Stairway to heaven
The observatories now lie neglected but once were places where you could reach out for the stars
HOW WAS the science and technology scene, a century ago, in the land of the Nizams and the Nawabs? Given their propensity and the stereotyped tales of maintaining harems, wallowing in the luxury of palaces and extracting maximum pleasure from an ephemeral life, one would think, an inane subject like science would have been the last thing on their minds.
No, not all Nawabs of Hyderabad were like that. Some like Nawab Zaffar Jung Bahadur, a Minister, who had a fascination for stars, showed "scientific temper", long before the term became part of science jargon. How then would one explain his gargantuan effort in importing two telescopes - the 15-inch Grubb refractor and an 8 - inch Cooke astrograph from England in 1901- that were mounted at a strategic location, in his estate at Phisalbanda on the outskirts of the Old City?
These were in 1908, shifted to a spot at Begumpet, ("a forlorn place free from light pollution at that time") that came to be known as the Nizamiah Observatory, (named after the Sixth Nizam, Mir Mahbub Ali Khan), one of the brightest stars on the constellation of observatories all over the world. The Nawab, a Paigah noble, used his persuasive skills, to convince the Nizam to set up the observatory and donated his telescope, lenses and other equipment to it.
When you look at his portrait in which he sports a flowing beard, he is more like a moulvi with a headgear and not a Nawab who would pitchfork Hyderabad on the international astronomical map in the early part of the 20th century. The stargazer in him did the trick and he saw to it that, the Nizamiah Observatory got all the best equipment available in the world. Two Nobel laureates, Sir C. V. Raman and Prof. S. Chandrasekhar, who visited the observatory at different times, counted it among the best. It was because of its importance, that the observatory, a cylindrical granite structure topped by a dome that rises into the sky and an old granite building nearby, have been listed as Grade I monumental structures meant for conservation.
"The second oldest observatory in the country, it has played an important role. It became famous for its involvement in the international project, Carte Du Ciel or astrographic sky survey of mapping and preparing an extensive Astrographic Star Catalogue in a given celestial zone. The task of mapping in a zone covering declination 17 to 23 degrees south was originally assigned to Santiago Observatory in Chile but later shifted to Nizamiah. The project culminated in the publication of 12 volumes of catalogues giving accurate positions of nearly 8,00,000 stars", recalls Prof. K. D. Abhyankar, the grand old astronomer and former director of the Nizam Observatory and head of the Astronomy Department of Osmania University.
The observatory, which also participated in recording solar activity in the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58 and the International Quiet Sun Year in 1964-65, became a precursor to the Japal - Rangapur Observatory where a 48-inch reflecting telescope was installed. The OU Astronomy Department itself came to be upgraded as the Centre of Advanced Study in Astronomy. Its observations of variable stars used to be communicated to the British Astronomical Association and the Harvard College Observatory.
Another feature of the observatory was its collection of meteorological and seismological data and time-keeping observations. The correct time was conveyed to the Government of Hyderabad for firing hourly gun shot signals. For all these stupendous achievements, the observatory now lies in shambles, neglected and uncared.
The telescope and astrograph have been shifted to the new observatory. The dome and the imposing granite building now stand encircled by new haphazardly built buildings housing the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, its library wing and the Institute of Genetics and the Hospital. Many a city astronomer feels, if it were in another country, it would have been preserved for posterity as scientific heritage to be promoted perhaps as part of a "science tourism package".
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