Astronomy in ancient India

Indian myths and legends around stars, planets and constellations are as old as Indian astronomy, which dates back to the Bronze Age and the Indus Valley Civilization.

The primary focus of this site is not astronomy, but Star Lore, which is folklore based upon the stars and star patterns. We try to create a collection of mythical stories about stars and constellations from all over the world. However, to better understand and interpret the stories, a brief history of the astronomy of different cultures might be helpful.

This is by no means a scientific paper on the history of Indian astronomy, but merely a collection of illustrated highlights of that history, along with some links to what we think are reliable sources on the subject.

A detailed history of Indian astronomy can be found in Chander Mohan's The Story of Astronomy in India.

Click here to discover the world of astronomical Hindu mythology.

This portion of our site is about the history of ancient Chinese astronomy.

Click here to discover the world of Hindu Star Lore.

Bits of History of Indian Astronomy

Burzahom Rock Carving (ca. 4500 BC)

A rock carving in Burzahom in India's Kashmir Valley shows a hunting scene involving humans and animals and two celestial objects.

Joglekar, Vahia and Sule concluded, that the two celestial objects are the moon and Supernova HB9, which would make this the earliest record of a supernova in human history.

Based on the location of the supernova, they also suggest that the hunting scene is a star map with the stag representing the constellation Taurus and the hunters and the dog representing Betelgeuse (α Orionis), Rigel (β Orionis), Mirach (β Andromedae) and Alpherg (η Piscium), which would make it one of the oldest star charts in the world.

Source: Joglekar, Vahia and Sule, The Guardian

Burzahom Rock
Source: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts

The Vedas

The Vedas (meaning "Knowledge") are the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. While mainly religious and philosophical in nature, they are also evidence of profound mathematical and astronomical knowledge. The Vedas were essential in creating a calendar that ensured that the same season always falls in the same months and thus, they laid the foundation to the Hindu Zodiac.

Sources: Wikipedia and Chander Mohan

Vedanga Jyotisha

The Vedanga Jyotisha is one of earliest known Indian texts mainly devoted to astronomy, commonly dated to the 14th century BC. It is the first text that mentions the Nakshatras, the 27 lunar mansions.

Sources: Wikipedia and Chander Mohan, Chapter 3

Atharva-Veda, 1200-1000 BC
Source: Wikipedia

The Nakshatras

The Nakshatras are the lunar mansions in Hindu astrology and Indian Astronomy. A nakshatra is one of 27 sectors along the ecliptic.

A division in 27 segments seems odd. In older tradition, there were 28 mansions, each covering 12° ​51 3⁄7′ of the sky. But the 28 Nakshatra were chosen at a time when every month had exactly 30 days, making the new year shifting forward five 1⁄4 days every year.

When the calendar was adjusted to the a Sidereal year, the system of 27 Nakshatras, each covering 13° 20′ was developed.

Every Nakshatra was associated with a certain group of stars. Wikipedia and Chander Mohan, Chapter 3 provide a complete list of the Nakshatras and the stars associated with them.

Navagraha - The Nine Heavenly Bodies

Also mentioned in the Vedas are the seven heavenly bodies that moved faster than their neighboring stars (the Sun, the Moon and the five known planets). Together with the nodes of moon's orbit (where the moon's orbit crosses the sun's orbit), they were called the Navagraha, The Nine Heavenly Bodies.

Depending on the time period, the names vary slightly. Wikipedia and Chander Mohan provide a complete list of the Navagraha. In addition, Chander Mohan also explains the astrological meaning of each body.

Ascending (or north)
Lunar node
Descending (or south)
Lunar node
Dev Guru



Son of Aditi (the unchangeable)
Peace, Gentleness
Refined, Sensual
Burning coal
Great protector

Dragon's Head

Dragon's Tail

Navagrahas, painting by
Raja Ravi Varma
Source: Wikipedia

Yajnavalkya (ca. 700 BC)

Yajnavalkya was a Hindu Vedic sage, mentioned in the Upanishadsis. Different sources identify his life time as "between the 9th and the 8th century BC" or as "between the 8th and the 7th century BC."

Yajnavalkya is credited with the very first proposal of a heliocentric concept of the universe. He stated that the Earth is spherical and the Sun is at the center of the spheres.

Yajnavalkya is believed to be the author of the Shatapatha Brahmana, in which he states: "The sun strings these worlds - the earth, the planets, the atmosphere - to himself on a thread."

He also did precise measurements of the distances between the Sun and the Earth and the Earth and the Moon.

Sources: Wikipedia and

Source: Sutori

The conquests of Alexander the Great, who crossed the Indus River in 326 BC did not only create one of the largest antique empires, but also fostered an exchange of ideas between scientists and philosophers from all corners of Alexander's vast empire. From this time on, Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Indian astronomy influences each other.

At the same time, the spreading of Buddhism across Asia lead to an exchange of ideas, including astronomy, between India and China.

Chander Mohan writes extensively about the cross-influences of different cultures with Indian astronomy.

Surya Siddhanta (ca. 400 AD)

Surya Siddhanta is a Sanskrit treatise in Indian astronomy in fourteen chapters, describing rules to calculate the motions of various planets and the moon relative to various constellations, and calculates the orbits of various astronomical bodies.

Verse 1.1 of Surya Siddhanta; Wikipedia
Surya Siddhanta also gives the average length of the sidereal year (the length of the Earth's revolution around the Sun) as 365.2563627 days, which is only 1.4 seconds longer than the modern value. This remains the most accurate estimate for the length of the sidereal year anywhere in the world for over a thousand years.

Sources: Wikipedia and Chander Mohan

In the centuries to follow, India had a large number of influential astronomers. Both Wikipedia and Chander Mohan provide an comprehensive list. Here are some of the most famous:

Aryabhata (476 – 550)

Aryabhata was the first of the major mathematician-astronomers from the classical age of Indian astronomy. He is widely considered India's most famous astronomer. The country's first satellite was named after him.

Aryabhata's masterpiece was the Aryabhatiya, an astronomical treatise, dealing with time keeping as well with calculations of the ecliptic and the celestial equator, the rising of zodiacal signs on the horizon and the position of the planets.

Sources: Wikipedia and Chander Mohan, Chapter 7


Varāhamihira (ca. 505 - ca. 587)

Varahamihira's most notable work was an encyclopedia called Brihat Samhita, that covered everything from architecture over cloud formation to perfumes.

In terms of astronomy, his main work was the Pańcasiddhāntikā, a treatise that combined five of his earlier works on astronomy, combining Indian and Greco-Roman knowledge on the movement of stars and planets as well as calculations of the size of the Sun and the Moon and calculations of eclipses.

Sources: Wikipedia and Chander Mohan, Chapter 8

Varāhamihira's Brihajjataka
Source: Wikipedia

Brahmagupta (ca. 598 – ca. 668)

As a mathematician, Brahmagupta is hailed mostly for the introduction of the number zero in computation. As an astronomer, he developed methods for calculations of the motions and places of various planets, their rising and setting, conjunctions, and calculations of the solar and lunar eclipses.

His main work, the Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta was written ca. 628. In it, he first recognizes gravity as a force of attraction, and briefly describes what more than a thousand years later became known as Newton's second law of universal gravitation.

Sources: Wikipedia ,


Bhaskarachārya (1114 – 1185)

Bhaskarachārya is considered India's most influential medieval astronomer. His most important work was the Siddhānta Shiromani. Two of the four chapters of the treatise are devoted to astronomy.

Bhaskarachārya did extensive work on the movement of the planets as well as on measurements of the Earth.

Sources: Wikipedia and Chander Mohan, Chapter 11

Source: Wikidot

Jai Singh II (1688 – 1743)

For 44 years, Jai Singh II was the ruler of the kingdom of Amber. He was the founder of Amber's new capital, Jaipur. Legend has it that in 1719, he was witness a heated debate between astronomers regarded how to make precise astronomical calculations to determine an good dates to start a journey. This observation not only encouraged him to intensively study astronomy and have Greek books on the subject translated into Sanskrit, but also to build five large observatories in Delhi, Mathura, Benares, Ujjain and Jaipur.

Sources: Wikipedia and Chander Mohan, Chapter 13

Jaipur Observatory
Source: Wikipedia

Indian myths and legends around stars, planets and constellations are as old as Indian astronomy.

Click here to continue to the world of Indian astronomical mythology.

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