Contributed by Nalini Balbir
Different types of calendars have always co-existed in India and this is still the case because each calendar is used in different parts of life. The ancient religious calendars of the many faiths found in India are widely used in the present day, particularly when calculating the dates of holy days. However, secular dating systems have also been used, mainly based on dynastic or regnal periods. Nowadays, the official national calendar of India is a civil calendar, based on the Śaka era system. Each of the 12 months in the year has 30 or 31 days and the new year begins with the month of Caitra, which starts in late March of the Western calendar. However, the Western or Gregorian calendar is also commonly used.
In Indian-language writings the dates are given in the era, year, month and day. These vary depending on the system used. Frequently, two or more dating systems are used in a single manuscript or publication.
The era may be chosen from a number of systems. The month is a lunar month, which is different from a solar month. The Gregorian or Western calendar is a solar calendar, based on the sun, whereas Indian calendars are based on the phases of the moon. A lunar month has two halves and dates are frequently described as belonging to the 'bright half' or the 'dark half' of the month. The lunar calendar has some significant differences from the solar calendar and it also varies slightly in the diverse regions of India.
The dates of Jain festivals are calculated using the traditional lunar calendar. The Jain religious calendar has its own characteristics. The year falls into two distinct parts – the rainy season and the rest of the year. The religious significance of the rainy season is underlined by the amount of discussion in Jain sacred writings devoted to this four-month period.
The complex nature of dates in Indian texts may occasionally lead to different interpretations of when an historical event happened or when a festival should take place. The intricate systems of dating are also a vital consideration when working out the equivalent date in the Western calendar.
In India, mention of a year alone is not enough to create a date. The year has to be located within an era. All through their history up to the present day, the Jains have employed the systems of eras used generally in India but they have also created their own system of eras.
The two systems of eras frequently found in Jain writings were both used in wider Indian society. The Vikrama era dating system is still very widespread today while the Śaka era system is now obsolete, though it forms the basis of the Indian national civil calendar.
Partly erased colophon
Image by Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
The Vikrama era that began in 58 BCE, or Vikrama-saṃvat is predominantly used in western and northern India. It is frequently abbreviated to vi. saṃ. or VS in transliteration.
It is very common in the dating of Jain manuscripts and inscriptions from earlier times. Examples can be seen in this manuscript at the British Library and in this manuscript colophon and the end of a manuscript, both at the Bodleian Library. Even today Jain books written in various Indian languages and published in India often use this dating system, sometimes alone, sometimes alongside another era.
Generally, the year is counted when it has finished. Therefore in order to get the equivalent year in the Common Era, one has to subtract 57 or 56. For example vi. saṃ. 1754 = 1697 CE.
The term 'Vikrama' refers to a king named Vikramāditya. Though not the founder of this era, he became associated with it, as recent historical discoveries have shown (Salomon 1998: 182).
Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, third Mughal Emperor of India from 1556 to 1605. Akbar's long reign is often thought of as beginning the peak of the Mughal Empire, as it grew and became rich and powerful, witnessing a cultural and intellectual flowering, and degrees of religious tolerance.