An eye to the sky

A Jantar Mantar in Jaipur

An eye to the sky

The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb bestowed upon him the title of “Sawai”, an honour, which meant he was one and a quarter time superior to his contemporaries. Though all his descendants continued to adorn the title after him, Sawai Jai Singh II's unique accomplishments go a long way to prove he was indeed superior, progressive and a true visionary. The beautiful city of Jaipur, built on the ancient grid pattern with nine rectangular zones corresponding to the nine divisions of the universe and perfectly designed on the principles of Shilpa sutras (city planning and architecture) itself speaks volumes for its founder, but perhaps sky was the limit for this “Sawai” ruler. 

Astronomy was his real passion and years after he is gone, his beloved city has one more reason to celebrate the vision this great king had. Jantar Mantar, the observatory he built in the 18th century as recently won the proud distinction of being the UNESCO World Heritage Site. A fantastic collation of astronomical instruments, the Jaipur observatory is one of the five marvels created by Sawai Jai Singh II at Delhi, Varanasi, Ujjain and Mathura.  It is also the best preserved and largest among the five, having some unique yantras like the “Rashivalaya” or the zodiac instruments. 

Sawai Jai Singh was an astronomy scholar in real sense of the term, having a rich collection of astronomy manuscripts and tables from Arabia and Europe like John Flamsteed’s  “Historia Coelestis Britannica”, the Portuguese Pere de la Hire’s “Tabulae Astronomicae”, the Turkish royal astronomer Ulugh Beg’s tables “Zij Ulugh Begi” and the Greek Ptolemy’s “Almagest”. With the help of renowned Sansrit scholar Pandit Jagannath, he had these treatises translated into Sanskrit. He also acquired instruments and telescopes from abroad for research and detecting inconsistencies in earlier astronomy tables.

He, however, still believed that texts could be a topic of dispute but there was no more authentic evidence for astronomy than the celestial objects themselves: “Apratyakshani shastrani vivadsteshu kevalam, Pratyaksham jyotisham shastra chandraki yatra sakshni.”

So he went on to found Jantar Mantar, near the City Palace in the heart of Jaipur in 1728. Jantar Mantar, probably a corrupted term for Yantra (instruments) Mantra (formula or calculation), has 16 major fixed devices for calculating time, predicting eclipses, tracking the location of stars, the position of planets and other celestial movements.

It is a wonder. Some of the instruments like “Jai Prakash Yantra” and “Yantraraj” were created by Sawai Jai Singh himself. While all instruments may need little insight and knowledge of the celestial world, one instrument even commoners can associate with is the Samrat Yantra or the giant sun dial. Facing the angle at 27 degrees north, the latitude of Jaipur, it is the largest instrument (90 feet high) in the observatory.

Superintendent of Jantar Mantar, Om Prakash Sharma told Deccan Herald that “the instrument shows the local time of Jaipur and even common visitors can have the profound experience of calculating time accurately up to two seconds.” The locals also have a somewhat nostalgic association with the Samrat Yantra as they still watch astrologers’ predictions made from the Chhatri (small cupola) to predict good or bad monsoon.

The initial instruments were of lime stone and would have lost their markings with the passage of time like some other observatories, observed Sharma. Thanks to a thoughtful restoration project supported by Jaipur royals in 1901, devices were restored with white marble and red sandstone for better clarity, under the expert guidance of noted astrologer and writer of  “Usne Kaha Tha”, Pandit Chandradhar Sharma Guleri, he said.

The monument was declared a national monument in 1948. Each instrument is a marvel be it the Laghu Samrat Yantra that can give the time to an accuracy of 20 seconds to the Nadivalaya, having two circular plates, facing North and the South, which are its dials.

Dhruvdarshak Pattika is perhaps the simplest of all the instruments found in the observatory. It is in the form of a small trapezoidal structure whose upper surface points towards the Pole Star on a clear dark night. The Palabha Yantra or the horizontal Sundial, which is said to be close to the latitude of Delhi was perhaps fabricated for Delhi observatory. This device can measure time in the units of ghatikas.

Krantivrtta, the declination or ecliptic circle measures celestial latitude and longitude of an object in the sky and solar sign of the Sun in daytime. Yantra Raj, the medieval instrument for the measurement of time and positions of celestial objects is an adaptation of an Astrolabe by Sawai Jai Singh himself. The large graduated brass circle hung from the supporting beam that fascinates many a visitors is Unnatansha which measures altitude, the angular height of an object in the sky. Dakshinottara Bhitti Yantra is an instrument built into a wall placed exactly in the north-south direction. Sasthansha or the sextant, Kapali Yantra built as two hemispherical units, each being a complete reflection of the sky overhead, Chakra Yantra, the ring instrument for measuring the global coordinates of declination and the hour angle of a celestial object, Ram Yantra to measure the local coordinates of altitude and azimuth of a celestial object and the cylindrical Digansha Yantra all have their own unique attributes.

Rashivalaya Yantra or the zodiac circle particularly fascinates tourists to get their picture clicked in the backdrop of their zodiac sign. Jai Prakash Yantra, named after its designer Sawai Jai Singh II is a complete instrument, with an ability to make many of the measurements done individually by the other observatory instruments. Because of this, Jai Prakash is called as Sarva Yantra Siromani (the jewel of all instruments).

With its new distinction of a world heritage site, Jantar Mantar has yet again proved the worth of ancient wisdom.  In the modern age of superb telescopes and space shuttles, it is still exciting to take an excursion into the amazing world of astronomic yantras which are sure to leave you spellbound!

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