Oh my stars, after running the gauntlet of beggars and hawkers I head up the steps and into the Astronomical Observatory of Jaipur in northern India which has been described as a playground for grown-ups. And a birthplace of horoscopes.
Massive sun dial, sextants, staircases to nowhere – everything is on a grand scale but its function is deadly serious. I’ve always been ambivalent about astrology but in India it’s a still relevant “science” that that plays an important role in the life of Hindus, including arranging marriages. Some Indian universities even offer courses.
It’s a white hot day and despite the acres of objects to explore, I hop from shady bit to shady bit. Between 1727 and 1734 Maharajah Jai Singh II of Jaipur constructed five astronomical observatories. Only this one has been so well preserved. UNESCO recognises the importance of the site, calling it “an expression of the astronomical skills and cosmological concepts of the court of a scholarly prince at the end of the Mughal period”.
Among all the instruments, the sundial usually attracts most attention, which tells the time to an accuracy of about two seconds in local time of Jaipur. It was carefully renovated in 1901 and was declared a national monument in 1948.
When we leave we’re set upon by the hawkers again, and I barter down a booklet about the observatory from 500 rupees to 150, which is the actual price, as I discover later. The other people I’m travelling with go to the local bazaar to bargain for souvenirs and silk. The heat is choking so I get back on the mini bus where the air con is running. The bus is parked to one side of a square, where cows munch on plastic bags in stinking garbage heaped in the centre and panting dogs roam listlessly.
I close my eyes for a second and have a feeling, you know that eerie kind of thing, that I’m being watched. I snap my eyes open. A bearded hawker holding plastic bags of wares in both hands. The whites of his eyes blood red and the pupils dark and fathomless. As intense as a laser beam. He says nothing but his eyes plead with me through the window to buy something, anything. I look away, confused. I look back. Still there with his laser beam looking straight into my conscience.
The bus doors suck open and my fellow travellers, sweating profusely, climb on board closely followed by the hawkers with their bracelets and boxes of tiny wooden elephants, pleading for 100 or 200 rupees. They had been 500 rupees earlier and a meagre 180 rupees is what an Indian laborer can earn in a day. A couple of people buy things. Red-eyed man has me in his sights and thrusts a box of elephants under my nose and I shake my head. I’ve already bought enough stuff, can’t fit them in my bags, don’t want them, I know he needs the money. Desperately. I don’t buy anything and his burning eyes still haunt my dreams. India does that to you. Did the stars at his birth dictate this was to be his destiny?
– The Astronomical Obervatory of Jaipur is next to the City Palace
– It’s the largest observatory in the world of its type
– Easily accessible from the city by bus, rickshaw or taxi
– Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, 258km from Delhi
– Jaipur is well connected by air, rail and road
– More info: www.jaipur.org