Home Travel Why the Jaipur Jantar Mantar is a must visit!

Why the Jaipur Jantar Mantar is a must visit!

The Jantar Mantar, a popular landmark in Delhi, was the first of the five observatories built in 18th-century India. The largest of them, and the most magnificent though, is located in Jaipur.

Sandwiched between the dazzling gates of the City Palace and the architectural splendour of the Hawa Mahal jharokhas, is the Jantar Mantar of Jaipur. A collection of large-scale astronomical devices made of stone and brass, which could measure time, predict eclipses, map the orbit of stars and calculate distances between planets. This 18th century astronomical marvel was constructed by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II (after who, the city is named).

Portrait of Sawai Jai Singh who created the Jantar Mantar
A scholar and a pioneer, Maharaja Jai Singh II had earned himself the title ‘Sawai’ (meaning one and a quarter) from the Mughal King Aurangzeb for his sharp wit – he was ‘One and a quarter’ times sharper than the rest. Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II ca 1725 Jaipur. Image source: British Museum

This historically and scientifically relevant site played a vital role in the development of the study of Astronomy in India.

The idea of the Jantar Mantar:

In 1719, there was a heated argument in the court of the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah II ‘Rangeela’, over determining an auspicious date for the Emperor to undertake an important journey. All astronomers of the court presented varied calculations and couldn’t seem to agree on a date. At this time, Sawai Jai Singh II was quick to highlight the discrepancies in the Zij (the Islamic astronomical book), and put forth a proposal to bring more accuracy to astronomical calculations.

To this end, he built 5 observatories at sites that had historical, cultural or political significance:

  • Delhi was capital of the Mughal Empire
  • Ujjain, the capital of Malwa was also on the prime meridian established by the ancient Hindu canons of astronomy
  • Varanasi was an ancient centre of learning and Mathura was the legendary city of Krishna
  • He also sought to build one in Jaipur – the capital city of his kingdom

The astronomical tables created by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II was called Zij-i-Muhammad Shahi: a dedication to the Mughal Emperor.

Jaipur Jantar Mantar instruments
Jantar Mantar at Jaipur. © Ibrahim Rifath

The term ‘Jantar’ comes from the Sanskrit term ‘Yantra’ which means instrument. Together with ‘Mantra’ (calculate), Jantar Mantar literally means ‘calculating instrument’.

#DidYouKnow: Sawai Jai Singh's chief astronomer was Pandit Jagannatha Samrat who was a major influence in the design of the Jantar Mantar! Click To Tweet

With 19 instruments spread out over almost 5 acres, Jantar Mantar should definitely be on your Jaipur itinerary. Here are 5 reasons why:

1) Tell the time using one of the world’s largest sundials!

Samrat Yantras or sundials are not too complex and had been developed hundreds of years before the construction of the observatory. But the one at Jaipur measured time to a precision that had never been achieved before. Standing tall at 27 metres it is one of the world’s largest sundials!

It is capable of measuring time to an accuracy of two seconds. Can you imagine standing here and tracking the passing of time?

Samrat Yantra Jaipur Jantar Mantar
Samrat Yantra at Jaipur Jantar Mantar. The essential parts of the Samrat Yantra are the gnomon, a triangular wall with its hypotenuse parallel to earth’s axis, and a pair of quadrants on either side, lying parallel to the plane of the equator. On a clear day, as the sun passes from east to west, the shadow of the gnomon falls on the scale of the quadrant, indicating local time.

The Hindu Chattri at the top of Samrat Yantra was used to announce eclipses or the onset of monsoons.

hindu chattri perched on the Samrat Yantra at Jaipur Jantar Mantar

2) Find your Zodiac-painting at the Rasivalayas Yantra

The 12 instruments of the Rasivalayas Yantra measure the latitude and longitude of a celestial object. Each instrument corresponds to a specific sign of the zodiac. Track your constellation along the Sun’s path and keep an eye out for your zodiac painting!
These miniatures painted inside the arches of the Rasivalayas Yantra can be missed easily because of their small size (just 12” x 15”) but make for perfect postcard-pictures. You’ll find the painting of your zodiac under the arch of the instrument that measures that particular constellation!

Zodiac miniature paintings at Jaipur Jantar Mantar
Miniatures of the 12 signs of the zodiac.
#DidYouKnow: On 21st June, day of the Summer Solstice, one pillar of the Misra Yantra at the Delhi Jantar Mantar casts absolutely no shadow! Perhaps we'll go to that one next solstice! Click To Tweet

3) The geometric patterns make for interesting pictures!

As much as we love the pale yellow walls contrasted against the bright blue Jaipur sky, go old school and take a few monochrome pictures! This will highlight the unusual architecture and the geometric patterns, giving depth to your photos.

Below is the Jai Prakash Yantra : the ‘jewel’ amidst all instruments in the observatory (and also the most complex). The engraved markings on the surface of the Jai Prakash correspond to an inverted view of both the azimuth-altitude (or horizon) and equatorial coordinate systems used to describe the position of celestial objects.

Jai Prakash Yantra. Jaipur Jantar Mantar geometrical pattern on one of the instruments
Jai Prakash Yantra at Jaipur Jantar Mantar. Original photo: Ibrahim Rifath. Edited by the Heritage Lab.

This instrument has two identical bowls, partially sunk into the ground. Within each bowl, you’d find engraved different maps. As you spot the shadow cast on the map, you can figure the sun’s position in relation to the different celestial bodies and planets. Isn’t that fascinating?

4) History + Science : A gun factory, and a research center, the Jantar Mantar at Jaipur has seen it all!

Over the years after Sawai Jai Singh II, the Jantar Mantar observatory at Jaipur underwent significant changes. Some instruments were dismantled to make room for a temple during the reign of Sawai Pratap Singh (1778-1803). The site even hosted a gun factory! Can you imagine – the 400 kg brass astrolabe being used for target practice? Later, under the leadership of Maharaja Ram Singh II though, restorations and repairs were undertaken.

William Simpson Jantar Mantar Delhi
Jantar Mantar Delhi in ruins : a painting by William Simpson (collection of V&A) | for representational purpose

See instruments from across Rajasthan in their Research and Observer rooms!

The Jaipur Jantar Mantar now has a Research Room and an observer Room! You can view 3D models of not just the instruments at the site but also of those brought from other districts of Rajasthan. The 3D model of Jantar Mantar is incredibly detailed. It shows every aspect of the observatory, including the Interpretation Centre and various instruments present in the monument. These rooms are open to both researchers and tourists.

Cenotaph of Sawai Jai Singh. Gaitore, Jaipur
Sawai Jai Singh’s cenotaph. A model of this cenotaph exists at the Jaipur Jantar Mantar. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

The instruments used in the construction and restoration of the monument are also on display along with a model of the cenotaph of Maharaja Jai Singh II.

If you are particularly creative, use these paper templates to make 3D models of the instruments yourself!

5) The Jaipur Jantar Mantar is a World Heritage site!

The UNESCO World Heritage tag has deemed the Jantar Mantar at Jaipur as the “most significant and best preserved set of fixed monumental instruments built in India in the first half of the 18th century”. The instruments here are also the largest ones in their category.

Vintage photo : Jaipur Jantar Mantar

The observatory also includes some instruments that are not present at the other sites. These include the Kappala Yantra, Rasivalaya Yantras, and Unnatamsha Yantra.

The captivating angles and curves of the instruments at Jantar Mantar appealed greatly to painters too. The traveller-artists visiting India in the 18th and 19th centuries captured their fascination in their paintings.

Delhi

Thomas Daniells painting Delhi Jantar Mantar
The Jantar Mantar at Delhi. Painting by Thomas Daniells, ca early 19th century. © British Library

Benaras

Jantar Mantar Varanasi
Jaipur Jantar Mantar, aerial view
Jaipur Jantar Mantar seen from above

Jantar Mantar is more than just an observatory. With its deep insight into astronomy and its centuries-old cultural significance, Jantar Mantar is a relic of both science and history. It offers us a historical perspective to look at science. Even in the 18th c., people like Sawai Jai Singh existed, who had a thirst for the knowledge of the cosmos. His observatory and his quest for astronomical accuracy remind us that the questions regarding the universe that we grapple with today, are but the latest reflection of the age-old curiosity humans have about the secrets of the universe.


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Chitralekha
Chitralekha is currently an undergraduate student of history at Delhi University.
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