Astrology, Celestial rhythyms and a new Black Hole in the Jaipur Observatory of Mararajah Jai Sing II


Hugh Paxton’s Blog recommends the following to anybody visiting Jaipur. And anybody interested in Indian astrology. Or astronomy. Or travelling I India with a 12 year-old-daughter.

We begin!

(AD 1719) Maharajah Jai Singh II, annoyed by a pointless and heated discussion on astronomical calculations in the court of the Mughal emperor, Muhammad Singh, decided to educate everybody in the kingdom regarding astronomy.

“He then initiated an ambitious programme of observing celestial bodies with instruments of brass, constructed according to the Persian-Arabic school of astronomy.”*

While sitting in his Amber Place overlooking the dry and dusty hills of Jaipur he decided that he knew better. I’d like to think he hurled both his Persian-Arab astronomers over a cliff along with their brass and inaccuracies while twirling his Mughal moustache and dismissing his eunuchs and nine wives with an impatient flourish. But if he did there is no mention made of that.

He sourced local materials (bronze, clay, mortar) and then sent emissaries on exceptionally long journeys. Of interest was the late Turkish royal astronomer, Ulugh Beg of 15th century Samarkand, the then epitome of astronomical science. Greece, also of interest (the Maharaja stuck to Pisces, Gemini etc.), the British of particular fascination especially Newton (who could not be interested in Newton?), and there in Islam, in discrete but thinking Lebanon and Syrian households untroubled by the current vulgar hatreds and bestial imbecilities, there was more to learn.

What I really like about this whole thing is.everything! How good does this get! A Mughal Maharajah sending forth scholars by camel, horse, ship, on foot from his Amber Palace and when they all get back (assuming they haven’t been shot, fallen in love and decided to stay somewhere else, been offered a better job etc.) he decides to improve on everything and get it right!

Which he did. And here in Jaipur (and in four other cities) his massive sculptured instruments are still telling the time in a way Rolex can never hope to aspire to. World Heritage Site status has justifiably been bestowed!

So, yes, five of these grandiose planetariums exist (one in poor shape).

Delhi: “The Samrat Yantra is the most striking.It consists of an equinoctial dial – a triangular gnomon with the hypotenuse parallel to the earth’s axis. On either side of the gnomon is a quadrant of a circle parallel to the plane of the equator.The Sundial is used to measure the declination and other related coordinates of various celestial bodies.”

And so on. And so forth!

(AD 2016 – last week).

While visiting and marveling at the vision, curiosity, energy, and obstinacy of the late Jai Singh I also felt complete admiration for the man. He didn’t just build a series of fantastic but accurate observatories, he also envisioned the perfect city, built that, too. And forts. And palaces. All a bit scruffy now, over populated with swarms of domestic tourists taking selfies and foreign tourists succumbing to the temptation. But the tour guides of the astronomical areas take this endeavor seriously.

Which my beloved daughter didn’t. Thank Gawd he didn’t notice this yawn! Erin, Midi, myself – enthralled. Annabel, well who can blame her? A bunch of boring grownups milling around in the baking sun blathering about the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and Greenwich Observatory and Jaipur Mean Time and angles of 27 degrees and fate and human destiny intertwined with forces incomprehensible and beyond control and precision mathematics and…who gives a damn fa chrissakes! “I’d rather be watching Teen Wolf! At least that’s realistic!”

The yawn was caught accidentally by my beloved wife. Glad it was. A new Black Hole might upset the celestial alignments! And I’d hate to see my daughter impaled on a 300 year old astrolabe by an angry contemporary Indian astrologer!


*With thanks to the Rajasthan Tourism people. Check Jantar Mantar. Get a govt guide. If you don’t you will have absolutely no idea what is going on. Expect him to be interesting and interested. Expect no patience. “Joking for later. Photos for later. Please jolly well listen.” And why not? There is mention made of a son et lumiere, a sound and light show conducted after dark. Well worth a look. If you value your life, make jokes later and don’t start snoring!

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