Mid-day, June 19, 2020, we Imphalites got to see an unusually spectacle in the sky, a distinctly clear halo around the sun. It was a breathtaking sight to say the least. According to our elders, in our native language this is called Thabi Mahum Saba which literally translates as “cucumber’s nest.” That’s an unusual name, I wondered. How is that? Maybe the halo looks like a cross-sectionally cut cucumber and hence the name. Of course, that again is just a speculation. These were my preliminary thoughts.
Around 11:30 that morning as I was checking my phone, I got some promptings and snapshots of the sighting on my social media feeds. Many of the statuses showed pictures of the sun’s halo. Fellow netizens must have felt the “wow!” effect (just like it hit me). I dashed out instantly to have a look and there it was. It indeed was an extraordinary view. I’ve never witnessed anything like this before or even heard of such a phenomenon in my life. And mind you, I’m no youngster. The sighting, it seems, was local as only people around our town saw it.
Being an “urum hawaimaton,” (‘pea plant in the shadow’, a poetic Meitei phrase describing a pale and anaemic person) I am one who is least likely to be gazing the skies, and if it’s daytime, it is even more unlikely that I would be looking up to spot something like this amazing phenomenon. I rarely go out, let alone indulge in sky gazing. If it had not been for the social media prompts, I would have easily missed it.
I was quite intrigued and excited about this rare phenomenon, but it was no surprise to our elders as they were aware of this and had witnessed the halo from time to time. The term for it is “Thabi Mahum Saba,” I’m told. My mother tells me that this kind of sighting happens once a while during this time of the year, but she mentions that the one seen on June 19th was the most distinct.
I guessed the scientific explanation could be similar to the formation of rainbows involving the sun’s rays, the water factor in the atmosphere, the clouds, etc. And it is. A little bit of google search revealed that these halos are indeed caused by a type of cloud called the cirrus clouds. These are thin clouds present at around 20-thousand feet or more above the earth’s surface. These clouds consist of tiny ice crystals. When sunlight passes through the ice crystals, the light gets refracted and splits. When viewed from the appropriate angle, a halo is seen. Hence, it is a local sighting. The same can happen around the moon too.
For me, the more interesting part is not the scientific explanation, but the many myths associated with this phenomenon which had survived through the ages in the form of folklores. In the old days, a sighting like this one would have been interpreted as some kind of omen indicating a forthcoming calamity or something menacing looming. When this halo is sighted, young people and especially children were advised against going near water bodies such as ponds and rivers for likelihood of death by drowning is believed to be high during it. Drowning is known as “lai na louba” meaning the spirit taking away life. So this omen was not considered a positive one. If asked for an opinion, I would say maybe the children find the image of the sun’s halo on the surface of clear water attractive and may venture out to explore what’s in it, and in the process, the possibility of drowning accidents is accentuated.
Likewise, if children were playing or bathing in ponds and such a halo was sighted, their parents would summon them up warning them that the deity “Ibudhou Wangbren” would be coming up and he loves children as gifts.
According to another myths, during this time, there is courtship going on between the water goddess “Irai Leima” and the god of the skies “Nongdon Lairen Pakhangba.” Thus the timing is considered sacred and hence the refraining away from the waters.
Yet another one says that the sun has many names like Korouhanba, Sana Khomdon Atonba, and many more. Thabi being one of the names, it is named “Thabi Mahum Saba.”
Another interpretation of the halo appearance is linked to the fates of the kings. It says that the fate of a king will depend on the visage the halo takes.
I got to know some more interesting myths about the phenomenon from the posts that were shared. One of my friends, a sky gazer, says she had witnessed similar sightings around the moon but never anything like that around the sun. It seems most people saw it for the time on that day. But quite surprisingly the halo was seen again after one day. Is it going to reappear again? After so many years, it seems the halo appearance is getting more frequent.
What I find intriguing in all these is the fact that I have never heard of or seen such a phenomenon my entire life. It is a natural phenomenon that happens once a while but had gone unnoticed by most people of my generation. This goes to show how disconnected we are with nature, its wonders, and the many mythical explanations our forefathers made out of these events. During their time, there was limited scientific knowledge, and they tried to find explanations of the unknown events by weaving out myths like these. That must have been their way of coming to terms with the unknown.
Because of the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people are trying to get back to the roots, to nature, and to the traditional way of doing things and living life. After so many years, many people witnessed this exceptional sighting in the sky and also got to know of the myths (plus the facts) around this spectacle. It was quite an experience. As for the halo being visible on two occasions, is it indicative of the fact that the skies are getting clearer with less pollution due to the COVID lockdown we have been in for three months now? This remains to be seen.