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Cosmopolitismes en Asie du Sud

Corinne Lefèvre
Ines G. Županov
Jorge Flores

Langues/traductions // Languages/translations

Circulation and Cosmopolitanism in 18th Century Jaipur. The Workshop of Jyotishis, Nujumi and Jesuit Astronomers

Circulation et cosmopolitisme à Jaipur au xviiie siècle. L’atelier des Jyotishis, des Nujimis et des jésuites astronomes

Dhruv Raina


Perhaps, the five monumental astronomical masonry projects that the 18th century astronomer king, Jai Singh embarked upon would be easier to understand in the age of Big Science. Within the history of modern sciences, this anachronistic project surprisingly finds its place among several other monumental projects of the 18th century. In the history of the modern sciences the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries are particularly important, marked as they are by the circulation of artefacts, objects, specimens, data, textual collections and more importantly individuals—at one level it becomes impossible to speak of this circulation without engaging with this cosmopolitanism of things and peoples. Departing from a presentist scientific interpretation of Jai Singh’s astronomy, this paper looks at the astronomical observatory as a site of cosmopolitan encounter between different astronomical and astral traditions, texts and ephemerides, as well as things of diverse cultural origins. Seen through this lens, the astronomical observatory becomes a laboratory for the encounter of three different exact sciences—even though their rapprochement was not “computationally successful.” The paper argues that the precedents for this cosmopolitan astronomy and practices are not to be situated merely in the court of an idiosyncratic Jai Singh, but have earlier Mughal precedents in an expanding culture of collection in the region. The paper attempts to embed cosmopolitan astronomy within a larger cultural and political context of encounter in early modern South Asia. Terms such as cosmopolitan science, astronomy or medicine can be used to designate a variety of knowledge related activities in epochs preceding our own.

Peut-être que les cinq projets maçonniques monumentaux d’astronomie que Jai Singh – le roi astronome du xviiie siècle – a entrepris, seraient plus faciles à comprendre à l’âge de la « Big Science ». Dans l’histoire des sciences modernes, ce projet anachronique trouve étonnamment sa place parmi plusieurs autres projets monumentaux du xviiie siècle. Dans l’histoire des sciences modernes les xvie, xviie et xviiie siècles sont particulièrement importants, marqués qu’ils sont par la circulation d’artefacts, d’objets, de spécimens, de données, de collectes de textes et, chose plus importante, d’individus – de sorte qu’à un certain niveau il devient impossible de parler de cette circulation sans se mettre en prise avec ce cosmopolitisme des choses et des personnes. S’écartant d’une interprétation scientifique présentiste de l’astronomie de Jai Singh, cet article considère l’observatoire astronomique comme un site de rencontre cosmopolite entre les différentes traditions astronomiques et astrales, textes et éphémérides, aussi bien que les choses d’origines culturelles diverses. Vu sous cet angle, l’observatoire astronomique devient un laboratoire pour la rencontre de trois différentes sciences exactes – même si leur rapprochement n’était pas « une réussite sous l’angle du calcul ». L’article fait valoir que les précédents à cette astronomie et à ces pratiques cosmopolites ne doivent pas être simplement situés dans la cour d’un Jai Singh idiosyncrasique, mais ont des précédents moghols antérieurs dans une culture de la collecte très développée dans la région. L’article vise à intégrer l’astronomie cosmopolite dans un contexte culturel et politique plus large de confrontation dans l’Asie du Sud de la première modernité. Des termes tels que science cosmopolite, astronomie ou médecine sont utilisés pour désigner une variété d’activités liées à la connaissance dans les époques antérieures à la nôtre.

Texte intégral

Different aspects of Jai Singh’s project were presented at workshops in Heidelberg, Cambridge, and Paris and were woven together and presented to the research group of Department II at the Max Planck Institut für Wissenschaftsgesichte in February 2011. The argument was pushed in an unintended direction for “Cosmopolitismes de la première modernité. Le cas de l’Asie du Sud (xvie-xviiie siècles): sources, itinéraires, langues”, 24-25 mai 2012, CEIAS, Paris, coorganized by C. Lefèvre & I. G. Županov.

1The history of science has long been preoccupied with the transmission and circulation of scientific knowledge. However, the social turn introduced a twist to these investigations by abandoning an earlier premise that marked studies on the “expansion of European science” (Basalla 1968). The new studies demonstrated the anchoring and reframing of ideas in varied cultural and social contexts. Beyond the domain of the history of sciences similar trends are evident in other disciplines such as the history of art (Brown & Hutton 2011). Thus for example two recent edited volumes have independently tried to frame the movement of their respective objects of knowledge, science and art in terms of the metaphor of the “travelling companion” (ibid.: Renn 2011). Interestingly enough this follows in a sequence of metaphors, such as the river metaphor (Needham 1969) or transcultural flows (Appadurai 1996). Without intending to trade in metaphors the important question that comes up here is that this revisioning of several disciplinary formations has been rendered possible through a major questioning of social theory underpinning the social sciences (Wallerstein 1996).

2For example, a study on religion and modernity in nineteenth century India and Britain disbanded with the traditional oppositions of metropole and periphery, traditional and modern, secular and religious which framed modernist historiography and social theory suggesting instead that “what is often assumed to be opposite is in fact deeply entangled […] what is in fact seen as unconnected is in fact the product of close encounters” (van der Veer, 2001: 3). This essay draws upon some of the developments of social theory of science by looking at the circulation of astronomical ideas between South Asia and Europe in the early to mid eighteenth century. More specifically I shall look at the circulation of astronomical ideas in the court of the Indian astronomer-king Sawai Jai Singh II (1688-1743). Contrary to our intuitive understanding of “cosmopolitan science” and its contemporaneous conjugate, “Big Science” (Capshew & Rader 1992; Galison 1992), I shall argue that the concerned historical actors were involved in an earlier version of both cosmopolitan and Big Science involving the circulation of people, money and machines. Furthermore, the traditional-modernity dichotomy within which this encounter between the so-called modern European sciences and the traditional Indian sciences has been framed proves inadequate to appreciate the circulation and cosmopolitanism of ideas unless an asymmetry in argumentation is allowed to frame the explanation. In other words, this essay gravitates around the notions of “Big Science” and “cosmopolitan science” in order to foreground non-standard versions of these very two notions that frame our understanding of the circulation, transmission or movement of scientific ideas in the crucial eighteenth century.

3Even within the history and philosophy of science the discussion on cosmopolitanism and its different modes compels an engagement with the history of the concept itself since it has been extended to embrace a variety of historical and cultural contexts and modalities of engaging with “Other ways of knowing.” Nationalist historiographies have since the first quarter of the nineteenth century played an equally important role in shaping both the general and the disciplinary histories of the sciences; and yet by the end of the century, Pasteur would point out that science additionally was characterised by its international ethos. The literature on scientific internationalism, like the literature on cosmopolitanism constantly negotiates the tension between the universal and the local, between the nation as a unit of historical narrative, the emergence of national styles of research and the international ethos and spirit of science. The social theory of science has interrogated and de-stabilized many of the standard categories that have structured histories of science.

4Cosmopolitanism is often seen as a product of globalization or the transformations that have marked contemporary societies (Beck 2000: 96-97), and yet empirically the phenomenon where people have an orientation or are disposed to “think, feel and imagine beyond existing boundaries and to transform their everyday practices and identities” were encountered historically everywhere and perhaps at all times (Saito 2011: 126). In that sense I could well imagine historians of science speaking of cosmopolitanism of science in the ever present tense—to rephrase Latour: we were always cosmopolitan. For historians of science three aspects of cosmopolitanism matter namely cultural omnivorousness, ethnic tolerance and cosmopolitics. The first refers to “a disposition to appreciate a wide variety of cultural objects,” while ethnic tolerance alludes to “positive attitudes towards ethnic outgroups.” The ubiquity of texts, artefacts and instruments engaging the attention of human actors transgressing regional and ethnic boundaries is testimony of shared intellectual or scientific concerns if not a shared epistemic frame or culture.

5The term cosmopolitan was employed as a prefix to a scientific discipline by Carla Nappi and her colleagues to engage with attempts to reconcile medical knowledge from China’s borderlands with canonical Chinese medical texts that in turn transformed Chinese natural history and medicine (Nappi 2008). Drawing upon Kwame Anthony Appiah’s work on ethics and global exchange, the notion of cosmopolitanism helped create a medial space between relativism and universalism, that produces common ethical values joining otherwise disparate communities. This in turn reformed the linguistic and textual practices in the process of exchange.

6The problem we have to confront is the encounter of two different cosmopolitanisms. Mughal cosmopolitanism as a subject of scholarly investigation and Jai Singh’s own enterprise can be located within that frame and a kind of cosmopolitan astronomy that I shall try to characterize as embedded in networks where things, objects and people travel—a very Latourian idea, that does not carry the burden of historical origination of the notion of cosmopolitanism. The other way around the difficulty as Pollock et. al have suggested is to consider cosmopolitanism “in the plural, as cosmopolitanisms,” so as “to avoid the imposition of practices and histories that do not necessarily fit interpretations devised for historical situations elsewhere” (Pollock et al. 2000).

7Lorraine Daston writes that by the turn of the seventeenth century two never before coupled words in medieval Latin Observatio and experimentum, became inseparable as the foremost forms of “learned experience […] instead of countless generations of occasional observers, global networks of coordinated observers would speed the work of looking, collecting, collating, and correlating” (Daston 2011: 14). The problem then was to deal with the observations flowing in from official informants, informal networks and scholarly publications. The circulation of manuscripts and publications, revealed the collective nature of the enterprise or now empiricism came to substantially imply “collective empiricism” (ibid.). This was the epistemic backdrop within which the astronomical endeavours of the French Jesuit astronomers posted in India need to be located.

8In 1734, two French Jesuit astronomers stationed at the Jesuit mission in Chandernagore, in Bengal, then under French control, were invited to the court of the astronomer Jai Singh. The meeting of Jai Singh’s astronomers with the French Jesuit astronomers has evoked the interest of both historians and historians of science. Unfortunately, the encounter itself was not as interesting as the hype surrounding a dramatic episode in cultural encounter before the formal inauguration of the processes of colonisation. Often enough this episode in the history of sciences is framed by the dichotomy of tradition and modernity, or the encounter between modern astronomy and traditional astronomy, not to mention the cosmopolitan nature of a dialogue or conversation that did or did not occur and is encumbered by the valuations that are embedded in these dichotomies. For want of a better term, a transcultural perspective may well open up the history of science and knowledge to newer and global perspectives. This investigation seeks to approach the eighteenth century from a historiographic framework that questions the idea that Indian modernity has primarily been a colonial modernity, marked both by a sharp break and sudden transition from the traditional to the modern, this rupture being an outcome of the assertion of colonial dominance (Minkowski 2010: 89). In other words, cosmopolitanisms in South Asia, as in other parts of the world, had a vocation most certainly in early modernity localised to the period 1450-1750 and was not the by-product of colonial modernity or globalization.

9Pollock and others diversely characterise this period of early modernity. Focussing upon the substance and context of Sanskrit science and scholarship from 1550 to 1750, the period is seen as one of an intellectual renewal: “one of the most creative eras in Indian intellectual history,” rather than a dark medieval age. This renewal is characterized by an increased production of texts across disciplines, the rise of a reinvigorated disciplinarity, and the introduction of new conceptual categories and discursive practices throughout the subcontinent and beyond (Pollock 2001). This circulation is not limited to texts but to commodities, skilled personnel, technologies and ideas (Minkowski 2010: 91). Jai Singh’s projects it will be seen were embedded within this textual universe.

10The term cosmopolitan has been used to qualify the astronomy discussed in the paper in order to describe the modality of circulation and exchange. In doing so it needs be clarified that while in the dictionary sense of the term cosmopolitan connotes the ideas of that which is relevant to the whole world, or whose constituent elements are from all over the world, the term is employed here in a non-normative way. Seen in this way the movement of ideas and people such as astronomers and mathematicians from not only different regions of the Indian sub-continent, but Persia and Portugal and France and Europe testifies to the cosmopolitan character of astronomical activity not just in Jai Singh’s court but amongst the network of astronomers distributed across the globe in the eighteenth century. Consequently, the rubric of cosmopolitanism helps frame the circulation and exchange of scientific ideas within different knowledge spaces and practitioners working within these knowledge spaces.

The Eighteenth Century Conjuncture of European and South Asian Astronomy

11The field of Jesuit science has been a growing field of investigation for more than two decades, with studies centring on Jesuits’ sciences in institutions of learning. In addition to being educators within Europe their contributions to a number of scientific disciplines have been significant (Feingold 2003a; 2003b; Harris 2005). Secondly, following the work of Joseph Needham the importance of Jesuits as the vectors of modern science to China (Needham 1969; Jami & Skar 1995) has been a heated subject of discussion and this has been naturally followed up by investigations that seek to elucidate their role in India as well (Ansari 1985; Sen 1982, 1985). However, there is a second aspect to the Jesuit encounter in China and India and this has to do with, to use a current term from transcultural studies, a reverse flow in the form of a huge corpus of writing on the sciences of China and India that in many ways inform the debates and practice of science and politics in eighteenth century Europe (Han Qi 1995; Petitjean 1992). over the years the definition of what constitutes Jesuit scientific activity has expanded to encompass a wider expanse of Jesuit learning and scholarship, a process that has been accompanied by an enriched conceptual and theoretical repertoire for reading the Jesuit archive. This possibly explains the opening remarks in Županov’s Missionary Tropics that the study of Jesuit scholarship has become one of the rapidly growing fields of scholarship on the 17th and 18th centuries (Županov 2005; Murr 1986).

12By the end of the 18th century the continuing institutionalization of the natural sciences circumvented Jesuit networks as a result of which they were written out of subsequent disciplinary histories. However, the spatial and temporal breadth of networks of Jesuit communication reveals their immersion in several geographies of scientific culture (Naylor 2010) and the immense diversity of cultural and natural environments within which missionaries worked as part of a “complex web of dependencies involving regional cultural traditions, commercial interest and state authorities” (Harris 2005: 72). As in other regions, Jesuit activities in India extended to geography, cartography, languages, astronomy and mathematics, materia medica, natural history, antiquarian studies, politics and meteorology.

13There appear to have been differences in the training of the Jesuits. Astronomy was the exclusive preserve of university educated “ordained members, who taught, preached and published” and from the second half of the seventeenth century astronomy was a Jesuit prerogative in France (de Dainville 1978; Hsia 2009). In addition they were deeply involved in the collection of manuscripts relating to theology, mæurs et coutumes, philosophy and the sciences (Raina 2010). Naturally, the sort of knowledge they were able to appropriate depended on “Jesuit predispositions and receptive niches.” These filtered, possibly doctored bodies of natural knowledge were circulated as hundreds of letters, travel accounts and “natural histories on the overseas missions” (Harris 2011: 76).

14Towards the end of the 17th century however through Colbert the Jesuits in India and China were enlisted into the framework of institutionalised science. In other words they were the data-gatherers for Cassini’s global cartographic project. The observations made in India by Jesuit astronomers were then sent to Antoine Gaubil, the Jesuit astronomer posted at the Imperial Astronomical Bureau in Beijing (Ansari 1985). Having been certified by Gaubil these observations were then reported to Paris, where they were then subsequently processed by expert astronomers (Observations, 1692). In addition to the task of making these observations, the Jesuits were supposed to explore local traditions of astronomy, document their methods and ferret sightings of historical astronomical events. This task of historical astronomy and the ethnography of scientific practices was sedulously pursued in both China and India (Han Qi 1995; Raina 2010). My focus here is the French Jesuit expedition to Jai Singh’s court in the 1730s during one of the Venusian Transits. We can already see that data generated afar travelled between the metropolises of science.

15Surely then it is germane to ask as to what European Jesuit scholars, astronomers and mathematicians at different moments were doing in the astronomical observatories of the astronomer king Jai Singh between 1720 and 1750 and did they in any way shape the practice of Sanskrit-Persian astronomy at this particular institutional location. one of the difficulties with approaching the work of Jai Singh is that he has been portrayed as one of the inaugurators of an eighteenth century Indian modernity alongside Raja Ram Mohun Roy (Sharma 1995; Rahman 1987). In this onrush of presentism Jai Singh is found guilty of a double failure despite all the historical encomiums thrust on him by a century of scholarship. This double failure consists in his inability to modernize science in India despite his acquaintanceship with the developments in European science. The second is his failure to convert to Newtonian mechanics and to adopt the telescope as an astronomical instrument for the pursuit of astronomy. As often happens this failing plays itself out in historical research in the form of another counterfactual question that animates the history of science in South Asia and Asia more generally. The counterfactual begs asking, for in a rare moment in history, though not so rare in Mughal history, the state and science were rolled into one iconic personality of ruler and astronomer.

  • 1 Blanpied points out that ifEuropean prejudice colours the accounts of Hunter, Noti and Kaye; the co (...)

16Consequently at a liminal juncture, retrospectively considered, his scientific biographers tend to impute to him a vision of science and technology for a future India; and this is deduced from Jai Singh’s familiarity with scientific developments in 18th century Europe, evident in the collection of European scientific works housed in the Sawai Man Singh II Museum of Jaipur. In addition to a vision for science he is also depicted as possessing or being a forerunner of a vision of a composite multicultural Indian state as well as attempting to synthesize a Sanskritic, Central-Asian and Western identity for science (Rahman 1987). The counterfactual then asks what would Indian science look like had Jai Singh initiated the processes for the modernisation of science rather than wait for the colonial regime to dismantle the systems of traditional learning? These two failings have structured studies on Jai Singh and European science and gave credence to the idea that the scientific future of India may have been different but for the onslaught of British colonialism.1 A paper presented at a workshop organized in 1990 presented him as: “the visionary astronomer who became the victim of history,” rather than a victim not of history but scientific historicism. William Blanpied has pointed out that more than thirty years ago the few studies have attempted to see Jai Singh in context (Blanpied 1974).

17What we have instead are two immense projects of data-gathering, the one that the French Jesuits were participating in at the request of the Académie des Sciences, and the other that Jai Singh had undertaken in order to initiate a process of calendrical reform within his own kingdom as well as within what remained of the Mughal empire.

18The diversity of Jesuit archival activity extended from cartography to astronomy and mathematics, from geography to botany, and from the ethnography of local cultures to philology and linguistics. All of these involved huge amounts of data gathering. The focus on cartography and astronomy, it would be reasonable to conjecture was tied up not just with the itinerant nature of their missionary activity. All Jesuits in India and China till the middle decades of the seventeenth century were contracted under the Padroado system. In which case the cartographic activity served the strategic interests of the Portuguese state. By the middle of the seventeenth century Portuguese influence in South Asia and China began to decline and by the end of the century had more or less disappeared (Lach & van Kley 1993). However, the Jesuits we speak off were of French origin and belonged to the missions in Madurai, Pondicherry and Chandernagore.

Jai Singh’s Cosmopolitan Astronomy

19It could be argued that Jai Singh’s project and patronage of science was inspired by Mughal forms of civility and patronage of scientific and artistic activity. Furthermore, this was not just the case of Jai Singh but other rulers in the neighbourhood followed similar practices. The Mughal empire, as has been well documented, reached its glory under the rule of the third Mughal ruler Akbar (1542-1605). While exchanges between Sanskritic and Persianate astronomy date back more than a century prior to Akbar’s reign, Persian works on astrolabes were translated into Sanskrit in the fifteenth century (Sarma 1994). But it was in Akbar’s time that a new set of conversations between the Sanskritic, Persianate and ecumenical orders commenced across a range of scholarly and intellectual communities. The Hindu noble, Todarmalla in the court of Akbar commissioned a work by the royal astronomer or Jyotisharaya Nilakantha on tājika as a link between the astronomy of the Sanskritic and Persianate orders— this work completed in 1587 was called the Tājikanilakanthi (Pingree 1997: 79-90). This period of cosmopolitanism did not come to an end with Akbar’s reign but was followed by extensive innovations in agriculture and horticulture, but equally so in metallurgy driven by the demand for fabricating quality cannons (Alvi & Rahman 1968), not to mention new innovations in observational astronomy within the Sanskrit ecumene inspired by exchanges with Persian astronomy. A period of instability followed the death of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 that lasted till about 1719 when five sovereigns changed hands. During this period Jai Singh (1700-43) consolidated his territory and established a new capital that was named after him. Nevertheless, he remained a high-ranking official of the Mughals whose advice was frequently sought (Asher & Talbot 2006: 250). The internal structural contradictions that triggered the decline of the Mughal empire led to the decline and withdrawal of state patronage of such activity (Baber 1996: 94). Astronomical activity thrived in Jai Singh’s kingdom as it expanded territorially during the first half of the eighteenth century, located as it was along crucial trade routes.

20As the Mughal empire went into eclipse, Jai Singh as scholar-statesman required tact to preserve and extend his own dominion. This involved the introduction of far reaching administrative reforms (Moraes 1951). Besides, as a scholar and student of mathematics and jyotisha, he was driven by a passion to build a number of astronomical observatories and to familiarise himself with Arabic and Ptolemaic astronomy (Tillotson 2006: 28). In any case the salience of the relationship between his scholarly and political motivations remains little explored. By 1719, he had extended his kingdom and that of Ajit Singh of Jodhpur from about 150 miles off Delhi to the coast of Surat in the West. The growing authority of Jai Singh was remarked upon by the French Jesuit Claude Boudier. Writing to Etienne Souciet in Paris on 17th January 1736, Boudier spoke of Jai Singh’s authority throughout the Mughal empire: “The passport that we have [...] is in the name of the raja even though we have yet 300 leagues of the country to cross which is part of the Mughal empire; if I am not mistaken, this passport will be more respected than if it were in the name of the emperor himself [i.e. Mughal emperor]” (Letter from Claude Boudier to Étienne Souciet cited in Blanpied 1974: 94).

21Jai Singh went on to design and build a new city at the base of a hill on which stood the traditional dynastic palace and fortress. The modern city of Jaipur, and also the new capital of the Amber dynasty was geometrically planned, with streets broad enough to accommodate a procession of six elephants across—clearly a symbolic display of his imperial power. The city was built on entirely new lines and was unlike anything that preceded it; and scholars often see in its geometrical design a reflection of Jai Singh’s mathematical disposition. The architects were encouraged to ensure uniformity in the appearance of the city (Moraes 1951; Asher & Talbot 2006: 252). The decision to build the new capital was taken in 1727 and one pauses to wonder why. But it certainly was a political statement signalling the existence of an alternative power base to the Mughals. The city, unlike the other fortresses of the Rajputs that envelope towns and dominate the landscape of Rajputana, was conceived as a commercial centre with a thriving business community. In other words the city was not distinguished by the presence of warriors but of professionals, bankers and merchants (Tillotson 2006: 19).

22Jai Singh has recently been presented by some as leading a Hindu revival in the sunset of the Mughal empire (Pollock 2001). Indologists and students of ritual dynamics too see him as reviving forms of Hindu ritual and worship. While that maybe the case with respect to his familial responsibilities, as a ruler and administrator he was endowed with a far more cosmopolitan ethos which led historians of another generation to make of him a visionary prefiguring a conception of a composite religious and cultural Indian state. I would like to submit that when the variety of his political, administrative and scholarly activities is examined he emerges as a ruler and thinker operating simultaneously within many registers, which do not quite fit together in a scheme of logical consistency. What is certain is that he was known to be a devout scholar of religious texts supporting Brahmins and Indic institutions but deeply appreciated the value of a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan state that he saw as supporting the state’s financial well-being. He is known to have invited professionals of different religious denominations to settle in the city and practice their professions, skills and crafts (Asher & Talbot 2006: 254). The city grew into Asia’s leading centres for trade between Afghanistan, the Deccan and South-East Asia (Tillotson 2006: 18).

23We get a flavour of this cosmopolitanism when we examine his astronomical project, which in its own times was possibly amongst some of the mammoth projects undertaken in that century, not just on the sub-continent but anywhere. From a purely astronomical point of view Jai Singh’s greatest contribution comes from the importance accorded to observational astronomy evident in the masonry observatories that he supported and for which he designed some instruments (Sharma 1997). Furthermore, he contributed towards authoring a treatise in Persian, the Zij-i-Muhammad Shahi (hereafter ZIM) which in a qualified way was positioned within the Islamic tradition of Zij astronomy whose genealogy is traced back to the work of Ulugh Beg. This aspect of his immediate astronomical projects is noteworthy. In addition to which he was also acquainted and engaged with the work of the French mathematician and astronomer Phillipe de la Hire (Mercier 1984; Sharma 1995). While grounded in Jyotisa-vidyā, his familiarity with Greco-Arabic ilm al-haiʾat was substantial enough to prompt him to refine Ulugh Beg’s tables, a task for which he would seek resources from within European astronomy as well (Ghori 1980). In short one of the objectives of this project in astronomy was to consolidate his appreciation of the development of the astronomy of his times—whether Asian or European. Secondly, he designed new astronomical instruments in order to improve the accuracy of his measuring devices— this entailed the construction of five mammoth observatories across northern India. The previous two goals were subordinate to the overarching objective, which was to compile an accurate set of astronomical tables in order to correctly predict eclipses and introduce major calendrical reform (Winter 1912: 91-92).

24In Jai Singh’s own words the observatory project commenced in 1724, following his dissatisfaction with the tables of Hindu and Muslim astronomers as well as some of the Zij-i-Firangi (Tables of the Europeans). As Jai Singh proceeded to investigate the cause of this error, he simultaneously sought to project the canvas of his instruments in order to reduce the error by building masonry observatories, the first one of which was constructed in Delhi. The model for the observatory was the one at Samarkand and in the succeeding years went on to build a network of observatories at Jaipur, Mathura, Benaras and Ujjain. It is rather remarkable that these observatories were all constructed during a period conspicuously marked by political strife.

25The context of dissatisfaction is particularly relevant since both Jai Singh and Jagannatha Samrat, his leading court astronomer, were practitioners of jyotish or an astral science where astrology and astronomy were deeply entangled (Pingree 1978). Hence an accurate knowledge of the positions of the heavenly bodies was essential to accurately predict events that would transpire in the earthly realm. The Mughal emperor was informed of the discrepancy in the authoritative tables since “affairs, both regarding religion and administration of the empire, depended on these” (Tillotson 2006: 28). The emperor in Delhi requested him to consult the Danayan-i-Firang (European learned men) (Ghori 1980: 52) and to resolve the discrepancies Jai Singh proposed the construction of an observatory at the outskirts of Delhi (Sharma 1995; Blanpied 1974; Tillotson 2006: 29). Jai Singh recounts these details in the preface to the ZIM, the work that was a product of an extended attempt to revise the tables. The ZIM was dedicated to the emperor and ornamented with elaborate compliments and metaphors characteristic of Persianate literary conventions (Tillotson 2006: 29).

26Jai Singh went on to establish a school of observational astronomy that for later generations acquired an eponymous existence and was patronised by a Mughal emperor. But in addition to the astronomical activity was an intense project in the translation of Ptolemy and Euclid into Sanskrit and Persian. In addition to which he actively sought European contacts and enrolled some of them into his project. Jai Singh’s first exposure to the new developments in the sciences was through the Jesuit Superior in Goa, the Portuguese Emmanuel de Figueiredo who visited his court in Jaipur in 1728. He succeeded in arousing Jai Singh’s interest and led a delegation of Jai Singh’s scholars to Lisbon (Forbes 1982: 237). The delegation is reported to have returned to Jaipur in 1730 with the tables of Phillipe de la Hire and John Flamsteed, a recognised astronomer and physician Xavier da Silva Leitão (stayed on in Jaipur till his death in (1791), a vernier, micrometer and telescope (Ghori 1980; Forbes 1982). By the time the delegation returned with da Silva Leitão the ZIM had been published—the purpose of the ZIM was to reform the calendar and predict future events (ibid.: 238).

The Organizational Structure of the Observatory

27The Delhi Observatory was built in 1724 called the Jantar Mantar, the Mathura observatory in 1723, the Jaipur observatory between 1728-1735, the Varanasi observatory in 1730 and Ujjain before 1730. The observatories at Ujjain, Delhi and Mathura were built when he was either governor or an administrator of the Mughal empire. Varanasi, Mathura and Ujjain were important religious centres for the Hindus and the latter had for long been a centre of Sanskrit astronomy and was situated on the prime meridian defined by the canons of Hindu astronomy. The decision to build these observatories followed years of experimentation with designing metallic instruments that were later found lacking in accuracy. Along with his astronomers they went on to design six low, five medium, and three high precision masonry instruments (Sharma 1997: 3-5).

28The masonry observatories not just in the city of Jaipur, but in Delhi and other cities of Northern India had an equally important life in the register of architectural monuments, not just for posterity in a musée imaginaire of quaint artefacts, but as an integral part of the plan of the city drawn up by the ruler. In fact, several contemporary commentators have pointed out how Jai Singh’s astronomy as practised was an indispensable constituent of the city’s planning. The masonry structure called the Jantar Mantar was certainly not merely a theme, as Sachdev and Tillotson point out, that transformed the city into an astronomical icon of the age, but was more deeply embedded within the contemporaneous constellations of learning and the urban imagination, the architecture of the city being an important element of this imagination (Raina 2011).

29From the palace records we know that the leading Hindu astronomers employed in his court included Jagannatha Samrāt, Kevalarāma, Nayansukha Upādhyāya (accorded the Mughal title panditaraja), Krpārena, Hari Lāl Misrā and Yasasgara, and an anonymous translator of an European work on perspective drawing entitled Pratibimbasiddhānta. In addition there were about 22 astronomers, probably of lower rank, employed on daily wages who constructed instruments and made careful observations of the sun, moon and planets, earning up to Rs. 31 a month (1730 value) depending on the number of days and hours put in. In 1734 Boudier again informs us that these jyotisa were busy night and day at the observatory (Boudier, Lettres édifiantes cited in Sharma 1995).

  • 2 This is based on photocopies of some of the documents I have seen in Heidelberg from the eighteenth (...)

30From the middle of the sixteenth century, probably inspired by Mughal precedents, a set of records called the Dastur Kaumvar were kept by the Amber dynasty (these were the records or bulletins of the proceedings at the Jaipur court). Today they are available as a 32 volume collection of daily recordings of the events at the palace. Possibly till the end of 18th century they were largely in Persian, but as the 18th century wore on they were written in Dungari, a script that is a variant of Devanagari.2 The sections of concern to us record the gifts, favours and honours awarded by the Amber rulers from 1550 and the Dastur is pretty detailed for the period of Jai Singh’s rule. From the Dastur and the preface to the Samrāt Siddhānta we can infer that a number of Muslim astronomers occupied prime positions in the school. The most favoured of these was Dayanat Khan who met Jai Singh before the construction projects began and stayed with him for two decades—the Dastur suggests that he was decorated at least six times (Sharma 1995: 282-3).

31At least 9 nujumi or astronomers working in the tradition of Arab astronomy are mentioned in the list of those honoured. Their tasks included constructing instruments based on Arab astronomy and were later involved in the masonry observatory projects. One of Jai Singh’s additional hobbies, or shall we say signatures of his astronomical cultural omnivorousness, was to collect astrolabes and they helped in procuring these astrolabes. But most importantly their task was to procure texts and the nujumi were subsequently involved in their translations. Others among the nujumi mentioned in the Dastur include Shaykh Asad Allah, who was a member of the mission sent to Lisbon in 1727, and a Muhammad Sharif was sent to a firangi country to make observations of latitude and longitude for it was felt that for accuracy in predictions observations needed to be made across the globe. Jai Singh writes: “In every country, in the East, the South, the West and the North, everywhere observations are to be made” (quoted in Sharma 1995: 286).

  • 3 The name Muhandis in Persian means geometer, but it also means architect. One may speculate that it (...)
  • 4 The text that was translated was NasiruddinTusi’s Tahrir al-Majisti.
  • 5 This would have included Tusi’s Sharah al-Tadhkira and Ulugh Beg’s Zij-i-Jadid.

32Perhaps the most important of all amongst them was Abu al-Khair or Mirza Khair Allah Mohandis,3 Jai Singh’s chief assistant and virtually the author of the magnum opus Zij-i-Muhammad Shahi—it is often suggested that he may have played a role in prompting the revision of the existing astronomical tables while serving as an adviser to Jai Singh. Legend has it that he had transcribed in his own hand a copy of the Almagest and went on to write a commentary on the subject (Ghori 1980: 53). Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy’s Almagest were translated from Arabic recensions into Sanskrit as well with the titles Rekhāganita and Samrāt Siddhānta.4 In addition the community of jyotishis around Jai Singh had access to the tables of Nasir-al-Din al-Tusi and Ulugh Beg5 (Sharma 1982; Moraes 1951: 61). The evidence suggests that he and the astronomers at his court were not impervious to the achievements of European astronomy either. In fact two of the features of modern astronomy were assimilated within their system—the acceptance of elliptical orbits while divesting it of its heliocentric content. The ZIM points out that: “Before anything else it must be known that the orbit of the Sun’s eccentric sphere (ecliptic) has been proved to be of the form of the surface of an ellipse” (Ghori 1980: 54).

  • 6 Strobl, 6th October, 1742, No. 643, published in Stöcklein 1755, Neue Welt-Bott. I am extremely gra (...)

33In addition, to these astronomers were Jesuit astronomers who were often invited and later on joined his laboratory and among these were the Bavarian Jesuits, Andreas Strobl and Anton Gabelsperger. More than astronomers they were mathematicians in his court and worked at the mathematical observatory and the latter continued to be employed after his death. We have Strobl informing us of his status on his arrival in Jaipur: “I am of service to Him (Jai Singh) on matters concerning mathematics of which he is extremely fond […] He seems to be pleased with my services, since he twice turned down a request by the Mughal emperor, who has invited me for the sake of mathematics to Dely [sic].”6 Tieffenthaler was to work there as well but Jai Singh had died by the time he reached Jaipur.

34Evidently, this was an immense project involving the making of observations followed by computation and calculation that were in turn dependent upon and informed by a variety of other activities that included: [1] the construction of instruments and observatories, [2] the production of texts and commentaries in astronomy that served as benchmarks for the observations being made and the comparison of astronomical tables, [3] the translation of astronomical texts from Persian, Arabic and European languages into Sanskrit, and [4] the collection and copying of books for the palace library (Sharma 1995: 280, 256-281). This gigantic project extending over more than two decades according to Brindāvana in the Safina-i-Khusgo involved an expenditure of two million rupees (1730 or 1740 value) (ibid.: 1995: 286). In a way in its scope, expenditure, human resources involvement, and the networks of individuals involved it clearly had some of the trimmings of Big Science, but certainly belonged to the large cartographic and measurement projects of the eighteenth century.

The Jesuits in Jai Singh’s Project

35Part of Jai Singh’s project was to construct this network of observatories across his own kingdom and the Mughal empire as part of his larger project of computational calendrical reform. As part of his multifariously directed efforts was his invitation to the French Jesuit astronomers to his court in Jaipur. We know from Jean Calmette’s letters that this invitation was preceded by a set of five questions for which he solicited answers from these Jesuit astronomers. The Jesuits themselves welcomed the invitation for as Calmette writes: “car les sciences peuvent être ici comme à la Chine, un des principaux instruments dont Dieu se sert pour l’édification de son église” (LEC, vol. 2, Calmette’s letter, 24 jan. 1733, p. 611). While Jai Singh was planning to establish a network of observatories across the country—about a hundred of them—in which as the correspondence suggests he hoped to employ among others these Jesuit astronomers as well. However, for the Jesuits the extension of the observatories was a mechanism for expanding their network of missions in the region: “Si cette ouverture donnoit lieu à l’établisement d’une mission, nous aurions en quelque sorte bloque de l’Inde; car tandis que depuis le Cap Comorin nous nous avançons vers le nord, les missionnaires de Bengale gagne le sud pour nous venir joindre, [...] une mission de cinq cents lieues d’étendue” (ibid.). The letter further throws light on the diversity of projects the Jesuits were involved in, another of which included the request to build the king’s library of oriental manuscripts which Calmette felt both justified their work and offered them the opportunity to access the “l’arsenal du paganisme, nous en tirons des armes pour combattre les docteurs de l’idolâtrie, et celles qui les blessent le plus profondément” (ibid.). I shall not discuss here the enormous linguistic and philological projects in which the Jesuits were involved—not to mention the minor priority dispute triggered by Jean-Baptiste Biot as to who deserves the merit for founding field of indianism or Indology (Raina 2000). The Jesuit project of the collection of the canonical texts of different domains of knowledge, though religion was always an important preoccupation, and the Jesuit projects in field astronomy prompted by Cassini commence towards the end of the 17th century.


36Looking at the modality of circulation of knowledge and the scale of the effort I would hesitate for a number of reasons from referring to this as “international science.” And yet this immense archival project of collecting data and tables, and making measurements at five different observatories may have some of the features of Big Science—the use clearly seems anachronistic. To begin with Big Science does entail huge amounts of financial resources, and for its practitioners it entails activity characterized by team work and elaborate hierarchies (Galison 1992: 1). But the term has undergone several attempts at redefinition that divulges the historical richness of a “complex human enterprise,” and as Derek J. De Solla Price reminded us that every generation has redefined the term with respect to that which preceded it (Hevly 1992: 355-6). Interestingly enough, each notion is so tightly embedded within the institutional structure of Western science that it could well be asked how it could capture the geographical scale and spirit of Jai Singh’s cosmopolitan astronomy. In which case, it would make more sense to look at it from the perspective of what Lorraine Daston calls the sciences of the archives. In her own words: “These projects create and serve the sciences of the archive, which embrace both the human and natural sciences: history and astronomy, meteorology and archaeology […] the cultural preconditions for titanic undertakings that project themselves in imagination far into the future; the modalities of classification, from the physical arrangement of books on library shelves to the digital indexing of the data sent by space probes; the fantasy of completeness, whether expressed in a photograph or a museum collection; the techniques for registering and manipulation of information, from the table to the data base” (Daston, “The Sciences of the Archives”). Without embarking on a scrupulous history of observation it would still be legitimate to argue that these titanic projects such as those of cosmopolitan astronomy we have been speaking off involved a large number of people or personnel, enormous financial outlays and were extended over long durations even in the 18th century. While these features may give us cause to evoke the notion of international science and Big Science, these sciences of the archives were essentially cosmopolitan in nature.

37These astronomical observations were spread over huge geographical distances and involved large temporal durations, not just for the observations but for writing scientific treatises. Consequently, we have a spectrum of activities with Big Science at one end and small science at the other. As Harris points out the category embraces most stellar and planetary astronomy, anthropology and ethnography and natural history (Harris 2011: 77). Confronted then by a multiplicity of research frameworks and programmes that ostensibly seek to put old wine in new bottles—transcultural history, transnational history, multicultural history and now global history of science as different from a history of global science—there is a pressing need to take cognizance of a long history of attempts to grapple with the constructedness of historical narratives about science. In order to tell the story from another point of view let us briefly return to where we started namely the expedition of the French Jesuits to Jaipur where we have a report of an encounter between Jai Singh’s astronomers and European astronomers as told by the Jesuits. The encounter has been remarked upon by a number of historians of science in sufficient detail that has elicited a reading of the inability of traditional Indian astronomy to modernize itself. The need to revisit this expedition is prompted by several developments commencing with a new internal scepticism concerning Jesuit reports. These reports are now to be triangulated with accounts of the signatures they left behind in non-Jesuit sources for example in a report of the visit of Jai Singh’s astronomers to Portugal—if it could be traced or if it exists in whatever form. This is to be complemented by a deconstruction of the Jesuit narratology itself and finally by a shift in social theoretic perspective that frames the encounter in terms of another modernity.

38It should thus be possible to write the history of a cosmopolitan astronomy in eighteenth century India that would include their early ethnographic reports on Indian astronomical practices to the Jaipur expedition to Le Gentil’s Voyages dans les mers de l’Inde… (1781). The historical encounter then appears as not restricted to two astronomical traditions, but also between two different astronomical projects—that of the contemporaneous practice of astronomy on the one hand and on the other the project of historical astronomy.

39Interestingly enough, two related tropes frame accounts of the astronomer king Jai Singh’s encounter with modern science and scientists, these being the tropes of decline and failure. According to the trope of decline, Jai Singh is portrayed as the last light of scientific activity that marked the gradual decline of the sciences in India that had set in during the late medieval ages. Jai Singh’s cosmopolitan programme of astronomy for long was seen as the lone epicenter of scientific activity in a barren landscape contrasted with modern Europe. For some it marked the end of a tradition of Central Asian astronomy in India. But this culturally ecumenical cosmopolitan project lent itself to the sorts of interpretations of Jai Singh as the potential inaugurator of modern science who failed. This trope of irreversible decline is linked with the trope of failure in two senses of the term. In the first instance best captured by G.R. Kaye’s Astronomical Observatories of Jai Singh: “instead of his labours ending with his death when science expired on his funeral pyre, there might have been established a living school of research “(Kaye 1918) The failure to establish a school of research also came to connote the delay of over a century in the modernisation of the sciences in India—this is the subtext to the argument which often enough constituted the overarching historiography.

40But returning to the cosmopolitan nature of the project and its varied intellectual sources one of his scientific biographers emphatically insisted that Jai Singh had a vision of a science in India that integrated elements of Central Asian, Sanskritic and Modern astronomy. But when divested of the modernist gaze the cosmopolitan character of the project remains. The idea of the vision itself is a retrospective projection of the Nehruvian idea of the composite nature of Indian culture onto the variety of astronomical traditions Jai Singh was exploring in order to resolve the central problem he was engaged in namely refining the accuracy of the astronomical tables of Ulugh Beg. The second issue that needs flagging or the second sense of failure was his inability to convert to Newtonian mechanics. Studies of the encounter particularly play up this issue as if the burden of medieval astronomy acted as an epistemic obstacle impeding Jai Singh from making the transition to modern astronomy. The standard account suggests that centuries of astronomical development in India, precipitated in the eighteenth century in the construction of a network of sophisticated, large-scale masonry astronomical observatories at the prompting of the Mughal ruler Mohammad Shah seeking a reform of the calendar and Jai Singh was the active agent in this project. Further, despite the use of telescopes in Europe and China for more than a century of which Jai Singh was aware he preferred to perfect his naked-eye observations rather than concentrate on precise calculational astronomy. The two tropes then operate within a modernist social theory gesturing towards India’s late entry into the age of modern sciences. The process of modernisation had to await the establishment of the colonial system of education. It is more important to note that the geographical borders of colonial India (in the orientalist accounts) and the national borders of the post-colonial nation colour the way Jai Singh’s projects are seen. Or put in the terms of Tavakoli-Targhi, the Hegelian conception of history straitjackets an Indo-Persianate modernity (Tavakoli-Targhi 2001), in which the internal diversity of these civilizations, whose interfaces are themselves blurred are suppressed by a civilizational unitarity.

41Jai Singh’s almost pathological search for new ways of closing the gap between predicted values and observed values for the conjunction of stars and eclipses across ways of knowing reminds us of the work of Pollock and others on 17th century intellectual communities in South Asia. Drawing a comparison with Western Europe, Pollock reminds us that India in the early modern period shows a multiplicity of written languages for the cultivation of science and scholarship, where Sanskrit and Persian dominated. Each constituted the principal language of science for its associated social-religious sphere, while very few scholars were proficient in both (apart from mathematicians and astronomers). Pollock proposes an Indian modernity: “If we accept the construction of modernity that takes it to be […] a different mode of structuring temporality, whereby the continuous present of tradition gives way to a world in which the past and the future are discrete phenomena, a modernity of a certain sort must be said to confront us in 17th century India” (emphasis added) (Pollock 2004). In the light of the new scholarship perhaps we may need to look at this encounter between two modernities, which I leave open at the moment for another discussion, but one in which as Pollock suggests modernity itself is politicised and the other in which it was not, rather than study the encounter between a modernity seen in terms of an ideology of unending improvement and a tradition that is inward bound and in a state of stasis.




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1 Blanpied points out that ifEuropean prejudice colours the accounts of Hunter, Noti and Kaye; the construction of Jai Singh’s in the writings of Dharampal, Nehru, Price, and Rahman often lapse into the genre of “what might have been” (Blanpied 1974: 90).

2 This is based on photocopies of some of the documents I have seen in Heidelberg from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but relating largely to ritual and religious observances (courtesy: Hans-Joerg Gengnagel, Heidelberg University).

3 The name Muhandis in Persian means geometer, but it also means architect. One may speculate that it was a pseudonym and that he may have been equally involved in designing the city of Jaipur.

4 The text that was translated was NasiruddinTusi’s Tahrir al-Majisti.

5 This would have included Tusi’s Sharah al-Tadhkira and Ulugh Beg’s Zij-i-Jadid.

6 Strobl, 6th October, 1742, No. 643, published in Stöcklein 1755, Neue Welt-Bott. I am extremely grateful to Prof. S.R. Sarma for sharing the letters of Strobl with me and his wife Renate Sarma for the translation.


Professor of History of Science and Education at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His research has focused upon the politics and cultures of scientific knowledge in South Asia and on philosophy and history of science with a special focus on India. He includes in his research a philosophical as well as a sociological perspective. Recently, he has been working on cultures of history and science policy in postcolonial South Asia, in addition to a decade long preoccupation with postcolonial theory of science and the historiography of Indian mathematics.
– 2003 Images and Contexts: Studies in the Historiography of Science in India, Oxford, OUP.
– 2011 D. R. & F. Günnergun, eds., Science between Europe and Asia: Historical Studies on the Transmission, Adoption and Adaptation of Knowledge, Dordrecht, Springer Netherlands (“Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science” vol. 275).
– 2015 Needham’s Indian Network: A Search for the Home of the History of Science in India (1950-1970), New Delhi, Yoda Press.

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