The Maharaja Takhta Singh Observatory of Pune !

First published in DNA on 15 September 2019

The Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics or IUCAA has put Pune on the astronomy map of the country for over 30 years. The radio telescope at Narayangaon (GMRT) is another feather in the astronomy cap. But, while these are well-known recent modern day developments, what is not generally known is that the city’s oldest astronomical observatories were built over 130 years ago! The Maharaja Takhta Singh Observatory, for instance, was launched in 1888. 

As early as 1842, one SW Jacobs had begun doing astronomical observations of his own in Pune. This was not a proper observatory though, more of a personal pursuit with a telescope that lasted till about 1848. After this, he went away to Madras and consequently returned to England. Yet, the location of Pune as a good high altitude site for astronomy was not lost on him. He made several petitions to have some money released for establishing an observatory. The powers obliged him with a thousand pounds — a large sum in those days. Jacobs used this money to purchase equipment and telescopes in England and set sail for India. But, as luck would have it, Jacobs died merely a week after returning to India and his dream of establishing an astronomy observatory in Pune remained unfulfilled.

Years later, a professor of astrophysics named Kawasji Dadabhai Naegamwala once again set the wheels in motion towards an astronomy observatory in Pune. 

A student of the prestigious Elphinstone College in Mumbai, he graduated in the late 19th century with a Masters in both chemistry and physics. He then took up a job at the same college. While he was there, Maharaja Takhta Singh, the ruler of the Princely State of Bhavnagar, paid the college a visit. He blessed Naegamwala’s project with a generous grant of Rs 5,000 and the government matched it with an equal amount. Naegamwala left Elphinstone College and took up a job as an astrophysics professor at the 25-year-old Poona College of Science, (now College of Engineering, Pune). It is here that his astronomy observatory blossomed. Armed with the generous donation by Maharaja Takhta Singh as well as crowdfunding from other sources, which included the great Jamshedji Tata contributing Rs 250, Naegamwala went to England to purchase his telescopes. 

The observatory made notable contributions in studying the total solar eclipse of 1898, a detailed report of which, replete with data and photographs is readily available.  Talking about photographs, the camera used by Naegamwala was a 10-foot-tall structure, requiring several men to handle it. Kawasji Dadabhai Naegamwala was one of the first astrophysicists of the country in the modern sense of the term. 

It is difficult to imagine today, an observatory functioning near Pune’s COEP College, given its urban location. The telescope was located near the village kd Bhamburda. But back in the 1890s, vehicular pollution and light pollution — the two main enemies of anyone looking at the night time skies — simply did not exist! Why, even the village of Bhamburda had just been included within the Municipality ! The observatory started off with a 16-inch telescope, later upgraded to 20-inch-long equipment. This telescope remained the biggest in the country for the next half century, at least! While the observatory ran efficiently for some time, Prof Naegamwala stopped publishing any new papers from 1902 and the observatory was utilised far below its potential. A probable reason could be Naegamwala’s disappointment at not getting to head the newly established Solar Physics Observatory at Kodaikanal. A detailed study of the total solar eclipse of 1898 with photographs and data remained one of the achievements of the observatory. 

With the retirement of Kawasji Dadabhai Naegamwala in 1912, the Government of India ordered the Maharaja Takhta Singh Observatory to wind up its operations. The short life of this observatory, sadly, came to an end. It had some of the best facilities in the country and was ideally located, but the entire observatory hinged around one man — Naegamwala himself. Much like how Jacob’s Poona observatory had shut down years earlier, the one-man show proved to be the undoing of the Maharaja Takhta Singh observatory also. However, while the observatory shut down, its principal telescope lived on and charted a life of its own. 

The main telescope of the observatory and other instruments were shipped off to Kodaikanal, for installing in a new observatory there, but it did not come out of the packaging box till 1951! Around 1980, the telescope was shipped to Kovalur. It was by now nearly a 100 years old, but still in use!  In light of this (pun unintended), it is perhaps fitting that IUCAA was set up in Pune.  Also appropriate that the country’s oldest amateur astronomy club — Jyotirvidya Parisanstha — was established in this city in 1944, almost a 100 years after Lt Col SW Jacob’s abortive attempt at an astronomy observatory.

Purandar Fort – A post 1818 history.

Originally published in DNA on 8 Sept 2019.

When things had reached the breaking point between the East India Company and the Peshwa Baji Rao II in 1818, the British set out on a campaign to capture the forts in the Sahyadris. Purandar, along with Sinhagad, Raigad and Trimbak, commanded a status of importance even at the turn of the 19th century, as is evident from various letters of the day. These four forts were demanded from the Peshwa by the East India Company in connection with the Trimbakji Dengale case. Various sources also mention how Purandar and Sinhagad were regarded as watch towers of the city, meant to defend it and/or to provide a safe haven in case of an attack on Pune city. The campaign to capture the Maratha forts began in February 1818, with Sinhagad the first to fall on March 3 to General Plitzer. Save for a small fight given by a Sindhi contingent at the house of Aba Purandare at Saswad, Plitzer made it to Purandar on the 11th of the month. The guns were laboriously pulled up a spur and fire opened on Vajragadh. Curiously, an almost ditto tactic was used by Diler Khan when he took the fort many decades earlier. The neighbouring fort of Vajragadh was the first to fall on the morning of the 15th and Purandar later that evening. The East India Company brought under its control over a hundred hill forts spread across the Sahyadris by July of that year. But, unlike in previous times, the forts did not merely change masters. Mountstuart Elphinstone ensured that their lives as forts were finished forever. The garrisons were disbanded and their fortifications destroyed. The deserted forts were then left to the elements. Purandar, however, was treated slightly differently. It retained a military presence, albeit in a modified form. Instead, a convalescent centre was set up on the fort. Its aim was to provide the sick British soldiers from Pune and Ahmednagar cantonments, a change of climate to help recover. The cool, fresh mountain air acted as a medicine! If you go to the fort of Purandar, you will see an old gothic style abandoned church on it, quite out of place with all the Maratha history surrounding it. This church was built in the memory of Col Frederick Fitz Clarence of the 36th Regiment, Commander in Chief of the Bombay Army who died whilst recovering on Purandar fort in 1854. The convalescence centre was built from buildings and parts of the erstwhile fort itself, and was said to accommodate around a hundred persons. ‘The Good Words and Sunday Magazine’ of 1878 tells us how a 400-year-old former warehouse for storing grain had been converted into living quarters! Little much happened on that fort after that, save for the attached garrison rotating itself like any other army barracks. For example, at the turn of the century, the Royal Scots regiment took up residence there. Curiously enough, the fort served as a detention centre for German prisoners of war during the Second World War. These were essentially German citizens, and a few from other nationalities such as Italy, detained at Purandar so as to nip any pro-Nazi attempts in the bud. It was a kind of house arrest, with some of the ‘inmates’ even being allowed to cycle to Pune on the condition that they return before sunset. Called the ‘Purandhar Parole Settlement’, it was a home to over a hundred people from 1940 through to 1946. A certain Hermann Von Goethe wrote an account about the fort during his stay there, while others busied themselves in various pursuits. Another German, Paul Von Tucher has also described life at the parole camp in a small book. Mention is of one Eva Mayer who composed poems about their stay at Purandar. Her husband, a qualified doctor — started a free clinic for the local people.Some were attached to various German missions. They got together and established a Theological faculty on the fort in 1943. Surprisingly, nearly 20 of the 100 or so Germans were qualified doctors. One Dr Walter Fabisch was appointed as the Medical Superintendent of the camp. With couples staying on the fort, some children were born on the fort during the war years. It would be interesting to see which Germans today calls Purandhar their birthplace, a status they would coincidentally share with Chhatrapati Sambhaji and Madhavrao Peshwa. There was constant influx into the camp of new refugees or prisoners, so much so that the place had to accommodate twice the number by the end of the war. A Red Cross visit right at the close of the Second World War (Aug 1945) lists over a hundred Germans, around twenty Italians and over fifty detainees of other nationalities. The Parole Camp was not emptied as soon as war ended, because Britain was too busy picking up itself and exiting India. The last people on the fort left as late as mid-1946. Post independence, the hospital barracks gave way to a NCC Training Centre which continues to this day.a