Measuring the heavens and the steps

From the Palace of Winds we strolled through a marketplace that featured mostly household equipment. I like this kind of market because it’s not for tourists, and you get a good sense of what families need in their daily life.

These huge pans (trays?) caught my attention and I asked what they were for.

“It’s to organize food for five or six hundred people,” the vendor told me.

“Five or six hundred people?” I gasped, “Does that happen often?”

“In India, yes.”

Jack wanted to shop for a new ship’s clock but I was on a mission. Ever since I read about Jantar Mantar, an 18th century astronomical observatory, it’s been marked as “want to go” on my Google map.

But despite it being right there on the map, finding the entrance required the usual twisty turny back alley traffic dodging, death defying crawl we’ve come to accept as shank’s mare in India.

Finally we arrived.

Jantar Mantar is a collection of huge masonry instruments to measure time, predict eclipses and track the position and movements of celestial bodies. The observatory is one of five built by Raja Jai Singh II and the largest. It was completed in 1734. The raja believed these large structures could produce more accurate readings than the small brass instruments commonly used in the period.

There are 19 instruments, each designed for a specific measurement.

One of my very favorite college courses was History of Cosmology, how we humans have tried to understand, describe, and predict the heavens above us. It’s interesting to see how our understanding of the universe evolves over time, and continues to change with new data. Jai Singh II was a student of the Ptolemaic model but noticed that observed positions of certain celestial objects didn’t match the predictions on the data tables in use at the time. The observatories he built were meant to create more accurate tables, using only the naked eye.

It takes some time and effort to examine each instrument and understand its design and purpose and the geometry involved. I could have spent days there. Not only is the science compelling, but the planes and curves of the structures themselves make for constantly changing patterns of light and shadow.

The Rasivalayas Yantra is a unique instrument comprising twelve structures corresponding to the constellations of the zodiac. Each is precisely oriented to indicate the moment a particular sign crosses the meridian. If ever I wished for a drone or a really long arm, it was at this place. You can find an overhead shot here.

Of course we had to find our signs.

The most prominent feature of Jantar Mantar is the enormous Vrihat Samrat Yantra, the world’s largest sundial, said to be accurate to two seconds. The gnomon is 27m tall and you can see the shadow move about 6cm a minute. It’s hard to stop watching.

By the clock on my phone it was dead on, at least to the minute.

On display inside a small building are an orrery and an early globe.

Like I said, I could have stayed for at least the rest of the day, examining each instrument in turn. But we had one more hill to climb.

Ok, it’s not a hill but a great big tower, the 43m Isarlat, built to commemorate the victory of Swai Ishwari Singh in the battle for succession in 1749.

Longtime readers know that for me very high places are to be avoided. But Jack likes company in his quest for the tippy top of wherever we are so here’s me playing along. Notice there are no steps, just a continuous undulating spiral ramp, ribbed for your pleasure.

The view from the top is admittedly wonderful, as long as you don’t look straight down, and my hands are sweating just typing this.

You can see the places we visited today, the Palace of Winds, back right, and the tall sundial gnomon of the observatory, center left.

These three fellows struck up a conversation and answered a lot of questions for us, which took my mind off how high up we were. By coincidence we ran into them again the next day at the Amber fort, which thrilled us all no end and led to another round of photos.


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2 Responses to Measuring the heavens and the steps

  1. Suzy O'Hanlon Capenos

    So many cool places. Steps. Architecture. People. Winds. A clear sky. Looks wonderful.

  2. John D Halbrook

    You two have to read “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo. An account of some of the residents of a Mumbai slum, partially hidden from traffic by a giant billboard. At its center is a Muslim boy, sitting everyday by his hut, buying a selling garbage It is one of the most astonishing books I have ever read. It will break open your heart.

    I’m loving your adventures in India. I lived in New Delhi with my parents in 1955 and 1956, attended an American School that was very British. Had a wonderful tree house. I’ve never been back.

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