Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jantar Mantar Lecture, September 2010

Standing left to right
Ms Priya Paul, Chairperson Apeejay Park Hotels,
Shri Jawahar Sircar, Secretary Culture,
Ms Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, the author,
Shri Gautam Sengupta, DG ASI, at the book release

The author, delivering a public lecture at the book release

Book Launch of
Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh's Observatory in Delhi
by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
Price: Rs. 680, First Edition: 2010
ISBN 81- 903591- 1- 8

Published by Ambi Knowledge Resources Pvt Ltd
Address: Lower Ground Floor, C4/5 SDA ND 16
Telephone:011-49562700 email

Jantar Mantar: Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh's Observatory In Delhi
is available from:
21 B Pocket C
Siddharth Extension
New Delhi 110014
Ph: 01126341039
"Jantar Mantar" can also be bought
directly from the publisher, or by emailing the author at

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji's new book, an informative history and field guide, explains the enigma that is the Delhi Jantar Mantar. Based on over a decade of extensive research, it uses archival images, photographs, drawings and sketches, to unravel how the 300 year old Jantar Mantar Observatory looked and worked in the past. Carry this book to the Jantar Mantar and walk around the instruments with it. Or read it before and after your visit to understand one of the world’s most unusual and intriguing works of architecture.

Each instrument of the Jantar Mantar is explained separately as a guided ‘walk’. The book includes information on traditional Indian astronomy, and on the political and cultural background of this ‘royal observatory’ established by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. It not only traces its transformation into ‘an archaeological monument’, but also charts the way ahead by which the Delhi Jantar Mantar’s historical function may be revived and conserved for future generations.

Reproduced below is the text of the lecture delivered by the author at the launch of her book at the Jantar Mantar on 29 September 2010.

'Good evening, and welcome to the Jantar Mantar - the most enigmatic, perhaps the most photogenic, certainly the least understood of our city’s monuments.
When I started my research on the Jantar Mantar some ten years ago - despite training in architecture and conservation - I have to confess that I did not know much about it. Today, I know a little more, thanks largely to my association with the Jantar Mantar Project – the partnership venture between the ASI, the National Culture Fund and the Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels Ltd. The Project has supported research on uncovering facets about the form and function of the Jantar Mantar - as well as on improving its environs, and disseminating authentic information on it. It is also due to my association with the Jantar Mantar Project, that I have come into contact with institutions and organizations such as the Delhi Nehru Planetarium and the Delhi Amateur Astronomers Association which have helped me to understand the use of the instruments here – as indeed they have helped so many residents of Delhi and visitors to the Jantar Mantar.
I would like to share some of this understanding with you this evening.
The Jantar Mantar, has of course, always been somewhat of a mystery. Not just to you and to me, but even to most people 300 years ago, when it was located on the outskirts of Shahjahanabad - the new Delhi of that time. The fantastic forms of the Jantar Mantar are a complete contrast to the other famous architectural monuments built before, during or after it. Most European artists who visited India and Delhi in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries made it a point to visit this intriguing place and record it – in drawings, paintings and photographs. These images are just some of the more known representations of the Jantar Mantar. The Delhi Jantar Mantar has also inspired other creations, one of which is a structure erected 200 years ago in a pleasure park near Paris derived from an illustration of the Misra Yantra– the Yantra in front of which we have gathered today. The Misra Yantra is of course the instrument that is most associated with the Delhi Jantar Mantar; coincidentally this Yantra, was also the logo of the IXth Asian Games held at Delhi in 1982, an event commemorated with the release of a special 2 rupee coin designed with a graphic image of the same Yantra.
However, despite its evident popularity and repeated representation in diverse forms – ranging from the design of fun-fair rides in France to a national symbol for our country - information about the Delhi Jantar Mantar in the public realm is often contradictory and incorrect. There is no unanimity about who got it built, when it was constructed, its name, and even its purpose and value. Though originally referred to simply as the “Jantra’[1], it has been called the Yantra Mandir, the Yantra Mantra and the Jantar Mantar from the 19th century onwards. And while some consider the Jantar Mantar as an integral part of the scientific heritage of the world, others think of it just as an archaeological monument. Some writers go even further and dismiss the Jantar Mantar as an architectural whimsy.
Therefore before I speak about the appropriate way forward about how we must regard the Delhi Jantar Mantar today and for the future, it is important to clarify the basic facts about its background – and I shall do so very briefly.
To begin with, who was it built by?
The Jantar Mantar was conceived by Raja Sawai Jai Singh II and his advisors, and built in the reign of the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila, Aurangzeb’s great-grandson.
When was the Delhi Jantar Mantar built?
Probably between the years 1721-4, when the political relations between Jai Singh and the rulers of the Mughal Empire were most favourable, and Sawai Jai Singh’s schedule allowed him to remain in the Mughal imperial capital of Shahjahanabad continuously for two years - soon after the crowning of Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila. The first few instruments in the Delhi Jantar Mantar were in metal, and the built structures that we see here today were made after Jai Singh decided that metal instruments did not suit his purpose. However, the Misra Yantra - the Yantra we are gathered in front of - was not built in the reign of Jai Singh, but in that of his son, Sawai Madho Singh - thirty years after the rest of the Delhi Jantar Mantar.
Why was it built?
The Delhi Jantar Mantar was built to take accurate observations to update the older astronomical tables, on the basis of which the yearly calendars were made in the Mughal Empire. The set of new astronomical tables devised on the basis of the Delhi Jantar Mantar, the Zij-i-Muhammad Shahi was dedicated by Sawai Jai Singh to Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila, and was used to plan out forthcoming religious, agricultural, social and cultural activities throughout the Mughal Empire. The information in it was also utilized in the Pancangs - the traditional Hindu almanacs listing the different festivals, seasons, positions of the moons, eclipses and other such information. Such knowledge was put to practical use not only for marking time and seasonal changes, but also for accurate foretelling of natural calamities.
· How was it built?
Most of the Yantras that you see here are original creations of Jai Singh and his team. They were devised and built painstakingly after making many small working models in wood, stone or metal. The appropriate site was then chosen on Sawai Jai Singh’s ancestral land, Jaisinghpura, where we are standing today; the ground beneath each instrument was excavated and leveled perfectly with the help of channels filled with water – as can still be seen at the Jaipur Jantar Mantar. It was then marked out with north-south and east-west directions as detailed out in traditional astronomy manuals, and then constructed in local stone and lime mortar. Sawai Jai Singh, who funded and participated in experiments on astronomy and mathematics throughout his life, employed scholars from all faiths, his state-astronomers, his religious gurus, and expert masons to get the Delhi Jantar Mantar built. They built the instruments here partly below the surrounding ground level so as to make them stable and so that observations of the horizon would not be disturbed, and lessened the weight of the huge structures by scooping out arched openings within the walls. And finally plastered and rendered them in smooth white lime, and carefully marked them with measuring scales.
· What are its instruments, and what is their purpose?
Of the instruments that we still see at the Delhi Jantar Mantar, the three main ones from Sawai Jai Singh’s time are the Samrat Yantra, the Jai Prakash Yantra, and the Rama Yantra. A fourth instrument, the Shasthamsa Yantra, from the same time is no longer accessible. And the last masonry instrument here, the Misra Yantra, as mentioned earlier, was not part of the original range of instruments, but was designed later as a combination or a composite Yantra, chiefly perhaps as a demonstration tool.
Basically, all these instruments were designed to measure solar time, or the positions of objects in space. Of the three main Yantras, the Samrat, the central and the most imposing, was used to measure solar time, as well as to measure the sun’s declination. The Jai Prakash Yantra, was meant to measure local and universal coordinates of celestial bodies; it also had a secondary function of measuring solar time. The Rama Yantra, believed to have been named after Jai Singh’s great-grandfather, Raja Rama Singh was meant to measure local coordinates (in other words, the altitude and azimuth) of celestial bodies.
With these Yantras, Jai Singh’s team measured the positions of stars, the moon and the planets in the sky for about seven years, and recorded exactly when these measurements were taken. They then used these recordings to update older star positions. The instruments at the Jantar Mantar were also important for Jai Singh’s personal daily and special ritual practices. Observational astronomy in India, in fact, can be traced thousands of years back to the requirement for such rituals in the Vedic times. A temple dedicated to the Bal Bhairon Mandir still exists east of the Jantar Mantar, and was part of its original area, positioned in line with the earlier entrance to the Jantar Mantar.
· Thus, what is the value of the Jantar Mantar today?
We must recognize that the Delhi Jantar Mantar, as the first of the 18th century observatories constructed by Sawai Jai Singh II and containing many original instruments, is one of the most unique sets of buildings in the world. It has immense value as an educational and a cultural resource. Jai Singh wished to spur scientific interest amongst his people and to popularize observational astronomy, not limit it to an exclusive band of specialists. So, all the instruments that you see here today - though they are complex pieces of construction, are relatively simple to use - even for non-experts. Recent programmes by astronomers with schoolchildren and amateurs conducted at the Delhi Jantar Mantar have shown the success of Jai Singh’s premise. No other instruments anywhere in the world can demonstrate the movement of the earth and the planets with such clarity. No other instruments are so easily accessible to an ordinary person. They are in fact, particularly suited not just to observe the skies, but also to demonstrate principles of spherical trigonometry, physics, mathematics and geography. They also serve as a reminder that in any time or any age, individuals who have convictions, can still make lasting contributions.
However, our understanding of the value of the Delhi Jantar Mantar so far, has been mainly derived from the largely subjective accounts of science and technology in India by European amateur and professional researchers from the mid-18th century onwards. By this time, it was more than a hundred and fifty years since the British East India Company had engaged in planned exploitation under the name of commerce, resulting in the loss of much of our traditional scientific and artistic knowledge. Later, when the British Empire became a reality, the prevailing outlook of most researchers also became influenced by their belief in the superiority of their race, culture and religion. It is with this background that we must understand why such earlier researchers have downplayed or dismissed the scientific value of the Jantar Mantars. In actual fact, with these very same Yantras, Jai Singh’s astronomers were able to take many useful observations, reveal new data, and correct the errors not just in older tables used in the Indian subcontinent but also in prevalent European ones. The Delhi Jantar Mantar thus must be appreciated for its value in measuring time and plotting positions of objects in the sky, instead of seeing it merely as a collection of intriguing architectural shapes or archaeological remains.
· And so, what is the manner in which we should regard the Delhi Jantar Mantar today – and how should we conserve it for the future?
The Delhi Jantar Mantar has in the past been conserved as an urban garden in the tradition of an English landscape, rather than as a medieval Indian observatory. Its first major conservation exercise in the beginning of the 20th century—about one hundred and fifty years after its establishment—though undertaken with the help of the court-astronomer of Jaipur and funds from the then Jaipur Raja - was supervised by British engineers who chose to conserve its Yantras as a collection of monuments rather than as precise instruments of astronomy. They were thus regarded and presented as ‘architectural follies’ amidst a plantation of tall palm trees. The foreground to the Jantar Mantar was also taken over shortly after this conservation exercise, by the building of Imperial New Delhi, which appropriated much of Jai Singh’s ancestral land, to make Connaught Place and the roads leading up to Parliament House. The immediate surroundings of the Jantar Mantar changed further with the construction of many buildings surrounding it.
These interventions have reduced the area and the function, and even the perception of the Observatory. Today we see the Jantar Mantar quite differently from what it was in the 18th century. We enter it from a completely different direction from what Jai Singh did. And we often miss the point of its construction completely. One writer in the 21st century has even termed the building of the Jantar Mantars as ‘a case of a headstrong monarch looking to construct huge and extravagant monuments for himself’.[2]
It is true that the Delhi Observatory has not been used for purposes of astronomy for more than 200 years. It is also true that most of the calibrations made by Jai Singh’s master-masons have been lost. The skyline around the Jantar Mantar has been taken over by tall trees, and even taller buildings. We naturally cannot change all of these. However, it is still possible to revive the function of the Yantras at the Delhi Jantar Mantar – which even in this reduced state - contain much of their original built components. They can still be effectively used to measure local solar time, observe stars and calculate positions of celestial objects. As Dr. Rathnasree, the Director of the Nehru Planetarium, has said: ‘300 years after they were built—they are still the easiest access...of doing celestial co-ordinate measurements’.
It is this aspect of the Jantar Mantar that must be reinstated. For this, it is of course, imperative that the Yantras must be physically conserved using building materials compatible with the original materials used by Jai Singh’s masons, as well as by accurately recalibrating the measuring surfaces. At the same time, it is necessary to understand that the function of the Yantras is the most important reason for their existence - this is why they were constructed, and any conservation which ignores their historical function or compromises or jeopardises it in any way, is self-defeating. It is only by bringing the Yantras back into sustained public use will we be able to conserve the spirit and form of the Jantar Mantar.
This is what I have come to realize due to my association with the Jantar Mantar Project, whose conservation philosophy has been directed by the understanding that the Yantras of the Delhi Jantar Mantar must be brought back into use. And this, among other related issues, is what I would like to share through my new book. The book aims to familiarise visitors with the instruments and their functions as well as the history of the Jantar Mantar. However, unlike conventional histories, the book also tackles the question about the future of the Delhi Jantar Mantar.
In keeping with Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh’s wish that the instruments be used by anyone interested in the study of astronomy, it is written with the hope that such knowledge as has been gained, is shared with as many people as possible without recourse to jargon. Perhaps through the book, an awareness of the real value of the Jantar Mantar may move beyond this gathering to many more of us. So that we never have a situation where we desecrate or vandalise the Jantar Mantar in such a shameful way - or indeed any of our monuments in any guise or in any form.
I strongly believe, in the words of the historian Claude Alvares:
‘All histories are elaborate efforts at myth-making. Therefore, when we submit to histories about us, written by others, we submit to their myths about us as well. Myth-making, like naming, is a token of having power...If we must continue to live by myths, however, it is far better we choose to live by those of our own making rather than by those invented by others for their own purposes...That much at least we owe ourselves as an independent society and nation.’

Thank you!

[1] V. N. Sharma, pp. 99
[2] P. 103, A. Volwahsen


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  3. I guess i share a lot with Jantar Mantar too ... having joined SPA in '82 and subsequently, the delhi amateur astronomer's association due to my continuing interest in the field. Besides having made friends with an israeli couple there, and sketched and photographed @ jantar mantar!
    This link is to one of the better snaps i took there, quite some time ago ...
    Still on your book... :{)-