Javanese Calendar

To many generations of rice farmers in rural Java, Indonesia, it was not the stars of Ursa Major that formed the plough, but the stars of Orion. Here, close to the equator, the constellation appears on its side and Orion's belt plus three of the four outer stars (excluding Betelgeuse) were seen to resemble a traditional Javanese plough (Weluku): they constituted the constellation Bintang Weluku.

The changing appearance of this constellation (together with the Pleiades) over the year was used to provide various rules of thumb to regulate the different seasonal activities associated with inundated rice cultivation. The beginning of the new agricultural year was marked by the plough's first appearance in the pre-dawn sky (heliacal rise). This happened around the time of the June solstice. At this time the celestial plough was upright, just like earthly ploughs when in use. Three months later, with Bintang Weluku rising progressively earlier each night, came the onset of the rainy season and the time to prepare the tools and check the water channels. When the plough eventually rose at sunset (acronical rise) and was once again upright, it was the time for the women to sow the rice in the nursery and for the men to start plowing the fields. About a month later, at around the time of the December solstice, the process began of harrowing the fields (men) and transplanting the seedlings into the fields (women). (Planting was also regulated by the phase of the moon.) By now, Bintang Weluku was appearing higher and higher in the sky after sunset, and the end of this period was marked by its culmination (appearing at its highest point in the sky) at dusk. Four months later, when the rain had stopped and the rice had ripened, the harvest began. This season was marked by the celestial plough appearing progressively lower in the western sky after sunset. At this time it was perceived as upside down, "like a farmer's plough when the work is done." Soon afterwards, it disappeared completely (heliacal set).

The workings of this pragmatic stellar calendar are reminiscent of Hes-iod's words of advice to Greek farmers in the eighth century B.C.E. Numer ous other practices known from many different parts of the world also regulate seasonal farming activities (both growing crops and managing livestock) by reference to the observed behavior of prominent stars or asterisms.

Bintang Weluku remained in use until around the late nineteenth century and is still prominent in folk memory, despite the co-existence of two other methods of dividing the year. The first involved numerical (i.e., non-astronomical) cycles such as five- and seven-day weeks and 210-day years, which derived from a mix of Islamic and Hindu traditions. This system was institutionalized and also used for divination. The other calendar, known as the pranotomongso (or pranatamongsa), was based on measurements of the length of the sun's shadow at noon, regulated since the seventeenth century by using an accurate gnomon device known as a bencet. This calendar divided the year into twelve unequal divisions, although only four were widely used in practice. These were demarcated by the solstices and the days of solar zenith passage.

See also:

Hesiod (Eighth Century B.C.E.); Orion; Solstices; Zenith Passage of the Sun.

Heliacal Rise.

References and further reading

Chamberlain, Von Del, John Carlson, and Jane Young, eds. Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World, 320-335. Bognor Regis, UK: Ocarina Books, and College Park, MD: Center for Archaeoastronomy, 2005.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 371-384. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

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