Thursday 31 August 2006

The Scientist Maharaja, and the Bollywood experience

The Maharajas of India were variously known for their extravagance, the wars they waged and the magnificent forts and palaces they built. One of these rulers, Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur, was a warrior, lavish in his desires and aloof from his dominion – this in itself is not unusual. However, he was also exceedingly well educated, and fashioned himself as an astronomer and scientist.

Jai Singh II created and ruled the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan, Northern India. His father, Maharaja Bishan Singh, gave him the best education money could buy, and he ruled his dominion from 1688 to 1744. The city of Jaipur was conceived in 1727 because Jai Singh desired a new capital for his growing kingdom as the old capital, Amber, did not have enough water to supply the burgeoning city.

Jaipur was Northern India’s first planned city, although the comparison to Canberra, the capital of Australia, stops there. Jai Singh’s grounding in the sciences influenced his design of the city, which is reflected in its precise symmetry and aesthetic beauty. Unfortunately, the modern city has spread beyond Jai Singh’s original conception, and its growth has had no planning nor has any thought been put into how it should expand.

The greatest achievement of Jai Singh’s scientific mind is the extraordinary Jantar Mantar, a seemingly oversized and bizarre observatory. Deriving its name from the Sanskrit yanta manta, meaning “instrument of calculation”, the observatory bears little resemblance to any modern observatory. Its construction began in 1728 and is full of massive sundials and other instruments, who’s shadows chart astronomical facts such as local and meridian time, the sun’s position in the zodiac and attributes of heavenly bodies. The standout feature is the amazing Brihat Samrat Yantra – King of the Instruments – which is 27 m tall and set at an angle of 27 degrees – the latitude of Jaipur. This well named instrument works by casting a huge shadow, which moves up to 4 m per hour, and helps to calculate time and the various attributes of heavenly bodies such as stars and planets.

The instruments are still used today, testifying to their remarkable accuracy – Jai Singh did not possess computing power nor high powered telescopes to make his observations. The final instrument installed by Jai Singh, the Jai Prakash Yantra, is used to calculate auspicious days for weddings and other such important occasions, as well as verifying the calculations from other instruments.

Jai Singh so liked astronomy that he sent scholars abroad to study the science and learn how astronomy was conducted in other places. He built 5 observatories like this one, the others being in Delhi, Varanasi, Ujjain and the missing one in Mathura. The photos on this site document some of the incredible looking instruments on display in this park.

A less sciencey, but equally fun, destination in Jaipur is the huge cinema complex showcasing the best of Bollywood. It is appropriate perhaps that the learned Jai Singh should create a town showcasing Indian’s massively entertaining cinema industry. I took in a showing of Fanaa, a massive production incorporating love, terrorism, war, politics, medicine, families and travel, with each theme expressed through song and dance. Our heroine, Zooni, is a beautiful blind female, who travels from Kashmir with her friends for a tour of Delhi. She falls for the charismatic tour guide Rehan, but he has a secret. He is a terrorist working for the Kashmiri cause and only acting as a tour guide so he can obtain schematics of major Delhi tourist locations. His defining act of love is that he arranges for Zooni to have her sight repaired, but she never gets the chance to see him as he disappears underground after destroying a monument in an act of terrorism, although not before one night of passion (with no kissing however) with his blind love. Zooni thinks that he has died in a terrorist blast.

We then skip 7 years ahead. We are back in Kashmir. Zooni has a son who, as he does not kno who his father is, imagines that Rahul Dravid, the Indian cricket captain, is his Dad. If this were an Australian film, the son would not need to pretend to have a cricketer as his father, as there would be a good chance that Shane Warne would actually be the father! Anyway, Rehan is fighting as a double agent in Kashmir, and is forced injured to find refuge in, believe it or not, his lost love’s house! He also has got hold of a nuclear device! Of course Zooni she does not remember him as he stumbles in the door as previously she was blind, but he remembers her and quickly figures out he is the father of the child. Eventually they both figure it out, but love doesn’t turn Rehan good, and Zooni is forced to shoot him after he had killed both her father and her friend.

Or at least that’s what I thought happened, it was in Hindi. It’s a tragic love story, but thankfully they sing and dance all the way.

Jaipur, a hub of science and entertainment. My Indian podcast can be found here.