Jantar Mantar, a story. Part One.

A brief Wiki intro: “A Jantar Mantar is an assembly of stone-built astronomical instruments, designed to be used with the naked eye. There were five Jantar Mantars in India, all of them built at the command of the RajahJai Singh II, who had a keen interest in mathematics, architecture and astronomy; four remain, as the Jantar Mantar at Mathura was torn down just before the revolt of 1857The largest example is the equinoctial sundial belonging to Jaipur's assembly of instruments, consisting of a gigantic triangular gnomon with the hypotenuse parallel to the Earth's axis. On either side of the gnomon is a quadrant of a circle, parallel to the plane of the equator. The instrument can be used with an accuracy of about 2 seconds by a "skilled observer" to measure the time of day, and the declination of the Sun and the other heavenly bodies. It is the world's largest stone sundial, known as the Vrihat Samrat Yantra.”

My friend the photographer Simon Chaput has made a spectacular series of Jantar Mantar photographs. When they were gathered into a (very) limited edition art book, I wrote this story to go alongside them. It has never been published before except in that (very) limited edition. Simon has kindly allowed me to use some of his photographs to illustrate the story, which I will publish in two parts. Here’s the first. (Please note: the king you will meet in this story is not Jai Singh, but a completely fictional character. So is the queen. Only the buildings are real.)

PART ONE

In India the pictures people see in the stars are different from the Western constellations.

The Milky Way is sometimes seen as a snake, but it is also the great river in the sky, and all our rain falls to earth from it.

You will not find Orion the Hunter, or Gemini the Twins, or Sagittarius the Archer in the sky above India, or not quite. Orion, for example, is seen as a deer, the king of beasts, and the stars of “Orion’s belt” are the arrow used to kill him. The deer was originally a human being called Prajapati or Kalapurush who was unkind to his daughter, for which crime the gods turned him into an animal, killed him with that arrow, and then put him up in the sky. Canis Major is Svan, the hunting dog that chases the deer, and, it so happens, Sirius the dog star is a part of this constellation.

The north star, Polaris, is an armadillo, and, being nocturnal, stays up all night.

Instead of the Gemini or Dioscuri, Indians see a loving couple, the man holding a club, the woman a lyre.  They are Vishnu and Soma and can be compared to Adam and Eve, the progenitors of all mankind.

Taurus is a cart. The Pleiades make up a meat cleaver. The Big Dipper is a group of seven wise men. Or they may be bears. It is not known if the bears are also wise.

Timi Mandala is Cotus, and it’s a sea monster that swallows human beings. Hydra is Rahu, the water snake. There’s a great bed in the sky instead of Pegasus, and Mayavati, the red star Algol, is the evil eye.

The sky is divided into twenty-seven, or possibly twenty-eight lunar mansions, and if you want to know all about those, have a look at the Atharvaveda, where you will also find information about deadly poisons, and an account of how atoms joined together to form rocks, which joined together to form the earth, and this, by the way, was probably written around 1200-1000 BC. 

The point about the sky is that it’s a fiction. It isn’t there, or not as we see it, because the light takes so very long to reach us. By the time the light gets here the star that sent it is no longer what it is, and no longer where it was either, because everything recedes, the universe is flying away from us, and we from it, and what is to be done about that? Very little, I’m afraid. At any rate, an uncertainty is created, and when we look at the stars we are looking at that - an uncertainty about what is the case - because all we can see is what the case used to be, eleven minutes ago in the case of the sun, sixty-five light years ago in the case of the star Aldebaran which in India is called Rohini, the wife of the moon; and then there are the distant galaxies, and the echo and ripple of the Bang, which our instruments are only just beginning, dimly, ambiguously, to see.

So we live in fiction, in ancient history pretending to be present. We look up at the past projected against the night sky, like images in a planetarium. And living in fiction we begin to see further fictions, because of our human love of patterning. We are creatures who love form and story and so we see forms and stories in the stars, even though those shapes do not “really” exist, or only seem to exist from this one single vantage point in the entire universe. If you were to stand on the Dog Star you would not see any of the constellations, the shapes would be dissolved by the shift in perspective, and from that new point of view perhaps we would see new forms, new stories. But we’re stuck here and we can’t do that. We’re stuck with what we see and what stories we can attach to it, or make up around it, or both.

§

It’s fleeing us, the universe, said the king: as if we were infected with a plague. It’s exploding away from us as if we were accursed. Wait, I cry, stay a minute, but the universe turns tail and runs. What honor is there in such a universe? Can it be that the true nature of space and time, the essence of everything that is, is cowardice? And are we so fearsome that the stars themselves retreat? Then we must be mighty indeed. We must be a race of kings.

(Part Two will be published soon.)

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