Almost as much as for founding a city, Sawai Jai Singh is remembered today as India's 'astronomer king' and as the builder of the splendid astronomical observatories known as Jantar Mantar (illus. 40, 41). Of these, the largest and best-preserved are in Jaipur (within the palace boundary or sarahad) and in Delhi. There is some uncertainty about the dates of their construction. The one in Jaipur appears to have been completed by 1734 but may have been founded as early as 1718,62 nearly a decade before the founding of the city (and certainly it would have been sensible to construct astronomical instruments on the open plain by the hunting ground rather than in the congested city of Amber). The one in Delhi was built in 1724—5 for the Mughal Emperor, but on land that was owned by Sawai Jai Singh.63 The third surviving observatory is the miniature one at Benares, constructed by Sawai Jai Singh on the roof of the palace on the Ganges that had been built by his ancestor Raja Man Singh i in the 15 90s. In the same period (1724—34) two small observatories were also built at Mathura and Ujjain; the former has all but disappeared and the latter entirely so.64
The name 'Jantar Mantar' combines a corruption of yantra ('instrument') with a euphonic suffix. The major instruments concerned are the Samrat Yantra, a gigantic sundial in the form of a right-angled triangle with curved wings; and the circular Ram Yantra and the fragmented bowls of the Jai Prakash, both of which are for determining the position of planets. The strong visual appeal of these instruments and (to those not versed in astronomy) their mysterious functions have excited much attention, and Sawai Jai Singh's evidently enthusiastic pursuit of the subject has led to some exaggerations and misunderstandings.
The first point to establish is that the modern Western distinction between astronomy and astrology did not exist in eighteenth-century India: both were parts of the single field known as jyotish vidya. The assumption that planetary movements are intimately and causally linked to events in our human lives was central to the prevailing Indian world-view and there is no reason to suppose that Sawai Jai Singh was an exception. It would therefore be quite mistaken to characterize him as a modern empirical scientist, a Galileo struggling against intellectual conservatism and religious superstition. His aim was to improve the accuracy of astronomical observation but his purpose was to apply this knowledge to life, and most especially to the performance of his functions as a king in the domains of religious observance and politics. Understanding the universe was for him a key to understanding the world, not an end in itself.
Sawai Jai Singh's assistant in these matters, indeed his tutor, was a south Indian Brahmin named Jagannath. Together the two men found that the tables of astronomical predictions contained in ancient Indian texts such as Surya Siddhanta and Brahma Siddhanta contained errors. As these tables determined the Hindu calendar of religious festivals, this mattered very much. They further found that observations could be improved by borrowing some of the techniques of the Arab tradition of astronomy, and, even more significantly, that by designing and building larger and more complex instruments, they could improve even on the Arabic system.
Between them Sawai Jai Singh and Jagannath wrote two major texts. Jagannath's Samrat Siddhanta, in Sanskrit, is an attempt to supplement and correct the ancient Indian texts. It is dedicated to his patron, and the political purpose of the study is made immediately plain by the insistence that 'in future, whoever be the Lord of the realm, he should assure himself by making inquiries into the motions of the heavenly bodies by making instruments'.6 Their other text is the Zij Muhammad Shahi, which similarly offers corrections, in this case to the tables found in earlier Islamic works, such as those prepared by the fifteenth-century Timurid 'astronomer king' Ulugh Beg of Samarkand. The preface to this second work was written by Sawai Jai Singh himself and is dedicated to his own imperial overlord, the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah. Along with the construction of the Delhi Jantar Mantar, the offering of this text was part of an attempt to persuade the Emperor to revise details of the calendar, 'seeing that very important affairs of state, both regarding religion and the administration of empire, depend upon these'.66 A preoccupation with astronomy was not therefore
merely an individual's passion but an activity deemed appropriate, even essential, for a ruler, and Sawai Jai Singh was exceptional only in the lengths to which he pursued it, designing and building instruments to improve the available measurements.
The extent to which Sawai Jai Singh's interests were guided by European science has been exaggerated. True, he was open to all authority, actively seeking out diverse advanced opinion and practice; and to this end he repeatedly requested and received scientists from the Jesuit mission at Goa. The first, Pedro da Silva Leitao, arrived in 1731 and remained in Jaipur until his death 60 years later, and others had joined him in 1740.67 But starting as it did after the construction of his first and largest observatories, this embassy cannot have contributed much to his practice. Furthermore, Sawai Jai Singh remained comparatively ill-informed about developments in Europe because the theories of the modern physicists were anathema to his Jesuit informants. He was perfectly aware of ideas from ancient Europe - those of Euclid and Ptolemy -because these had long since entered the Arabic tradition, which was one of his main sources. He had also acquired some modern works, by the French astronomer Philippe La Hire (1640-1718) and the Englishman John Flamsteed (1646-1720), which reflected more recent thinking; but he was not made aware of the force and the European reception of the ideas of Newton, Kepler, Galileo or even Copernicus. So in spite of a likely awareness of the existence of contrary views, he held to the perception of the earth as the fixed centre of the universe.68
The other aspect of this subject that is liable to be misunderstood is the relationship between astronomy and town planning in Jaipur. Vastu vidya and jyotish vidya are two branches of the same tradition of knowledge, and they share much common ground: for example, the directional and planetary associations in the two systems are the same. But this common ground is universal; it is not unique to Jaipur. Nevertheless, some scholars have argued that Jaipur's ordered plan reflects Sawai Jai Singh's scientific interests,69 an explanation that again attributes the design to the patron, and that seriously underestimates the organizing capacity of vastu vidya itself. More eccentric is the theory proposed by Sten Nilsson that the 150 'misalignment' of the city's grid has an astronomical explanation: that it brings the city into alignment with the sign of Leo, Sawai Jai Singh's birth sign.70 Since this theory appears to have gained some ground it is worth addressing. First, the alignment of the city, as already shown, relates to the natural topography of the site, and especially to the ridge across the plain, as anyone who has walked through the city can testify. Second, a divergence from magnetic north by this amount would not be considered a misalignment within the vastu vidya system, where north is not a single line but the whole spectrum of the direction lying between north-west and north-east. Thus the elegant coincidence discovered by Nilsson is superfluous. The precise orientation of Jaipur uses the site within the flexible frame of the theoretical base; and the ideal orientation is asserted, as described, through the alignment with Galta's Surya temple. Perhaps even more importantly, Nilsson's theory misrepresents the role of jyotish within vastu vidya, for quite simply the horoscope of a city does not depend upon the birth sign of its founder but on the time of its foundation, or on the dimensions of its site.71
All this is not to suggest that astronomy as practised by Sawai Jai Singh was irrelevant to the city's planning. On the contrary, the two fields of theory are intimately linked in the Indian tradition, and the
practice of both was especially highly developed in Jaipur at this time. But their connection there was not a unique phenomenon; it was intrinsic to both systems. Astronomy is therefore not the special 'theme' or 'concept' of Jaipur. It is a branch of thought that was related to architecture here as everywhere in pre-colonial India.
Was this article helpful?