WHERE TO GO: Jantar Mantar Jaipur

Jantar Mantar is an ancient Indian observatory that is home to the largest sundial in the world.

Jantar Mantar houses the world’s largest sundial.
  • Jantar Mantar houses the world’s largest sundial.
SLIDESHOW: Standing up like huge sets of mathematical triangles and protractors, the Jantar Mantar has a poetic dimension as much as a modern look.

Jantar Mantar is an ancient Indian observatory that is home to the largest sundial in the world.

The Ancient Celts, Mayans and Greeks all had a passion for observing the sky with awe-inspiring architecture.

But one of the most incredible ancient observatories surviving today is Jantar Mantar in Japiur, India. Built 300 years ago, it is a collection of 19 architectural astronomical instruments, some of which were built in two versions with different orientations that took into account the two solstices. Resembling a giant Lego building or a drawing by Escher, this remarkable building is currently a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It was built at the instigation of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, head of the Amber State and ally of the Mughal Empire. He was a brilliant young man passionate about the arts, mathematics and architecture, who carefully charted the layout of the city of Jaipur, aligned the main avenues and drew the plan of the castle where he lived after moving from Amber Fort. Completed in 1738 CE, Jaipur became the first entirely new-build city in India and duly became the capital of Rajasthan when the country gained independence.

Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh’s passion for mathematics and astronomy inspired him to develop more precise instruments that would be more accurate than the small brass ones existing at the time. He built the Jantar (‘instrument’) Mantar (‘calculation’) next to his castle in Jaipur, which allowed celestial observations with the naked eye. It was a modern-looking construction in masonry, red stone and white marble, built using astronomy and instrument design principles from ancient Hindu Sanskrit texts. It was a kind of folie douce for the purpose of science.

The Maharaja was fascinated with tracking constellations and observing the planets and stars. Calculations were made at night and during the shadowy daylight hours. Sawai Jai Singh became a foremost astrologer of his time and the observatory remained in use until the early 19th century.

One of the sundials is the largest and highest in the world, the shadow running 6cm for each minute.

Astronomy at the time was used to create the lunar calendar, forecast monsoons and plan religious festivals. But what the Jantar Mantar was most important for was the knowledge of the zodiac and the interaction of the sun, moon and stars. In India at that time, no marriage would have been arranged without consulting the writing in the stars.

In a country where sumptuous palaces compete with elaborate art forms, sculptures, mirrors, paintings, mosaics, miniatures, marbles, silver and gold, the purist architecture of the Jantar Mantar stands in complete contrast. Standing up like huge sets of mathematical triangles and protractors, the Jantar Mantar has a poetic dimension as much as a modern look. The magic comes from the straight shadows playing with the geometric structures and the contrast with the light. If you forget the scientific purpose, the aesthetic of this fabulous merry-go-round is completely surreal.

Two centuries later, iconic French architect Le Corbusier extolled the great Maharaja with the construction of the modernist city Chandigarh on the plains of Punjab. He paid tribute to Jaipur by putting a sculpture inspired by Jantar Mantar on the parliament building.

The great Maharaja shared his knowledge and built other observatories in the country, immortalising him forever as a figurehead of Indian culture.

This article first appeared as the cover story in the print edition of The Time Issue.


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