The Hermit of St Helena

Fernão Lopes – A Soldier Of Misfortune

Every now and then you come across a tidbit of information which when researched unearths a fascinating story. This was one such and relates to a person who sailed to the Indies during the period when the early Portuguese were striving to make their presence felt on the West Coast of India. The tale that follows narrates the travails of a person of nobility who left the shores of Lisbon, leaving behind his wife and child there, to seek his fortunes in Malabar and Goa. His hair raising adventures ending in a horrible story of suffering, forced him to flee those very shores, back to Lisbon. Did he reach home and unite with his family? His travails in Goa, Bijapur and the island of St Helana form a real life story never to be repeated again.

This story as you will imagine, is set in Portugal’s Golden Age, when Manuel I embarked on an ambitious period of expansion and pushed it into the fore of Europe. If you recall, the first of those navy captains leading an armada to the eastern seas was Vasco Da Gama who came and went in 1498, and repeated it once again, but made a nuisance of himself for the inhabitants of Malabar. In between his two voyages, a hot tempered Cabral came, but he too failed to establish a foothold in Malabar, though managing to do so in Cochin. Almeida was the next to attempt the conquest of Malabar.  The Portuguese attempts to subdue the Zamorin continued and the next admiral to arrive was the notorious Alfonso Albuquerque, who in an initial foray, nearly lost his life in Calicut and was injured.

Alfonso who had previously served in North Africa, gaining military experience in fierce campaigns against Muslim powers and Ottoman Turks, had by now developed extreme hatred for the Muslims and continued to hold them in contempt arriving in Malabar in 1503, and later in 1506 as the Goan Viceroy.  His early days were spent dealing with the intrigues of Almeida who did not hand over the position and there was a good reason for it.  Almeida was trying to exact revenge for the death of his son who had been killed in a sea encounter. In order to avoid any forceful meddling with authority, Almeida had Albuquerque jailed. Eventually, Almeida defeated a combined Muslim force off Diu in February 1509, and in the following November, with the arrival of a fleet from Portugal, he finally turned his office over to Albuquerque.

The years, until Alfonso had sorted out succession issues with Almeida, were as you saw, a little turbulent, but in 1509, he took over the Governor’s position and after giving up on his dreams to subdue the Zamorin, succeeded in establishing a stronghold in Goa around May 1510. He planned to use Goa as a naval base to control the Muslim domination of the Arabian Sea, divert the spice trade to Goa, and use the base to monopolize the trade in Persian horses. He entrenched his base further by allowing the marriage of his soldiers to local women, in order to provide Goa its own loyal population. That done, he moved off to capture and plunder Malacca, which became an immensely profitable port for the Portuguese. It was in this intermission period that our story reared its head and the protagonist came to the fore.

Goa 1920
As you can see, a lot had happened in these 13 years following the arrival of Gama and I had recounted those tales over a number of articles, introducing terrible, jolly, interesting and pitiable characters along the way. Some of those were heartwarming characters, like the the Senhora Da Panjim (recently narrated at the tail end of the Hindi movie ‘Dear Zindagi’).

This is not Albuquerque’s story, so let me hasten and introduce our hero to you. His name was Fernao Lopes, and he was some sort of a fidalgo (Portuguese Nobleman) who set out in the 8th Armada of 1506 led by Tristão da Cunha, to maim and plunder Malabar. Born around 1480, it is not clear if Lopes was actually a fidalgo or an escudeiro, a squire. Perhaps he belonged to a rich family of Jewish origin who contributed generously to the king’s voyages to the Indies. What is important to note is that Fernao though not a fidalgo in the strict sense was a converted Jew (Rowlands) and a ‘New Christian’ who left Lisbon for India, during a period when both Jews and New Christians were being persecuted. However he was in the kings employ and was relatively safe. All this will become relevant later.

Afonso Albuquerque, the one to be called the Caesar of the East, also Da Cunha’s cousin, accompanied them, sailing under da Cunha’s command, but carrying secret orders to relive Almeida in Cochin, as the Viceroy. Thus crossed the paths of these two, Lopes and Albuquerque –for the first time. There is some suspicion that they did not quite hit it off and that Lopes developed a deep distaste for Albuquerque. The next time their paths crossed would prove to be fateful for Lopes, as you will soon see.

Banastarim fort - Goa
Albuquerque became the Viceroy, captured Goa and reigned supreme for a while and sailed on to take care of matters in Cochin and Malacca. Lopes was part of the Portuguese forces left to protect the reinforced fort of Benastarim (one of the key entry points into Goa) previously held by the Bijapur king. The Fort of São Tiago of Banastarim, also known as Fort St. James Banastarim or Benastarim Castle, was situated on the right bank of Cumbarjua Cana in old Goa. In 1511, knowing that Albuquerque was out of Goa, the Sultan of Bijapur, sent an army against Goa, under the command of Fulad Khan whom the Portuguese called Pulatecao. Fulad Khan managed to take Banastarim but made little progress in Goa's recapture. Rasul Khan, a general in Adil Shah’s employ, was then sent to reconquer Goa in 1512. When he and his forces reached Goa, Fulad Khan who was already there, refused to acknowledge his supremacy. With the help of the Portuguese, Rasul Khan managed to drive Fulad Khan out of Banastarim and, once he had taken possession of the fort, demanded the surrender of Goa being held by the Portuguese. He then besieged Goa and cut off all its food supplies.

It was around this period of time that Fernao Lopes and some 70 of his fellow soldiers, perhaps out of hunger, sheer misery, lack of supplies and any money (they had not been paid for months) as well as the utter disgust on the conduct his employers, turned coat and joined the Bijapur king’s army. Interestingly it is also to be noted that by this time, Adil Khan had another high level Portuguese renegade by name Joao Machado in his ranks, who was playing a double spy’s role. An enterprising character, he had earlier been deported from Lisbon for stealing a horse and fornicating with an abbots niece. This fella accompanied Cabral in the 1500 voyage to Malabar and was already an old hand in scheming intrigues.

Historians mention that Lopes and his fellow renegade soldiers had converted to Islam, perhaps due to necessity, or maybe due to marriage. As we saw earlier, Albequerque encouraged marriage with the women left in Goa, and many of these women had once been followers of Islam. One author implies that Lopes was perhaps influenced by his once Muslim wife to convert to Islam. Anyway these folks were now prepared to fight the Portuguese. News of this desertion reached Albuquerque, but he had to wait until late in 1512 till the monsoons had abated, before he could launch a counter attack to take Benastarim. The arrival of a new fleet from Portugal carrying a large number of soldiers, boosted Albuquerque’s resolve.

In the fierce attack, Rasul Khan held firm to a stalemate, and in negotiations which followed was forced to handover the Portuguese renegades. Machado who once fought for Khan had in the meantime swapped sides yet again and had gone over to Albuquerque, and owing to this was pardoned by the Viceroy and appointed as the port officer or shahbandar of Goa. In the meantime Rasul khan fled the fort. Other renegades who renounced Islam and went back accompanying Machado were pardoned too and were paid off their arrears. Fernao Lopes and his friend Pero Annes who refused to go back or renounce Islam, found no mercy from Albuquerque.

After a merciless and barbaric torture stretching over three days, Lopes’s ears were cut off, his nose was sliced away, his right foot was amputated, so also his left thumb. His beard and hair were plucked out or were scraped off with clam shells and mud and excreta applied over their bodies. After this horrible maiming, they were finally let go and left to die in the streets of Goa. Lopes miraculously survived the ordeal after suffering for a year but had no other go than to become a beggar, roaming the streets of Goa for the next two years begging for food (It is not clear if his wife helped him out).

In December 1515, Albuquerque died a miserable death for all his sins, of acute dysentery at sea, just off Goa and was succeeded by a man he hated intensely, Lope Soarez. His own remark explained Albuquerque’s polarized life, ‘bad relations with his men for the king and bad relations with the king for his men’, a situation which got him in the end.

Now that his chief nemesis and persecutor was gone, Fernao Lopes finally decided to forget Goa and sail back home. Lopes boarded a ship returning to Lisbon in 1516.
St Helena

Let us take a little interlude now and talk about an island. Out in the blue yonder, somewhere between the American continent and Africa is a speck of an island, just 42 square miles in size. It is so remote that nobody had ever heard of it until 1502. Most historical accounts mention that the island was discovered on 21st (or 3rd) May 1502 by João da Nova sailing in the relatively small 3rd armada, and that he named it "Santa Helena" after Helena of Constantinople (Other historians have concluded that it was actually Estevao Da Gama, the cousin of Vasco, who discovered it around July 30th 1503). The Portuguese found the island uninhabited, but possessed with an abundance of trees and fresh water. Since its founding in 1502, most armadas stopped at the island to collect water, but kept its location secret and off the maps.

The ship returning to Brazil in 1516 and carrying our man Fernao Lopes, stopped at St Helena. Portugal was not far away, a few more months of sailing. But for some reason or the other, Lopes lost heart. Perhaps it was his severe disfigurement, perhaps it was shame of being a convicted traitor, perhaps it was a feeling that he would never be accepted by his wife and son, and it appears that Lopes slunk away from the ship and into the forest in Helena. The ship’s captain, quite fond of the poor soul, had a search carried out, but of no avail. Leaving behind a good amount of food, the ship sailed away to leave Lopes marooned on the island. The captain nailed a note to a tree that the island now had a Portuguese inhabitant and that he should not be harmed.

There Lopes remained in complete solitude, for close to 14 years, living in a cave he dug out painfully, all by himself. His existence on the island was known to other Portuguese ships that passed by and many left behind some supplies for the hapless man, but nobody was able to sight him in the years that followed. Once a rooster was found by Lopes swimming ashore and it is said that the two became fast friends, his only living companion for a number of years. Other accounts state that when Lopes disembarked off the ship on his own accord he was accompanied by one or more slaves, Javanese or Indian, though serious studies discount these men Fridays and talk only about Lopes’s solitary life in self-exile.

Quoting Clifford - And in place of the fellowship of his kind, which he thus renounced, of the comradeship of men who had used him cruelly, he sought solace in silent converse with Nature, the great mother. The inviolate forest towered above him; the untrodden beaches lay at his feet; no voices spoke to him save the cries of seafowl, the songs of birds hidden in the foliage, the busy notes of countless jungle-insects, and the sob of the sea breaking the sob of the sea breaking monotonously upon the deserted shores. …... A sorry wreck of humanity this, an object for the commiseration of any who had seen him, but happy at last because he had won freedom and a kind of sovereignty… The beasts, more kindly than men, would do him no dishonor; more docile than his fellows, they would accept him for their king.

How he lived and survived provided fodder for many fiction pieces and novels which became popular, one potential among them the 1719 work ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe (Defoe never confirmed this, though Lopes’s story was known in those days).

So much about the Hermit of Helena, though his story is not over, as yet.

Somewhere around 1530, as the story of Lopes was gaining popularity in Lisbon, another castaway appeared on the island, a Negro boy who as you can imagine, eventually came into contact with Lopes. They did not quite hit it off and when the next ship docked at Helena for water, this boy ran up and told the ship’s captain about the disfigured hermit. There are many inconsistencies to the tale actually since a few mention that the slave was always with Lopes, while others say that he had fled a ship which docked much later and come across Lopes the hermit, but not hitting it off with the old bloke. Anyway Lopes was captured by the Portuguese and some books mentions a meeting between the chief Justice Teixeira who was on the ship and Lopes following which it appears a promise was made that Lopes would be left alone. More food, livestock and seeds were left behind for the hermit of Helena. With that event started the formal seeding and colonization of the fertile lands of Helena by this lone colonizer. Lopes planted fig, mulberry, apple and mango trees, so also palm, pomegranate, orange and lemons, and peach on the Island’s soil, very soon making it a veritable isle of Eden. Many goats were also reared by him.

Ships which passed by thereafter were able to replenish their holds with fresh fruit and the fame of the one handed hermit Lopes, spread further in Portugal.  Many a sailor tried to convince him to return home, but that was something he had no plans of doing. Around 1521, a change of guard had occurred in Lisbon, when Manuel died and a young Joao III took over the throne. Joao and Catherine his wife expressed a desire to see Lopes and he was thus ordered to sail to Lisbon. The disheartened Lopes had no choice, he sailed off in one of the returning ships to meet his king and queen (There is also another theory that he went to Lisbon to discuss and seek protection, due to a fear of a potential French occupation of Helena). As the story goes, he did meet them in the middle of the night, and interestingly, he next proceed to Rome via Naples to meet the pope Clement VI

Now that was an oddity. Ordering a papal meeting for a common man, a convicted soul? It was apparently needed for a complete absolution of Lopes’s sins. Lopes' crimes were apostasy, having abandoned the true faith, and having taken up arms against it. These crimes were categorized as special, and absolution for them could only be granted by the pope himself or a cardinal acting for him. Perhaps Lopes requested this absolution and Joao arranged it. Anyway, the Pope and he met and the former heard his confession. He also issued a letter asking for Lopes to be sent back to Helena and not be troubled henceforth. Experts explain that such a letter was required because Joao had forbidden New Christians from leaving Portugal.

Did Lopes meet his wife and son? We do not know, but he returned to St Helena towards the end of 1531.We are now getting to the final part of his story. His first, last and only letter surfaces in history books as he writes to King Joao in 1538 asking for a slave, to help build shelters on the island. He also requests that the slave’s payment be taken care of by the state.  Lopes continued his life on the island for eight more years, and we hear of his passing in 1546, aged 66. With that he had lived in total solitude on the island of St Helena for all of 30 years. I do not think anybody else has ever experienced so much of isolation nor has I believe, such an event occurred in this earth, ever again.

We do not know what happened to his rooster, but both these creatures figure in a stamp released by St Helena as you saw above. Whether he was buried there or not is also not known, but Lopes passed into the obscurity thereafter and was buried instead in the writings of Correa, Barros and a few others the works (listed under references) of whom are perused only by curious history buffs.

Sadly with no controls and oversight, the goats which were on the island multiplied and ravaged the cultivated trees and plants in the intervening years. The glorious fruit trees of Helena perished and it was a wild and uninhabited place once again, with no master in control.

Sir Francis Drake probably rediscovered the island on the final leg of his circumnavigation of the world (1577–1580). Further visits by other English explorers followed and, once Saint Helena’s location was more widely known, English ships of war began to lie in wait in the area to attack Portuguese India carracks on their way home. Thomas Cavendish visited the island in 1588. In 1645, the Dutch colonized it, and by 1651 the EIC had moved in and after further skirmishes with the Dutch in 1672-3 was repossessed by the British. A few other dignitaries like James Lancaster and Johan Nieuhoff graced its shores, and in 1677 Edmund Halley more famous for the Halley’s Comet visited the island to observe the skies, but was unhappy with too many clouds blocking his view. In the later 17th Century it was made a requirement for all ships trading with Madagascar to deliver one slave to St. Helena, and during the 18th century as the East India Company expanded around the Indian Ocean more slaves began to be brought in from Malaysia and India.

Many others passed the island by, for it was the only watering hole for sailors scouring the oceans. A small homestead had sprung up in Jamestown, but a narration of the comprehensive history of St Helena is not our objective and so we will not get into all that. We will go over a little nugget though. In 1805, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington sailing by, stayed at the Briar’s pavilion, while returning from India. Perhaps he was struck by the islands isolation. During that visit he nearly lost his life while boating back to his ship, as the boat capsized and the drowning Wellesley who did not know swimming was saved by a common sailor. Wellesley went on to become a great man, defeating the French general Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo, 10 years later. Napoleon was thence exiled to Helena.

Of Napoleon’s lonely stay in Helena, much has been written and will not be recounted here, but for a recap. The French emperor was sent to Helena and not America as he had hoped, the British did not want a repeat of Elba from where he had escaped during a previous exile. 300 years after the arrival of Lopes, Napoleon arrived at St Helena in 1815 and stayed initially at the very same Briar building which had housed his nemesis Wellesley. He then moved to another home, the Longwood house and died there 6 years later, suffering from stomach cancer, was initially buried at the Sane Valley, until the French were given permission to have his body moved to Les Invalides in Paris, nineteen years after his death. But one thing is for sure, he was never as lonely as Fernao Lopes.

In the early and mid-19th century, the British Royal Navy patrolled the African coast to intercept slave ships bound for America. More than 26,000 slaves on board slaver ships were taken to St. Helena from 1840 to 1872. Between 5,000 and 8,000 died after their ordeal on the seas and were buried on the island. Several hundred liberated Africans eventually integrated into St Helena's population while others were sent to Sierra Leone.

You may not realize it, St Helena is still a remote place, accessible only through a long naval voyage. The first airplane landed there on 15 September 2015, and today is open only to private flights. Helena is more than 1,950 kilometers (1,210 mi) west of the Cunene River, which marks the border between Namibia and Angola and 4,000 kilometers (2,500 mi) east of Rio de Janeiro. If you ever feel bored or immensely lonely, just think of Lopes, Helena and 30 years. That one thought will chastise you.

It is still one of the remotest locations of our world, but if and when you go there, and if you had read this little tale in its entirety, you will over a dinner while sitting and admiring the oceans waves, be able to talk at length about Fernao Lopes, the hermit who single-handedly colonized St Helena, and regale your dinner companion.

Fernão Lopes - a South Atlantic 'Robinson Crusoe' - Beau W. Rowlands
The earliest exile of St Helena – Hugh Clifford, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine - VOL. CLXXIII. Jan-Jun 1903, pp 621-633
The Other Exile - AR Azzam
Castaway - Yvette Christiansë

A soldier of fortune is a mercenary, a person who works as a soldier for any country or group that will pay them. Thesaurus also defines him to be a person who independently seeks pleasure, wealth, etc., through adventurous exploits. I cast Lopes as a soldier of misfortune, for the following reason. King Manuel had formally notified Albuquerque that deserters were to be pardoned and paid off, but in the case of Lopes, Albuquerque did not follow his king’s order. He wanted to set a severe example by mutilating the young man and destroying his life, but perhaps there was some underlying personal animosity between them since Lopes had not helped Albuquerque in Africa during the 1506 incoming voyage and had instead sailed off directly to Cochin. Funnily, the unfortunate Lopes succeeded not only in meeting and getting recognized by the Portuguese royals by dint of his own efforts, but also in getting a papal audience, all of which would, if Albuquerque were alive, have given him a cerebral palsy.

Fernao Lopes is the archaic Portuguese spelling of this bloke’s name. His name is also recorded as Fernando Lopez, but this person is not the same as Fernao Lopes de Castaneda, who was a writer.

Several decades ago, during the early 90’s or the Microsoft DOS age, unknown to many today, we had a fascinating screensaver about a marooned man. The screensaver depicts a man, Johnny Castaway, stranded on a very small island with a single palm tree. The screensaver follows a story which is slowly revealed through time. Johnny fishes, builds sand castles, and jogs on a regular basis, other events take place, such as a mermaid or Lilliputian pirates coming to the island, or a seagull swooping down to steal his shorts while he is bathing. Johnny repeatedly comes close to being rescued, but ultimately remains on the island as a result of various unfortunate accidents. I doubt if Fernao Lopes spent his days in that fashion, but the screen saver (today available as a video on youtube) will give you some perspective, on a castaway’s life.

Pics – Benastarim fort. Cunha armada, Goa map – Wikimedia, Helena painting - Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy

Eclipses, Scriptures and the Mathematicians

Eclipses have been a part of Hindu thought and have been discussed since very early times. While the cause had been initially ascribed to mythology and recorded so in scriptures, the negative effects of eclipses were paramount and continued to be understood as detrimental to physical wellbeing. Somewhere along came the famous mathematician Aryabhata, in agreement that eclipses were important for the purposes of astrology, refined the methods of their calculations while at the same time remarking that the cause was not of mythical proportions, but one of optic origins, namely the casting of a shadow. It is quite an interesting topic to delve in, that too now, when everybody is eagerly looking forward to the next total solar eclipse in these American states on the 21st August.

To understand the importance of the stars, their positions and impact on humans, you have to go well back in time, and the understanding could be seen in even in the earliest of scriptures, namely the Rigveda. Today we can foretell weather, make forecasts, all with the help of computational methods, sensors and instruments spread around the world. But in the times long forgotten, it depended on a few people who understood the mathematics of the heavens and space beyond earth. There were always a few who gazed upwards, observed the effects of various celestial bodies on earthly beings, their own movements and codified a celestial map. Those were the early astronomers and as required in their line of work, were good mathematicians, sans calculators and computers.

The positions of stars were important and many rules were established on when to and when not to do sacrifices, rituals and poojas to propitiate a particular god. One needed to be exact with the time of the day and most of all, ensure that eclipses were taken into account, carefully. As it became complicated and a method was agreed between various mathematicians of the period, Indian astronomy, developed into the first of the sciences.

Mathematical inputs were a must due to the fact that the calendars in most regions were lunar and required an adjustment. Hindu texts used the lunar cycle for setting months and days, but used a solar cycle to figure out the whole year. This of occurs meant a mismatch between some 354 lunar days compared to 365 solar days in a year. A number of systems were developed to provide a correct almanac which was important not only for rituals, but also for cultivation, seeding and the forecast of weather patterns such as the monsoon. Interestingly, as we discussed earlier, the Malayalam Kollavarsham, the Tamil, the Bengali, the Oriya, Tripura and Assamese calendars are examples of solar calendars in India and match the Gregorian. Others had lunar or Luni solar calendars.

The Sun and the Moon as you will agree were the most visible heavenly objects, so their interaction with earth was observed keenly. Eclipses as you can imagine, rose to the fore being remarkable. As the educated upper castes and classes formulated stories to explain these in a simpler fashion for the lay person, the mathematicians ventured to understand the science and the optics behind it. The balance was precarious, and science did not refute any mythology in those days, but the records left behind by some of those great astronomers and mathematicians such as Aryabhata make it clear that their work was well grounded in reality.

Albrecht Weber (The History of Indian Literature) explains it succinctly though touching on a Greek connection. Whether the Hindus discovered the planets independently or whether the knowledge came to them from without cannot be determined, but the systematic peculiarity of the nomenclature points in the meantime to the former view. While he implies a Greek connection due to the naming of the celestial bodies, it must also be noted that some from a number of other cultures such as Chinese, Egyptians, Babylonian and Assyrians have been recording eclipses as early as 2500BC. Later on the Greeks even built a sophisticated geared machine to provide planetary and eclipse information named the Antikythera mechanism.

Let us take a look and how the understanding developed in India. As mentioned before, one can find mentions even in the earliest scripture, the Rigveda. As you would know already, any eclipse is considered to be an omen, usually bad. We also noted that it was apparent even in very early times that there were connections between the earth and the heavens, as well as its celestial bodies. Things were in synchronism most of the time, and on an inopportune day things went wrong, the sky went dark on a bright day or the moon refused to come out on a dark evening. This disturbed the public and many sought answers. Vague myths were propagated by the clergy and the powerful and sometimes wrathful rulers insisted that his resident astrologer/astronomer come up with predictions for the future considering such events. Thus were created some of the greatest people of Indian mathematics. They monitored the movements of the sun, moon and stars, kept track of various usual and unusual celestial events and used these results to refine calendars and almanacs.

One of the most important problems of ancient astronomy was the accurate prediction of eclipses. In India, as in many other countries, the occasion of an eclipse had great religious significance, and rites and sacrifices were performed. It was a matter of considerable prestige for an astronomer to demonstrate his skills by predicting an eclipse accurately. Just imagine how it would seem as he stands and imperviously in an August audience, and declares…the sky will go dark in the next few 15 nimisha and it happens, the sky goes dark in the middle of a bright day, like magic.

To start with how did the clergy, and the scriptures explain the eclipse, the most visible of these celestial misadventures to the layman? While Swarbhanu was the entity in Rig Veda devoring the sun, Rahu appeared in the Atharava Veda for the first time. This is where a new being called Rahu enters the scene and is described in great detail in the Bhagavatha Purana. I will not retell the fable, but I will requote the translated account provided by Raj Kumar Parashari.

A sizable portion of the 35th chapter of the Bhagvata Purana is devoted to narrating a fable as to why Rahu and Ketu are responsible for all the solar and lunar eclipses. Initially, at some stage, the gods and the demons were engaged in a great war over a very long period. Lord Vishnu persuaded both the gods and demons for a temporary peace so that the ocean in its entirety could be churned and both devas and the asuras could benefit from what the sea had to offer. The gods under the leadership of Indra grabbed the tail of the king of snakes, Vasuki, who was used as a rope for churning the ocean, while the demons under the leadership of Vali held the mouth of Vasuki. The great mountain Mandara acted as the churner. As a result of this churning, the first to come out was the terrible poison, halahala. It was voluntarily sucked in by the Lord Siva, but he held it in his throat, the reason why Siva is also known as Nilakantha. Then out came Surabhi, Kaustubha, Parijata, Laksmi, the Moon, Varuni (the goddess of wine). And finally emerged Dhanvantari, the originator of medicine, with a pot of amritam, the nectar. The demons ran away with the pot. Lord Vishnu acting in the interest of the gods transformed himself into Mohini, a beautiful woman. Dazzled by her beauty, the demons offered the pot to Mohini and asked her to distribute the nectar amongst themselves as she was found to be an appropriate person. Of course, she gave all the nectar to the gods. One of the demons, Rahu, saw through the trick and sat in the line in disguise, where the nectar was being distributed. But before he could swallow the divine nectar, the Sun and the Moon detected his masquerade and reported it to Lord Visnu, who then chopped off Rahu's head with his sudarsan chakra. Because Rahu had already drunk the nectar, he remained alive in spite of his being reduced to a trunkless body. Since then Rahu has not forgiven the Sun and the Moon. And this is the reason why, as has been depicted in the style of Pauranic description, every once in a while Rahu gobbles up the Sun or the Moon and we witness the solar and the lunar eclipses. Of course, being trunkless he cannot hold either the Sun or the Moon for long, and they come out safely after a while. With time the headless trunk of the demon came to be known as Ketu, and the earlier version of Ketu gracefully turned into what is known as Dhumketu.

It is also believed that when Swarbhanu's head was cut, its blood dropped on the earth and from that garlic and onion plants emerged, thus explaining why those veggies are not quite popular with some sects.

Rahu takes the place of the erstwhile Swarbhanu (could it not be explained off as the Moon, though it is not an ogre?) an asuara. Swarbhanu in Rigveda is a deity greater than sun, who was destroyed by Indra was born the son of Simhika, daughter of Hiranyakashipu. Since then, Rahu had become acceptable as the eighth but invisible and rogue planet, and in the astrological formulations as one of the navagrahas (nine planets) and is paired with Ketu. The time of day considered to be under the influence of Rahu is called Rahu kalam and is considered inauspicious.

Sometime in the third century A.D., the era of Siddhanta was ushered in and the 5th century Surya Siddhanta of Varahamihira gives detailed methods for making ecliptic calculations. It was around this time that Rahu and Ketu were astronomically defined to be the ascending and the descending nodes of the lunar orbit, intersecting the plane of the Earth's orbit. As is explained therein, the astronomical significance of Rahu and Ketu was reduced to mere imaginary points of intersection between the lunar orbit and the plane of the ecliptic. Technically, the point where the moon’s north node cuts the earth’s axis in the zodiac and thus makes a shadow on the zodiac is called Rahu and the South node of the moon is called Ketu.

Remember now that Rahu in astrology and mythology, is not just something that comes up during eclipses, but every day. In India, it is considered inauspicious to begin any undertaking during this "Rahukaalam" and I have seen this practiced across religions, at least in Kerala. My mother was greatly influenced by astrology and would not allow us children to do anything during the rahukaalam period, the 8th of day time every day. Every day this Rahukaalam lasts for around 90 minutes, but the duration differs according to the length of the time between sunrise to sunset. One can use the mnemonic ‘Mother Saw Father Wearing the Turban Suddenly’ or ‘Edward Bought Home A Good Ford Car’ to find the timing simply, if so interested.

In summary, Saturn, Rahu and Ketu are typically sinister and have to be taken care of properly. Their influence on humans is the worst whereas Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Earth, Mars and the Sun exert favorable influences. There are many do’s and don’t’s during eclipse periods, and the hours preceding and following it. One should take a bath before and after an eclipse and so on. Many rituals have to be followed and some should not be carried out. So much for the myths.

But whatever happened to Ketu? After the head of Svarbhanu, was cut off, his head and body joined with a snake to form 'Ketu', representing the body without a head, a shadow being usually loosely associated with comets and meteors. In summary, before 6th century, Rahu and Ketu were not planets. Rahu is a demon and Ketu a comet or a meteor. It was in the 5th century that things changed, with the advent of Aryabhata. Astro-mythology changed after Aryabhata (born 476 CE) whose great work namely the ‘Aryabhatiyam’ propounded the mathematical theory of eclipses. His work defined eclipses as non-mythic events and as they could be mathematically predicted, the two lunar nodes were eventually designated as grahas. But it went a little further though with the entry of the 10th graha, namely Gulikan, an interesting subject by itself.

I will cover the development of mathematics and its detailed connections to eclipse determination some other day, but I will mentions the basics here for completeness. Aryabhata of course was the first person to come up with a relatively precise method, in India. In 499 AD, Aryabhata explained that the eclipses occur because either the moon comes between the sun and the earth or the moon goes into the shadow of the earth. He worked out geometrical arguments and based on the relative sizes of objects, he gave a relatively precise formulation for the calculation of eclipses. What made things somewhat easy was that methods to trace the lines of movements of the Sun and the moon were known and combining all these in a precise method provided a realistic prediction system for eclipses.

Finally I will mention about some studies done on the effect of an eclipse on earth and its beings. It had been observed from ancient times that animals were the first to be directly affected. Whether it was due to humidity and temperature changes or magnetic gravitational effects is not quite clear, but most animals and birds reacted strongly before any eclipse. We can see from the papers presented that studies revealed a reduction of ozone levels, the cooling of the ozone layer and a resultant increase of eclipse induced gravity waves upwards and downwards. pH levels decreased in water reservoirs (as much as 20%) and oceans. The timing of all this fell in line with Vedic recommendations which stated that the ill effects were for four praharas (an eighth of a day) before the eclipse and three praharas after. More details on exactly how gamma rays from space effect water pH can be studied in the referenced paper. This was obviously the period when water based animals also exhibited abnormal behavior and dove to the bottoms. Nevertheless, an early scripture Manusmriti mentioned - When the Head keeps the Sun or Moon in eclipse, all water on earth becomes pure and in purity like the water of the Ganges. Did he mean that acidity of water was good? I can’t say, but I thought it should be neutral for well being.

Can you imagine how Aryabhata would have been treated for coming up with his mathematically proven theory? Were his treatises destroyed by a zealous group or was he ever persecuted? We will cover all that some time in future together with his potential connections to Malabar. Chandra Hari’s paper establishing that Aryabhata lived precisely in the modern Ponnani - Chamravattom area (latitude 10N51 and longitude 75E45) in Kerala in 6th Century AD, presents interesting reading and he establishes that two values of Earth’s circumference at the equator given by Aryabhata in his treatise suggest that his latitude of observation was 10N51, where the Bharathapuzha merges with the sea and the prime meridian of Ujjaini.

Furthermore, was he excommunicated for going out into the sea to make observations and breaking the Ocean taboo? It is said that Aryabhata and his son Devarajan were excommunicated from their caste for the double sin of going to the sea and observing the eclipse. That is something quite difficult to ascertain, but it is possible that he traveled out of Malabar and up North in that case as a result of such an excommunication.

After Aryabhata’s time, his work was severely attacked by Brahmagupta as we saw earlier and his theories of rotation were rejected. Aryabhata’s commentators themselves changed the reading of his text to read otherwise.

In Alberuni’s India we find the quote from Brahmasiddhanta where Bhrahmagupta another famous mathematician, is seen refuting Aryabhata’s postulation, mainly for purposes of popularity and adherence to religious concepts - Some people think that the eclipse is not caused by the Head. This, however, is a foolish idea, for it is he in fact who eclipses, and the generality of the inhabitants of the world say that it is the Head who eclipses.The Veda, which is the word of God from the mouth of Brahman, says that the Head eclipses, likewise the bookSmriti, composed by Manu, and the Samhitd, composed by Garga the son of Brahman.  On the contrary, Varahamihira, Srishena, Aryabhata, and Vishnucandra maintain that the eclipse is not caused by the Head, but by the moon and the shadow of the earth, in direct opposition to all (to the generality of men), and from enmity against the just-mentioned dogma. For if the Head does not cause the eclipse, all the usages of the Brahmans which they practise at the moment of an eclipse, viz. their rubbing themselves with warm oil, and other works of prescribed worship, would be illusory and not be rewarded by heavenly bliss. If a man declares these things to be illusory, he stands outside of the generally acknowledged dogma, and that is not allowed. He concludes - Therefore people practise the well-known works of piety,and therefore those authors must cease to oppose the generality, for everything which is in the Veda, Smriti, and Samhitd is true.

It is also interesting to see how these mathematicians presented their work in a largely oral system, for recording equations as we know today was not in vogue, those days. They used what we can loosely call scientific poetry which was easy to memorize. Though the poetry sometimes sounded nonsensical, you had to use words to match the equation. Two systems were devised to represent numbers in these verses: the Bhutasankhya system, in which common objects were associated with numbers (eye = 2, gods = 33, for example), and the katapayadi system, in which each number was assigned a set of letters so that meaningful words could be created to represent strings of numbers. As time went by, the Kerala School of Mathematics was developed and strode forward in leaps and bounds. We will tackle that interesting subject on yet another day, after I go over the concepts of the Katapayadi system, then.

Coming back to solar eclipses, it is not quite right that a total eclipse of the sun is a rare occurrence, though you can see it roughly only once in 360 years from a given location. It happens approximately once every 18 months when a total solar eclipse is visible from some place on Earth’s surface.

There are so many interesting trivia related to Solar eclipses and India - French astronomer Pierre Janssen observed the eclipse from India in 1868 and, using a spectroscope, spotted light from a new element ‘helium’ decades before it was found on earth! A solar eclipse always takes place about a fortnight before or after a lunar eclipse.

Remember also that these total eclipses are gone in a flash, in fact the longest observed total solar eclipse took place over Nepal and lasted just over 6 minutes as the moons shadow zoomed over the earth’s surface at 5000 miles per hour! Also did you know that the sun is 400 times larger than the moon but is also 400 times farther from Earth, making the two bodies appear the exact same size in the sky! Then again, the moon is sadly drifting away (The moon is receding from the Earth at the rate of about 1.5 inches a year) due to tidal friction and in about 620 million years it will appear too small to cover the sun, and you will see no more total solar eclipses. Sigh…

You know, there is a proverb in Kerala mentioning – like an earthworm coming out and lifting its head during an eclipse. What would you think it means? The significance of this is that when the mighty falls even the minions will raise their heads to show they are big.

A solar eclipse worth talking about is the one which took place in 955BC. Interestingly at Kurukshetra, it would have occurred at the right time for Lord Krishna to delay the sunset and save Arjuna. The date of 4th Oct 955BC is thus a potential (there are others) in dating the Mahabharata war. As the story goes, Abhimanyu is trapped in a chakravyuha formation and killed, as the Pandavas blame Jayadratha for the boy’s death. Arjuna vows to kill Jayadratha the next day, the 14th day of battle, by sunset or immolate himself. At the climactic moment, with the sun nearly setting and thousands of warriors still between Arjuna and Jayadratha, the solar eclipse takes place, darkening the scene (In the story, Krishna masks the sun with his Sudarshana chakra and create an illusion of sunset). The Kaurava warriors rejoice over Arjuna's defeat and look forward for his imminent suicide. Jayadratha who was hiding behind Duryodhana, comes out of the formation. Suddenly the sun was free from the eclipse and Krishna explains the eclipse to Arjuna. He then points out the location of Jayadratha, enabling Arjuna to shoot an arrow and sever his head.

So much for solar eclipses. We have our much talked about eclipse coming up on the 21st of August. Let’s see how it goes….

Influence of solar eclipse on seawater Sukumaran Santhosh Kumar, Rethinassamy Rengaiyan, Natural Science Vol.3, No.1, 69-74 (2011)
Concept and Perceptions of Eclipses in Hindu Mythology - Raj Kumar Parashari
The Crest of the Peacock - George Gheverghese Joseph
Eclipse observed by Aryabhata in Kerala – K Chandra Hari
Vedic methodology of solar eclipse and its scientific validation –Santhosh Kumar, Rengaiyan – Indian journal of traditional knowledge Oct 2014
AlBeruni’s India
Myths and legends related to eclipses – NC Rana

Note - Remember the famous Surya grahanam song from Oru Pennintekatha? Try listening to that, the lyrics are interesting and you can see that Rahu is briefly mentioned.

pics – Orbits , Eclipse path – NASA images, others form google images – uploaders acknowledged with thanks