Lying in bed staring up at the night sky, I have fond memories of my mother pointing out, what appeared to be just some stars. I can clearly recall her soft voice as telling me how these celestial bodies tinged with a little imagination could become shapes of creatures and heroes. Her index finger traced these shapes and I saw with wide eyed wonder how a group of seven stars changed into ‘Dubbe Akbar’ or Ursa Major (the Great Bear). My female parent’s interest in astronomy stemmed from her maternal uncle, Mirza Muhammad Rasheed, who in his day and age was a celebrated star gazer and had acquired fame by publishing a book called ‘Sair e Aflaak’ or ‘A Stroll through the Skies’. It was much later in life that I developed an understanding about constellations and their connection with the Signs of the Zodiac.

A constellation can be classically defined as a group of stars that form imaginary outlines or patterns representing animals, mythological heroes and creatures. There are eighty eight of these constellations in the sky, some of which have relatively modern origins. These images in the night sky go back to prehistory, where their unknown creators used them to relate stories of their beliefs, experiences and mythology.

The forty eight Greek classical patterns, as enumerated in both Aratus' work ‘Phenomena’ or Ptolemy's ‘Almagest’ were adopted by western cultures, although their existence predates these names by several centuries. Newer constellations were added to the list in the 15th to mid-18th Century, when European explorers gazed up at the sky over the Southern Hemisphere. In 1928, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) ratified and recognized 88 modern constellations, with contiguous boundaries defined by ascension and declination.

Twelve important constellations were assigned to the Zodiac. Used to prepare horoscopes, the origins of the Zodiac dates back (like the constellations) into prehistory, whose astrological divisions became prominent around 400 BC within Babylonian or Chaldean Empires.

An understanding of the night sky carries more value than just storytelling and creating horoscopes. Ancient mariners and even modern ones use constellations as reference points on the heavenly map to navigate, as do adventurers and explorers. Guided missiles have inbuilt astral navigation devices to accurately home in on their target. The focal point for all navigation in the sky is the North Star or Polaris. This heavenly body remains static, while the earth’s rotation makes all other stars rise and set in an East to West direction. Polaris does not move since it is located directly over the Earth’s northern axis, much like a pivot and can be located easily in the sky, since it is the last star in the tail of the Great Bear’s sister constellation ‘Dubbe Asghar’ or Ursa Minor (The Little Bear). This celestial body is nature’s compass, pointing directly at the polar north – the rest becomes easy.

It is not only celestial patterns that titillate human imagination (a very healthy activity for the mind), but one can have a lot of fun by watching clouds in the sky. I discovered that this ‘cloud gazing’ could be turned into an exciting adventure at an early age. Lying in the lawn of our summer residence near Murree in the Nineteen Fifties, I saw fantastic beasts, which changed form as the wind crafted and recrafted them. I saw armies meeting in combat and then disappearing as one cloud bank fused into the other. The activity was entertaining and mysteriously therapeutic in nature since it was not only relaxing, but refreshing too. It is for this reason that my interest in clouds remains undiminished to this day.

This pastime however skipped one generation - my children, with no one else to blame, but ourselves. Happily enough it has resurfaced in my grandchildren, who have a vivid imagination and now pleasantly occupy my spare time in explaining the wonders of stars and constellations along with the magic of ‘Elephants in the Sky’.


The writer is a historian.