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Jaipur's Statesman Astronomer

A highlight of any visit to Jaipur is the stately terra-cotta-colored ensemble of the Jantar Mantar or “observational instrument.”  Although this cluster of structures might resemble a children’s playground, the Jantar Mantar is actually a set of massive, carefully-calibrated stone astronomical instruments each of which is dedicated has a specific purpose: they accurately calculate the time of day, determine true north, chart the movement of the celestial bodies through meridians, predict the arrival of monsoon season, and pinpoint the position of the north pole and the signs of the zodiac.

The observatory was the brainchild of one of the most enlightened maharaja of the 18th century: Jai Singh II (1688 - 1743).  Jai Singh ascended the throne at the age of eleven, after which his formal schooling ceased.  But the young ruler did not abandon the passion for mathematics and astronomy that had been kindled during his early studies of the two prominent schools of astrology and astronomy of his day: the Hindu and Islamic.  Jai Singh was familiar with the work of the Uzbek astronomer Ulugh Beg and the works of Ptolemy, but was frustrated by the lack of accuracy in the instruments of his day and dreamed of providing India with more accurate instruments.

Jai Singh lived during a dynamic time for discoveries, particularly in astronomy. Astronomers such as Copernicus and Kepler re-introduced the idea of a heliocentric universe to European academic circles and Newton published his Principa, which placed celestial mechanics on more of a firm footing.  Great strides in both mathematics and instrument building enabled many breakthroughs in man’s understanding of the architecture of the universe.  Jai Singh’s achievements astonished his contemporaries, including the sophisticated Jesuits astronomers he invited from nearby China who noted that the Jantar Mantar was a more accurate instrument than their own.

Despite a reign beset with complex political power struggles amongst the Indian princes and the constant threat of foreign invasion, Jai Singh continued to pursue his goal of providing India with most up-to-date astronomical instruments and he constructed a total of four observatories: in Jaipur, Delhi, Varanasi, and Ujjain, but the Jantar Mantar, which is still operative, was the culmination of his life’s work.

The Jantar Mantar today is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Indians revere it as a lasting monument to Jai Singh’s enlightened rule.

Alexander+Roberts help travelers discover the best of India, including a visit to Jaipur’s Jantar Mantar, through carefully curated itineraries such as The Land of the Maharajahs, always capped at 16 guests.

Posted: 12/7/2015 2:30:38 PM by Alexander + Roberts