March 31, 2009

Jantar Mantar

After being in Delhi for what’s hardly a short length of time, I finally went to the Jantar Mantar. It’s full of people during the day. And not one of them knows how exactly it works.

Although the Jantar Mantar was built only a few centuries ago, no records survive from the period when it was built which tell contemporary scientists how to use it. The only documents which are in existence are records of observations which are not especially useful in terms of understanding how the observations were conducted. What’s surprising is that in addition to none of the original blueprints being available, the records of subsequent restorations are not easily available either. This doesn’t mean that just the records of 19th century restorations are unavailable but also that records of just how the structure was reinforced with concrete sometime in the 1980s are (I'm told) unavailable.

What this effectively presumably means is that astrophysicists have no easy way of knowing what was a part of the original structure and what is a later addition (or removal).

The structures as they exist themselves are full of peculiarities and even if words like ‘declination’, ‘arc minute’ and ‘azimuth’ mean absolutely nothing to one, some of the peculiarities are visible to the naked eye. And if one doesn’t know what they mean, well, the experts aren’t sure themselves. They’ve made some comparisons with the Jaipur observatory and done some research themselves and, from what they have been able to figure out, it turns out that observations made using the Jantar Mantar are extremely accurate.

And that’s what the Jantar Mantar essentially is. For some reason though, every night, instead of being kept dark as it should be, the instruments are all lit up making the observatory unusable. To be fair though, if someone – meaning, presumably, someone with good credentials – does want to use the Jantar Mantar to observe the skies, the lights are switched off. Although, of course, there’s precious little that can be done about the light pollution in the area situated as it is in the heart of central Delhi’s commercial area.

For the lay person though, even if the thrill of actually using the instruments completely eludes one, just being there late at night is an experience in itself. The Jantar Mantar is surrounded by noisy streets and overlooked by big city buildings all lit up. The compound itself though is quiet and very peaceful. The symmetry and sheer beauty of the instruments is overwhelming. Sitting down on the lawns in the compound, it’s entirely possible to forget that one is in Delhi at all.