly mesmerized by the sun, moon, planets, stars and other astronomical bodies, and their constant movement across the sky, great minds have attempted time and again to crack the celestial code.

Aided by cutting-edge technology, astronomers have since learnt so much about deep-sky objects and even found evidence of black holes but the truth is our ancestors had already figured out much of what was later put to the test with sophisticated scientific instruments. They even created calendars, or almanacs, based on their naked-eye observations and recordings of celestial bodies, which are still in use today!

Pathani Chandrasekhar Samanta was one such extraordinary naked-eye astronomer from India, much like Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and others, whose ground-breaking work was based on naked-eye observations using mathematics and simple apparatus developed by them.

Unfortunately, Samanta is not known outside his home state of Odisha, academic circles and among astronomy enthusiasts. He lived and died in penury even though his work found mention in scientific journals like Nature and Knowledge way back in 1899!

Extraordinary Start

Chandrasekhar Samanta was born on 13th December 1835 in Khandapada, Nayagarh district, Odisha. He was the son of Samanta Syamabandhu Singha, the King of a Princely state in modern-day Odisha. The legend depicted on the walls of the Pathani Samanta Planetarium in Bhubaneswar states that he was born to the royal couple the loss of many children, leaving them yearning for a healthy child.

Hence, soon after his birth, he was given away in adoption to a Muslim fakir to ward off the evil eye, a belief that was strongly prevalent at the time. In remembrance of the fakir and to ward off bad omens, the couple nicknamed their son ‘Pathani’.

Samanta was a bright kid with a keen interest in astronomy and mathematics.

He was home-schooled by his father, who introduced him to the joys of night star-gazing and later by a Brahmin teacher, who gave him a basic education in both Oriya and Sanskrit.

By the age of 15, he had become a self-learner, referring to the books available in the royal library. Samanta was a voracious reader and devoured classical treatises like Lilavati, Bijaganita, Jyotisha, Siddhanta, Vyakarana and Kavya. It was during this time that he pursued mathematics and traditional astronomy, and started matching predictions made by ancient Indian mathematician-astronomers such as Aryabhatta – 1(476 CE), Varahamihira (503 CE), Brahmagupta (598 CE) and Bhaskara – II (1114 CE) and others, with real observations of celestial objects in the night sky.

Although traditional Indian astronomy had veered more toward astrology, focusing more on future predictions based on planetary positions and the preparation of auspicious almanacs for rituals, Samanta focused minutely on the mathematical calculations and observational facts that went into these predictions. When he found discrepancies, he designed his own instruments to measure the phenomena, using everyday materials such as wood and bamboo!

Original manuscript of Siddhanta Darpana, Odisha state museum  

The West Takes Note

By the age of 23, Samanta was already making meticulous observations, noting discrepancies and making corrections. Over the next 11 years, he compiled his observations, research and calculations into a treatise titled Siddhanta Darpana, which took the form of Sanskrit verse written in the Odiya script on palm leaves.

Although his treatise was completed in 1869, it took another 30 years before it was published in Devanagiri script, on paper, thanks to the efforts of Mahesh Chandra Nyayaratna, Principal of Sanskrit College in Calcutta, who introduced him to Prof Joges Chandra Ray of Cuttack College in Cuttack, Odisha. It was Prof Ray who undertook the daunting task of publishing Siddhanta Darpana in the Devanagari script in1899, with financial support from two kings – the King of Athmallik and King of Mayurbhanj.

The treatise had a 56-page English introduction by Prof Ray, who used it to explain Samanta’s scientific contributions. His efforts drew the attention of Western academic journals like Nature (Vol 59, March 1899) and Knowledge (Vol XXII, Jan-Dec, 1899), with high appreciation that catapulted Samanta into a league that included the likes of celebrated Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601) renowned for his accurate astronomical observations. Nature cited, “Prof. Ray compares the author very properly to Tycho. But we should imagine him to be greater than Tycho” and Knowledge acknowledged, “The work is of importance and interest to us, westerners also. It demonstrates the degree of accuracy which was possible in astronomical observation before the invention of the telescope”. Thus, the extraordinary work was saved from being forever consigned to oblivion.

Although by 1835, Western knowledge systems were in place and optical telescopes had been trained at the sky, Samanta was unaware of Western doctrines and advanced observations. He worked in isolation in his rural, hilly abode in Odisha, using ancient Indian treatises as his beacons and constantly fixing discrepancies in them. In short, he believed in verifying the observations of his predecessors.

Path-Breaking Work

Samanta was unaware of the birth of modern astronomy ushered in by the great Galileo, followed by Kepler and Newton. But what he did with the sources and texts he had at hand was unusual and extraordinary – he went through the ancient Indian treatises on astronomy meticulously, like Surya Siddhanta and others, matched their data with his observations and improved their accuracy. Then he wrote his own treatise, Siddhanta Darpana, whose level of accuracy is phenomenal compared to modern observations. The figures in Siddhanta Darpana are closest modern observed values to currently accepted values.

Model of the Solar System

Incredibly, Samanta worked in tandem with Western astronomers in a later era without even knowing it. He attained comparable values without being aware of the development of western astronomy and the great works of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo and many others and the strides it had over the last two centuries ago. He was also completely unaware of the big observatories that were built in India by Rajput ruler Jai Singh (1688 -1743) at Jaipur, Varanasi, Ujjain and other places.

This is clear from an innovative model of the solar system that he developed, where the inner and outer planets revolve around the sun but the earth remains stationary, with both the moon and the sun moving around the earth in different orbits. Thus, his model of the solar system was both heliocentric and geocentric, similar to the model proposed by Tycho Brahe, which had challenged the long-held beliefs of the time. Furthermore, Samanta improvised his calculations by defining a mean longitude line (accounting for the tilt of the earth) and resetting the time scale.

Chandrasekhar Samanta’s model of the Solar System

The innovative planetary model shown above was independently proposed by Chandrasekhar Samanta. It was very similar to the one proposed by the great astronomer, Tycho Brahe (1546 -1601), and the astronomer from the Kerala School, Nilakantha Somayajee (1444 – 1544).

Planetary Motion

The article published by Prof P C Naik and Prof L Satpathy in the Bulletin of the Astronomical Society of India (1998) shows the unbelievably meticulous work undertaken by Samanta, and the last three columns in Tables 2, and 3 reveal the level of accuracy more than three decimal places, he achieved by his own inventiveness. There are many more such tables showing a great degree of accuracy in the article quoted above. He also pointed out that Bhaskara and others had approximated Pi as 22/7, whereas he used values 690/191 and 3927/1250 thus increasing accuracy.

Venus Transit

It is almost unbelievable that Samanta recorded the Transit of Venus (the passage of Venus across the sun as seen from the earth) in 1874, the first-ever observed from the Indian subcontinent. He recorded it in Sanskrit, oblivious to the excitement the phenomena had caused among astronomers in the West, who were looking at the transit through telescopes!

Working With Wood & Bamboo

The treatises Samanta was referring to had only clues to the observational devices used, so he decided to make his own measuring instruments made of locally available bamboo and wood. They used basic geometry and trigonometry to calculate distance, height and time. There are many local tales of Samanta measuring the height at which birds fly, finding the height of trees, persons using the length of shadows, calculating the distance and height of mountains from his fixed location using an instrument he invented called mana yantra. To measure Time, he used his own versions of the sun dial and improvised water clocks. Here are a few sketches of these instruments from the article published by Prof P C Naik and Prof L Satpathy in the Bulletin of the Astronomical Society of India (1998).

Stamp issued in honour of Chandrasekhar Samanta

Awards & Recognition

The Gajapati King of Puri awarded Samanta the title ‘Harichandan Mahapatra’ in 1870, and the famous Jagannath Temple of Puri still follows the calendar prescriptions proposed by him to observe its rituals.

The British government, which ruled India during Samanta’s lifetime, conferred upon him the title of ‘Mahamahopadhyay’ in 1893 and awarded him a pension of Rs 50 per month for his contributions to astronomy after he correctly predicted the time and place of a solar eclipse that was visible only in Britain.

Personal Life & Legacy

But these awards highlighted only his genius but his struggles against ill-health, poverty and social convention too were equally monumental. According to his family history written by his grandson, Raghunath Singh Samanta, in the book Pathani Samanta Jeebani Darpana, Samanta married Sita Devi, daughter of King Anugul, in 1857 in a rather dramatic way after the bride’s family refused the alliance on the couple’s wedding day as Samanta didn’t look princely enough! Apparently, he impressed the bride’s family with his flawless sloka recitation at the wedding venue.

Samanta continued to teach and drew students from far and wide but, all this while, he suffered from chronic health issues and insomnia. He passed away on 11th June 1904, after a bout of fever and infection.

Samanta’s birth state Odisha has kept his legacy relevant by displaying his work in the state museum, naming the planetarium in Bhubaneswar after him; and dedicating educational institutions, scholarships and amateur astronomy clubs to his memory. His work is cited by astronomers and astrophysicists in India and abroad, and he has even been nicknamed ‘Indian Tycho’. Yet the public is largely unaware of this great naked-eye astronomer and the phenomenal scientific contributions he made with a few pieces of bamboo and wood – and the sheer power of his genius. He deserves to be celebrated just like Aryabhatta, Bhaskara and others – probably as the last torch bearer of the Indian traditional astronomy.

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