Windows upon a Hindu universe

Cosmic Architecture in India
August 9, 2002

Maharaja Jai Singh is best known today as the ruler and creator of the city of Jaipur, a famed Indian tourist destination. His consuming interest in astronomy is perhaps less well known. He built large observatories in the 18th century at five different cities in the northern part of India - Delhi, Jaipur, Benares, Mathura and Ujjain. These observatories (popularly called the Jantar Mantars) were, and still are, daringly unusual and original in their function. They consist of large masonry structures with striking spatial and architectural qualities. These structures, some as high as three-storey buildings, were designed as astronomical instruments or yantras . They are part of, and probably the last visible link with, the old school of astronomy that defined cosmic phenomena through observations with the naked eye.

Although Jai Singh's yantras were essentially based on the principles of earlier Hindu, Greek and Islamic astronomical instruments, some are believed to be his own inventions. More than 40 structures, housing about 15 kinds of yantras, are extant. However, some of the yantras are non-functional today and the Mathura Jantar Mantar no longer exists.

Analytical works on the observatories are few. A large part of Jai Singh's extensive library on astronomy has been lost, and available written information on the yantras is mainly through descriptive secondary sources. Thus a book that proposes to investigate the mysteries of their construction and functioning is particularly welcome.

Visually, this is an extraordinarily attractive book. Its excellent photographs and detailed drawings make it a notable addition to the books on Jai Singh's astronomy. It also contains information on his less widely known observatories, and should be especially useful for architects, historians and informed travellers.

The first of the book's five main sections considers the principles of universal order that may have generated architectural forms such as the circle and the cube. Examples are cited of large buildings in ancient and medieval civilisations that display such forms and are associated with astronomy. A discussion of Jai Singh's work follows, with individual explanations of his observatories and an analysis of their form and function. A separate section features the architectural models of the yantras discovered by Andreas Volwahsen during his research. The last section attempts to explain the construction methods for some of the yantras .

Some repetition inevitably occurs in the later sections of the book. However, this proves to be useful since it reiterates important aspects of the yantras , which are complex structures that also contain inner rooms, doors, windows and stairways. These features are necessary to access higher-level readings, and help in reducing the dead weight of the structures. The architectural character of the yantras is clearly conveyed through Volwahsen's three-dimensional studies and photographs, although his drawings do not clarify exactly how the yantras functioned. The accompanying text is not very coherent either, with occasional irrelevant digressions. For instance, a discussion on the Rama yantras drifts off into a statement that "The kinetic energy created at the centre peters out inconsequentially into a thin metal stick...", which does not seem to have any bearing on the functioning of the yantra .

Volwahsen suggests that Jai Singh's yantras were in essence meant to be used symbolically, to underline his claim to worldly power. He suggests a similar motivation for the other architectural works that he cites as precursors, some of which, such as the pyramids of Egypt, have only a secondary astronomical purpose. As part of the reason for portraying Jai Singh as a "headstrong monarch looking to construct huge and extravagant monuments to himself", Volwahsen claims that the observatories have a limited scientific value. He alleges that neither the size of the yantras nor their detailing achieved astronomical accuracy.

This view has been put forward before, primarily by medieval travellers. As a supporting argument, Volwahsen stresses the symbolism of the yantras as a representation of the mandala. He interprets the fact that Jaipur contains the largest Jantar Mantar, and is planned on the basis of a specific mandala, as proof of the overriding symbolic importance of this city and its observatory. Jai Singh's decision to build the yantras , despite being aware of European inventions such as the telescope, is considered additional evidence of his disinclination for authentic astronomical study.

Volwahsen is certainly dedicated to his subject. However, his hypothesis suggests that Jai Singh, an actively political ruler, spent a considerable amount of time, money and effort in establishing observatories that contained primarily non-functional yantras . It seems to disregard Jai Singh's continuous experimentation with the design of the yantras , as well as the sustained observations taken over seven years in at least one of the observatories. This reasoning also downplays the value of the astronomical tables (the Zij Muhammad Shahi) devised by Jai Singh, which Volwahsen believes "are essentially based on Ulugh Beg's tables and on European sources". The suggestion that the Zij were a mere adaptation of earlier astronomical tables appears to have been refuted by Virendra Nath Sharma in Sawai Jai Singh and his Astronomy which, surprisingly, Volwahsen does not refer to.

Other authors have noted that errors arise in the reading of the yantras . However, some infer that the effect of these errors when applied in astronomical calculations is generally minor and may be rectified by applying a correction value. It has also been shown that this form of astronomical observation was greatly dependent on the skill and experience of the observer. Misalignment of the yantras caused by later restoration work is additionally ascribed as a factor in obtaining incorrect readings today. The lack of a discussion of these aspects reduces the impact of Volwahsen's investigation, while the choice of the Mishra Yantra, believed to have been made not by Jai Singh but by his successor, Madho Singh, to illustrate the non-functional nature of the yantras , is misleading.

Moreover, it is well known that philosophical and astrological symbolism pervaded the traditional Hindu way of life, including architecture. To downplay the functional use of the yantras on this basis appears as fanciful as downplaying the role of worship in traditionally planned Hindu temples. Sweeping statements such as "in Hindu monumental architecture, we rarely encounter buildings whose function is primarily spatial" also tend to decrease the seriousness of the discussion.

Volwahsen thus appears to have succumbed to the pitfalls that he characterises as a fault of other western observers - of approaching Indian architecture with "amazement, rather than understanding". In fact, he admits that "our very sketchy knowledge about the life and person of Jai Singh, makes it impossible for us to put forward a conclusive thesis on the factors which led to the planning and construction of these observatories". This task has not been helped by the fact that his assessment of the methods and means of astronomy depends greatly on western authorities. There is almost no discussion of information from Indian astrologers, who even today read, predict and interpret cosmic phenomena, or from the descendants of those of Jai Singh's select courtiers believed to hold traditional astrological knowledge.

However, while the conjectural aspects of the book are debatable, it is, nonetheless, valuable. Volwahsen's care in recording extensive information on a subject as yet imperfectly understood is entirely praiseworthy. His discovery of the architectural models of the yantras is by itself an invaluable contribution. One hopes that future scholars exposed to this volume may continue the process of rigorous analysis needed to understand these unique monuments.

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji is an architect who is a conservation consultant for the redevelopment of the Jantar Mantar Observatory Complex in New Delhi, India.

Cosmic Architecture in India: The Astronomical Monuments of Maharaja Jai Singh II

Author - Andreas Volwahsen
ISBN - 3 7913 2506 X
Publisher - Prestel
Price - £39.95
Pages - 160

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