Anyone who has lived in Chennai would agree that the city has three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest. But few know that the city was home to what might have been the first modern astronomical and meteorological observatory in the East.

Sir Charles Oakeley, Governor of Madras, established the Madras Observatory in 1792. He was supported by William Petrie, a member of the Madras Government, who had built a private observatory five years earlier. Y.E.A. Raj, Deputy Director General of Meteorology, says that the primary aim was to get people interested in astronomy. “The observatory was initially in Egmore; later it moved to its current location in Nungambakkam in 1792. Meteorological observations began in 1796,” he says. The first astronomer was J. Goldingham.

Hourly weather observations began in 1840. Daily weather reports started coming out in 1875 when the Indian Meteorological Department was established. “We existed way before the IMD was even thought of. When the observatory moved to Kodaikanal, astronomical observations ceased here,” says Dr. Raj.

Today, all that remains of the structure is a 10 ton, 15-foot-tall granite pillar that carried the original transit equipment, and a few pictures of the other equipment. According to the IMD website, the pillar carries the name of the architect, Michael Topping Arch. Tamil and Telugu inscriptions are also present so that (people) “may be informed a thousand years hence of the period when the mathematical sciences were first planted by British liberality in Asia.” These can be found in the IMD campus on College Road.

Chennai Central at The Hindu celebrates Madras Week

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