The mysterious portal to the stars built by an Indian king 300 years ago
A week after the spring equinox, on a clear, hot afternoon, I walked through the frenzy of Johri Bazaar, Jaipur’s main market, with its coral walls, delicate latticework, and Mughal arches.
It might be a bad time to venture sightseeing in the desert capital of Rajasthan, but it was perfect for measuring time with the shadows cast by the Sun.
I was heading towards the Jantar Mantar, India’s mysterious gateway to the stars.
At first glance, this open-air complex – full of strange triangular walls and stairways to nowhere – seems out of place: it’s neither ornate like the surrounding City Palace nor intricate like the revered Govind Dev Ji Temple and the nearby Hawa Mahal.
The site, a 300-year-old collection of 20 scientific sculptures called ‘yantra’ – which can measure the positions of stars and planets, and tell time accurately – had puzzled me since my childhood here in Jaipur, when the structures they looked like giant versions of the dainty tools I kept in my school geometry kit.
But years later, as a professional architect, I was able to better understand its use.
They are ingenious architectural solutions to understand the mechanics of astronomyas well as key tools for traditional Hindu astrologers to make birth charts and forecast auspicious dates.
In 1727, when the king of the region, Sawai Jai Singh, envisioned Jaipur as his capital and as the country’s first planned city, he wanted to design it in line with the principles of Vastu Shastra, which are based on nature, astronomy and astrology for architecture and location.
He realized that to perfectly align Jaipur with the stars, aid in astrological practices, and predict key weather events for crops, he would need instruments that were both accurate and accessible.
However, after sending research teams to Central Asia and Europe to collect data based on the knowledge of Islamic and European scientists, Sawai Jai Singh found discrepancies between the readings of the brass instruments used generalmind at that time.
To improve accuracy, he increased the size of the tools, stabilized them by reducing moving parts, and made them resistant to wear and tear by making them from local marble and stone.
He then used these innovations to build five open-air observatories in the Indian cities of Jaipur, Delhi, Ujjain, Varanasi, and Mathura.
Four survive: the one in Mathura was demolished.
But the one in Jaipur, completed in 1734, is the largest and most complete.
Today, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site, not only because it is the best-preserved observatory of its kind in India, but, as the Unesco inscription explains, it represents innovations in architecture, astronomy, and cosmology, as well as learning and traditions of Western, Middle Eastern, Asian and African cultures.
In Sanskrit, ‘jantar’ means instruments and ‘mantar’ denotes calculator, so each of the yantra in the complex has a mathematical purpose: some are sundials to indicate the local time and indicate the position of the Sun in the hemisphere; while others measure the constellations and planetary movements to detect the signs of the zodiac and guide forecasts.
Most prominent of all is a massive equinoctial sundial called the Samrat Yantra, a 27-meter-high triangular wall with two thin semicircular ramps radiating like wings from its sides.
Standing below it, my guide pointed to the shadow on one of the ramps as it moved precisely 1 millimeter every second and indicated the local time with an accuracy of two seconds.
Another yantra, the Jai Prakash, measures the path of the Sun through the signs of the Indian Vedic zodiac to determine horoscopes.
Its bowl-shaped structure, which sits on the ground, it’s like an inverted map of the skyand a small metal plate suspended on a crossed wire casts a shadow to show the position of a chosen star or planet.
“I used these instruments in my two-year master’s program frequently,” said Neha Sharma, who now has a Ph.D. in Jyotish Shastra (Vedic astrology) from the University of Rajasthan.
“Learning to read and calculate with these instruments remains a mandatory part of the curriculum for anyone who wants to pursue astrology as a career option.”
more than a curiosity
Most of the modern scientific world viewed the Jantar Mantar observatories as a curiosity until the renowned Indian astrophysicist Nandivada Rathnasree argued that the structures were still relevant.
In her role as director of the Nehru Planetarium in Delhi (from 1999 until her death in 2021), she encouraged students to gain practical experience in positional astronomy at the various Jantar Mantars and lobbied for their academic and international recognition.
“It was Nandivada Rathnasree who brought Jantar Mantar into the spotlight of the scientific fraternity,” said Rima Hooja, an archaeologist and consulting director of the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum at City Palace.
“He also played a key role in getting Jantar Mantar Jaipur recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”
The Jantar Manatar continues to gain fame, not only for its architectural ingenuity but also for its classical style.
“On the surface, Jantar Mantar may not look like indigenous architecture,” said conservation architect Kavita Jain.
“But when you look at it closely, the high-altitude sundial stabilizes itself by creating arc-shaped voids. The Hindu canopies that crown the instruments, the marble and the stone used in the construction evoke the local architectural values”.
Today, students, scientists and tourists from many disciplines and cultures around the world understand that the Jantar Mantar of Jaipur is much more than a historical monument.
Located in the center of a thriving ancient city of fortresses and palaces, its monolithic structures continue to reflect the cosmos and create a lasting legacy.
This story was originally published on BBC Travel.Read the article in English here.
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