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The desi band of sky-gazers

UP CLOSE: School children will be participating in various transit sighting events

The 18th century observers of the transit of Venus were all Europeans, but by the time of the 1874 transit a few Indian astronomers were in place to observe it. (The second transit of 1882 was not visible in India). For the 2004 transit N Rathnasree and Sanat Kumar of the Nehru Planetarium in New Delhi, did original work to discover as much as possible about these pioneering astronomers.

One of them was Chintamani Raghunathachary (spelled C. Ragoonathachary by the British), the assistant to the head of the Madras Observatory from 1861-1891. He made the first astronomical observations by an Indian observer to be acknowledged by the international astronomical community. He was promoted interest in the 1874 transit, even producing a booklet in Urdu for the general public, but he doesn't seem to have made actual observations of the event.

Further to the north in Vishakapatnam, Ankitam Venkata Narsinga Rao did. Narsinga Rao (quaintly written as Nursing Row by the British) was a self taught astronomer from a well-off zamindari family. His wife had inherited property that included astronomical implements and Rao taught himself to use them. He built an observatory in Vishakapatnam from where he observed and made accurate measurements of the 1874 transit which he communicated directly to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1875.

The most intriguing case is of Samanta Chandrasekhar, a traditional Siddhantic astronomer in Orissa, who, working quite independently may have predicted and observed the 1874 transit. He summed up his life's work in a manuscript called Sidhanta Darpana, that was written on palm leaves in 2500 Sanskrit shlokas. Chandrasekhar seems to have worked within the classical Indian system, with its geocentric astronomical model (Sun and planets rotating around Earth), although he seems to have been aware of its inaccuracies.

Rathnasree speculates that Chandrasekhar was too good an observer not to make a note of the differences, so he went ahead and recorded what he saw. He duly records that in Kali year 4975 (1874 AD), "there was a Solar Eclipse due to Sukra (Venus) in Vrischika Rasi (Scorpio). " We will never know if Chandrasekhar had heard about the imminent transit, perhaps from Narsingha Rao or Raghunathachary, but they were far away and communications were poor, so it's possible that he predicted and observed this independently.

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