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.

SS Enterprise – First Steamship to India

Originally published in DNA on 20 Jan 2019

Many of you must have read about the first train in India — the famous 1853 run from Boribunder to Thane. It heralded a new dawn for communications, industry and transport in India. An equally important event happened 30 years prior to that, in 1825 in Calcutta. The first trans-ocean steamship reached India: The SS Enterprise. It had completed the maiden England-India voyage using steam engines! The steam engine and its successor, the diesel engine, completely revolutionised the shipping world. Ships using sails were always made of wood; they were slow moving and small in size. The steam engine enabled the use of iron for building ships, and eventually enabled the building of vessels over 200 metres long. The RMS Titanic, for example, was nearly 300 metres long and moved at a speed three to four times that of the erstwhile sailing ship!

Hence, to move from sail to steam was a milestone for any country, including India. The Nawab of Awadh had a small steamboat built for himself by Henry Pickett. This was followed by other river steamboats such as the Diane. The Diane was the first steamboat built in India, being put together in Calcutta by JT Roberts. But it had little luck when it came to commerce and Roberts had a tough time selling his product. Eventually, its English Oak structure had to be replaced by teakwood (Indian teakwood was much in demand for ship building), before finally being launched in 1824. Just the previous year, some in London were giving serious thought to rounding the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) by a steamship — an idea which many described as a waste of time. But the success of the Diane and other steamboats increased the interest in such an ambitious project which finally went ahead. A preliminary study concluded that 80,000 rupees would be required to run the vessel during the entire trip (running costs are into a few lakhs per day on modern ships); much of it on coal, its fuel.

Interestingly, the Nawab of Awadh financed nearly a fifth of this amount! The Calcutta Steam Committee even announced a cash prize if the ship managed to reach within its declared ETA, which was 70 days. The SS Enterprise was a peculiar, hybrid ship — it had sails along with a steam engine. Such ships were called ‘Auxiliary steamships’. The transition from sail to steam actually had an in-between invention to show! For some part of the journey, the sails were rigged and used, as the weather permitted. Elsewhere, the steam engine kicked into action.

As it turned out, the ship took over 100 days to complete the journey instead of the promised 70. Ten of these were spent in replenishing the coal on board. In December 1825, the SS Enterprise arrived at Calcutta harbour, marking a shift from the age of sail to the age of steam. Although it took roughly the same amount of time as a contemporary sailing ship, the advantages were obvious and the technology was here to stay. The vessel was sold to the East India Company for the princely sum of 40,000 rupees, and immediately pressed into service as a supply and communication vessel for the Anglo Burmese War.

The person who had commanded the SS Enterprise to India, Captain Johnston, was now put in charge of another ambitious project — navigating a steamboat called The Hooghly from Calcutta to Allahabad for a distance of eight hundred miles. At the same time, another steamboat, The Brahmapooter, journeyed from Calcutta into Assam.

Not long after that, the ship building yard at Bombay Docks got to work on a steam ship. The docks run by the Wadias already had a long and rich history of building worldclass vessels, including those directly commissioned into the Royal British Navy. Hence, when the building of the steam ship ‘Hugh Lindsay’ was taken up in 1829, it was hardly to anyone’s surprise. This ship plied from Bombay to Suez and back. Proposals to extend the service into Europe, via railways, were discussed. At the time called the ‘overland route’, since the Suez Canal was yet to be built! Ten years later, the Victoria — the fastest steamer in the world then — was launched. A steam-powered ship built at the Mazagon Docks also made its way to its buyer a few years later — the Imam of Muscat! Each of these ships had a silver nail hammered into the ship’s body for good luck – a Parsi tradition!

The steam engine and its related innovations – the steel or iron hull and the new screw type propeller — completely revolutionised global shipping, trade and commerce. Ports and routes hitherto unreachable or unnavigable by sailing ships were now thrown open. Immense amounts of cargo could now be carried in massive ships; today’s largest ships are many times larger than the ones in which Columbus and Vasco Da Gama travelled! The steam engine enabled more progress to be made in ship construction in 200 years than wood and canvas sails had in 500!

The Post Office, the Telegraph and 1857

“We must leave office; all the bungalows are being burnt down by the sepoys of Meerut. They came in today morning. Mr. Todd, we think, is dead. We are off.” – This short message sent on a telegraph line from Delhi into the Punjab in 1857 probably changed the course of India’s First War of Independence. It was actually sent by two young boys, William Brendish and J.W Pilkington who worked as signalers at the newly formed Delhi Telegraph Office. Clerks, sending and receiving messages as ordered to.
The first telegraph line was tested in 1837 between Calcutta and the nearby Diamond Harbour. Nothing much came of the experiment, till Lord Dalhousie put his influence to work for a telegraph network for India after which funds and materials starting flowing for it from 1850 onwards. By the beginning of 1857, telegraph lines connected Calcutta to Peshawar via Agra, Delhi, Ambala and Lahore. A line connected Mumbai to Madras and Mumbai to Delhi. Another connected Calcutta to Mumbai forming a network that stretched thousands of miles and covered over forty towns. The telegraph wire revolutionized communications. Thus far, sending messages had always meant physically delivering a piece of paper. Speed was dependent on good roads and good horses, which no matter how good required days for getting a message from Delhi to Calcutta. Now the same could be done in few hours! 1857 actually was not the first time that the telegraph was used in battle in India – the honour goes to the Anglo Burmese Wars, when news of the British victory was relayed to Calcutta in advance of messengers reaching there with letters. A few months delay in the Delhi – Frontier telegraph line might well have changed the course of history! The leaders of the sepoys in 1857 were fully aware of the importance of the telegraph system. One of their first acts was to destroy the telegraph office at Barrackpore, effectively cutting the Agra – Kanpur – Calcutta line. It still worked in bits and pieces, and by sending messages via Mumbai but the potency of sending a message directly from Calcutta to Delhi had finished. Then the Meerut – Delhi line was cut on the 11th of May. But the lines from Delhi onwards were still active. Seeing that the chatter from Meerut had stopped abruptly, Mr. Todd, who was in-charge of the Delhi Office, left to check the lines suspecting some damage near the Yamuna only to be killed by sepoys who had already entered Delhi. With the city burning around them, the young signallers managed to send a message to Ambala and Lahore in the nick of time. The capture of Delhi was known the day it fell. Thanks to the telegraph, the British came to know about the events at Delhi and Meerut before the sepoys in the Punjab did. The fire that had started in Awadh could be nipped by the EIC before it engulfed the entire Grand Trunk Road. General Anson, the C in C quickly moved to have complete control over the munitions depots in the Punjab. He further took the various Punjab chiefs, such as Patiala and Nabha, into confidence. The result being that almost no help could come from the Punjab to the succor of the rebels at Delhi. Reasons were various, but swift action by the EIC following the messages received from Delhi had played its role. In fact, remarked Montgomery, the Judicial Commissioner of Lahore, – “The Telegraph saved India” (for the East India Company that is). A freedom fighter remarked that it was the rope that had strangled them!
The Post Office also played a crucial role. It had roots going back to 1774 and by 1857, the Indian Post Office was already a robust country wide network. During the war, it performed two duties for the EIC that of intelligence and transport. It had, apart from two legged postmen, entire trains of bullock carts and horse drawn carriages. It also ran a palanquin service over its large network and had rest houses or Dak Bungalows. The present avtaar of the Post Office dates to 1837 , when it was standardized by a Government Act. Coincidentally, the first telegraph wire was tested the same year !
General Havelock, who took command of the troops at Allahabad and would later fight at the siege of Lucknow, ordered the entire Bullock Train of the Post Office to be put at the army’s disposal for transporting stores and ammunitions. Yes, the East India Company utilized bullock carts on the war front! The other two services of India Post – the Horse Train and the Dak Palkhi or palanquin service were also fully utilized for various purposes. The Dak Palkhis being used like some sort of ambulance service and later on for transporting civilians to safety. With the doab in chaos, letters were routed from Delhi to Calcutta via Mumbai! The Post Office filled in where the telegraph did not exist or had been destroyed, providing crucial communication and transport links. The freedom fighters themselves were not averse to the importance of Post Offices viz communications and hence, many postmen were attacked and killed and bags of letters looted. Dak Bungalows were set afire in few places and generally the lines of communication disrupted. Not just the epicenters of the revolt, but Post Offices were burnt as far afield as Indore and Kolhapur! In view of the ongoing warfare, Field Post Offices were developed , which were Post Offices operating out of a tent and moving with the camp of Gen Havelock or the Malwa Field Force. Thus, forming a communication channel, that along with the telegraph had helped the East India Company greatly in winning the war in 1857.
A stone monument – the “Delhi Telegraph Memorial” still stands at the spot where the famous “we are off” message was sent. It commemorates the services rendered by the two signalers and the office in-charge, Charles Todd.

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