The Tribune , Chandigarh, 7 January 1999
The name Jantar Mantar, sounding like hocus-pocus, would have pained Raja Sawai Jai Singh. The quaintly shaped buildings at Delhi and Jaipur that would have intrigued many a passer-by are in fact scientific instruments improvised and built, at least as wax models, by Jai Singh himself in the 1720s and 1730s.
Jai Singh was not a sovereign ruler. He was a high-level mansabdar (official) in the Mughal administration, paid for his services by the allotment of his vatan (native) jagir retrospectively called Jaipur and other transferable jagirs. He was a key player in the politics and intrigue of his turbulent times. He was also a skilled astronomer. Astronomy was his passion and, one suspects, his refuge. The Delhi observatory commemorates, in a way, the restoration of order if not leadership under emperor Muhammed Shah. Jaipur with its observatory symbolises Jai Singh’s dreams of making personal peace with the menacing Mahrattas and carving out a bigger niche for himself. Jai Singh was thwarted in his political ambitions. It now turns out that history’s verdict on his astronomical enterprise may not be any the less harsh.
Historically, the most outstanding feature of Jai Singh’s astronomy is its anachronism. Though he came on the scene a hundred years after Galileo and 50 years after the setting up of the Paris and Greenwich observatories, his role model was the 15th century king-astronomer Ulugh Beg, the more revered for being a collateral ancestor of the Mughal dynasty. Jai Singh came to know about the telescope, but did not view it as a revolutionary break with the past that is was. To him the modern astronomers were Europe’s Ulugh Begs with whom he wished to interact and compare notes.
In 1732, after the more- or- less completion of his masonry observatories Jai Singh received a valuable gift from the king of Portugal. It was a copy of the 1702 astronomical tables prepared in Latin at Paris by Phillipe de La Hire. Jai Singh brought out his own set of tables, or Zij. In his preface dedicating it to the emperor, Jai Singh declared that he had found that La Hire’s tables did not agree with his own observation and that his own tables were an attempt to “arrive as near as possible at the truth”.
Contemporaneous accounts cast aspersion on the validity of Jai Singh’s claims to originality.A French astronomer, Joseph Dubois, employed at the Jaipur observatory, was asked to prepare a copy of La Hire’s tables. In his preface to the tables, also written in Latin, he noted that Jai Singh had got La Hire’s tables “transcribed in his own script” and that he had “ordered all his astronomers to make calculations by them”.
A more explicit statement came from the Jesuit father Francis Pons who spent some years in Jaipur. He wrote in 1740 that “The Tables of M. de La Hire, under the name of this Prince, will be in use every where”.
The actual comparison of Jai Singh’s Zij with La Hire’s tables had to wait for another 250 years. An astronomical table is an intricate mix of observations, available data and tedious calculations. If two tables are independently prepared, their entries will be unrelated to each other. Recently, a British historian of astronomy, Raymond Mercier, has shown that the entries in the two tables are not un-correlated.
Take a number quoted by La Hire for the position of, say , the sun or moon. Now carry out a two-step mathematical transformation: change the epoch from 1 January 1 to 20 February 1719, the nominal date of ascension of Muhammad Shah to the throne. In the second step, change the longitude from that of Paris to the longitude of Jaipur. You obtain the corresponding number listed in Jai Singh’s Zij!! Obviously, as a homage to Jai Singh’s own pet city, the calculations were carried out for Jaipur; but as a concession to the empire’s city they were listed as if the actual observations had been made at Delhi.
Jai Singh died in 1743. The Delhi observatory was ransacked by the Jat leader Suraj Mal’s son Javahar Singh. Perhaps the most telling comment on Jai Singh’s anachronistic astronomical efforts comes from the rather disconcerting fact that his grandson at Jaipur used the ancestral 400 kg brass astrolabe for target practice.
The story can be summed up simply: A part rajah-part scientist creates a scientific facility with great fanfare. But then takes the easy way out and borrows data from abroad. His successors abandon the facility altogether, creating a ruin.
What makes the story rather unsettling is that it does not merely describe the India of the early 18th century but perhaps also the India of the later 20th century.