Manosi Lahiri dwells on the earliest maps of Hindustan, of 15th and 16th centuries, and feels geography has to be made interesting and relevant

Think maps and we think of somewhat boring history and geography classes many of us left behind in schools. But maps, when made interesting, narrate fascinating stories of history — stories of early trade routes, conquests and growth in the region. Armed with a doctorate in geography from Delhi University, Manosi Lahiri has had a long journey in tracing the history of maps of India. Ahead of her presentation scheduled to be held in the city, she tells us lesser-known facets of mapping in India and her research. Excerpts:

‘Maps in Indian history’ is a vast topic. What will you be focusing on for the audio-visual presentation in Hyderabad?

I will introduce the audience to the first modern maps of India made in the 16th century and through visuals, show changing trends in map making. I’ve chosen maps of Hindustan made in the Mughal period and will highlight their interesting features. I will also show how maps changed with the decline of Mughal dynasty and the ascendance of East India Company.

Some of the earliest maps available of India were not made by trained cartographers. In your research for Mapping India (Niyogi Books), did you find variation between maps made by Indians from those of Arab and Europeans?

Europe has a long tradition of mapmaking, unlike us. Our people travelled great distances on land for pilgrimages, sailed on seas to trade, and armies marched to conquer territories. But they did not make maps of their journeys. Arab travellers made narrative records of journeys, but not maps of Hindustan. When Europeans came to trade in India, from the 15th century, they made maps of sea routes and coastal areas to ensure safe navigation of their ships. European travellers included maps in their memoirs. Indigenous Indian maps of kingdoms of Hindustan that appear in the 18th century, show an awareness of space, often represent direction, but significantly, not distance.

You had sourced many maps for Mapping India from British Library, London. Were these easier to access since they were available in digital format?

The British Library and the Royal Geographical Society, for historical reasons, have the most complete sets of maps of India for the colonial period. They have systems set in place for you to access their digital catalogues, select and acquire digital copies of their maps.

What were the challenges you faced while researching for Mapping India?

Several, but none insurmountable. Several repositories insist on personal presence to view the physical maps. This requires money and time. Often, map archivists do not encourage you to touch the maps because they may be brittle. This is understandable but it’s frustrating if the writing is faded and there is not enough light to read.

One problem was with language. I was looking at maps inscribed in Portuguese, Latin, French, Dutch, Persian, and several other languages I was not familiar with. Because these inscriptions were made centuries ago, modern translators sometimes disagreed on the meaning of the words. Then, as I was looking at maps of Hindustan made in Europe, I needed to appreciate the perspective of the cartographer of the period. But all these challenges made the research interesting and book worth writing.

You are also involved with designing school textbooks. How do you think geography can be made more interesting?

I have a series of middle school geography text books from OUP (Oxford University Press). My intent is to describe geographical phenomena in simple terms and explain them keeping in mind the topics children learn in other subjects in school, like physics. I try and introduce current matters so they can relate what is described in the book to what they experience or hear in their everyday lives. I believe excursions outside school also help make geography interesting. The idea is to generate curiosity in the surroundings and learn more about our world.

Is there a new book/project you're now working on?

Mapping India is a book aimed at introducing readers to historical maps of India and the politico-historical circumstances that influenced their making. I believe there is a great deal more to be researched and written about the historical maps of India. So, in my mind, things are churning. But I think it will be a while before I can write these down to publish another book on the subject.

(Manosi Lahiri will be making a presentation ‘Maps in Indian History’ on January 8; 2 p.m., Kalakriti Art Gallery for Krishnakriti Festival of Art and Culture)