The Jantar Mantar Observatories

The Jantar Mantar in Delhi

The Jantar Mantar are a series of large observatories in India. Built by the Maharajah Jai Singh II (1688-1743) they were intended to predict eclipses and other astronomical events. There are four surviving Jantar Mantar and I saw three of these on my holiday, in Delhi, Jaipur and Varanasi.

The large scale of the instruments allows them to take accurate measurements. In Delhi it's possible to walk on and around the structures, which feature some vertigo-inducing stairways. It's impressive to walk through buildings designed to measure time.

I'd been warned that the guides at the Jantar Mantar were not particularly reliable. One man followed me around, giving explanations of the instruments in the hope I would hire him. It's been a long time since I studied astrophysics, but I remembered enough to know he was making it up.

The photographs show some of the instruments. The first four photos show the Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Below that are two photos of the cream-coloured structures in Jaipur. At the bottom is a photograph of the instruments in Varanasi. Significantly smaller, these are housed on a single rooftop.

The Jantar Mantar in Delhi 

The Jantar Mantar in Delhi
The Jantar Mantar in Delhi
The Jantar Mantar in Jaipur 

The Jantar Mantar in Jaipur

The Jantar Mantar in Varanasi

Reading at Short Fuse on Wednesday 14th April

I've been asked to read at Short Fuse, on Wednesday 14th April at the Brighton Komedia. The theme for the night is 'The Professionals' and promises "Short stories from the best local and national writing talent which explore the world of work (or how to avoid it)"

I'm going to read a story called For Hire. Until recently it was called Punch and Judy Story which is a rather half-hearted title. It's about a Punch and Judy man who is running out of money as the season draws to a close:

Monday mornings I do my
rounds. I start by checking the
nearby newsagents. Some shops leave cards in the window for months
without asking for more money, but I can’t be complacent. If a card
has been taken down, or left long enough to grow faded, then I go in
and ask to put up another. It’s important to
make a good impression – if your kids need entertaining, you don’t
want someone represented by a curled, faded postcard.

I've written several stories about this character, and the terrible things that happen to him and his puppets. This story features a strippogram (or, to be more accurate, a 'stripogram' (sic)) and some very awkward phone calls.

The night starts at 8pm in the Brighton Komedia Studio Bar. Entry is £5.

The Karni Mata ‘rat temple’, Bikaner

The temple of Karni Mata, at Desknoke near Bikaner is a remarkable place. The temple contains 20,000 rats, who are cared for by the priests. I wanted to visit because of the write-up in the Lonely Planet, which claimed that the rats were reincarnated story tellers.


The Lonely Planet says that a story-teller had died and Karni Mata asked Yama, the God of death, to bring them back to life. When Yama refused, Karni Mata reincarnated the storyteller as a rat, under her protection. This version of the story states that Karni Mata decreed all storytellers would be reincarnated as rats to keep them away from Death.

Sadly, as far as I can tell, the story is a garbled account of the actual myth. Having spoken to the caretaker at the temple museum, it turns out that a particular group of families is reincarnated at the temple (not all members of the Charan caste as is reported elsewhere). The man at the museum said that he himself expected to be reincarnated as one of the thousands of rats.

Karni Mata is a remarkable figure. The museum opposite the temple is a large hall displaying paintings of the episodes in Karni Mata's life. She was born in 1387 after a 21 month pregnancy. Karni Mata was said to be a reincarnation of the Goddess Durga. Throughout her life, she worked miracles, including healings, building a temple in one night and feeding an army with four chapattis. 

The temple is an impressive experience. Since it is a holy site you have to remove your shoes before entering. The rats are everywhere, emerging from holes in the walls. It is said that if you tread on a rat, it  must be replaced with a silver replica.

Among the thousands of rats are five white ones, and it is said to be very lucky to see one. My driver pointed out one of these white rats to me. It is also lucky to have one of the rats scamper over your feet, but I didn't receive that honour.





Space Invaders in Varanasi

When I worked in Ladbroke Grove, many years ago, there was a mosaic of an space invader on a bridge. After seeing the first alien, I spotted others, including one in Paris. They were apparently put up by a French artist called Invader. It's the sort of art project I love – playfully and subtly adding something to an urban environment. (Hob blog has some images of the London Space Invaders).

Wandering along the ghats in Varanasi with my Dad, I spotted a familiar image. As usual, once I'd seen the Space Invader motif I spotted it elsewhere.

Space Invader in Varanasi

Space Invader in Varanasi
Space Invader in Varanasi 

Invader's web-site lists the locations he's visited including Varanasi in April 2008. Apparently there were 14 images in total, including one I spotted – but the mosaic shown at the top doesn't seem to be listed.

Walking to Taragarh, Ajmer

Taragarh is a fort outside Ajmer. From its description in the Lonely Planet, it sounded like a lovely place for a stroll. I set off early in the morning, having learned a valuable lesson about not hiking to hill forts in the middle of the day. The start of the path was hard to find but once I reached the stone steps it was easy to follow. As was the trail of litter and broken sandals.

The route to the fort was fairly quiet early in the day, but there were various signs of civilization: a couple of restaurants, tarpaulins stretched across the path; remains of a pay-phone shack. Higher up I started to pass stalls selling what seemed to be Islamic items. Some of these stalls played DVDs on small TV screens, while others played sermons through speakers. As I climbed the sound of these sermons overlapped with one another.

I made a fast ascent, wanting to reach the fort before the sun rose over the mountainside. The stone stairway was like something from a novel and the fort itself was impressive, with a great view of Ajmer.

To enter the main part of the fort I had to remove my shoes, and I was offered a packet of religious items to buy (incense and lotus flowers, I think). I walked barefoot around the town for a while, but I had little idea what the fort’s significance was. Given the stalls on the way up and the prohibtion on footwear, it was a pilgrimage site of some significance. A friend later told me it was the resting place of a Sufi saint, but I don’t know any more than that.

It was strange to visit a holy site with no idea of what it meant to people. That aside, the climb to Taragarh was one of the most impressive walks I’ve made in my life. I sat and enjoyed the view for a bit, then walked back into Ajmer, none the wiser.

Path to Taragarh 

An arrow points the way

Gate house on the way to Taragarh

Stalls on the pathside

Taragarh Star Fort

No photographs of the Taj Mahal

This post contains no photographs of the Taj Mahal. I did take some, but the datacard was erased when an Internet cafe tried to copy the data to CD. But I'm not too upset about losing those images.

My friend Jen had warned me off staying in Agra overnight, saying there was little to see other than the Taj Mahal. It's easy to make a day-trip to Agra by train so I booked that. Agra has a bad reputation for touts, but it was less irritating that some of the towns that I visited. However at the station one group of autorickshaw drivers started arguing over who would speak to me first as I walked right past them.

Some people I spoke to before my holiday were underwhelmed by the monument. Others had described it as a highpoint of their trip. It reminded me of the Mona Lisa, which seems to receive similarly mixed responses. Either way, I couldn't visit India without seeing the Taj Mahal.

Sadly I found the Taj underwhelming. I'd seen its image so many times, in so many contexts, and for me the building didn't live up to that. The building was magnificent and beautiful but it didn't move me. I found other buildings, like the Amber Fort near Jodhpur, far more exciting. And it wasn't helped by all the people taking photographs.

Every visitor seemed to have a camera, and was looking for the perfect angle from which to photograph the Taj Mahal. It was as if they thought they might find some image nobody had seen before. I found myself compelled to do the same thing. The Taj Mahal didn't seem like a wonder of the world, it felt more like a photography contest. We were there to record an amazing building rather than to be amazed. It reminded me of a passage from Don Delillo's novel White Noise:

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
"No one sees the barn," he said finally.
A long silence followed.
"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
Another silence ensued.
"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.
He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.
"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?"

Standing in front of the Taj Mahal, I found myself thinking back to that passage. What did the Taj Mahal look like before it was photographed?

For me, the best views of the Taj Mahal were from outside the main complex. If you travel across the river, you can view the Taj Mahal from across the water (near the Mehtab Bagh). It's a less frantic location and the river makes a beautiful setting for the mausoleum.

The view from the Agra Fort is particularly striking. The mausoleum was built by the emporer Shah Jahan in memory of one of his wives, Mumtaz Mahal. The building work took around 21 years. Soon after work was complete, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son, Aurangazeb, and put under house arrest in the fort. It's possible to visit the rooms where Shah Jahan spent his last 8 years, and see the same distant view of the Taj Mahal that he was left with.