Astronomical Architecture

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ASTRONOMICAL ARCHITECTURE HAS A KEY ROLE IN POPULARISING SCIENCE


National Science Day is celebrated in India on February 28 to commemorate the invention of the Raman Effect by Indian physicist Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman on this day in 1928, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930.
The theme of National Science Day, 2014 is “Fostering Scientific Temper”. Scientific temper is a way of life, an individual and social process of thinking and acting, which uses a scientific method. First Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru strongly believed in two wonderful concepts, freedom of speech and a concept he had coined, a nation with a “scientific temper”. By a “scientific temper”, he wanted to speak of the people of a nation who would be able to think independently, understand and practise the scientific method in their daily lives. 
Art and science are closely bound together, both historically and in education practice. Every art has its foundation in science, and every science finds its expression in art. The artists and craftsmen always apply the principles and laws formulated and systematised by science. Astronomy has a key role for popularising science. Astronomy develops scientific temper, humanism and spirit of inquiry and reform among students, working professionals and general masses.
Astronomy has been applied in buildings and temple architecture in India. The 10th-Century Mukteswar Temple and 13th-Century Konark temple in Odisha were built on astronomical observations. Due to its architectural excellence Konark has been inscribed as a World Heritage Monument since November 2, 1984. The special feature of this temple is that it is wholly erected in the form of a huge chariot, which is placed on twelve pairs of splendidly-carved wheels and drawn by seven dynamic horses. The chariot’s wheels have an interesting fact. Each wheel has a set of eight spokes and these spokes serve as sundials. Sundials are simple timekeeping devices and work with the help of the Sun. Each wheel comprises eight spokes indicating eight ‘Praharas’ of the day, one Prahara being equal to three hours. The hub of the wheel casts shadow on the spokes indicating time. In the Mukteswar Temple, there is also a huge old sundial made of stone. This belongs to the horizontal category and is still in working condition.
The Jantar Mantar Observatory is another example of astronomical architecture having a key role in popularising science. In the 18th Century, Maharajah Jai Singh II, a regional king under the Mogul empire, constructed five astronomical observatories in Delhi, Jaipur, Mathura, Ujjain and Varanasi. The Jaipur observatory is the largest. This was built as a focal point of his new capital, Jaipur, the first and earliest geometrically planned Indian city. He wanted to facilitate naked eye observation and make science of astronomy accessible to people.
One of Jai Singh’s foremost objectives was to create astronomical instruments that would be more accurate and permanent than the brass instruments. The calculating instruments of the Jantar Mantar were constructed of local stone faced with white marble and bronze. Various thin rings and facings were crafted from the ductile alloy of copper and tin – though it may tarnish, it will not rust and thus not stain and crack the stonework.
This simple yet remarkable decision brought forth a collection of large structures for measurement of celestial object positions on the Earth’s surface. The observatories, or Jantar Mantars, as they are commonly known, incorporate multiple buildings of unique form, each with a specialised function for astronomical measurement. These structures, with their striking combinations of geometric forms, have captivated the attention of architects, artists, and art historians worldwide.
The Jaipur Jantar Mantar has 19 main astronomical instruments built for naked-eye observations of the celestial bodies and precision was achieved through their monumental dimensions. The sizes of instruments are among the largest in the world. This observatory was included in the World Heritage List in July 2010. A unique aspect of this cultural heritage site is that it embodies both art and science in one comprehensive form. The most significant instruments (Yantras) include Brihat Samrat, probably the largest gnomon-sundial ever built. It measures local time to an accuracy of two seconds.
Great Ram is a rare, and perhaps unique, double-cylinder instrument to record the azimuth of celestial bodies. The Kapala Yantra records the coordinates of celestial bodies in both the azimuth-altitude and equatorial systems and permits a direct visual transformation of the coordinates of any point in the sky between the two systems and the Rasivalaya Yantra is a group of 12 gnomon-dials to measure the ecliptic coordinates of celestial objects. The observatory was very active during Jai Singh’s life, with around 20 permanent astronomers. After his death in 1743, this landmark in Jaipur remained in use almost continuously until around 1800. In the 19th Century, the observatory ceased to function permanently, being reopened from time to time. Some important restorations occurred at the end of the century under the British rule. This started a new life for the observatory. The interweaving of science, cosmology-religion and social control has a great importance in the Rajasthan culture since the 18th century.
The scientific temper is an attitude, a way of living, which should be applicable to all aspects of our life. “To develop scientific temper” is one of the fundamental duties of Indian citizens, according to Article 51A (h), the Constitution. The fundamental duty is observable by all citizens, be they scholarly or illiterate, for the nation’s benefit. The Mukteswar and Konark sundials and the Jantar Mantars are examples of astronomical architecture having a key role in popularising science.  The main threats to the sites apparently come from their increasing tourist use, rainwater penetration in the foundations and urban pollution.

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