31 Dec 2017 17:26 IST

On New Year’s Eve

When the sun goes down on 2017, and comes up to usher in 2018

Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly flow the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze
Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears

These lyrics from a song in the 1971 Hollywood hit film, Fiddler on the Roof, paint a vivid picture of the transition from one year to the next, from the old to the new, from the known to the unknown, from 2017 to 2018. Where did all those months, weeks, days, hours, minutes go? Just the other day we were caught in the excitement and uncertainty of moving into a new millennium, and now we are already 17 years into it.

Symbolic representation

So many sunrises, so many sunsets, yet we can never tire of watching one more. That’s what found us at the Phnom Bakheng temple at Angkor in Cambodia about a week ago, clambering up endless steps to find a good spot to watch the sunset from. Tourists like ourselves crawled all over the 9th century temple built during the reign of King Yasovarman (889-910), originally dedicated to Shiva, and later converted into a Buddhist place of worship. Built at an elevation of about 65 metres, the temple is a symbolic representation of Mount Meru. Today, of course, it lies in ruins. The number of footfalls it receives endangers it further.

Still, it could be claimed that we sat on Mount Meru and watched the sun set over the remains of the magnificent Angkor Wat complex, a miracle of human endeavour, a heaven on earth complete with detailed, delicate carvings depicting the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and so very much more, spread over something like 200-odd hectares. You could spend three whole days climbing up and down the stairs leading to the various sanctums and enclosures and still not manage to see everything. It originally honoured Vishnu, and was later converted into a Buddhist temple. Built in the 12th century, it is the largest religious site in the world.

And that’s where we returned, to watch the sunrise on a dark morning. The wide moat surrounding the complex was dotted with small lotuses and there beyond rose five towers representing the five peaks of Mount Meru. There was a nip in the air and in the silence of the slowly dispelling darkness came the soft sibilant sounds of Vishnu Sahasranamam and Rudram and other chanting from our group of old friends. Gradually the sky lit up and painted the clouds pink, purple, yellow and before we knew it, the sun was up, rising from behind a thick patch of trees. Surya had given us yet another unforgettable moment.

What’s special

Someone had asked at Phnom Bakheng: “What’s so special about sunset here?” And sunrise at the main temple complex. Or sunset at Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. Or over the Arabian Sea in Goa. Why do people rush to Tiger Hill in Darjeeling in spite of the early morning chill and pray there will be no clouds that day? What’s so special about sunrise and sunset in particular places? Is there an answer to this question?

Sunrise in itself is beautiful, as is sunset. Because the sun is beautiful. The idea of the sun is even more beautiful. It gives and sustains life. Without it there would be nothing, we would be nothing. It throws a glow over our past and shines a light on our future. It provides us shadows to hide in and illuminates the paths we must follow. Every sunrise, wherever you are, every sunset, is awe-inspiring. It reminds you of the source of life, your life, and gives you a reason to live your life to the best of your ability. And when we gather together in a place, whether it is the beach, or Mount Meru on earth, we share an experience and in sharing we are connected. Sunrise and sunset are sacred moments in which to give thanks for life.

Maybe this is what inspired Muthuswamy Dikshitar (1775-1835) to compose his paean to the sun:

Suryamurthe namosthuthe, sundara chhayaadipathe
Kaaryakaaranaatmaka jagatprakaasha simharaasyaadhipathe
Aryavinutha tejasphoorthe aarogyaadi phaladaakrithe

These first lines of the song offer salutations to Surya, husband of beautiful Chhaya. The lord of simha rasi throws light on every action, his resplendent lustre is brilliant, he bestows good health...

Sunrise to sunset

From earliest times, the sun has fascinated mankind, and cultures around the world have sought to understand the phenomenon, each in their own way. Stories have proliferated, poems and songs have been composed, temples have been built, and people gather from all corners of the world to this one spot, up on Phnom Bakheng or in front of the towers at Angkor Wat, to wait and watch and glory in the magnificence, together.

Every sunrise, every sunset is magnificent. Every sunrise, every sunset reminds us of the beauty of the universe we inhabit. Every sunrise, every sunset reiterates the fact that life is a string of micro-moments held together by beating hearts, and surging inexorably forward. Time doesn’t stand still, literally. But we can still our minds to reflect upon this timeless truth in order to understand our place in the universe, and the part we play in it.

As we bundle 2017 into a bagful of memories, and wait for the sun to rise on 2018, let’s be grateful for what we have and what will be. Remember, we are all nourished by the same sun. It is visible everywhere, in every corner of every continent, sometimes every day, sometimes less frequently. Where there is light, there is the sun. Where there is the sun, there is life. It is one and it is the same. Turn your eyes toward it. Salute it. Be guided by it. Be blessed by it. This new year and every new year.