Jantar Mantar, over the past two decades, has offered numerous reflections on the complex intersection of history, protest, place and democracy. Witnessing innumerable performances of protest — not simply as modes of political expression, but also manifestations of the democratic success — this historic observatory has affirmed that places and monuments in a city are never at rest. Original meanings are not the only ways of understanding places for their intentions can mutate from inception to reception — at once a political, artistic and anthropological riddle. If one reading of monuments is through histories made, then another is through histories that are in the making.
How should we read Jantar Mantar today? It was originally one of the five ensembles of astronomical instruments built by Maharaja Jai Singh II at different locations in India. In 1719, Emperor Muhammad Shah, set to embark on a long expedition, was stopped by his astrologers due to certain inauspicious cosmic alignments. A debate ensued among them on planetary locations in the public courtroom of the Red Fort but failed to reach conciliation. Concluding that the disagreement was largely due to inaccurate astronomical tables, Jai Singh conceived of an observatory to correct the charts, and completed the complex in 1724.
But for all this paranoia, the observatory functioned for a mere seven years, most probably only for compiling a more accurate astrological table, and by the end of the 18th century, the instruments had deteriorated due to neglect and vandalism. In 1852, the then-maharaja of Jaipur initiated a restoration that would be completed by the British in the early 1900s, during the building of the colonial capital of New Delhi south of the historic walled city. The new imperial city’s commercial district, Connaught Place, was planned around the observatory, a Mughal garden laid out around the instruments and a boundary wall erected to protect the site. Jantar Mantar survived decay and obliteration through colonial patronage — and this too is an intrinsic part of its history.
Today, Jantar’s Mantar’s post-Independence, democratic identity is less that of a ticketed public garden (though all the instruments are accessible to public), and more a centrally situated epicentre from where human rights activists intersect with thousands of commuters and people travelling to surrounding residences and offices. The precise venue of protests is not within the enclosed complex, but the adjacent half-kilometre stretch of Jantar Mantar Road, but even so, it is the celebrated profile of the observatory that offers these events its weighty signature of place. Jantar Mantar’s identity — at least locally — is not dominated by Jai Singh’s colourful instruments, but by a riot of pamphlets and placards, the din of shouting slogans marching on Parliament Street, droves of charged people in pitched tents peacefully protesting for all kinds of causes, and finally by the uncanny entrepreneurship of snack kiosks and tea shops that cater to these events each day.
Jantar Mantar was not the first choice as a place of protest. Its predecessor was the Boat Club lawns — running along both sides of Rajpath, the original axis of the new colonial capital connecting India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhavan (the former Viceroy’s Palace) up Raisina Hill. The shift occurred in October 1988, after Mahendra Singh Tikait led thousands of farmers from Uttar Pradesh, along with their cattle, onto the lawns, lighting campfires and cooking food in the open for around a week. A consequent public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court asked that the government find new places for protests in the city. Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan became the next choice. In April 2011, Anna Hazare’s indefinite hunger strike to initiate a stringent anti-corruption law bill became a milestone in Jantar Mantar’s recent history. It witnessed a crowd and media attention usually associated with protests at the spacious grounds of Ramlila Maidan. In response, the local police issued formal guidelines for succeeding protests here. It is now mandatory for protest leaders to obtain a no-objection certificate before a rally, arrange for drinking water and medical aid, refrain from hampering normal traffic flows, and ensure in writing to abide by the rules. But with protests happening almost every day, it is now the local residents that have sought restrictions and lodged complaints that the agitations have disrupted their daily lives. The high court has subsequently asked the government to once again look for new protest sites, to ensure that citizens are not denied the right to expression.
The focus has shifted to Ramlila Maidan, a “pond” literally situated between Old and New Delhi, that was filled up in the early 1930s as the new site of the Ramlila from the flood plains behind Red Fort, but quickly became a popular site for political rallies. It was here in June 1975 that Jayaprakash Narayan led his mammoth rally with over a lakh people protesting against Indira Gandhi’s government. It was here, following the Emergency, that several anti-Congress opposition leaders hosted a rally to form the Janata Party. Ironically, the origins of this maidan could not have been more “non-democratic”. It was part of a cordon sanitaire, a typical planning gesture of new colonial cities, wherein a deliberate physical gap separated indigenous habitats from new ones for supposedly hygienic reasons. From this standpoint, Ramlila Maidan, a setting for performing democracy, seems so symbolically appropriate — as the charged space of the people bridging two formerly disparate worlds, the historic city of Shahjahanabad and the colonial capital of New Delhi, now, unified as one in democratic India.
The view from Jantar Mantar, spanning the Boat Club Lawns and Ramlila Maidan, then, reveals a complex narrative on how events insinuate their own identities on sites, even cities, overlaying origins, authenticities and histories and imparting new meanings to places. It reminds us that, while the city may be designed, built, and experienced as a three-dimensional material object, it is in fact a phenomenon in flux, an event in time. The view from Jantar Mantar underscores that there is such a thing as “democratic space” that is distinct from the state — for public debate, deliberation and consensus — created, possessed, claimed or shaped by the people as chosen, contested and negotiated terrains of democratic identity. Jantar Mantar, as one of Delhi’s and India’s most famous monuments, should therefore not simply be understood and celebrated through narrow, and exclusively historic or nostalgic mind-frames. Within and around the shifting identities of this once royal observatory are far deeper revelations on post-colonial India’s socio-political cleavages, as well as the simultaneous re-appraisal of its democratic aspirations.