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Heavenly bodies, and places - City Of Copernicus

Posted on Feb 28, 03:36PM | IBNS

Renewed interest in the celestial bodies after the recent asteroid-crush in Siberia reminds Ranjita Biswas of a visit to medieval Torun in Poland where revolutionary astronomer Copernicus lived.

The astonishing journey of the asteroid before crushing into the Siberian plains, a phenomenon that happens only in hundred years, has stoked renewed interest in astronomy around the world. The sky and beyond have always fascinated humankind. But except for astronomers and hobby 'sky-gazers' it remains, well, there.

Talking about the sun, and the planets, it also occurs in mind that it is five hundred years since Nicolaus Copernicus first wrote that our earth and the planets rotate around the sun, and not the other way round as was thought in the Middle Ages. This was almost heresy to suggest in those days. The earth was supposed to be the entre of everything, an idea encouraged by theologists and religious heads in Europe at that time.


Thoughts of Copernicus brought another memory- a visit to the medieval town of Torun on the Vistula river in Poland where he lived.

At that time Torun was a prosperous town ruled by the Teutonic Order. This group of knights and monks who came from Jerusalem were employed by a Polish prince to protect the land from pagan Prussian tribes. But finding the location ideal for trade, the Vistula river going all the way to the Baltic Sea, they established their own fiefdom in and around Torun in the 13th century. The Teutonic Knights ruled for 200 years, till the Polish subjects revolted and threw them out. Today, the ruins of the brick-built castle, golden under the summer sun, and the fortifications encircling it, are the only reminders of a time now shrouded in history. But local legends abound of the ghost of a Teutonic commander walking around the walls.


Copernicus was a Renaissance man in the true sense, his talent encompassing many areas. He belonged to a well-to-do family but lost his parents at an early age. But his education and upbringing did not suffer as his influential maternal family looked after him. Copernicus could have pursued the life of a prosperous businessman but he chose to be a scientist. While studying in Rome he developed an interest in astronomy.

His painstaking research and 'star-gazing' convinced him about his rotation theory. Yet he hesitated before publishing his work, perhaps aware of the implications. At last when he did give the manuscript to the printer at the behest of his students and admirers it came out (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) in 1543. It was as if he was waiting for the publication as he died the same year at age 70. One account says that he turned the first page of the advance copy of the book and then breathed his last. But he left behind a legacy that revolutionized the way scientists, and people, look at the sky.


Today Copernicus's statue dominates the Nicolaus Copernicus University at the entrance to the old city. Torun is a centre of education with many prestigious institutions of Poland located here. No wonder then that as we walked in explore this beautiful medieval city, the streets were vibrant with colour and animated talk of young people.

The old town of Torun is a Unesco heritage habitat. It has the largest number of Poland's Gothic houses, all in pristine condition. The House of Copernicus is now a museum. A huge sun-dial greets you at the entrance to the upper floors. Many of the memorabilia associated with the astronomer can be viewed here.


Another interesting museum around here is the Gingerbread Museum. Torun is famous for this confectionery called pierniki. Go down the steps to the cellar of the Copernicus house and there awaits another world , a medieval kitchen where a costumed cook shows how to roll the gingerbread dough. You can even try your hand at making a gingerbread. On way back it is a good idea to buy pierniki from the outlets on the main street near the Town Hall.

Down the street on the cobbled path a strange sight greeted us, a donkey standing very still. Actually it was a bronze-cast donkey, we found. In old Torun if someone was caught stealing or indulging in some illegal activity, he was made to sit on the donkey's back for the whole day; people passing by could ridicule and abuse him. Indeed, some of those men must have had felt that it was better to be behind jail walls than beface this public humiliation.


Opposite the beautiful Town Hall in the main square there is another interesting statue - that of a young boy playing a violin sitting amidst a small fountain. Bronze-cast frogs sit on its rim. This relates to a legend about the town. The boy known as Janko Muzykant, was apparently a saviour in the Pied Piper mould. As the story goes, a witch visiting the town was blockaded by the town people. Angry, she cursed that the town would be invaded by frogs. And so it was. The mayor offered a bagful of gold and his daughter to anyone who could rescue the town. Then this farmer boy Janko appeared and began to play his fiddle. The frogs, enchanted by the melody, followed him to the woods and the town was saved.

Legends like these thrive in old towns around the world. It is interesting that modern science, astronomy and legends of the violin -playing rescuer stand side by side as in the town of Torun. But then that's what makes towns with character intriguing and worth visiting.