Inside India’s Celestial Observatories, Jantar Mantar

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When I was researching my trip to India, I came across images of giant, bizarre structures. My eyes popped – what on Earth were these alien objects?

I soon learned that these instruments were indeed linked to outer space! Created in the early 18th century by a science-loving Maharaja, India’s “Jantar Mantar” made remarkably precise measurements of the sun, moon, planets and time.

My guide, Janu Private Tours, customized the itinerary so that I could visit these odd observatories. Mr. Janu took me to India’s most impressive collection of astronomy tools: Jantar Mantar in Jaipur.

I was intrigued by these steps, called Rasivalaya instruments. They measure the latitude and longitude of celestial bodies, and correspond to signs of the Zodiac. Since my friend Yukiro and I are both Leos, we struck fierce poses with the one representing the lion!

The mastermind behind this site is Jai Singh II, ruler of the region that is now Jaipur. Born in 1688, the Maharaja studied math and science, and wanted India to progress in these fields. In the 1700s, he started building innovative instruments to measure the paths of heavenly bodies.

Walking around Jantar Mantar, I felt as if I were looking at Martian artifacts! It was impossible to understand the purpose of this “skate ramp” without my guide’s help. Known as Vrihat Samrat Yantra, this is the world’s largest gnomon sundial. Shadows move along the markings on the sides, indicating the time.

I enjoyed learning how each unfamiliar instrument worked. This is Jai Prakash Yantra, a hemispherical sundial. Mr. Janu showed us how the metal plate suspended by a wire casts a shadow, to accurately pinpoint altitudes, azimuths and declinations.

In addition to their astronomical functions, Jaipur’s structures are also beautiful works of art. One of the finest examples is this stone sundial, which remains the largest on the planet.

I was eager to see more, so Mr. Janu took me to New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. This collection of thirteen instruments includes what looks like a Colosseum. In fact, Rama Yantra measures the position of a celestial object such as a star, relative to a point.

This heart-shaped curving staircase is Misra Yantra, and calculates the longest and shortest days of the year. It can also find the exact moment of noon in various cities. To this day, the measurements are amazingly accurate.

Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” came to mind when I saw this 70-foot triangle! The hypotenuse is parallel to the Earth’s axis and points to the North Pole. It’s flanked by two quadrants with notches that measure hours, minutes, and seconds.

Today’s telescopes and computers have made Jantar Mantar obsolete. However, it is astonishing how a star-loving king and his scientists were able to make such advanced calculations, using these uncanny instruments. Perhaps the ancient Upanishads put it best: “The little space within the heart is as great as the vast universe. The heavens and the Earth are there, and the sun and the moon and the stars.”