continued from Starlit Sky: 12. Hydra constellation

One of the most easily identified constellation in the sky is the Great Bear. This constellation is called by many names, Ursa Major, Great Dipper, The plough. Its shape is distinctive with very bright 7 stars, 6 of them are of magnitude at 2 or higher.

It is one of the 48 constellations recorded by the ancient astronomer Ptolemy. It is clearly seen in the northern hemisphere most of the year. This constellation seems to move around the north pole star. Hence this constellation has been used to find directions by navigators in the sea.

It is called the satparishi mandalam in the Indian Astrological System. “Saptarishi” means 7 sages. Each of the 7 stars are thought of as 7 great sages, namely, Kruthu, Pulah, Pulasthya, Atri, Angeerasa, Vasista, Mareechi. These great saints are revered in India even now. They are immortalised as stars in the sky.

These 7 stars along with a few other nearby stars put together looks like a large bear in the sky.


Sl No Symbol Star name Indian name Magnitude Remarks
1 α Dubhe Kruthu 1.79
2 β Merak Pulah 2.37
3 γ Phecda Pulasthya 2.44
4 δ Megrez Atri 3.3
5 ε Alioth Angeerasa 1.76 Brightest in the Ursa Major
6 ζ Mizar Vasista
7 η Benetnash (Alkaid) Marichi 1.85

The Ursa Major is the third largest constellation in the night sky. This constellation is one of the main constellations used to identify directions. The stars Dubhe and Merak are called “pointer stars” because using these two we can identify the Pole star. The Pole star is a star that seems not to move (from the Earth’s perspective) and is always in the North. Thus we can determine the 4 directions using the pole star and the Ursa Major gets us the pole star. We will see all about the pole star in the next edition of Starlit Sky.

Now for something unique!

In many parts of India, during a wedding, the bride and the groom are taken out to watch the Ursa Major, particularly the zeta Ursae Majoris namely the Vasista star. This is for blessings for their long wedded life. There is a great significance to this. There is a faint star quite near the Vasista star. It is believed to be Arundhati. the wife of sage Vasista. Arundhati is called Alcor.

These two stars form a double star visible to the naked eye. Alcor has a magnitude of 5 and so it is quite faint. In reality, Mizar is a quadruple system and Alcor is a binary system. So together they form a sextuple system of stars. Mizar and Alcor move together like a double star. So they are always together.

If the newly wedded couple look at these two stars, they invoke the blessings of the sage couple and will lead a happy wedded life.

Isn’t that a nice custom?

In ancient Arab, spotting the Mizar and Alcor was considered a test for the eyes. This test was to be taken by any young man wanting to be a soldier. Spotting the Alcor was considered to be tough for any one with weak eyesight.



to be continued……..