By Kajal Basu
A photographic tribute to the architectural wonder of Maharaja Jai Singh II’s Jantar Mantar
At the heart of the center of the architectural cul-de-sac called New Delhi, you will find an escape route if you want one, an oasis of no-frills, mathematical masonry, a ladder to the stars. The design of the Jantar Mantar, built in 1724 by Jaipur’s Maharaja Jai Singh II, has more to it than just its function as an astronomical observatory it is architecture at its finest, backed by a minimalist philosophy that came into its own only in the early decades of this century: minus its historical pedigree, the Jantar Mantar could well have been designed by Germany’s Bauhaus School.
Astronomy is all about the gigantic, millennial interplay of Time and Space. The Jantar Mantar is like a witness stand to the over-arching beauty of the universe; the world’s largest walk-through sundial, the Samrat Yantra, is in keeping with its purpose (a small sextant would have served just as well, but…). This is gigantism with a transcendental face, born of a spirit as ambitious and engulfing as the sky itself.
Notwithstanding its dismaying slapdash pinkification (on the lines of the Pink City, Jaipur) by the Archaeological Survey of India, the Jantar Mantar’s soul is in clear-cut black and white, light and shade, with no room for the whimsical imprecision perfected by artists as one of their many expressions of creativity. The complex, with its clean angles and unwavering curves, has the stern beauty of a nun. Embellishments like gargoyles and carved colonnades and vertiginously swooping arches have no place in its scheme of things. There is a stark, glacial spiritualism here, given life not just by a king’s transcendental idea translated into a blueprint by a court architect and slapped into life and shape by a contractor and his legion of masons, but by a solar-centric view of creation. Maharaja Jai Singh, it is said, was so addicted to looking at his realm and reign by the flickering, icy light of the stars that he forgot how to focus on anything as bright and close as his own nose.
He would obviously never have anticipated that, two centuries later, his observatory would become the observed. The gateway to the stars would be squashed under the weight of gross buildings that hem it in today, its line of sight blocked by a blanket of pollution of both earth and spirit.
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