The "Twisted ball of string" system

Outer Kālacakra

The cycle of the seasons

Previous PageNext Page

The fifth and sixth in this collection of paintings depict different positions throughout the year of the orbit of the Sun around Mt. Meru. They are both views from above Meru, showing the cross section of the base of Mt. Meru in the centre, with the eastern section black (to the right in these images), the southern red, the western yellow and northern white. Surrounding Meru are then many concentric circles representing the rings of continents, oceans and mountains. These are not drawn in the first picture. Around these is the surface of Great Jambudvīpa, coloured yellow. On this surface are the twelve main continents. Our continent of Jambudvīpa is the lowest in the picture – the middle red triangle. Finally, surrounding Great Jambudvīpa is the great salt ocean.

There are several traditions regarding the arrangement of these orbits, and these are identified by descriptive names. The main texts list five of these: "Stacked helmets" (rmog brtsegs ma), "Upward spreading" (steng bskyed ma), "Outward spreading" (phyir bskyed ma), "Iron chain" (lcags sgrog ma), and, "Twisted ball of string" (dru gu 'dzings ma). The last of these five is the most commonly accepted in Tibet and is the subject of the first of these two paintings.

The four main positions of the orbit of the Sun

In the close-up image on the left of the "Twisted ball of string", most of the orbits are simply drawn as single lines, while four are particularly highlighted by being drawn as coloured bands. The one at the bottom, green-grey in appearance, is at the time when the Sun enters the sign of Capricorn. This is the moment of the winter solstice for our continent of Jambudvīpa, when the Sun passes far to the south of Jambudvīpa. The writing that is visible on the orbit itself mentions the winter solstice, and the small word just underneath is Capricorn (chu srin). The orbit is off centre, and although the Sun is considered to move around the orbit once each day, the orbit slowly rotates around Meru throughout the year.

The next orbit shown is the one that is coloured yellow. This is the position of the orbit when the Sun enters Aries, and is marked on the painting as the moment of spring equinox for our continent of Jambudvīpa. This is winter solstice for the central eastern continent of Videha (lus 'phags po). Three months later and the orbit is in the position of the upper one that also appears green-grey, but a little more green, in colour. This is the position when the Sun enters Cancer. At this time winter solstice occurs in the northern continent of Kurava (sgra mi snyan) but for the continent of Jambudvīpa it is summer solstice, with the Sun passing high overhead. The fourth orbit that is coloured pink here is the position when the Sun enters Libra, the time of autumn equinox in Jambudvīpa, with winter solstice occuring in the western continent of Godānīya (ba lang spyod).

In this diagram the positions of the twelve signs are indicated. As mentioned above, the one at the bottom, in the 6 o'clock position, is Capricorn. Longitude increases in an anti-clockwise direction, and so Aries is at the 3 o'clock position. However, these positions are simply given to indicate their relationship with the different orbits, and the signs rotate once around the the whole system each day, in a clock-wise direction. After all, we see the Sun, Moon, planets, and the stars and constellations rising and setting, apparently moving around the earth approximately once each day. The orbit would stay essentially where it is, with the Sun travelling along it, moving slowly through these four different positions in one year, in an anti-clockwise direction.

Computer generated image of the ball of string

In this system, the orbits are not only off-centre, but they are also higher at their points nearest to Mt. Meru. At those points the orbits are said to be 86,000 yojanas above the surface of Jambudvīpa (the height of Meru is 100,000 yojanas). At their points furthest from Meru, where they are just over the edge of the disk of water, they are 75,000 yojanas above the great salt ocean – which is at the same level as the surface of Meru. This is illustrated in the computer generated image to the right, and this gives a sense of why this system is likened to a ball of string.

"Orbits like interlacing feathers"

The second of these two pictures, shown on the left, depicts a very similar arrangement with all the orbits drawn more strongly, and coloured. This is here given a name that is not one of the usual five; it is called "Orbits like interlacing feathers" (go la bya spu snol lta bu). This is stated on the painting to be according to the 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje, under his name Yangchen Zangpo (dbyangs can bzang po). Notice that the orbits are drawn in slightly different positions from the first painting, each one being 15 degrees from their positions in the first painting. Presumably this is because they represent the positions of the orbits when the Sun is in the centre of each sign, but this is speculation and is far from being certain.

Also written on this painting is the fact that in this system the seasons are said to rotate in a clockwise fashion. I have not been able to find this interlaced feather system in any astronomical text, and so the differences with the ball of string system are not clear. Perhaps the only main difference is this fact that the seasons are said to rotate in a clockwise rather than anti-clockwise fashion. This is an important point for the astronomical systems of both the Phugpa and Tsurphu systems – Mikyo Dorje followed the latter of these two.

In both these traditions, it is wrongly assumed that the seasonal points such as the winter solstice are observed in Tibet some days before they are in India. As Tibet is considered to be far to the east of India, this would only makes sense in this cosmology if the seasons are considered to rotate around the continents, and to do so in a clockwise fashion. If more information becomes available on the distinctions being drawn here between these paintings, this will be added to these pages at a later date.

Previous PageNext Page
Last updated 1 March 2010.
E. Henning.
Return to Home Page.