There is more to 'Nepali time' than just being an excuse for turning up an hour late. The new Nepali year 2062 on Thursday reminded astrologers and astronomers of the looming crisis in the Bikram Era (BE) calendar which is slipping behind the sun by more than a month.
How did that happen? Calendars are based on the earth's motions: around its own axis, and around the sun in its orbit. But the axis has a slight wobble. In relation to the stars, the earth takes 365 days, six hours, nine minutes and 10 seconds to complete one revolution. This is the sidereal year. With respect to its orbit, the earth takes 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds to complete one tropical year. This difference of 20 minutes and 24 seconds every year is caused by the earth's wobble.
"There is a precession of the equinoxes as time goes by," explains Rishi Shah of the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, "and every 2,000 years we have to bring our calendars forward by a month."
In most South Asian countries, the sidereal year is called the Nirayana and the tropical is called the Sayana. Their difference is called Ayanamsa, which increases about 50.33 arc seconds every year, so every 2,150 years, equinoxes come one month ahead. The BE is based on sidereal year, which needs to be updated by one day every 70 years.
"The Ayanamsa difference is already about 24 days," says Kedar Badu, president of Galileo Astronomical Society in Pokhara, "the difference has accumulated because the calendar hasn't been adjusted in 2,000 years."
That is why Nepali new year on 1 Baisakh, which is supposed to herald the beginning of spring now falls 24 days later.
The Gregorian calendar is constantly updated though it accumulates an error of one day in about 2,500 years. And there are several ideas to get that fixed too. But as most calendars mark religious dates based on seasonal changes, astrologers and astronomers are debating on what should be done to restore the relevance of the BE calendar.
"Moving our calendar forward by a month is the only way we see of setting things right," says Hari Narayan Malla of the Calendar Setting Committee, "it will be difficult to accept at first but people will get used to it."
While the astronomers have done their calculations, it is the astrologers who are starting to get a bit worried about the debate. "This problem first cropped up in India 150 years ago but no one has figured out how to go about it," says astrologer, Mangal Raj Pradhananga.
"All this debate is just propaganda," says Madhab Bhattarai, astrologer and chairman of the Nepal Rajkiya Panchanga Nirnayak Samiti. "How can you guarantee that the change will set things right. Most of South Asia follow the Bikram Era calendar and Hindus share festivals everywhere. If you scrap a month, say around Shiba Ratri, what will you say to all those pilgrims who've come so far? You cannot guarantee time change because time changes everything. Places change, people change, time also changes. We are not against intellectual debate but before you scare the public, it would be best if together the right people sat down to discuss and reached a solution."
Vedic astrology has foreseen the earth's oscillations and concludes that in the cosmic scheme of things it balances itself out, and doesn't see anything to get worked up about. But astronomers, being more precise, see the wobbling accumulates and conclude something needs to be done. Even if the astrologers and astronomers were to agree, the question remains: who in Nepal has the authority to update the calendar? The last time there was some tinkering needs in 1930, Prime Minister Chandra Shumshere Rana did it by edict.
The confusion has helped those who always wanted to dump the unscientific Bikram Calendar and switch once and for all to the Gregorian. On this, astrologers and astronomers seem to be in rare agreement. "Out of question," says Malla, "that would mean resetting our fiscal year, administrative processes and where would our festivals go?" Could the Newari Nepal Sambat then be an option? "They do update their calendar but it would complicate things further because it is specific to only one community," Malla adds.
Proponents of switching to Gregorian cite many advantages for business, tourism industry and the education system. Besides, they say there is no reason why the Dasain Tika date can't just be referred to as 12 October instead of 26 Asoj or Ghode Jatra as 8 April instead of 26 Chait.
Badu and others think switching to Gregorian may be too radical a move for now. "What we need to do is identify the government body that will decide, otherwise correcting the Bikram calendar is a fairly simple procedure."
No royal astrologer
Since Mangal Raj Joshi died in March at age 85 Nepal has been without a royal astrologer.
"There is no royal astrologer right now," palace sources admitted to us, "anyway, it was not a formal title so there is no procedure or anything for the appointment of the next." No one really seems to know the rules of succession for the post of royal astrologer. "It's definitely not hereditary," said Ananda Raj Joshi, an environmentalist and the eldest of Mangal Raj's five sons. "Who will advise the king on appropriate dates for major decisions is for the palace to decide."
But the absence of a royal astrologer has also made it more difficult for a decision on what to do with the solar shift in the Bikram calendar. The Nepal Rajkiya Panchanga Nirnayak Samiti chaired by Madhab Bhattarai oversees and controls the setting of dates and tithis in the calendar. Bhattarai admits calendars with wrong dates for festivals are being sold in the market, but says it is not his committee's fault. "Publishers and distributors should have waited until the approved panchanga was out or they should have been more alert," he told us.