Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Haji Ali - The shrine off the shore

Built in 1431, this monument has been sentinel to the shores of Bombay since a long time. 500 yards into the sea from the shore, Haji Ali is said to be the tomb of an ancient merchant saint, who died on his way to Mecca. His casket was brought to Bombay, where the dargah was built by Haji Usman Rangikar, the man who owned the ship that took pilgrims to Mecca.

The white dome and the solitary minaret of the mosque behind the dargah stands out on the west shoreline of Mumbai. Behind the huge marble doorway lies the tomb enclosed in a white structure lying in an exquisite silver frame supported by marble pillars. The inside of the dome is covered in colourful glass arranged in a kaleidoscopic pattern, which spells the names of Allah in 99 different forms.

Every day, thousands of pilgrims from Mumbai and beyond walk from the shore to the dargah on the concrete walkway to say their prayers and ask for wishes, which the devout claim, do come true. The walkway some years back had just beggars lined up, but today, it has shops on its left up to the entrance of the dargah -- on the right, beggars have the full advantage of the space – they eat, sleep and make themselves at home here.

The dargah is taken care by a trust which earns approximately Rs 30 lakh a month. For the past two years as I have watched and visited it, no repairs have been carried out to the entire structure. Being thrust into the sea, the structure faces massive damage each year and repairs, plastering, reconstruction and painting are required every year.

As you walk into the Haji Ali dargah compound, and you notice the side structure is covered in the brocade cloth offered at the dargah, the pillars are cracking and almost split in half, almost ready to tumble down. With crowds of pilgrims and visitors around, one fears to imagine the consequences.

According to a stall-owner here, there is a tussle between the trustees of the dargah and the municipal corporation (BMC) . The trustees want the BMC to do the repairs and the BMC wants them to do it. In fact, he says, a suit is going on in the court and nothing can be done until the final verdict comes. So, the ancient monument awaits the final decision, braving salty winds and corrosion of time. One hopes the Haji Ali dargah gets the badly-needed repairs and the throngs of devotees spared of a calamity. Unless the urgent work required is done at the earliest, this historic structure may degenerate into a dilapidated structure, with a "NO ENTRANCE" board hung outside.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Magic House of Jantar Mantar

Mankind has been interested in the mysteries of fate since the beginning of consciousness and when he learnt astrology and astronomy, his interest resulted in the creation of instruments that would help in making accurate predictions based on the positions of the stars and the planets. Every ruler ancient and modern had an official astrologer associated with the royal family apart from their courts. Many also ventured to create more awareness among the general public about these sciences. Sawai Jai Singh II was one of them.
The ruler of Jaipur (1699-1743), he ascended the throne when he was barely eleven years old, and the name Sawai was given as a token of respect by Emperor Aurangazeb – though short in height, he was equal to Sawai (one-and-a-half times more than any individual). Jai Singh had twin passions - the arts and the sciences, chiefly astronomy.

He was a keen astronomer and a noble in the Mughal court. Dissatisfied by the errors of brass and metal astronomical instruments, he set about correcting the existing astronomical tables and updating the almanac with more reliable instruments. He built five Jantar Mantars, located at Delhi, Jaipur, Varanasi, Ujjain and Mathura. All were built between 1724-1730 AD considered the dark age of Indian history. All these huge instruments were made in masonry.

An incident finds specific mention in history books. Muhammad Shah wanted to travel and needed an auspicious moment to do so. This resulted in a standoff between the Hindu and the Muslim astrologers. He tried to get accurate readings from brass instruments but all of them inherent flaws – they were too small and their axes were unstable; so their centres got displaced. Frustrated, he sent his mission to Samarkand, where Arab astronomer Prince Ulugh Beg had built an observatory in the 15th century housing massive stone instruments. In 1730, he also sent a mission to Lisbon, to gather all the latest information on astronomy. The mission came back with a telescope -- and the famous astronomer Xavier de Silva.

This resulted in the building of Jantar Mantar at Delhi, an observatory where the movements of the Sun, Moon and all other planets would be observed by practising astronomers and the importance of this science would be introduced to the general public. It was built at Dar-al-Khilafat, Shahjahanabad and was well away from the inhabited area of the city. Development brought it right into the heart of the city.

After its erection in 1724, it remained functional only for seven years. Observations were made each day and noted down. Later, a chart was created and was called Zij Muhammad Shahi and was dedicated to the reigning monarch.

The original name Yantra (instrument) mantra (formula) has been corrupted over the ages to Jantar Mantar. The Sun dial dominates the par and is also known as the Samrat Yantra or Brihat Samrat yantra – the huge sundial. It is an imposing structure in yellow on the far right and has a 27m high arm set at an angle of 27 degrees. The other yantras in this observatory tracked the various stars and planets. The Mishra Yantra helped to determine the longest and shortest days in the year In December, one pillar overshadowed the other and in June, it did not cast any shadow at all.

This observatory is the largest and the best preserved today, compared to the four others that he built in Jaipur, Varanasi, Ujjain and Mathura. The one in Ujjain is in complete ruins and the one in Varanasi is in a state of decay. Jaipur is the well-preserved as Raja Ram Singh in 1901 refurbished this observatory with the help of a British engineer and lined the gradations on the instrument with marble, so they would not get worn out. The Jaipur observatory was meant to collect data on a daily basis and did. Raja Jai Singh consulted his guru Pandit Jaganath. This observatory was in use in the 1940s too. Time was read, important moments were announced with the firing of a canon and less important moments announced via a drummer form the Nahargarh fort.

But many experts in this field mention that these observatories fell into disuse because of lack of thought on the part of the king – he used the old method of Ptolemy; for better results, he could have made use of the changes made by Copernicus and that his political leaning (working for Muhammad Shah) affected the building of this scientific astronomy, for Muhammad Shah withdrew his patronage.

The dream of making astronomy more accessible to the general public to make it easy for them to understand never took off. But these observatories are an important part of our scientific heritage. It will always remain an intrigue and a puzzle to all observers from the modern generation. Astronomy or astrology, everyone is intrigued and want to know what the future holds for them, but few make the effort to create a path that would make it easy and very scientific to check it out.