Our Milky Way (Ningthou Turel in Manipuri)

Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
Manipuri languagehas always been very richin its text and literature. It has constantly been changing by itself, over the long history of Manipuris. So has been the creative fecundity of evolution of Manipuri songs. The other day I was listening to a Manipuri duet between distinctive vocalists, Ramachandra and Pushparani on YouTube, played on my smart TV. Its seductively languorous melody struck at my heart strings: “Karithadalakuge, merathadalakshira…” (In which month do you want me to come? Shall I come in the month of Mera -October-November in Manipuri calendar?
Poignantly, my heart was at home under the Manipuri sky. In this astral journey,an ageless folksong that captures a man’s agony of being loved, made my heart ache: “Meenadihaineisaratkeethabal;eingondaditasholoirepamubi.” (People compliment about the autumnmoonlight; to me my love, it’s as hurtful as a lance piercing my heart).
The affection of moonlight on human heart has been centuries-old suspect. In 2013, US surgeons at Rhode Island hospital, reported that people undergoing heart surgery have a lower death rate if the operation is done when the moon is starting to wane.
In Manipur, moonlight in Mera (autumn),was an unforgettable experience in the first flush ofmy youth, floating along on a wonderful dream holiday in space. During my childhood, where there was no street lights in Imphal except in the 2-mile-sq British Reserve, the moonlight in this month was so bright that you could see little ants scuttling about.I used to look up at the twinkling faint stars of the Ningthou Turel in the dark firmament, which we thought were the souls of human ancestors.
Whenautumn leaves fallin Mera, human hearts go emotionally weird. In this month, every Meitei family will stick a tall bamboo pole into the ground at the centre of the courtyard near the Tulsi plant (Balsam). This is called ‘Mera wayungba’. At the top end of the bamboo, a pulley is attached and with the help of a thin rope, a lamp is hoisted at dusk every day for the whole month, and at the end of which the pole is removed, merawafukpa.
Before WWII, I stood by my father, who used to raisea small custom-made box about
5×4 inch with glass panes on four sides and having inside a cotton wick dipped in oil in a tiny terracotta saucer. That will burn all night. The next evening the lamp had to be lowered and the soot inside the glass panes is cleaned.The recharged wick is lit and pulled up again. With more economic development after the War, it became a hurricane lantern, and for our family an electric bulb.
This sentimental tradition was celebrated with verve and a new sense of devotion by Meiteis to our departed ancestors. This, according to my father, was to guide our ancestors in the sky to our dwelling. It’s not like the airbrushing of history, with which Meiteis try to find a reason to unite and bond with their tribal brothers, saying that it was to let them know where Meiteis have wandered to from the hills.
Our Milky Way is a galaxy where we live. It contains many stars including our sun, gas and dust from the Big Bang, bound together by gravity. The first stars formed around 100 million years after the Big Bang. This Milky Way was described by the ancients as a river, as milk, among other things.The word ‘galaxy’ comes from the Greek word ‘galaxias’, meaning milky circles.
The name Milky Way for our galaxy was coined by the mediaeval English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer (who wrote in Middle English) from the Romans who named it ‘via lactea’ (Milky Way): “The Stars in the Galaxie, Which menclepeth the Milky Way.”
The band of light we see in the galaxy is only its centre (the galactic bulge). It’s so tightly packed with dust and gas that you cannot see what’s inside, much less see out the other side. Our solar system sits on the outer edges of its one arm.
Until the late 1920s, astronomers thought all the stars in the universe were contained inside of the Milky Way. It was Edwin Hubble (1924), who measured the distances and discovered that a special star known as a Cepheid variable was not in the Milky Way. Astronomers only then, realized that the fuzzy patches once classified as nebulae were actually separate galaxies.
Our Milky Way is a spiral galaxy with a central bar-shaped structure full of stars,about 100,000 light-years in diameter and about 1,000 light years thick. It contains over 200 billion stars, and enough dust and gas to make billions more. More than half the stars found in the Milky Way are older than the 4.5-billion-year-old sun.
The galactic bulge is surrounded by four large spiral arms. Spiral galaxies make up about two-thirds of the galaxies in the universe. It also contains two significant minor arms, as well as two smaller spurs. One of the spurs, known as the Orion Arm, contains the sun and the solar system. The spiral arms are congested with gas and stars, which thus move more slowly. As material passes through the dense spiral arms, it is compressed and this triggers more star formation.
The Milky Way exists in our universe, around 25,000 light years away from Earth and our Solar system in which Earth is embedded. (One light year is 9.5 trillion km). Earth doesn’t orbit within the plane of the galaxy but is instead tipped by about 63 degrees. Older stars reside in the galactic bulge, and many new stars in the spiral systems. Their disks are surrounded by a halo, which scientists believe is rich with the mysterious dark matter.
Scientists can’t calculate the position of our planetin our universe, because the universe is so vast and expanding, far beyond our solar system and the Milky Way.But they know the position of the sun as our Earth and all other bodies in the solar system actually orbit the Sun. The distance between the Sun and the outermost planet Neptune in our solar system is about four light hours.
Galaxies were formed in the milliseconds following the “big bang”, with which our universe began 13.8 billion years ago. Clouds of gases began to coalesce and compress under gravity to form the building blocks of galaxies. They would later collide to form bigger galaxies. Currently,the Andromeda galaxy is the largest neighbouring galaxy to the Milky Way.
The number of galaxies in the Universe cannot be counted. Even the observable universe alone may contain 100 billion or so. Galaxies are classified into three main types: spiral galaxies, elliptical galaxies, and irregular galaxies, depending on their shapes. Elliptical galaxies contain many older stars.
All the stars die, releasing enormous energy by burning their hydrogen. The rate at which they burn their hydrogen depends on their mass. As stars die new stars are born. It’s a cosmic cycle of life and death.Generations of stars are born, live and die taking about 10 billion yeas. Astronomers can actually see a star being born roughly once a year, as a new bright light, or big stars like our sun, dying when they swell up, known as red giants. Ultimately, they will shrink due to their own gravity and then explode, forming heaviest elements like gold and platinum. They are known as Supernova (cf. author’s My Search for God, 2003:61).
The Milky Wayis constantly rotating with the arms, moving through space. The sun and the solar system travel with them. The solar system travels at an average speed of828, 000 km/h. The Milky Way is so vast that, even at this rapid speed, the solar system would take about 230 million years to travel all the way around it, because our Milky Way is surrounded by an enormous halo of hot gas that extends for hundreds of thousands of light-years. This gas halo is as massive as all of the stars in the Milky Way combined.‘Like the galaxy itself, the halo or the hot gas is rotating independently as well, though not as fast as the disk,’ saysHodges-Kluck of the University of Michigan.
Recent measurements have weighed the Milky Way at between 400 billion and 780 billion times the mass of the sun, and it has a massive black hole in its centre, billions of times larger than the sun. Most galaxies are thought to have such a black hole. Black holes cannot be seen as no light can escape from there, but scientist can feel their existence from its gravitational pull, as they change and distort the paths ofmaterials around it. Many stars passing close enough will be sucked in. They also spurt out material from inside very occasionally.
The most common longest-living stars in the galaxy are called ‘dwarf stars’ about a tenth of the mass of the sun. Red dwarfs (categorised by temperature; Sun is of mid-temperature) are the coolest stars (90% of all stars in the universe). They’re now considered potential suspects as life-bearing planets.
The latest news: NASA is going to fly a telescope carried by a balloon to map out sections of the Milky Way in 2021.
The writer is based in the UK.

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