Lend me your years: How the Indian National Calendar came into being

Oh, to time travel! I’d head to midnight of August 15, 1947, to see my beloved nation freed. I’d rewind 65 million years and warn the dinosaurs. I’d zip back to 2009 and tell young Rachel to buy bitcoin.

But being the meta-nerd I am, I’d also head to March 22, 1957, and watch a new calendar take effect in India. We needed one. Of course, everyone followed the 365-day Gregorian version. But with so many religious almanacs and regional date-management systems, it was impossible to set, for instance, a common date for Diwali. Record-keeping in the new nation was a bit of a mess.

A Calendar Reform Committee, an elite team headed by astrophysicist Meghnad Saha, was appointed in 1952. By November 1955, after studying more than 30 local variations, they had submitted a report to the government, outlining a revised, accurate, uniform Indian National Calendar to “usher a new element of unity in India”.

It was to have two uses: to fix the dates of religious observances, and standardise date documents in rural areas. Saha’s report was thorough. He found the Gregorian calendar inconvenient — no way to evenly split the 365 into halves or quarters, no day-date connections, leap years. But local calendars, he said, violated several scientific principles. They miscalculated the length of the year (our planet’s circle around the sun) by .01656 days — which meant that every 1,400 years, the new year came more than 23.2 days earlier.

Worse, unlike with the Gregorian calendar — which had the Pope — there had been no central authority in India to ascribe order.

Help, this time around, came from distinguished international experts. Harold Spencer Jones, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, and Donald Sadler of the UK’s Royal Observatory, offered precise solar and lunar data to help with recalculation. Austrian-American astronomer Otto Neugebauer helped clear up doubts about date-keeping history around the world.

Saha’s team recommended an updated version of the Saka Era calendar, one Indian astronomers have been using since 500 AD. They suggested it be put it into effect on March 21, 1956, which lined up with the first day of Chaitra, 1878. To help with the switch, “the last month of the year, 1877, the month of Phalguna, which has a normal length of 30 days, will have an extra 6 or 7 days,” the report advised.

Saha died of cardiac arrest on his way to a meeting of the Planning Commission at Rashtrapati Bhavan, in 1956. He wasn’t around to see India adopt the new calendar the following year. But it’s why the official public holiday for the Hindu New Year always falls on March 22 (or 23, in a leap year). It’s the template by which national religious holiday dates are set.

The committee also supported a radical notion — a recalibrated, 12-month, perpetual World Calendar, in which half-yearly and quarterly sections had equal days, each quarter began on a Sunday and ended on a Saturday, there was a leap year day and a year-end world holiday. It would be as elegant and easy to follow as a 12-hour clock. Saha even discussed the idea at a United Nations meeting. It never took hold. Why? That’s a time-travel tale for another time.

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