In Hyderabad, the tale of two astronomical observatories – reflections of a rich heritage and a not-so-glorious present

The Nizamiah Observatory in Hyderabad, which could have been an apt reminder of the city’s scientific heritage and historical contributions to the field of astronomy in India, today stands as a forgotten monument and a symbol of neglect. Its two cylindrical stone structures with domes built more than a century ago are a somber reflection of its glorious past.

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Meanwhile, with its main 48-inch telescope dysfunctional for more than two decades, the Japal-Rangapur observatory that replaced the first in the 1980s is heading in the same direction. Osmania University (OU), the repository of both structures and their many vintage instruments, is afflicted by the lack of funds or faculty strength to adopt the latest technologies. Given the situation, doctoral students in the Department of Astronomy, the only one in the two Telugu-speaking states, are forced to use astronomical observatories elsewhere for their advanced research and analysis.

The two cylindrical stone structures of Nizamiah Observatory with domes built over a century ago are a somber reflection of its glorious past (express photo by Rahul V Pisharody)

Established in 1901 as a passion project of an English-trained nobleman, Nawab Zafar Yar Jung Bahadur, at his estate of Phisalbanda with the support of the Sixth Nizam of Hyderabad Mir Mahbub Ali Khan Bahadur, the Nizamiah Observatory was taken over by the Nizam’s government in 1908, a year after the Nawab’s death. It was transferred to Begumpet and attached to Osmania University later in 1919. Incidentally, the facility was one of only two observatories in the country at the time of independence.

Map-of-the-Sky

In the book “Astronomy in India – A Perspective”, published by the National Academy of Sciences of India, authors Rajesh Kochchar and Jayant Narlikar note that the official establishment of the Nizamiah Observatory had to wait until the death of the founder. In 1908, they say, this observatory replaced the Santiago Observatory in Chile to participate in an ambitious international program called Carte-du-Ciel, which aimed to photographically map the entire sky by assigning various celestial zones to 18 observatories. different around the world. The Nawab’s eight-inch Cooke astrograph and a 15-inch Grubb refractor telescope were used in the Carte-du-Ciel program.

In 1914 the Nizam brought in Robert John Pocock, “a protege of the influential Oxford professor Herbert Hall Turner, straight from Oxford, armed with a special scholarship” as the new headmaster to replace Arthur Brunel Chatwood who had was brought from England in 1908 for an annual salary of £1200. According to the authors, when the program ended in 1946, a total of 7,63,542 stars had been observed and 12 volumes of work published. The Observatory, as a community service, also kept standard time and prepared government calendars in Urdu and English.

After independence, it was the University Grants Commission that initiated the modernization of Nizamiah Observatory in 1954. Most of the funds came from the US government through the India Wheat Loan educational exchange program. According to the two authors, after the OU established its astronomy department in 1959, it received a special grant from 1964 to 1979. A 48-inch (1.2 m) reflector telescope from Messers JW Fecker of Pittsburgh was was brought in in 1964 and the same was finally commissioned at a new site in the village of Japal-Rangapur in 1968.

As the new Observatory, about 50 km from the city, grew in importance, the localities of Begumpet gave way to urbanization and concretization. Citing light pollution, the Nizamiah Observatory was liberated and its period instruments transferred to the OU campus in 1983. Over time, the main telescope of the Japal-Rangapur Observatory is also become obsolete and has not been used for about two decades for the same reasons. The university, officials say, has no funds to procure the latest astronomical instruments for its students to use.

Osmania University (OU), the repository of both structures and their many vintage instruments, is afflicted by lack of funds or faculty strength to adopt the latest technologies

Obsolete telescope for research

While the 48-inch telescope has not been functional, students from the UO Department of Astronomy use a basic 12-inch telescope at the Observatory for their practical work. Researchers, however, are currently using the same to record preliminary observations using a basic charge-coupled device to produce images. “With the preliminary observations and analysis, they are preparing proposals and applying for telescopic time on a larger telescope available at Kavalur Observatory (Vainu Bappu Observatory operated by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics Kavalur in Tamil Nadu ),” one faculty member said.

“With the facilities available, we have focused on maintaining curiosity for astronomy among young people. Yes, currently students are going out and collecting data. We tried to obtain funds from the government and other sources to acquire the latest technologies. It will help the research if modern equipment is provided,” says Dr D Shanti Priya, head of the astronomy department. The ministry had previously proposed the purchase of a 0.2-meter robotic telescope that could be operated remotely. It would cost between 3 and 5 crore rupees for such a telescope, she adds.

Noting that the university is considering the department’s request for new telescopes, Dr B Veeraiah, who is the head of the University College of Science, said the huge costs involved and the lack of sufficient teaching staff have become a hindrance. major. in their purchases. “The cost involved is in crores. Companies cannot fund such large sums and funding through foreign collaborations requires a minimum number of professors in the department. We are behind on this aspect. But the Vice-Chancellor is seeking funding and has secured recruitment shortly,” said Dr Veeraiah, who is also the Observatory’s Acting Director.

The UO Department of Astronomy has about 60 graduate students in its master’s program and 12 other researchers at present. Against a sanctioned teaching staff of 24 members, the department currently has four regular professors and another hired on contract. The last major recruitment in the department was in 2013, before the formation of the new state of Telangana.

Astronomical heritage must be protected

Acting as guarantor for the protection of the city’s heritage, P Anuradha Reddy, the co-organizer of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)-Telangana, credits the Nizams’ vision for making Hyderabad a city world class in the day. According to her, the Nizam has been extremely supportive not only of the Observatory but of many initiatives that have made Hyderabad stand out. “So what if these telescopes are obsolete? It will be a good idea to bring everything back to town. There is so much history that needs to be recorded. These two stone structures in the heart of the town can be a museum where the we exhibit the instruments, the documentary and photographic testimonies of the works, etc.,” she adds.

Officials say the university has no funds to procure the latest astronomical instruments for its students to use

Dr BG Siddharth, a renowned astrophysicist, agrees with Reddy when he says the Observatory which is the city’s century-old astronomical heritage must be preserved. According to him, the Nizamiah observatory comes from a time when the British were interested in making their observations and did not encourage Indian talent. “It was (the Nizamiah Observatory) a very important place to make observations. For an observatory, you need adequate manpower to operate it. Over the years, it’s a shame that it’s become a showpiece or a museum piece. The Japal-Rangapur observatory seems to be following the same path due to a lack of personnel to take care of it”, explains Dr Siddharth who, until his retirement, worked as the founder-director of the BM Birla Science Center in Hyderabad.

The Nizam-era building in Begumpet could be used to house an astronomical museum, agrees Dr Veeraiah. “Equipment that has been transferred from Nizamiah Observatory to Japal-Rangapur Observatory can be brought back to the city. The building can be used as a museum. It needs to be discussed with all faculty members,” he agrees. In the same breath, Dr Siddharth adds that to prevent the Japal-Rangapur observatory from becoming a relic of the past just like the Nizamiah observatory, huge investments in modern equipment and skilled human resources are needed. Dr. Veeraiah believes that efforts in this direction, once successful, will benefit students in the region.

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