Up close and personal with the Zodiac

By Nupur D’Souza | Oct 20, 2020

Looking at the stars for guidance is a centuries-old practice. People have been studying the movements of celestial bodies in the hope of making better decisions, taking the right paths of action, and in attempts to chart their destinies. Interpreting the cosmos has never been as popular as it is today, whether it’s Sima Taparia from Indian Matchmaking leaving the fate of couples to “stars aligning” or Puerto Rican astrologer and TV star, Walter Mercado, enthralling millions with his predictions classically signed off - “Mucho, mucho amor.” Behind the mystique of astrology lies an entire landscape of actual constellations, each corresponding to a particular sign.

Celestial Bodies, Zodiac, Constellations, Planets, Nupur D'Souza
Image Courtesy: Netflix

Teasing out the logic

Naked eye observation of the sky shows us objects in our solar system like the Sun, the Moon and the planets. On clear and dark nights, we can also see objects outside our solar system like other stars in our Milky Way galaxy, as well as galaxies outside our own. 

Since the objects in the solar system are much closer to us, on earth, and everything outside the solar system muuuuch further away, it appears as if the Sun, the Moon and planets are moving much faster in front of a seemingly static background made of stars. For example if you were travelling in a car and look out the window, trees and objects nearer the road appear to be moving faster, while say, mountains in the distance, do not appear to be moving at all. 

The zodiac consists of 12 (sometimes 13) of the 88 constellations in the sky that are internationally recognized, but its roots go far, far back. These constellations appear in some form or the other in ancient astronomical writings and cultural practices. In western astronomy and astrology the constellations that make up the zodiac are Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. But different cultures have common ways of seeking answers from the sky through very similar imagery and interpretations. Elements of the Jyotishya or Hindu astrology, for example, closely resemble the Western zodiac. However, it places a greater emphasis on a person’s moon sign as opposed to western astrology that considers the sun sign to be of more importance.

Celestial Bodies, Zodiac, Constellations, Planets, Nupur D'SouzaCelestial map, signs of the Zodiac and lunar mansions in the 
Zubdat-al Tawarikh, dedicated to the Ottoman Sultan Murad III in 1583
By Painters of Sultan Murad III

The constellations of the zodiac have enjoyed importance across numerous human cultures in history because they lie in the same plane as the earth when it goes around the Sun (called the ecliptic). 


This mainly means 3 things - 

  1. Over the course of the year, the Sun appears to ‘enter’ (sun in foreground, constellation in background) each constellation of the zodiac for approximately a month at a time. So from Jan 20th - Feb 18th the Sun appears to enter the constellation of Aquarius, from Feb 19th - Mar 20th it moves into Pisces and so on till it passes through each of the 12 signs. 
  2. If we spend a dark, clear night looking at the sky, we see the constellations of the zodiac arranged one behind each other in a neat line. 
  3. They appear to all rise out of the east and set in the west. 

What to look for and when

The sky differs depending on which hemisphere you’re in and with the change in seasons. Here are some pointers to help you get your bearings before you embark on a stargazing session.

  1. Use an app like Google's sky map or the official NASA app to get you started on locating stars and constellations seen from your backyard on a particular night. You don’t need to memorize a sky map before you head out - simply point your phone (with the app of your choice open) at the patch of sky you are looking at and you will be able to see real time images of what’s out there.
  2. Looking at infographics and sky charts with constellation art like the one below will also help with visualising the night sky. 
  3. It’s helpful to learn how to orient yourself using the stars as this is what their intended function was when the ancients mapped out the night sky. Start by figuring out the NSEW directions when you are outdoors. You can do this by using a compass, an app or familiarising yourself with the direction of sunset/sunrise. This will help you divide the night sky into 4 quarters making it easier to locate things. Once you’ve done that you can begin noting the major constellations that lie in each quarter and keep on building from there.
Don’t worry about getting it right the first few times, it’s ok to take baby steps and it’s totally fine to mess up because thankfully, you are not navigating a ship or being asked for advice on the right time to start harvesting crops. :)
The more I explore, the more familiar I become with the night sky until it’s second nature to look up and say, “Hey! That’s Antares.” or “There’s Jupiter!” I assure you, it’s one of the most rewarding feelings to know a little bit more about the wide, wide world. There are several websites that publish astronomy highlights like this one. The image below, for example, gives you a head’s up on what to anticipate in the autumn night sky and helps you plan accordingly.
 Celestial Bodies, Zodiac, Constellations, Planets, Nupur D'Souza

Courtesy: Universe2go

So, using the tools that you are comfortable with, maybe you can plan an outing with a goal to identify one or two of the things you have learned from reading this piece. I invite you to look up in the sky with a bit more understanding of what you are looking at, and hopefully, like me and countless others, you will fall in love with how connected the act of stargazing makes you feel, not just with other star gazers around the world, but endless generations of humans who have looked up at the same sky as you!


About the author: 

Nupur D’Souza is at heart, a dyrad. She spends her time growing things and creating opportunities for people to access the outdoors with greater respect and wonder.

Inspired by India,
made for the world.


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