Spectacular Comet Show in November

Spectacular Comet Show in November

(This article has been already posted in Tamil: swaminathan)

Picture of Halley’s Comet

What are comets?

Comets are small icy bodies orbiting the sun usually on a highly elliptical path. A comet consists of a central nucleus a few kilometres across, and has been likened to a dirty snow ball because it consists mostly of ice mixed with dust. As a comet approaches the sun its nucleus heats up releasing gas and dust which form a tenuous coma up to 60,000 miles wide around the nucleus. Gas and dust stream away from the coma to form one or more tails which may extend to millions of miles. Comet Encke is with the shortest period of orbit and returns every 3.3 years. Comets are named after their discoverers.


New Comet sighted

New Scientist magazine has listed ten great discoveries or inventions that would hit the headlines in newspapers in 2013. One of the ten sensational events is the sighting of a comet that is heading towards earth. Astronomers expect a spectacular show on the sky in November 2013.They expect at its peak this comet known as C/2012/S1 will outshine full moon in brightness. It will be visible even during day time.

It was spotted in September last year by Russian astronomers of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) and so it is also known as ISON. Coming from the Oort cloud this dirty snowball will evaporate as it approaches sun. The gas surrounding the comet will shine as a tail brightly in November. As it goes away from sun it will disappear in the vast space. Comets contain three parts Head, Nucleus and Tail. The nucleus will extend as head and tail as it approaches the sun.

ISON may even be visible from October 2013 to January 2014. There is a big superstition surrounding the comets. In some cultures they believe they bring changes for good. But Hindus believed that it portends a danger to the rulers and the country. We see this reference from Mahabharata to Puranas and from Sanskrit literature to Tamil Literature.

Picture of Comet Hale Bopp

Lord Ganesh’s Chemical Warfare

Bhargava Purana has an interesting story:

Dhumaketu in Sanskrit means Lord Ganesh and the comet. Lord Ganesh conducted a ‘chemical warfare’ with Dhumasuran and killed him. Hence Ganesh was called Dhumaketu. Dhumasuran was born as a King known as Vikuthi in his previous birth. When he desired for Indra’s post, he was cursed to be born as demon Dhumasuran. Vinayaka appeared as a child to the couple Sumuthai and Madhavarajan and killed Dhumasuran. Dhumasura wellversed in chemical warfare used weapons of mass destruction by blowing poisonous gases on good people. Lord Ganesh (Vinayaka) swallowed the poisonous gas and threw it back on Dumasuran, says the Puranas. Dhumasuranwas killed by the smoke (smoke is Dhumam in Sanskrit)

In Tamil and Sanskrit literature, the poets compare evil persons with comets. Actual appearance of comets provokes wars such as Mahabharata war. Sangam Tamil literature which is 2000 year old has a few interesting references to comets.

Picture of Comet Mc Naught

Hindu Beliefs

Kudalur Kizar, a poet, sings an elegy to the Chera king (Yanaikat Chey) Mantaram Cheral Irumporai, in which he says that the sighting of a comet seven days earlier portended his death. What he feared seven days ago came true today. In short the king died after the appearance of a comet. It may be Halley’s comet ( Purananauru verse 229)

In another verse Kapilan, the most famous Brahmin poet, who composed the highest number of poems in Sangam period says that even if a comet appeared Pari’s land will get good rains and good harvest because he was such a just and generous king (Puram verse 117). He used the Sanskrit word Dhumam for a comet.

Among the modern greats, Bharathiyar, the most famous Tamil poet composed a poem on Halley’s comet during its 1910 visit. The poem was titled Sadharana Varusha Dhumaketu. He also echoed the ancient beliefs on comets, but questioned them whether they are true or false:

Bharathiyar’s Tamil poem as translated by Dr T N Ramachandran:

1.Like a palm tree set on a millet plant

With a growing tail on a little star

You blaze forth in kinship with eastern moon,

Oh illustrious comet! Sid you welcome.

2.You range over countless crores of Yojanas;

They say your endless tail is wrought of gas

The softness of which is indeed peerless.

3.They aver that your tail touches the earth too

And you fare forth with no harm to the poor;

The wise talk of your myriad marvels

4.We that are over Bharath spread, have forgot

Long long ago the lore of works; we learnt

Of your nature true from aliens only;

None amongst us is with clarity blessed

5.Come, Oh flame! I will put you some questions.

They say, you will cause harm to the evil.

And will immerse in a sea of misery

The ancient world. Is this true or untrue?

6.”By Her mandate great—the Primal Goddess,

You fare forth executing punishment

Purging the world of its impurities

And making it pure” they say. True or false?

7.”It is a rule with you to appear once

In a cycle of seventy five years;

This time you will cause many marvels” say they.

I ask of you, if this be true or false?

(Poem by Bharathiar, Translated by TNR)


When I worked as the Producer of the BBC Tamil Service in the Bush House, London, comets evoked great interest among Tamil listeners and they asked several questions about it in the Questions and Answers programme. I answered their questions giving the above details.