For all my years in Delhi, my encounter with Jantar Mantar has been as a landmark to guide autowallas, a road where protests take place in Delhi or as a locality to have a cheap snack at the South Indian Snack Centre aka Kutty’s, popularly identified as the Jantar Mantar South Indian joint. I had not ventured inside the compound of this odd set of structures till January this year when Sayeed and I decided to check it out.
The term ‘Jantar Mantar’ is generically used to refer to all the five observatories built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur between 1724 and 1730, the first one being built in Delhi in 1724. While the massive masonry instruments at the Delhi observatory are visible from the roads adjoining the Jantar Mantar enclosure, you need to go close to them to experience their scale and stylistic oddness. No wonder, visitors (us included) freak out taking photographs and selfies from all possible angles with and of the instruments. The form of the instruments has mystified travelers, visitors, architects and others over different periods of the observatory’s life. Gordon Risley Hearn, a British military engineer, referred to the observatory as a ‘curious group of buildings’, when he visited it almost 200 years after it was built. More contemporary observers have described them as startling, surreal, ultramodern, weird, and even as anticipating and surpassing the twentieth-century cubists.
The Jantar Mantar, like the city of Delhi, has perpetually undergone destruction, neglect and restoration.
Writing in 1917, G.R. Kaye in The Astronomical Observations of Jai Singh, urged for the restoration of Jantar Mantar, given its proximity to the new city: ‘The Delhi Observatory buildings are worthy of permanent preservation, not only on account of their scientific and historic value, but also as monuments to one of the most brilliant and remarkable princes of India, and as forming a dignified feature of the new Imperial city.’ His suggestions for the restoration work included removing the ‘present pink colouring’ and substituting it with ‘a natural lime plaster tint’. In the 1970s, the pink was substituted with the red brick colour you see in most photographs of the Jantar Mantar. Sometime in 2007, there were talks of restoring Jantar Mantar to it original white colour. This was followed by a PIL on the sorry state of the observatory, debates over whether lime or marble should be used for restoration, a Delhi High Court order urging the ASI to make the ‘observatory work’, a contempt petition on the slow pace of work and the formation of a special committee to oversee the restoration. The restoration work was still in progress (or at a standstill) when we visited Jantar Mantar.
Kaye was keen that Jantar Mantar be made ‘dignified’ by ‘suitable surroundings and proper restoration’. Dignified or not, the incomplete restoration work has not impacted the popularity of Jantar Mantar, and visitors of all kinds, domestic and foreign tourists, students, youthful crowds, lovers and families throng the place and use it in different ways—to click photographs, lounge, take a nap, picnic and more. What they cannot do is climb the structures, as per an ASI directive, and run around as the nutty spirituality-seeking American Ernest does in a particular scene from the Merchant Ivory film The Householder. You can, however, enjoy the place by just lazing in the lawns and without even checking out what the big deal is about the instruments, as we witnessed one young woman doing; she told her friends, ‘Tum dekh ke aao, kuch accha dikhe toh mujhe bataa dena.’ (You go check it out and tell me if you see anything interesting.’)
All photographs © Chiragh Dilli