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Villagers retain tradition of Tibetan astronomy

China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-09 08:07
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Villagers read copies of the 2024 Tibetan calendar at the Dakpo astronomical observatory in Maldrogungkar county, Xizang autonomous region, on March 9. TSERANG YUDRON/XINHUA

LHASA — In Lhasa, capital of Southwest China's Xizang autonomous region, a remarkable event unfolded at the Dakpo astronomical observatory — a structure with a history of over 300 years.

Clad in traditional Tibetan costumes, villagers gathered near the observatory in Maldrogungkar county while a group of students from a local school stood nearby to witness the event that was about to unfold.

At precisely 9:50 am, sunlight pierced the rooftop aperture, illuminating a stone marker 29 meters away. This alignment symbolized the arrival of the spring irrigation period for the area east of the Lhasa River.

"Astronomical observations guide agricultural practices, corresponding to the timing recorded in the Tibetan annual almanac for 2024 regarding spring plowing and irrigation," explained Norbu Dondrup, an expert in astronomical calculations at the University of Tibetan Medicine.

He added that similar astronomical time-measuring devices can be found worldwide.

Kunsang, a fifth grader, was visiting the observatory for the second time.

"The expert's detailed explanations made me curious about traditional astronomical calculations," he said.

As the event took place, 56-year-old villager Sonam Tseten was busy elsewhere diverting water for irrigation.

"Our traditional astronomical observatory informs us when to commence spring irrigation," he said.

He has visited the observatory every year since childhood and has seen great changes in his hometown. The once treacherous mountain paths have been transformed into convenient highways, and in 2009, the observatory was reinforced with concrete.

Despite the changes, however, traditional customs remain unchanged.

Every household in the village still adheres to the traditional Tibetan calendar, and many young people are using Tibetan calendar smartphone apps, he said.

During his childhood, which was devoid of smartphones and televisions, Norbu Dondrup found solace and entertainment in the vast expanse of the night sky.

Elders narrated tales of the stars, weaving myths such as that of the demon king's decapitated head being transformed into constellations after he was slain by King Gesar. Such myths sparked Norbu Dondrup's curiosity about space.

His fascination with astronomy and calendar calculations grew during his university days, and it has become a lifelong pursuit.

Traditionally, experts in astronomical calculations would perform calculations on sand tables before verifying the accuracy of their predictions based on the sunlight received at the Dakpo astronomical observatory.

"Nowadays, we not only rely on traditional sand tables and observatories, but also utilize technologies such as computers and telescopes to enhance the precision of the Tibetan calendar, allowing us to chart the vast starry sky with clarity," Norbu Dondrup said.

With a history of over 2,000 years, Tibetan astronomy and the calendar are significant components of Tibetan culture. Even today, in most rural areas of Xizang, the timing for spring plowing is determined according to the Tibetan calendar derived from astronomical calculations.

In 2008, Tibetan astronomy and the calendar were included on the list of national intangible cultural heritages, helping to ensure this fascinating aspect of Tibetan culture continues to thrive.


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