by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
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Above: One of the Conceptual Figures in the book explaining the geometry of the structures
Featured below in 'Book Mark' is the preface of our columnist Anisha Shekhar Mukherji's brilliant and well researched field book on Jantar Mantar
Preface: to the Book
Jantar Mantar in Delhi - unique site of struggle, open air podium for the distressed, a kind of safety valve for India’s myriad pressure cookers is awash with colour. Five thousand Tibetans from across the country are camping on the street. Every few minutes, a new procession is launched, renting the air with slogans in Hindi and English and Tibetan. (Shoma Chauhdary, ‘Less Love More Politics’, Tehelka[i])
When I read this description of the Delhi Jantar Mantar in the spring of 2008, I realised that what its name now evokes amongst most people is a place where dharnas, generally peaceful demonstrations, are held practically everyday. The pavements next to its boundary are one of the few remaining places in the capital where an otherwise unheard people—Gandhian freedom-fighters, gay activists, parents of missing children, riot victims, environmentalists, villagers protesting against the take-over of their lands for Special Economic Zones—may raise their voices legitimately, if only briefly, against various aspects of the ruling process. And hope that their words will reach the ears of politicians in the Parliament Hall a few kilometers down the road. The temporary cloth banners of the demonstrators against the groups of khaki policemen often stationed to watch them, have taken over the physical foreground as well as the symbolic image of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh’s Jantar Mantar Observatory. Mainstream newspapers term it ‘India’s protest bhoomi, the magnet which draws everyone who has a cause’[ii].
This additional dimension to the Delhi Jantar Mantar, which has made it a familiar name to practically every literate or politically aware person in the country, has a history of just a few decades. It has eclipsed the far older cultural importance of the Jantar Mantar. It has also come at the cost of a reduction in the original area of the Observatory—caused by the location of the main road leading to the Parliament Hall right next to it and the construction of British Imperial Delhi in the vicinity.
In the late summer of 1999 when I first came to the Jantar Mantar amidst the noise and activity of New Delhi’s Central Business District, my focus was primarily on what was inside it rather than around it. I was trying to understand these unusual buildings as a prelude to proposing how their environs might be improved from an architectural conservation perspective. Like most residents of Delhi, I had been long intrigued by the arresting three hundred year old instruments of the Observatory, about whose exact purpose most history books had little to say—even those prescribed in architecture colleges. Though visually so striking that no one can ignore them, there is very little authentic information available about the Jantar Mantar Observatories established by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh. There has been some controversy about who constructed them, ever since the Transactions of the British Royal Society in 1777 published an account by Sir Robert Barker, which stated that the Benaras Jantar Mantar was built in the 16th century during Emperor Akbar’s reign. Even the famously meticulous fi lm director and writer Satyajit Ray, while describing an incident set in the Delhi Jantar Mantar in one of the stories about his popular fictional detective Feluda, mistakenly credits its construction to Raja Man Singh, Sawai Jai Singh’s ancestor and Akbar’s trusted general.
The first book that I turned to, to understand how these instruments work or how and why they were built, was The Astronomical Observatories of Jai Singh, Archaeological Survey of India New Imperial Series Volume XL, by George R. Kaye. This standard reference for the Jantar Mantar was published in 1918 when British imperialist policy was at its height and when it was believed that practically everything scientifi c and rational in the world owed itself to European invention. The circumstances of that time made it diffi cult for Kaye to comprehend in entirety the Jantar Mantar’s instruments or to concede all their uses. He was, of course, only following the lead of earlier British researchers whose accounts were infl uenced as much by their inherent political, cultural and religious beliefs, as well as the conviction of the superiority of their race. This was why even the more broad-minded of them, such as William Hunter, who visited Jai Singh’s Observatories in the 18th century, could write with perfect confi dence and in good faith: I have always thought, that after having convinced the Eastern nations of our superiority in policy and in arms, nothing can contribute more to the extension of our national glory, than a diffusion among them of a taste for European science[iii]. The general perception about the Jantar Mantars even today—that they are whimsical, goodintentioned, but not very useful—is a continuation of Kaye’s analysis of Jai Singh’s Observatories. Extensive documentation by Dharampal, a Gandhian historian, freedom-fi ghter and social worker, clearly reveals that such analysis by British amateur and professional researchers during colonial times—which still directs our notion of the value of ‘European science’—was part of a larger policy. Traditional Indian knowledge was officially derided but was extensively recorded, exported and often passed off as being of European origin, to the material and intellectual loss of its original civilization. Ironically, independent India has done very little to correct this perception or revive either such knowledge or its practitioners. As the archaeologist, Dileep K. Chakrabarti, has written: ‘…theoretical premises of the Western study of ancient India …developed in response to the colonial need to manipulate the Indians’ perception of their past. The need was felt most strongly from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, and an elaborate racist framework in which the interrelationship between race, language and culture was a key element, slowly emerged as an explanation of the ancient Indian historical universe. The measure of its success is evident from the fact that the Indian nationalist historians left this framework unchallenged, preferring to dispute it only in some comparative minor matters of detail’[iv].
Most of us thus, continue to believe that indigenous Indian science can never have been comparable to—much less superior to—Western knowledge. The reality of course, is that Indian knowledge systems gave rise to many scientific inventions and innovations which have fostered development across the world. We must also, as the scientist C. V. Seshadri points out, recognize that notions of science ‘...accepted as absolutely self-evident...or as arising out of a “scientific method” are really based on very deep seated cultural roots that need not necessarily be universal...’ and therefore the importance of ‘...evolving our own knowledge system...so that we can learn for ourselves of ourselves’[v].
The Jantar Mantars represent a facet of Maharaja Jai Singh’s efforts in propagating such a system of knowledge three hundred years ago.
[i] 26 April 2008, Vol 5, Issue 16, New Delhi, p. 30.
[ii] The Times of India, 3 July 2009
[iii] W. Hunter, Asiatic Researches, Vol. Five, ‘Some Account of the Astronomical Labours of Jayasinha, Rajah of Ambhere or Jayanagar’, p. 210.
[iv] Dileep K. Chakrabarti, The Battle for Ancient India, p. 4.
[v] Rajni Bakshi, ‘C.V. Seshadri’, Bapukuti, pp. 173-4 and 176-7.
Editor: Manohar Khushalani
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About the author
Anisha Shekhar Mukherji graduated from the
Anisha works selectively as a conservation consultant, architectural historian and an independent researcher, within the ambit of being a full-time mother to her five year old daughter. She also teaches as visiting faculty at the