It is hard to imagine that possibly the oldest surviving astronomical observatory of India lies amid the greens near Bada Hindu Rao Hospital in north Delhi.
Pir Ghaib (‘the vanished saint’) was built in 1373 by Firoz Shah Tughlaq to serve as a hunting lodge as well as an observatory. A cenotaph venerating the Pir, who mysteriously went missing from here, can still be found at the spot. The only sign of modernity is a typical sarkari colony right next to it.
After weathering elements for more than six centuries, whatever remains of the huge three-storey, which is partly in ruins and partly repaired, appears strong. There are rooms on the ground floor. The first floor has a room with a hole in the ceiling that aligns with a hole in the top floor's roof. One can directly watch the sky from it.
Believers offer diyas inside these rooms every week and the monument’s courtyard is a playground for children from nearby houses. Curious heritage lovers visit the place once in a while.
British surveyors had used this building while making the baseline measurements for the Great Trigonometrical Survey. Nehru Planetarium officials had carried out an investigation into the astronomical usage of the Pir Ghaib observatory.
“When it was constructed, Pir Ghaib was away from the city centre. But now Delhi has expanded so much. The city lights and pollution prevent any sky-watching from here,” said Raghu Kalra, general secretary of Amateur Astronomers Association of Delhi (AAAD).
(A Sunday column in which HT explores a place in today’s Delhi and finds out what it used to be once)