Jantar Mantars

As you can tell from the previous few posts, our tour of Delhi, Jaipur and¬†Agra¬†included a lot of visits to tombs, forts and palaces. Throw in a couple of mosques and museums, and you’ve pretty much summed up the trip.

Except, that is, for the Jantar Mantars.

A Jantar Mantar is a uniquely Indian artifact: a set of giant, building-sized instruments for taking precise astronomical measurements. They were built in the 1720s and ’30s by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur in several cities, including ones in Jaipur and Delhi, which still exist.

Overview of the Jantar Mantar at Jaipur (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

It looks like a cross between a modernist sculpture park, and an alien playground. I like them for three main reasons. The first is that it’s fun to walk around and try to work out what each instrument does and how it works. The signs explaining them aren’t very clear so it’s a bit of a challenge, but gratifying when you succeed. Like when you realise that the reason there are two identical-seeming instruments next to each other is that the access gaps of one correspond to the measurement surfaces of the other, and vice versa, so wherever the sun is, you choose whichever instrument is able to measure it at that time.

(Actually, at Delhi, where this photo is taken, there’s only one of these. But Jaipur has the complete set of two complementary instruments side by side. And they’re better maintained, so you can read the measurement surfaces.)

The second reason I like them is just because they look so weird. Even if you don’t manage to understand the purpose or functioning of any of the instruments, you can still appreciate their surreal beauty, and the aesthetic layout of the whole system. How can you not love a place which looks like this?

Two instruments at the Delhi Jantar Mantar

The third reason I like them is that, wherever you are in the world, the places you visit while travelling are usually local variations on the same basic themes: temples, castles and monuments. The Jantar Mantars are a completely different type of thing, one I’ve never seen before. They’re a unique experience.

Giant sundial at the Jaipur Jantar Mantar

The Jantar Mantar at Jaipur is larger and has more instruments. It’s also much better maintained and cleaner. However, the Jantar Mantar at Delhi is the only one to have the upside-down heart-shaped instrument, shown in the third photo above, which is probably the strangest looking object of the lot. And the guards have a much more lax attitude to people climbing on and into the objects. So it’s worth visiting both.

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