Jantar Mantar, Jaipur or the Problematization of Science-Culture Divide

Founded in the 18th Century by Majarajah Sawaii Jai Singh II (Jai Singh), Jaipur is the largest city in the Indian province of Rajasthan.

As a planned-city (often, it is cited as the country’s example of a well-planned city), Jaipur is called the Pink City in reference to its distinctly colored buildings: painted almost pinkish giving an impression of red sandstones.

One of the gates to enter the Pink City (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

According to many travel websites, the pinkish color was intended to imitate the architecture of the Maugham cities in the United Kingdom. In a way, this is a physical manifestation of the postcolonial dictum of “almost but not quite” popularized by the Indian postcolonialist Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture.

This is the Hawa Mahal. According to a travel website, the Hawa Mahal is Jaipur’s most distinctive landmark, being an extraordinary pink-painted delicately honeycombed hive that rises a dizzying five stories. (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Jaipur is a major tourist attraction among Indian nationals as well as foreign tourists.  As a tourist destination, the city belongs to what is known in India as the Golden Triangle. Joining Jaipur is Delhi (popular for the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Red Fort) and Agra (popular for another UNESCO WHS and probably the most popular monument in India: The Taj Mahal).

A small sundial located near the entrance of the observatory (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

As of the writing of this blog, Jaipur (“Jaipur City, Rajasthan India“) is one of the 42 sites included in the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites from India. Included on 15 April 2015, the nomination is based on criteria (ii) and criteria (v). To wit, the nomination reads: “the historic architecture and town planning of the city exhibited an important interchange of Mughal and Rajput ideas in architecture and town planning over the late medieval period and came to be recognised as one of the role models in town planning across the globe.  gets its name from its founder Maharaja Jai Singh II (1693-1744) the great warrior and astronomer” and “Jaipur clearly represents a dramatic departure from extant medieval cities with its ordered, grid-like structure – broad streets, criss-crossing at right angles, earmarked sites for buildings, palaces, havelis, temples and gardens, neighbourhoods designated for caste and occupation.”

Mock-up/Scale model of the magnificent Sundial (see Featured Photo above) (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

I believe UNESCO is going to evaluate the nomination in 2019. However, Jaipur is also home to another WHS: the Jantar Mantar, Jaipur, an 18th-century observatory built by Jai Singh, the same ruler who founded the city in 1727.

A smaller version of the sundial (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

According to the tour guide who accompanied us (I was with my Asian Theatre Working Group colleagues when I visited the observatory) at the site, there are five observatories in all of India. All of them were built by Jai Sing and all of them are called Jantar Mantar. There is one in Delhi, another in Ujjain, and two others in cities I no longer remember (Wikipedia lists: Varanasi and Mathura).

One of the two Jai Prakash Yantra (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

The largest and to date the only functional is the observatory in Jaipur, which includes a set of 20 astronomical instruments.

Another functional instrument found in the observatory (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Also, our tour guide narrated that Jai Singh built the observatory because he noticed that the astronomical language used back then, especially those which predicted the positions of the moon, the stars, the sun, and other “heavenly bodies” did not match the positions calculated by the astronomical book they were using. In this regard, Jai Singh was motivated to create a more accurate astronomical language and an astronomical matrix system – which in my opinion, a manifestation of a specific Indian cultural practice (i.e. local technological culture) combined with what is believed to be the universality of science.

Another functional instrument found in the Jantar Mantar. Unfortunately, I do not remember how it works. If I am not mistaken, it is used to measure latitudes (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

One of the astronomical instruments memorable for me is the Jai Prakash Yantra, two hemispherical bowl-based sundials with marked marble inscriptions. It was memorable because it was the only instrument I was able to actually move freely. The other instruments were “off limits” to visitors – for preservation purposes (which is really understandable). I believe the tour guide mentioned that the markings (and holes) in the bowls indicate inverted images of the sky. The purpose of the markings, especially the holes allows an observer to move inside the instrument. When hit by the sun, the shadows (I think) measure altitudes, azimuths, hour angles, and declinations.

The Vrihat Samrat Yantra, the world’s largest sundial. On top of it, is the dome-like structure called chattri (a small cupola) used as an observation deck. (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

There was also the observation deck located at the topmost area of the Vrihat Samrat Yantra. Unfortunately, going there was off-limits to visitors. But this limitation did not reduce the magnificence of the world’s largest sundial. Literally, Vrihat Samrat Yantra means the “great king of instruments.” The brochure handed to us indicate that it is 88 feet (27 m) high and its shadow still tells the time of day. This giant marvel’s “face” is angled at 27 degrees, which as the tour guide explained, the latitude of Jaipur. There is a small dome (and yes, this is the observation deck), used as a platform for announcing eclipses and the arrival of monsoons.

It seems this circular instrument is used to record the equatorial latitude – but I am not sure though. (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

The WHS file states “the observatory was a meeting point for different scientific cultures, and gave rise to widespread social practices linked to cosmology.” I also believe that the observatory is an embodiment of artistic cultural practices where a cosmological language is communicated through a localized sense of science.

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