ABOUT    An interdisciplinary research and visual art project,  investigating the visibility of orbital debris.

ARTIST      Isabella Ong
CURATOR   Seet Yun Teng


ABOUT    An interdisciplinary research and visual art project,  investigating the visibility of orbital debris.

ARTIST      Isabella Ong
CURATOR   Seet Yun Teng

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The Plough Stars – Bintang Weluku

Adapted from Gene Ammarell, The Planetarium and the Plow: Interpreting Star Calendars of Rural Java, (1991) and V. Sankaran Nair and Alaric Francis Santiaguel, “Cosmic Rice”, https://ricetoday.irri.org/cosmic-rice/

The Javanese viewed the stars in Orion’s belt (Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka) and three of the four outer stars, Rigel, Saiph, and Bellatrix, excluding Betelgeuse, as a plough and they named the constellation Bintang Weluku after their traditional plough, weluku.

The rice farmers in Java believed that Orion regulated the different seasonal activities in rice farming. The start of the new agricultural year is marked by the first appearance of “the plough” during the summer solstice (20 to 22 June, depending on the year), as well as the rising of the Pleaides in the morning sky. The Plough at this time is referred to as being in the “upright” position, just like a farmer’s plough when it is in use.

Just under six months later, it appears again in the eastern sky at dusk, marking the start of the new rice season. In Jogyakarta in Central Java, ritual practitioners placed paddy rice on their palm while facing east at dusk. They raise their arm straight toward the belt of Orion. Planting season begins when the position of the stars is high enough so that an angle of the arm causes the grains to roll down from an open palm.

For most wet rice farmers, this reappearance of the Plough in the sunset sky was a marker for men to begin plowing the fields and for the women to sow the rice seed in the nursery, from which the seedlings would later be transplanted.

During the Desta period, “harvest was in full swing” – since their respective heliacal culminations (at dusk), both the Pleiades and the Plough had been setting earlier and earlier each evening. Now the Pleiades was observed to “set in the evening sky” and the Plough was “low in the west and ‘upside down’ like a farmer’s plough when work is done”.
The last period in the agricultural cycle was called apit lemah (loosely translated to “unproductive interlude”, the time between the end of the rice harvest and the beginning of the new agricultural year). The Plough was not visible during this period, having had its heliacal setting at dusk on 4 June on the same day that the Pleiades had its rising at dawn.

See also: The Ship Stars

A small Dayak group related to the Kenyah-Kayan complex, who were swidden rice farmers, also depended upon the stars to fix the date of planting. To do so, they nightly poured water into the end of a vertical piece of bamboo in which a line had been inscribed at a certain distance from the open end. The bamboo pole was then tilted until it pointed toward a certain star (unrecorded) at a certain time of night (also unrecorded), causing some of the water to pour out. It was then made vertical again and the level of the remaining water noted. When the level coincided with the mark, it was time to plant.

Adapated from Gene Ammarell, Astronomy in the Indo‐Malay Archipelago (2008). 

Isabella Ong
Seet Yun Teng
National Arts Council Singapore