Architecture at the Service of Science: Jantar Mantar, Astronomical Observatories in India
“in downtown New Delhi, huge curved structures sink in the ground, taking the form of a ramp. Amorphous voids mark the great twisted walls. The color red marks the structures and sets them apart from everything else.”
This could describe a playground or even a skate park, but it is one of five astronomical observatories built in India between 1724 and 1738. These mazy volumes, which look more like a materialization of Escher’s drawings, were conceived by the Indian prince Jai Singh as part of an ambitious project that is sought to put architecture at the service of science. Their shapes make complex astronomical analysis possible, such as predicting eclipses, tracking the location of stars, and determining Earth’s exact orbit around the Sun.
The first observatories, built by Greeks and Persians, contained elements that were incorporated into this project, however, none are as complex and on such a large scale as those of Jai Singh. Its five observatories were built in different cities in India, quite far from each other, indicating the search for precision, so valued by its creator, since, in this way, it would be possible to compare readings from different coordinates. However, some say that this effort also served to strengthen Jai Singh’s political position, increasing his notoriety. The five structures became known as “Jantar Mantar” (“jantar” derives from “yantra”, an instrument in Sanskrit and “mantar” derives from “mantrana”, which means to consult or calculate).
Regardless of its real intention, the grandeur of the work has fascinated visitors and enthusiasts for centuries, emphasizing the astronomical precision made possible by the architecture itself, built at a time when the telescope was already used in Europe. In fact, this is one of the great controversies that span the history of observatories, that is, the reason why the Indian prince built such a grandiose work and at the same time so outdated in terms of technology is a recurring question.
One of the answers states that communication between West and East in the 18th century was very limited, some even claim that the prince would not have become aware of such technology due to a decision of his interlocutors who disagreed with heliocentric theories and hid the existence of telescopes. However, his attitude can be justified by a simple difference of perspective since the observatories were conceived under the influence of Islamic astronomy which, the West, understood science in an integrated aspect with the sacred. The latter version was taken into account when the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, stating that its inclusion was due to the fact that the observatory “bears witness to ancient cosmological, astronomical and scientific traditions, shared by a large body of Western, Middle Eastern, Asian and African religions over a period of more than fifteen centuries.”
In this way, to walk through these structures is to understand the “refusal” of technology to the detriment of an architecture that represents a historical culture which embraces the richness of sensory experience in its arts and sciences. It is about the materialization of a way of life in which the observation of natural phenomena, including the movement of stars and planets, is part of the worldview and delimits a series of practices, such as religious rituals, agricultural work, even personal decisions of when or whom to marry. Observatories, therefore, represent much more than the authority of a leader, deciding the dates of important events such as wars, parties and weddings. A devotion that Prince Jai Singh took very seriously, as the city of Jaipur itself – the first planned in the country, located in the semi-desert lands of Rajasthan – was astrologically oriented towards its rising sign, according to its founding date.
In order to show stability and permanence, the unusual volumes and striking shapes were built in stone and masonry, distancing themselves from the lack of precision of the metallic instruments used at the time, such as the astrolabe. According to the research commissioned by Jai Singh, these instruments would have lost accuracy due to the wear and tear of their moving parts, so he decided to create solid and large-scale volumes, also increasing the accuracy due to their size. Among the dozens of structures, perhaps the most impressive is the 27-meter-tall construction whose shadow moves at a speed of four meters an hour.
Of the five observatories, all but one still exist and are open to the public. Their static and grandiose forms are confronted in a space that is both aesthetic and mathematical, fascinating tourists but also offering the city’s residents a place for contemplation and relaxation. Just as Júlio Cortázar (1914-1984), renowned Argentine writer, wrote when he visited them during his visit to India in the 1950s, Jantar Mantares are places where we realize the “hole in the web of time, this way of being between, not above or behind but between […] this orifice hour to which we gain access in the lee of other hours, of the immeasurable life with its hours ahead and on the side, it’s time for each thing, its things at the precise time.”