The Astronomical Observatory in the capital city was once the epicentre of avant-garde science. It is in the process of getting a facelift, thanks to a recent decision of the University of Kerala
It was once a place of rare distinction, a prestigious facility for science, an important landmark in the city. Grown out of its need or perhaps overshadowed by its own rich legacy, the Astronomical Observatory in the capital city seems to have receded into a state of slumber. Except for occasional visitors, the observatory hill is quiet these days.
Even so, a visit to the place on any day can leave you amazed, like opening a lost treasure chest of history. Locked up inside the building’s large walls are bound volumes of manuscripts, journals and astronomical almanacs from the early 19th century. Heaped in a corner one finds hand-written log books of scientific observations from the same period. The vintage sidereal clock that kept time for more than a century is still, as though caught in a long spell. In the central hall is a transit telescope dating back to the early 1840s. It might feel a bit ironical that this observatory building, with its dishevelled appearance and old-world charm, was once the epicentre of avant-garde science.
The observatory traces its origins to Maharaja Swati Tirunal, who was keen on having a facility built for the scientific edification of his people. With help from John Caldecott, a self-taught astronomer and an employee, the observatory was built between the years 1837-1842. Caldecott also became its first director. The observatory hill location was chosen for its panoramic view of the sky. Many of the instruments that were originally procured can still be found inside.
Following Caldecott’s death in 1849, John Allan Broun was invited to take charge of the observatory. Broun, a peerless meteorologist, with his winsome attitude and wealth of scientific knowledge took the facility to a high point of fame. With local crew he carefully trained, Broun made very exacting measurements to map the diurnal changes to the earth’s magnetic field. An observing station was erected on top of Agasthyakoodam, a place that was nearly inaccessible then, as it is even now. To carry out time synchronise observations from the two locations, a method of signalling using light was developed. For his pioneering work at the observatory, Broun was awarded the prestigious fellowship of the Royal Society in London. Many of Broun’s important manuscripts are now preserved at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh. Broun retired in 1869 and shifted back to Scotland.
In the early decades of last century, the observatory building had to give way for the commissioning of the Willingdon Water Works. The facility was resurrected at its present location within a short time. In the years that came by, the place underwent several changes, all the while keeping its presence in the community.
Speaking on this history, Unnikrishnan Nayar, who had worked at the observatory in the 1960s, recollects: “In the days before watches and atomic clocks, the observatory used to be the centre for time keeping. Based on observations of transiting stars, the observatory would signal time to the residents of the city by firing cannon shots. This practice continued for a very long time. Later when radio broadcasting started from Travancore in 1943, the observatory would provide the correct time for the broadcast.”
In the course of its daily routines, the observatory also had its share of discovery moments. One that caught a lot of fancy for its accidental nature was the discovery of a new comet.
On a routine January morning in 1941, Subramony Iyer and his night assistant Kuttan Nair chanced upon a curious object in the sky unknown to their star catalogues. By the time the finding could be scribbled and telegrammed to the Royal Greenwich Observatory, astronomers from other parts of the world had taken priority for independently discovering the new comet.
One of the last big names to make scientific use of the facility was Vikram Sarabhai. His cosmic research laboratory functioned from the observatory for several years in the 1960s. Along with G. L. Pai, scientific papers were written from here that received worldwide attention.
By the early 1970s, the scientific importance of the observatory had dwindled. Explaining its gradual decline, Prof. Unnikrishnan Nayar says: “As the city grew, the light pollution from buildings and roads made the sky conditions worse for serious astronomy. A good observatory has to be away from urban areas to have access to dark skies.”
With the days of scientific vigour gone, the astronomical observatory oriented itself to science popularisation. 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.
Prabhakaran Nayar, who was in charge of the facility during 1986-2000, recollects the excitement that surrounded the last passage of Halley’s Comet in 1986: “The event triggered a lot of public interest. Over a period of one month we had tens of thousands of people visit the observatory to take a peek through the telescope. For us at the observatory, it served as a platform to promote scientific literacy among the public.”
Untended for years, the observatory of two centuries has lost much of what it was. But there is good news in the offing. The University of Kerala Senate cleared a proposal a few days ago to give the facility a major facelift by upgrading the telescopes and bringing in new accessories.
What seems also required in short order is a restoration campaign for the preservation and proper upkeep of the observatory’s historical facet, a museum of science history of sorts, as a fitting tribute to its impressive legacy. No time seems better than now, as we celebrate the bicentennial of Maharaja Swati Tirunal.
The heritage Astronomical Observatory is opposite to Kanakakunnu and near Willingdon Water Works. The road that leads to the Indian Meteorological Department’s office also leads to the observatory.
The Travancore Observatory is India’s third oldest of its kind, after the Madras Observatory and the Royal Observatory in Lucknow.
In 1951, the meteorology wing of the observatory was taken over by the Indian Meteorological Department. The astronomical observations were handed over to the Kerala State Government.
In 1976, the state government transferred to the University of Kerala control over the observatory. It now functions as a facility for education and public outreach programmes.