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What makes the 18th century Jantar Mantar above Manmahal Ghat in Varanasi worth a visit

The Virtual Experiential Museum at Manmahal offers a virtual experience of Varanasi and beyond through charts and models besides a light-and-sound show on the Ganges

Rangan Datta | Published 13.06.24, 01:40 PM
The stairs of the larger Samrat Yantra (sun dial) and (right) various instruments of the Jantar Mantar.

The stairs of the larger Samrat Yantra (sun dial) and (right) various instruments of the Jantar Mantar.

All photographs by the author

Varanasi or Benaras is a city frozen in time. No wonder the famous American author Mark Twain once said: “…older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

A walk along the ghats or a boat ride on the holy Ganges is like a journey back in time and straight into the pages of history. The ancient city has something more to offer beyond the ghats and the river. Hidden behind the ghats are a series of historical tidbits, barely visited by the thousands of tourists visiting Varanasi every year.

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The entrance to the Virtual Experiential Museum behind Manmahal Ghat.

The entrance to the Virtual Experiential Museum behind Manmahal Ghat.

Among these hidden historical gems, the medieval observatory of Jantar Mantar stands out. It is located on the terrace of Manmahal, which towers above the steps of Manmahal Ghat. The ghat and the mahal are creations of Man Singh, Akbar’s navaratna and dates back to around the 1600s. It is located next to the famed Dashashvamedh Ghat, which is one of the most visited ghats of Varanasi. The Jantar Mantar is located on its terrace providing an amazing view of the meandering Ganges.

Galleries inside the Virtual Experiential Museum.

Galleries inside the Virtual Experiential Museum.

The Jantar Mantar was a later addition and dates back to 1710. It was an initiative of Jai Singh II, popularly known as Sawai Raja Jai Singh. Jai Singh II was the king of Amber (reign: 1699 – 1743) and had an interest in astronomy and astrology. His interests lead to the creation of five observatories across north and west India, which were popularly known as Jantar Mantars. Jantar Mantar literally means a combination of instruments and formulas (jantar = instrument and mantar = formula).

Each of the observatories consists of a series of masonry architecture of unique form, each with a specialised function for astronomical measurement. They were constructed in Jaipur, Delhi, Varanasi, Ujjain and Mathura. Apart from the one in Mathura, the rest four stands to this day with the giant instruments still functioning.

A light-and-sound show depicting the mythology behind the Ganges.

A light-and-sound show depicting the mythology behind the Ganges.

The Jantar Mantar at Varanasi is much smaller compared to Jaipur and Delhi but it still worth a visit and would also include a visit to the Virtual Experiential Museum which is housed in the Manmahal. The museum came up in 2019 and offers a virtual experience of Varanasi and beyond. It has a light-and-sound show depicting the mythology of the Ganges along with the course followed by the mighty river. The museum houses several charts and models divided into several galleries.

The textile gallery has a loom and charts narrate the story of the silk route. Musical instruments are displayed in the musical gallery and charts narrate the details of the Banaras gharana music. There are various models, including one of a Varanasi’s famous pan shop. The exhibits also include an audio-visual display narrating the story of Ramlila.

From the museum a narrow set of stairs leads to the terraces. There beneath the open skies lie the massive masonry instruments of Jantar Mantar. The medieval observatory houses six instruments of five types (it has two Samrat Yantra or sun dial). The giant sun dial is definitely the centre of attraction.

A bird’s-eye view of the ghat and river from Jantar Mantar located atop Manmahal.

A bird’s-eye view of the ghat and river from Jantar Mantar located atop Manmahal.

As Varanasi is located very close to Allahabad (the meridian for Indian Standard Time) (IST) the time observed in the sun dial has little difference with IST. The other four instruments include the Narivalaya Dakshinay Yantra, Chakra Yantra, Digamara Yantra and Dakshinobhitti Yantra. Each of these has different functions and is generally used for calculating the astronomical position of different heavenly bodies.

The elevation of the Jantar Mantar provides a bird’s-eye view of the eternal city, including the ghats, the meandering river and beyond.

Last updated on 13.06.24, 04:26 PM
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