Wednesday, February 18, 2015, New Delhi

This view from our hotel room this morning told an awful story about New Delhi’s air pollution. That is the Sun, not the Moon. And that is not fog or mist; it is what the air is like here, far more polluted even than Beijing’s. The newspapers are saying that by spending three days here recently, President Obama shortened his expected life span by six hours. We will be doing a bit worse than that, I suppose, even though we are mostly staying in the outskirts of the city.

I have been reading a biography of the pioneering British mathematical geneticist, J.B.S. Haldane, who emigrated to India in 1956. He used to enjoy star-gazing from the flat roof of his house in India:

Sitting in a deck-chair and sipping his tea, Haldane would point out the prominent stars and planets; he would identify them by their Greek and their Sanskrit names, expound on their positions and importance, and explain how the industrial smog of European cities, and their blaze of lights, made such observations more difficult than in the velvet night of India.
Only very recently has the air pollution problem been much discussed in India, and one wonders whether it is actually possible to have clean air in a city of 17 million.
View from our Room

View from our Hotel Room, New Delhi
(Click on images to enlarge)
We both slept through the night and didn’t wake until just before our alarm was to go off, so I think we may have solved the timezone problem. We came to India two days before our birding tour begins so that we would have one day to see the things we most want to see in Delhi and another just to rest before the rather vigorous tour begins. We were pleased to find that the hotel’s breakfast is a real treat with many hot Indian dishes in addition to pastries and such. We allowed ourselves to indulge freely, as we were not planning to take the time to have lunch.

Lee had booked a guide and a driver for the day from a firm called DMC India and had specified that we wanted to visit the Jantar Mantar, the Indus Valley collection in the National Museum, and Humayun’s Tomb. (We will be doing a more general tour of the city with our group later in the week.) By 8:30, we were in the car with Riyash, a Punjabi driver who wore a bright teal blue turban and was very genial.

Rush hour traffic into Delhi was horrendous, though the drivers seem much more pleasant than, say, in New York or Cairo. I gradually came to realize that the constant horn-honking has a different meaning here than it has in New York. It really is a signal and not an act of aggression. In fact, many of the more slow-moving vehicles have signs across the back asking one to honk (to signal them that one needs to pass). The drivers do honestly seem to be cooperating with one another, and one sees very few vehicles with crumpled fenders, etc. The cooperation sometimes allows them to make five lanes where there are only four, and it all works out.

It took us about an hour to get to the Jantar Mantar, and our guide Vibhor (or “Vibes”—he’s also a DJ) was waiting for us there.

Delhi Janta Mantar

The Delhi Jantar Mantar
(Image courtesy of Delhi Tourism)

Sawai Jai Singh II

Sawai Jai Singh II
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Jai Singh II became the ruler of Amber (now Jaipur) in 1699 at the age of 11 during the latter days of Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign. He had already been well educated in Hindu and Islamic mathematics and astronomy and continued his studies throughout his life (thus the honorific “Sawai”) while at the same time serving as a military leader under the Emperor. By the time Aurangzeb died, the Mughal Empire was in decline, but Jai Singh managed to survive several more short-term Emperors and became the techie go-to guy for the Empire.

In the mid 1720’s, he took on the problem that the astronomical tables in use in India were so out of date that it was no longer possible to predict eclipses accurately, nor even the New Moon. (This was a big problem for a culture in which astrology was so central.) The data for the tables had been gathered in the golden days of Hindu and Islamic astronomy, which were by then centuries in the past. His solution was to build astronomical observatories in five cities in northern India. These became known as the “Jantar Mantar”, which means something like “calculation instruments”. India did not have telescopes at the time, so Jai Singh built gigantic versions of traditional astronomical instruments in masonry, mathematics expressed in stone. The huge size was to gain accuracy. His builders copied his wax models into masonry structures with amazing precision, which enabled some of the instruments to be accurate to within a few seconds.

All were designed to allow observation of the movements of the stars and planets, not just the Sun and the Moon, and he came up with some very clever enhancements to his instruments to allow for that. The resulting measurements were accurate enough that he was able to determine that the orbit of the Sun around the Earth is an ellipse, not a circle. This is the equivalent of Kepler’s discovery more than a century earlier that the orbit of the Earth around the Sun is an ellipse. (Unfortunately, Jai Singh’s only contacts with Western science were via Portuguese Jesuits, who were not likely to expose him to heresies such as those of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, so he kept to the geocentric view of the universe throughout his life.)

Four of the five Jantar Mantar survive, but all have deteriorated during the almost three centuries since they were built (ca. 1725-1730). The instruments in Delhi have suffered both from changing groundwater levels and from unfortunate attempts to repair them. If you would like to take a short walk through the Delhi Jantar Mantar, take a look at this video. For a good introduction to the Jantar Mantar, see Architecture in the Service of Science: The Astronomical Observatories of Jai Singh II by Barry Perlus. For a good in-depth discussion of the best of the instruments, see Precision Instruments of Sawai Jai Singh by Virendara Nath Sharma and Anjani K. Mehra (this is slow to download but worth the wait).

One of the more accurate Delhi instruments originally was the Samrat Yantra, the giant equinoctial sundial (also used for observing stars). The gnomon (the part that casts the shadow) is the stairway shown below on the left, which is more than 21 meters tall. Its hypotenuse points quite accurately to the north celestial pole and is 39 meters long. It casts its shadow on a giant scale (originally white, now grey) that formed a half circle and lies in a plane parallel to the equatorial plane.

Samrat Yantra, Delhi

Gnomon, Samrat Yantra, Delhi
(with part of the scale on the left)
Samrat Yantra, Delhi

Samrat Yantra, Delhi, Part of the scale flooded by concrete
Unfortunately, several feet of concrete have been poured into the base of this instrument, burying much of the lower portion of the scale. Even if the air in Delhi were still clear enough for the Sun to cast a shadow and even if there were not tall buildings nearby shading the instruments, it would no longer be possible to use this instrument to tell the time between 9 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon because those parts of the scale are buried. Even when the instrument was in pristine condition, it had a problem in dealing with the fact that the Sun is not a point source of light. With such a tall gnomon, the shadow has a penumbra several centimeters wide. This was dealt with successfully, however, by using the same conventions in marking the scale as in reading it.

I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the instruments, which are in a nice park with lots of Five-striped (we were finally able to count the stripes) Palm Squirrels running about. Perhaps my favorite instruments were the Rama Yantras, which, like some of the other instruments, were built as complementary pairs to facilitate observation of stars (when the observer needed to be able to stand close to the scales and look up to sight the star against a marker rather than looking down to note the marker’s shadow on the scales in the sunlight). Despite the maintenance problems, one could still get a good idea of all of the instruments, though we couldn’t really go into most of them, as there are barriers and guards.

Five-striped Palm Squirrel

Five-striped Palm Squirrel
Rama Yantra, Delhi

Rama Yantra (instrument for measuring altitude and azimuth)
We did climb about a bit on the sexiest-looking of the instruments, the Misra Yantra, the big composite instrument built by Jai Singh’s son. Though it has become a symbol of Delhi, the Misra Yantra was never actually as accurate as the devices built by Jai Singh himself. I was delighted to discover that some of its scales are intact enough that we could make out the original Indian numerals (Devanagari numerals) marking the gradations.
Misra Yantra, Delhi

Misra Yantra (composite instrument), Delhi
Detail of Misra Yantra, Delhi

Detail of Scale, Misra Yantra
When we were ready to leave the Jantar Mantar, Vibhor told us that there was a place nearby that he really wanted to show us that he doubted we’d see during our group tour on Friday, so off we went. When our car stopped in a narrow alley, I was struck by the vibrant graffiti on the walls:
Delhi Grafitto Delhi Grafitto
Then Vibhor took us through a short passageway and we were both overawed:

Ugrasen ki Baoli, Delhi

Ugrasen ki Baoli, Delhi
It was a 12th Century stepwell, the Ugrasen ki Baoli. This was a complete surprise to us. We didn’t know such things existed. It’s 60 meters long and 15 meters wide and goes down 103 steps. The walls consist of tier upon tier of beautiful yellow stone arcades. What a sight! I was really enchanted and very pleased that I’d let Vibhor talk us into the side trip. He clearly wanted us to see an important Hindu building, rather than only the Mughal and pre-Hindu artifacts on the agenda we’d given him. I later learned that there were thousands of stepwells in ancient India and that donating one was viewed as a great community service, as they provided not only water in times of drought but also community gathering places, especially for women, to whom most of the work of carrying water fell.
Map of Major Indus Valley sites

Map of Major Indus Valley Sites
From there, we drove to the National Museum, where we took the time to thoroughly savor their Indus Valley (“Harappan”) collection.

We fell in love with the art of the Indus Valley civilization back in 2003 when we saw an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. The single most famous piece of art from that civilization is the sculpture of a “Priest King” from Mohenjo-daro. We were lucky to have seen that in the Met’s exhibit, as it is ordinarily in the Karachi Museum.

Frustratingly little is known about the Harappans. There have been extensive excavations of their cities, and their artifacts have been found in ancient Mesopotamian cities, with whom they had strong trade relations. They had a writing system, but it has never been deciphered, largely because all the inscriptions found so far are short, most of them on seals. It is not even known what the language family was, nor is it known what caused the decline of their civilization (changes in the courses of rivers and invasion by the Indo-Europeans are two likely candidates).

(Note that we will soon be birding in the Thar Desert, which you can see on this map, but unfortunately that is as close as we will get to the Indus Valley.)

Vikram Chandra wrote beautifully of the Indus Valley civilization in Red Earth and Pouring Rain:
Suppose someone says, what really happened? Then say that once there were people who built cities in the valley of the Indus, large teeming cities with broad straight streets intersecting at ninety degrees, like a well-made grid. There are some things that have appeared out of the drifting sands to speak cryptically about these people; there is a statue of a sophisticated, gentle man with contemplative, inward-looking eyes. There is a figurine of a dancing girl, head proudly thrown back, hips carelessly and confidently thrust forward, hand on waist, ready to break impulsively into movement. There are thousands of lines of beautiful undecipherable writing on clay seals; on one of these seals Pashupati sits in meditation, the supreme Yogi, the Lord of animals, the wild king of the forest who holds the universe together with his dance, penis erect in gathered energy. There is the figure of the bull, dewlapped and powerful, repeated endlessly on the seals. There are the toys, the thousands of clay animals and carts like the ones we see on country roads today. There are the great baths, now empty; the wind shifts dust endlessly across the desert.

Where did this richness go? Is it true that a tribe riding chariots appeared out of the western passes, filled with the uncouth strength of the steppes, worshipping a rain-god soon to be called the Destroyer of Cities? Were there massacres and raids and despair? Or did the river change course and leave the long streets empty and silent? Or did the cities just grow old, very, very old, and collapse in on themselves like a stand of dying trees? Nobody knows, but we do know that Shiva still meditates endlessly among the awe-struck animals, that the legends of the chariot-riding Aryans speak of old dark-skinned Asuras, who imparted knowledge of secret sciences to chosen students, that brave adventurers fell in love with the daughters of their enemies, the ones from before, the ones who worshipped old gods, that the sounds of the languages of the south seem to fit the strokes of that undecipherable writing,…

The Aryans moved west and south, clearing forests for their cattle, and Indra the thunder-god became Indra the Destroyer of Cities. But, though cities are often destroyed, sometimes they do not vanish, sometimes they become invisible and invade the hearts and minds of the destroyers, who then live forever changed.

At the National Museum, we got to see most of the works Chandra referred to in that excerpt. I suspect he meant the Karachi carving as the “sophisticated, gentle man”, though he may have had in mind another wonderful head of a priest from Mohenjo-daro that we saw today. His famous dancing girl was there, “hips carelessly and confidently thrust forward”, and look at this elegant male torso:

Mohenjo-daro Priest Harappan Dancing Girl Harappan Male Torso
The Pashupati Seal was there; it is considered by many to be evidence that the religion of the Indus Valley civilization was the precursor to Hinduism. We also saw “the figure of the bull, dewlapped and powerful, repeated endlessly on the seals” with the “beautiful undecipherable writing”:
Pashupati Seal Bull Seal
And as Chandra wrote, “There are the toys, the thousands of clay animals and carts like the ones we see on country roads today”:
Toy animals Toy cart
There were also handsome pottery and accomplished bronzes:
Harappan Pot Harappan Bronze Elephant
How strange it is that the memory of this whole civilization was lost until the 1920’s!

Our last stop of the day was to visit Humayun’s Tomb. If you would like a short visit yourself, see this video. Humayun was Babur’s son and the second Mughal Emperor of India. I particularly wanted to visit his tomb because it is a precursor to the Taj Mahal and established the style for Mughal buildings in India. And, it is an exquisite work of art itself. Like the Taj Mahal, it tells a love story; it was built by Humayun’s wife following his unexpected death from a fall in 1556.

Vibhor is not allowed to guide inside the tomb, so he gave us a short talk about it and then waited while we spent a glorious half hour exploring it on our own. As soon as we came to the gatehouse (built in yellow sandstone), I began seeing the wonderful Mughal touches I had learned about in studying for our visit to the Taj. And then we stepped through the gateway and beheld the tomb itself, built mostly of a deep red sandstone brightened with white marble inlays.

Gatehouse, Humayun’s Tomb

Gatehouse, Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
Humayun’s Tomb

Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
Being a Mughal building, it was of course set in extensive gardens with orderly water channels and fountains. We climbed some very steep stairs to go up onto the terrace and began exploring the architecture with its wonderful inlays and carvings.
Fountain before Humayun’s Tomb

Fountain before Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
External Niche, Humayun’s Tomb

External Niche, Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
Jali, Humayun’s Tomb

Jali, Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
Chhatri with Blue Tiles, Humayun’s Tomb

Chhatri with Blue Tiles, Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
The interior was dazzling in white marble with red sandstone inlays and the occasional touch of blue. Many members of the Imperial family have their sepulchers there, including Dara Shikoh, the subject of the play we saw in London, who was Humayun’s great-great-grandson.
Interior, Humayun’s Tomb

Interior, Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
Interior of Dome, Humayun’s Tomb

Interior of Dome, Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
Dome Detail, Humayun’s Tomb

Dome Detail, Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
Sepulchers, Humayun’s Tomb

Sepulchers, Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
Happily for us, the crowds were light, so we could enjoy everything at our leisure. There were several groups of uniformed schoolchildren who seemed to find us more interesting than the building. We posed for photos, shook hands, and signed autographs for them, eliciting wonderful smiles.

I was really glad to have had a chance to explore this fabulous place on our own. I had had no idea how exquisite its stone inlays would be; I think I may prefer their austere geometries to the flowers of the Taj.

We rejoined Vibhor and found the car and then drove him to a Metro stop so he could get home before the rush hour. Riyash delivered us back to the hotel in considerably less time than the morning trip had taken. Along the way, he spoke of his two daughters and son, who live in the Punjab, where he can visit only a few times a year, there being no jobs there. The children are all in school, and his second daughter is hoping to become a doctor.

It was only around 2 when we got back to our hotel. Until tomorrow evening, when we meet up for dinner with our birding group, we have nothing on our schedule but vegging out, and we are happy about that.

Curious Children, Humayun’s Tomb

Curious Children, Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi

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