Astronomical Knowledge in Early Modern India


A review of The Spatialization of Knowledge and Power at the Observatories of Sawai Jai Singh II c. 1721-43 CE, by Susan N. Johnson-Roehr.

Susan Johnson-Roehr analyzes the production of astronomical knowledge at a quintet of observatories under the patronage of Sawai Jai Singh (1721-1743 CE) during the eighteenth century. She examines the conventional archives on the astronomical knowledge to criticize the persistence of colonial biases embedded in the historical narratives. These biases include timelessness and morbidity of Indian sciences that continue to dominate the production of scholarly works. This analysis asserts how the observatories were active participants of change, development, and destruction since their foundation. Johnson-Roehr’s most significant contribution is the focus on the ancillary components of astronomical knowledge: planning, labor, language, and use of raw materials that transformed the landscape in pre-colonial India.

Chapter 1 reveals a vibrant story of scientific experimentation as well as adaptation in the cultural landscape where Sawai Jai Singh envisioned these monuments to operate. The observatories were not built just to reproduce data borrowed from Central Asia but to compile detailed astronomical data made in India (p.15). However, Sawai Jai Singh’s contribution has been ignored and denied a place in history, while the instruments designed by him have been seen as unsophisticated oddities of medievalism (p. 16). The most influential histories of the observatories are produced by colonial institutions on the basis of three seminal articles by Robert Barker, John Williams, and William Hunter. These authors have relegated Sawai Jai Singh’s observatories as Hindu in origin, ancient in age, purposeless relics (p. 22). This work broadens the area of research on postcolonial criticism of designed environment.  Johnson-Roehr asserts that Sawai Jai Singh envisioned a cross-cultural and multilingual discussion on implementation of an astronomy program. The ruler tried to diversify his scientific worldview by adding European astronomers (p. 35). Johnson-Roehr’s analysis places Sawai Jai Singh’s contributions to scientific knowledge in Indian history beyond the strict constructs of orientalist discourse. At the same time, the author disentangles him from the nationalist/communal projections of an ideal “Hindu” king (p. 42).

Chapter 2, entitled “Spatialization of Knowledge,” puts Sawai Jai Singh at the center of scientific inquiry in Indian history. By repositioning the observatories of Jaipur and Shahjahanabad (Delhi) as the foci, she successfully demonstrates how they functioned as prototypes for instrumentation and experimentation at Mathura, Ujjain, and Varanasi. British colonial historiography has erased Sawai Jai Singh’s contribution as a patron and his observatories as active centers of creativity and productivity in the eighteenth century. The interconnectivity of five observatories is examined to explicate the deployment of systems of knowledge at various sites. Historians working on the successor states of the eighteenth century would appreciate this chapter’s major argument about symbolic uses of architecture for the legitimization of rule (p .118).

Chapter 3, “Institutions in the Intramural Landscape,” introduces the historiography on Sawai Jai Singh’s quintet of observatories. Johnson-Roehr opts for an intramural analytic to draw attention to actual boundaries raised by architecture and landscape in the city of Jaipur. According to her, multifarious networks intersect to produce, create, transcribe, and accumulate astronomical knowledge in India at one place (p. 170). The section on the building of the Jaipur observatory is based on archival records and highlights the bureaucratic intricacies, financial entitlements, and procurement of raw materials, as well as the presence of physical labor (p. 207). These details reinforce Johnson-Roehr’s argument regarding how Sawai Jai Singh successfully sustain the production of astronomical knowledge at various locations.

In Chapter 4, the author evaluates Sawai Jai Singh’s efforts to participate in the extramural space of scientific inquiry. First, he initiated contacts to gain access to the astronomical works and developments in Europe through the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Second, he tried to relocate experts permanently to his capital city of Jaipur to consolidate European resources. He made efforts to join in global discussions of the science of astronomy. Contrary to European perceptions, the author asserts that Sawai Jai Singh wanted a second viewpoint on his own expertise (p. 228), wanting to expand his already diverse conglomerate of astronomers by adding European representatives. However, Sawai Jai Singh’s experienced limited success in drawing the extramural inward, that is, in acclimatizing European experts to the demands of his intellectual community. Also, the eighteenth-century political unrest, natural phenomena, and designed landscape of northern India were primary deterrents to his plans. Johnson-Roehr cogently concludes that the observatories functioned as vibrant research centers with expertise brought from different locations, countries, and languages to the sites, and they should not be understood as extant specimens of ancient science (p.274).

Chapter 5 traces the history of the five observatories after the death of Sawai Jai Singh. Section one discusses why scholars working on the history of observatories rely on the British official records, and ignore other Europeans accounts. Section two discusses how these sites have maintained a meaningful presence in their local environments. Jaipur observatory became embedded as exemplars of religious devotion both as a local tourist attraction and for a global audience (p.306). In contrast, Shahjahanabad observatory has assumed a Mughal heritage from the nineteenth century onwards. Finally, the instruments were painted “imperial red color” to resemble other Mughal monuments like Humanyun’s tomb (p. 307). Ujjain observatory struggles with an identity crisis while its present management (the state government of Madhya Pradesh) tries to depict it “as a real observatory”. The Varanasi observatory is almost obscured in the midst of religious devotees on the bank of river Ganges (p. 307). The last section describes the multiple identities of the observatories and its instruments. Observatories maintained a continuous presence through visual depictions in Europe since the last decades of the nineteenth century. In post-colonial India, the observatories have been subsumed under a discourse of national identity. Sawai Jai Singh’s instruments are represented as Indian scientific achievements on posters, stamps or reproduced as replicas of “Vedic science” (p. 315).

Chapter 6 synthesizes the major arguments put forward in the dissertation about the interconnectivity of the production of scientific knowledge by Sawai Jai Singh (p. 346). After the death of Sawai Jai Singh, the observatories continue to play contradictory roles in various interpretations of regional and nationalist histories. Along with their instruments, they are represented around the world as quintessential examples of Indian antiquity (p. 349). Johnson-Roehr asserts that the “observatories were not designed to operate as solitary institutions but rather as components of a dynamic network of information production and exchange” (p. 350).

This analysis will be welcomed by the historians working on pre-colonial political structures, strategies of legitimization, and post-colonial nationalism as well as its critics.

Fatima Ahmad Imam
Assistant Professor of History
Lake Forest College

Primary Sources

Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner, India: Athsathi Imarati Sawai Jaipur, Dastur Kaumwar, Jama Karch Imarati Sawai Jaipur, Pothikhana, and Tozi Syaha Imarati Sawai Jaipur
Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections, British Library, London, UK
Science and Society Picture Library, London, UK
Tod Manuscripts: Royal Asiatic Society, London, UK
Fonds Brotier, Les Archives des Jesuites de Paris, Vanves, France

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2011. 387 pp. Primary Advisor: Panayiota Pyla.


Image: Photograph by Susan Johnson-Roehr.