Reaching out for the stars…

Swati Tirunal and his Observatory

John Caldecott, hailing from far away Scotland met Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, sometime in 1836, through a mutual connection, the Travancore resident Gen Stuart Fraser. That meeting would serve to herald the science of the stars and space not only to the Gentry of Travancore comprising a mishmash of Europeans, the public, the Brahmins and the ruling family, but also many aspiring students. Travancore was chosen by astronomers with a specific purpose, for it was close to the equator. It was also to serve some purpose in the magnetic crusades of the time and in the creation of almanacs for the populace.

Centuries later, Travancore would serve to become India’s launching pad for all space efforts due to the location near the equator. The rocket launching station Thumba, the liquid fuel plant, thorium plants, they all would get located there….The unlikely friendship between the musically minded king and the amateur astronomer would lay ground for many of these feats, culminating in the recent Mangalyan (MOM Mars orbiter mission) spaceship orbiting Mars. For the space inclined persons, objects at the equator move at 1670 km per hour, while those at the pole are only moving at 1180 km per hour, so launching a rocket from the equator provides a higher tangential velocity at the launch site and lesser thrust to boost the rocket's speed, consequentially lesser amount of fuel. So it's better to launch rockets from the equator than from the North Pole.

The Chova dosham (adverse impact of Mars) ill luck which plagued the young king during the latter part of his short life must have made the king think of Mars up in the sky. Perhaps he wanted to study its course, perhaps not, but he plunged into the activity purposefully. Maths and astronomy interested him, perhaps astrology as well. Capt Welsh would recount thus - Swati Tirunal (when they met in 1825, he was 13) took up a book of mathematics and selecting the forty seventh proposition of Euclid sketched the figure on a country slate but what astonished me most was his telling us in English that Geometry was derived from the Sanskrit, which as Jaw metor (Jyamiti) to measure the earth and that many of our mathematical terms were also derived from the same source such as hexagon, heptagon, octagon, decagon, duo-decagon.  His remarks were generally apposite, but their language inelegant and ungrammatical. This is much to be lamented, because with so many studies on hand, he can never read enough of English to correct his idiom; and the master, a very clever Tanjore Brahmin (Subba Rao), could not speak it much better than himself. His Persian was pure and elegant, but of the other languages, I am too ignorant to offer an opinion.

John Caldecott actually lived in Aleppey at that time. It was not a commercial hub then, but Travancore’s Veluthampi Dalawa had been instrumental in making its presence felt (refer The Veluthampi Revolt 1807-1809). Later it would become the base for American James Darragh in 1855. John Caldecott was a commercial agent for the Travancore government at that point of time and he had moved down from the North West of India after a career lasting 7 years at Apollo Cottons Bombay. Why he travelled to India aged 19, in 1820 from Scotland, is not clear, perhaps it was the lure of adventure. While at Bombay he had picked up an interest in astronomy and telescopes from his employer and family friend William West. Why he moved out of Bombay and headed for Travancore in 1828 is also not clear, but he did so, stopping at Aluwa. Soon enough he formed a partnership with his friend Humphrey Owen. The company Owen, Caldecott & Co trading in coffee did not survive too long. John’s next job was, as I mentioned previously, as an agent for the Travancore kingdom.

John wanted to set up a laboratory to continue his astronomy work, at Aleppey and expressed his idea to Stuart Fraser (but I am not sure about this as Fraser came only in 1837) according to prevailing legends, who mentioned it to the king. The king during a trip to Aleppey met Caldecott and saw some of the instruments which piqued his interest. Caldecott suggested his idea of building a small observatory in Aleppey, but the Raja put forth a counter proposal, if the young astronomer wanted to set up an observatory, why not do it in superior fashion at Ananthapuram/Trivandrum and he would gladly finance it. Caldecott would start it with his own set of instruments. As the observatory was being constructed, Caldecott and Taylor, the scientist from Madras took a tour making equatorial magnetic measurements, the first for the Magentic crusades.

Caldecott states- When it devolved on me to design a plan by which the liberal intentions of His Highness might be carried into the most complete effect, it became with me a matter of serious consideration, how the utmost benefit to science might be derived from the opportunity afforded by the proposed institution, without making any very great demand on the funds of the state; and I very soon came to the conclusion that no outlay, beyond what was absolutely necessary to effectiveness, should be made on the building, but that no expense should be spared in procuring instruments of such a size and quality as would ensure to an Observatory, where they were judiciously and actively made use of, a rank second to none in the world. Being supported in this view of the case by Colonel Fraser, the British Resident at Travancore (a gentleman most pre-eminently qualified to judge on such a matter), the plan now to be explained was sanctioned by His Highness, and the building has 6ince been completely and most satisfactorily erected, by Lieut. Horsley, of the Madras Engineers.

Accordingly per Sir Markham’s accounts, the building was planned and erected by Captain Horsley of the Madras Engineers in 1837, on a laterite hill two miles from the sea, and 195 feet above it, whence there is a magnificent view. On one side is the sea bordered by groves of cocoa-nut trees, on the other the rich undulating country, bounded by the many peaked ghats. Lieutenant Horsely of the Madras Engineers was visiting Engineer and Superintendent of Irrigation in Travancore State.

The tablet in front of the old observatory stated - The Thiruvananthapuram Observatory, founded by His Highness Sree Padmanabha Dasa vunchee Baula Rama Vurma Koola Shakhur Kireeta Putee Swatee Rama Rajah Bahadoor Munnei Sooltan Shemshair Jung. A.D. 1837.

Caldecott was also entrusted with the procurement of a printing press and locating it at the observatory presumably to print the first set of Almanacs. Later a regular press was ordered and installed with the residents’ agreement. Mr Sperschneider was put in charge of the printing department and the first calendar was issued in 1839.

According to Prof Ansari’s report on Caldecott’s work - He collected a good deal of stellar data with the assistance of an Indian, trained by T.G. Taylor. These data were transferred to the Royal Society. We may mention here his observations of the solar eclipse of Dec. 21, 1843, carried out at the source of Mahe River, including observations of Bailey’s beads. He also observed and computed the elements of the comets of 1843 and 1845. The former was the ‘daytime’ comet observed in March 1843. The latter was ‘Colla’s comet’ observed in June 1845. Caldecott’s observations of this comet were used by J.R. Hind to calculate its orbit.

By 1838 Caldecott set out to Britain to procure new equipment (permanent instrumental outfit) at an astronomical budget of some 8,000 pounds. He was an audacious man, for his steamer was to touch at Jeddah and the Brit planned to go in disguise and check out Mecca, but had to drop his idea when his guide chickened out. Next he stopped at Egypt, measured the height of the pyramids, passed through the Eastern ports, Athens and reached London in 1839.

In 1837, per the Swatitirunal site, the Travancore Government estimated that Rs 27,000 be allocated to buy lenses etc for the Observatory. Caldecott’s assistant Ananthacharya from Chennai was appointed for a salary of Rs 150 and three clerks at Rs 3 ½, two “classukar”at Rs 6/- each, two writers at Rs. 20/- and Rs. 15/- , one “raayasakkaran” at Rs. 12/- (monthly expense of 224 ½) were permitted. In 1840, and it is observed that Caldecott was paid a salary of Rs. 600/- and 25 people worked under him and the expense for their pay was Rs. 77126/- per year.

Caldecott came back with all the new instruments in 1841, which comprised astronomical clocks, and instruments purchased from Simms and Jones, a transit instrument by Dollond, two mural circles, an equatorial, altitude and azimuth, and magnetic and meteorological instruments. Resident Stuart Fraser had by now passed on and had been replaced by Gen Cullen. Gen.William Cullen, a former Military Officer of the English East India Company was appointed as the Resident of South Travancore on 8th September 1840. I will write more about his troubled relationship with Swati Tirunal later, but the next 6 years was a tale of a struggle for power and supremacy between Cullen and the Raja (1829-1847). The resident virtually ran a parallel state and a period where the CMS missionaries rose up in virtual revolt asking the powers for action against a number of demands.

Meanwhile the King was finding it more and more difficult to bear with the pressures and interference of the British in his rule over Travancore while the palace politics and intrigues were going from bad to worse. The pressure cooker situation Swati Tirunal was caught in, which perhaps led to his early demise was apparent and you can get a whiff of it from Rev GT Spencer’s notes from Dec 1840. You will note from the para below that he was pressured not only by Cullen, but also by the establishment around him.

This morning I paid a visit of ceremony to the Rajah, to whom I was presented by the British resident, my hospitable host Colonel Cullen. The sovereign of this beautiful country is about twenty-six years of age, of a very pleasing countenance, and his manners strikingly simple and gentlemanlike. He speaks English with perfect fluency, is an accomplished Persian and Arabic scholar, and is in other respects unusually well informed; having had the advantage of a much better education than commonly falls to the lot of oriental princes. Could he escape from the swaddling bands of the Brahmins, it is supposed that he would shew himself a really enlightened ruler. This however seems almost impossible, as these crafty priests have thrown their meshes so effectually around him that he can scarcely stir hand or foot without their permission. They possess unbounded influence over his mind, the influence which can only be attained by superstition; and the puppet of royalty is moved according to their will and pleasure by the brahminical string. It is very much to lamented; as unquestionably he might do, and probably has the inclination to do, much for his country, which now remains undone. Certainly their terrible religion is the bane and curse of India. The Brahminical superstition over the land like an impervious murky vapour, and seems to defy the sun of truth to scatter it. The Brahmins here are still all powerful, and are held by the other castes as something far better than men, and very little inferior to gods.

Anyway, the magnetic and meteorological observatory was eventually constructed that year and a new building for the 7 ft equatorial telescope was built in 1842. Taylor helped with the erection of the two mural circles. The days that followed were not satisfactory, they had a lot of interference from Gen Cullen and Rao and frequent complaints of excessive spending. Moreover, their recordings were not considered by the research circles in Britain and Caldecott became a despondent man, what with the death of his ageing father.

Caldecott forwarded complete copies of his observations to the Court of Directors and the Royal Society, and in 1846, leaving the Rev. Dr. Spershneider in charge of the observatory, he went to England to try and obtain the aid of some of the scientific Societies in publishing them, but without success. Around this time a rumor reached Caldecott that the raja was not in possession of all the funds he had planned to allocate for this project and he decided to cancel his return to Travancore. This according to Achutshankar’s research proved to be a doing of Krishna Rao and Gen Cullen. Anyway the king getting wind of the situation wrote to Caldecott clarifying that it was all untoward.
Swati Tirunal’s letter (letter dated 4th January 1843, available in the Royal Society (London) Archives) acquired by Dr AchutShankar S Nair states the following

Here I must not omit to say, in diametrical opposition to what the Resident has been pleased to intimate to you as my sentiments that neither such mean idea has ever entered into my head, nor have I, either directly or indirectly communicated anything upon this point to the above purport, but on the contrary, my sense of the high advantage derived from this establishment in a scientific point of view, as I am fully sensible that by reason of my patronizing it, my name, however, undeserving of any celebrity is favourably noticed even in distant regions, among the scientific personages of the present day.

By Dec 1846, Caldecott’s patron Swati Tirunal Rama Varma passed away tragically. Caldecott returned to Trivandrum in 1847, but was already quite unwell physically. In January 1849 he travelled to Bombay and into the hills, seeking relief. In October he suffered a seizure, recovered, but fell ill on 8 December and was found dead on the morning of 17 December 1849. For the next two years, readings were taken by J Sperschneider, the reverend in Trivandrum who later took over the Almanac printing. He became the first Superintendent of the Press.

A few words about the magnetic crusade - By the beginning of the nineteenth century, it had been widely recognized that the Earth's magnetic field was continually changing over time in a complicated way that interfered with compass readings. It was a mystery which some scientists believed might be associated with weather patterns. This heralded the magnetic crusade, and to solve this mystery once and for all, a number of physicists recommended that a magnetic survey of the entire globe be carried out. Sabine was one of the instigators of this "Magnetic Crusade," urging the government to establish magnetic observatories throughout the empire. Caldecott and the Travancore observatory was one such contributor.

John Allen Braun formerly of Makerston Observatory near Edinborough succeeded Caldecott and arrived at Travancore in Jan 1852 after his friend Col Sykes recommended him, to the new king of Travancore. However to his misfortune, the observatory’s instruments were by then in a bad shape due to misuse and bad maintenance and so he had no choice but to concentrate his work on magnetic and meteorological measurements.

Mr. Broun went on to establish another Observatory, as is recorded - on the crown of a conical hill commanding an extensive and beautiful view of the surrounding country up to the sea on the west and on the east the Ghauts, in one of the highest peaks of which, known as the Agasthya Malai 6200 ft. above sea level, in Lat. 8° 37' North and Longitude 77° 20' east of Greenwich, stood another Observatory from which many observations by means of signaling, were simultaneously taken, and embodied in the Report of Mr. J. A. Broun and in the Indian Meteorological Memoirs Vol. X.

His period at Travancore was eventful, and in his efforts, was helped by two locals J KochuKunju and E Kochiravi pillai. They conducted a series of very valuable Magnetic observations for a number of years. These observations were acknowledged to be of great scientific value and were subsequently published in England, duly sponsored by the Travancore Government. According to Dr Gopachandran - From his observations he concluded that the Sun and the Moon exert certain influence on the direction of the magnetic needle, and there is a lunar diurnal variation for this influence. Near the equator the influence was in December opposite to what it was in June. He also showed that the lunar action was reversed at sunrise, and much greater during daytime than at night, whether the moon was above or below the horizon. Mr.Broun also deduced that day to day changes in the horizontal force of the earth's magnetism was simultaneous all over the world and some of these changes he attributed to the moon while the others had periodical changes once in 26 days, due the influence of sun. He also inferred that the greater magnetic disturbances were due to actions proceeding from certain meridians of the Sun.

Broun was also beset with illnesses, nervous attacks and other ailments, further he became deaf after a trip to one of the nearby hills and this was to trouble him for the rest of his life and prevent any further glory after his return to England in 1855. He devoted the rest of his life for publishing the Trivandrum Observations on Magnetism and Meteorology. Afterwards according to the suggestion of Sir William Denison, the Governor of Madras, the Travancore magnetic Observatory was closed. After the retirement of J. A. Broun, the Observatory was placed under the guidance of Dr. Mitchel F. R. S. E., Principal of His Highness the Maharaja's College and afterwards Director of Public Instruction, Travancore. He introduced a scheme of rainfall measurement for the whole state.  In 1910 Mr.Stephenson, Professor of Physics succeeded Dr.Mitchell as Director of the Observatory. He continued the work started by Dr.Mitchell till 1920.

The work done in the Observatory those days consisted of: taking Meteorological and Magnetic observations and publishing the results weekly in the Travancore Government Gazette; dispatching daily Weather Telegrams to Madras, Bombay and Simla Meteorologists; compiling Meteorological statistics of Travancore and sending to the Meteorologist, Madras for incorporation in his daily, monthly and annual Reports; firing, morning, noon, and night time guns at the Nayar Brigade ground, half a mile distant, by means of an electric attachment placed in front of the Mean Solar Time Clock in the Observatory, corrected and reduced by Transit observations and making Astronomical observations from time to time.

In 1931 the Observatory building built by Mr. Broun and Dr. Mitchell had to be dismantled as that spot had to be given over to Engineering Department for the construction of a high level reservoir for distributing water in various parts of the town. The five inch Equatorial was shifted to the top of the reservoir to secure a better view of the sky all round. As years went by the royal observatory which had been taken over by the state government, went into disuse. Some years ago a section of the roof collapsed and the building was slated for demolishing, however it has since then been saved and I heard that some new instruments were being ordered.

It is still difficult to fathom the actions of the young king who had so much on his mind and hands. Art, music, science, governance…so much took up his time. The sensitive king however was not built for the rigors of politics and before long left this abode. The royal observatory and his Carnatic compositions remain for us to marvel at his intellect and breadth of his mental reach.

As Anand Narayanan stated in his article, with the days of scientific vigor gone, the astronomical observatory oriented itself to science popularization. Catering to the public’s fascination for the night sky, the telescopes were routinely opened for visitors, a practice that continues. The place occasionally draws a large crowd, especially when the skies stage rare events.

Popular Astronomy: 1916 Volume 24 The maharaja’s observatory at Trivandrum Article submitted by Rama Varma raja
History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization: edited by Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya
Astronomy in India, 1784–1876 By Joydeep Sen
A Memoir on the Indian Surveys By Sir Clements Robert Markham
Kerala Calling June 2013 – Swathi Thirunal, Cynosure of Carnatic Music Dr Achuthsankar S Nair
Astronomical Archives in India S.M. Razaullah Ansari
The Journal - The Madras journal of literature and science,

A bit about the magnetic equator or the dip equator – The magnetic equator if you did not know passes through Travancore, in the 50’s was close to  Quilon (now Kollam), but one which had been meandering a bit South or North over the years.

Quoting Jay Raja and Manoranjan Rao The term `geomagnetism' refers to the fact that earth behaves like a magnet. That is why a compass needle (itself a tiny magnet) always points towards `north'. In the northern hemisphere, the north-seeking end of a compass needle when freely suspended in the middle, would, in general, dip down. The angle by which the needle dips depends upon the latitude of the place. Similarly, in the southern hemisphere, the south-seeking end dips down. In between is a region where the needle does not dip at all. It remains strictly horizontal signifying that the dip is zero. The line joining all such points on earth where the dip is zero is called the magnetic equator. The magnetic equator differs significantly from the geographic equator. Directly above the magnetic equator, at altitudes of around 110 km in the atmosphere, a system of electric currents exists. Known as the equatorial electrojet, this has always fascinated scientists. The closer you are to the magnetic equator, the better placed you are to study the electrojet. In the early 1960s, there were very few places in the world close to the magnetic equator with adequate infrastructure to support research in this field.

Pics courtesy - The Hindu, wikimedia

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