given its treatment of Galileo just a few decades earlier.
But in fact the church was somewhat torn between its
official rejection of the notion that the Earth orbited
the sun, and its will to accurately predict the date of
Easter, which is determined astronomically by the
spring equinox and the cycles of the moon.
Clement XI hoped Bianchini’s meridian would assist in
the latter endeavour by helping to confirm the accuracy
of the Gregorian calendar, while also giving Rome a
meridian line to rival the one that had been recently
created by Cassini in a Bologna church – illustrating
the church’s enthusiasm to associate itself with science.
At around the same time in India, the Maharaja of
Jaipur, Sawai Jai Singh, set to work constructing an
even bigger sundial. Built using principles set out in
ancient Hindu texts, the Jantar Mantar (a name that
means ‘calculating instrument’) comprises 19 elements
that use light and shadow to track the passage of time,
the Earth’s orbit around the sun, and the movement
of the stars and planets. The jewel in the crown is a
27m-high sundial – the largest such structure in the
world made of stone.
The maharaja’s motivation for building the Jantar
Mantar was not simply to amass astronomical
knowledge, but also to reinforce earthly power. The
Mughal emperor had been looking for a method to
calculate auspicious dates around which he could plan
activities, and the maharaja thought he could help. In
common with his contemporaries in Rome, he wanted
to use the evidence of the heavens to bolster the status
of those here below.
Although these 18th-century astronomical endeavours
shifted the focus from spectacle to science, they were
otherwise not so different from what was going on in
the Americas, Egypt, the British Isles and countless
other locations, hundreds or thousands of years earlier.
Whether the ever-changing light of the sun is shone
through the prism of religion or science, and whether
the purpose of harnessing it is to unite a society or
elevate its rulers above the rest, the fundamental role
it has played in human-made structures has been the
same for millennia: to connect our everyday physical
world with the mechanics of the cosmos. To bridge the
divide between earth and sky.
The jewel in the crown at the Jantar Mantar site in India is a 27m-high
sundial – the largest such structure in the world made of stone