Jantar Mantar: Jaipur’s astronomical observatory
Just a four hour drive from New Delhi is Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital city. Founded in 1727 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, Jaipur is now a part of the Golden Triangle Tourist Circuit which also includes Agra and Delhi. Jaipur holds several fascinating attractions for tourists including the City Palace, the nearby Amer Fort and the Jantar Mantar. The Jantar Mantar is an astronomical observatory built alongside the construction of Jaipur City by Sawai Jai Singh. The Sawai, or King, was a skilled scholar. He had a good grasp on cosmological concepts and understood the importance of accurate readings and predictions. His interest in understand the skies drove him to build the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur and Delhi. The Jaipur Jantar Mantar is one of the best preserved in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Jantar Mantar is essentially a collection of astronomical instruments that can be used to determine Jaipur’s local time, the positions of constellations, the hemispherical position of heavenly bodies, the location of the Pole Star, the altitude of stars and other celestial bodies and so on. It a stunning complex of architectural masonry structures made primarily of red sandstone and marble. The instruments rely on their geometric precision and they play with shadows on the Earth to come up with the positions of the stars. No batteries or complex technology is used. All you have to do is wander around the complex, find the perfect angle and gaze at the skies.
As you enter Jantar Mantar, the first instrument that catches your eye is the sundial. It is constructed at an angle of 27 degrees, which is the latitude of Jaipur. The plane remains parallel to the axis of the rotation of the earth and thus it can tell you Jaipur’s local time with precision of up to 20 seconds.
Then next construction you come across in the Jantar Mantar is the Dhruv Darshak Pattika. The simplest construction on the site, the Dhruv Darshak Pattika solely points to the pole star when you level yourself against the slope. Just as we use a hand held compass today, this structure was used as a compass in those times.
You can also see the Yantra Raj, an instrument which is considered the most sophisticated in this site. Sawai Jai Singh has written two volumes on this massive metal disc of two meters diameter. It is used for a variety of astronomical calculations and is the most studied of the instruments in the Jantar Mantar.
Next comes the Nadivala Yantra, which is a couple of circular dials inclined towards the North and the South respectively. These dials are sunlit in different equinox periods, the North being lit between Spring equinox and Autumn equinox and vice versa. This construction helps tell the time as well as the hemispherical position of celestial bodies.
The biggest structure in the Jantar Mantar is the Samrat Yantra. It is one of the world’s largest sundials and can tell the time with a precision of two seconds. Samrat Yantra means the Supreme instrument, and supreme it is. You can watch the movement of the shadow of the sun as it is very visible on the Samrat Yantra with an observable movement of one millimetre per second. This is quite an intense experience. It makes you feel like you are watching one of the time lapse videos that are so popular on the internet nowadays. This sundial is also used to this day to forecast the rains. A thin cloth flag is hoisted at the top of the structure and the flow of the wind helped astronomers predict the movement of Monsoon with the direction of the wind signifying different outcomes. You will notice that these giant instruments have little windows in them. While it may seem like they serve only as decorations, the windows actually help wind pass through thus decreasing the risk to the structures.
From here, as you look across the Jantar Mantar, you can see miniature versions of the Samrat Yantra that serve an entirely different purpose. Each of the constructions represents a separate ‘Rashi’ or Sun Sign. This Rashi Valay of twelve sun signs is used to calculate the position of the celestial bodies at a particular point of time.
One of the most interesting structure is the Jai Prakash Yantra. This was conceptualized and designed by Raja Jai Singh himself. It consists of a massive depression in the ground that looks like a bowl. This marble bowl is inscribed with latitudes and longitudes of the sky, the twelve zodiac signs and it literally the heavens under your feet. A ring is suspended across it by threads. This ring represents the sun and the shadow of the sun that falls through it on the marble bowl helps you estimate a variety of astronomical calculations and also helps verify the other constructions in the site. At night, one would have to climb down into the bowl and observe the skies through the ring for calculations.
There are several such interesting structures and constructions in the complex. While there are placards explaining the function of these structures, it is advisable to take along a guide who would explain demonstrate how to use them.
While Jantar Mantar directly translates to ‘Calculation instrument’, this place also holds a religious significance as it is also used by Indian Vedic astrologers to arrive upon auspicious wedding dates. It is considered one of the best surviving physical manifestations of Vedic work. For posterity, students of astrology as required to understand this observatory and take their lessons here.
The Jantar Mantar is definitely worth a visit for anyone who is interested in history, astrology, astronomy or anyone who just loves to lie down on the grass and gaze up at the wondrous skies.
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