Reading the Stars at Jantar Mantar

After our escapade at the textile factory, we took in some of the other sights of Jaipur. My personal favorite was Jantar Mantar, roughly translated as "abra cadabra", a small park of astrological structures of unusual construction. We took some time one afternoon to poke around this highly accurate horoscope playground.

The largest of the three sundials at Jantar Mantar. The larger the structure, the greater resolution it offers. This sundial can give the time of day to the accuracy of a second.

We splurged and hired a government approved guide as we entered, and we were glad we did because most of the devices in the park that made up Jantar Mantar looked like odd jungle gym equipment that appeared meaningless to our untrained eyes.

Our guide explained that the entire complex was built by a king in the 1700s who was really into horoscopes (as many Indians still are today). This Jantar Mantar is the largest of five that he built across what is now northern India and is the best preserved of the observatories. He walked us around the park explaining how each device had a specific use. The angle of the sun and stars were measured in several different ways.

One of my favorite devices at the site, this giant instrument measures angle of the sun in the sky. If you look carefully, you can see there is a small metal square suspended in the center of this sphere. It casts a shadow on one of the white sections of the bowl. You can see the shadow of our tour guide pointing at the spot marked by the metal. Astrologers could use this metal shadow to read the angle of the sun.

As we walked from structure to structure, our guide quickly and with a heavy accent explained the use of each device. The sundials were used to tell time and every other structure was to measure the angle of the sun or a star in the sky. Admittedly, not being that familiar with astronomy (or astrology), it was a bit difficult to follow.

One of the neater parts of the observatory is that for all the giant structures there were small prototypes still standing that the builders constructed to make sure the readings would be just right before building the giant versions.

These devices are built to individually track one of the astrological signs of the zodiac. Twelves of these small structures were in Jantar Mantar.

At the end of the our tour we had the chance to ask him questions. I asked about astrology and horoscopes in India today. We had seen ads for horoscope readings more than once in India and our guide confirmed that yes, horoscopes are still very important to many people today. Jantar Mantar, in fact, is still used by some observers to plot for events like weddings to ensure that they happen on blessed days.

The talk of all the horoscope reading got me thinking... "How does one become a horoscope reader?" I asked. "Why, at university, of course," he replied.

The center of this wheel has a metal pole that sticks out and casts a shadow that measures... uh... something.

We pressed him a bit more and he explained that there are whole textbooks and courses about reading the stars and writing horoscopes. I wonder if Miss Cleo ever went to horoscope school.

A tour guide explains to some visitors how to read the shadow on the inside of this circular structure. Right next to this structure is one that looks exactly the same but is flipped -- where this one has columns, the other one has gaps and where this one has gaps the other one has columns. The two structures were meant to be used in concert. During certain times of the day, the shadow to be read would not fall on the column, but in the gaps where the observer would stand. To read during those times, the observer would walk to the paired structure where the shadow would land on a column and not a gap. Simple, right?

Alas, we did not leave Jantar Mantar with the knowledge of the future (it would have been nice to find out which medical school I'm going to get into), but we did have two things to be happy about. #1 Jantar Mantar is a fun phrase to say and we applied everything else that didn't have a name for the rest of India. (If you haven't said it out loud, then you don't understand how fun it is to say.) #2 Outside they were selling one Kelsi's preferred Indian treat, kulfi.

Kelsi enjoys her kulfi from the street vendor outside Jantar Mantar