Samanta Chandrasekhar, of Orissa, is a poignant figure of a classical Siddhantic Astronomer of India, who survived into the 20th century (he died in 1904).
The year 2004 was a very appropriate year to remember his work and, in particular, to put together
his observations of the 1874 Transit of Venus. Not just observations –
predictions too, as he was a Siddhantic Astronomer, completely un-influenced by
the western schools of Astronomy, and to some extent – unaware of it, during
the early phases of his Astronomical efforts.
Samanta Chandrasekhar was born on the 13th of December 1835, at Khandapara,
in Orissa. His full name was Mahamahopadhaya Chandrasekhar Singh Harichandan
Mohapatra Samant, but he was better known as Pathani Samanta. His lifetime
Astronomy efforts were summarized by him in ‘Sidhanta Darpana’, which was
published in 1899, by Calcutta University. The original manuscript of 2500
Sanskrit shlokas was written in Oriya script, on palm leaves, by Samanta
Samanta Chandrasekhar did not have a formal University education and his interest and
efforts in Astronomy were completely self taught, from manuscripts of Siddhantic
Astronomical treatises, that he had access to. It is very evident that he had no
exposure to the revolutionary advances in Astronomy between the 17thand
19th centuries, until rather late in his Astronomical career, and
very little, even towards the end of that. He remained a complete Siddhantic
Astronomer in the classical mould, uninfluenced by more recent developments.
Chandrasekhar was a keen observer and made meticulous observations of celestial objects with instruments that he had made himself. He was deeply perturbed on finding that the ephemeral elements calculated from classical siddhantic principles did not agree with his observations. The same perplexity had also been faced by Swai
Jaisingh, early in the 18th century, and had given rise to the
construction of his gigantic masonry observatories for the correction of
ephemeral elements. One underlying factor that had been responsible for these
perplexities was the freezing of classical Indian astronomical calculations away
from observational verifications. The precession of equinoxes (Ayanamasa) had
been noticed as far back as the Vedic times, by Indian Astronomers and had been
entering the calculation of ephemeral elements as bija corrections – ad hoc
corrections that needed to be applied with the passage of time, to incorporate
the changes in ephemeral elements arising from precession. For about a thousand
years before the time of Swai Jai Singh or Pathani Samanta – the emphasis had
shifted away from observational verifications and ephemeral elements had
These perplexities led Samanta to make a life time of observations with simple handmade
instruments, correct the ephemeral elements from these, and create predicted
ephemeral elements in the classical Siddhantic format for future observations.
The resulting ephemeral elements were amazingly accurate. Samanta’s work was
in the classical mould – with the assumption of a geocentric Universe,
although his own model included the planets other than Earth, as revolving
around the Sun.