'Mapping India', a new book narrates history through maps dating back to 500 years

“The Portuguese once sent an atlas to Emperor Akbar, but he sent it back because he had no use for it,” said author Manosi Lahiri, whose book ‘Mapping India' is an eloquent visual narrative of the history of India dating back to 500 years. An exhaustive collection of cartographic curiosities, the book, in the author's words tries to fill the vacuum in our understanding of mapping in India, especially prior to the Great Trigonometrical Survey conducted by the Survey of India in the 19th century.

At the audio-visual presentation on Lahiri's voluminous book on Tuesday, each map was a story, reflecting the political, cultural and economic sensibilities of the period. Starting from the first maps of the region which were made based on what travellers and traders perceived of the region, to a map which was published as recently as in 2005, the richly-illustrated book discusses the changing face of a map and its uses.

“The maps in the book can be classified into three eras, starting with the arrival of the Portuguese and the Dutch in the 16th Century,” she said. During this period, maps were made, predominantly of coastal India, because, being traders, that is where their interest lay. The next phase began around the time when the British won the Battle of Plassey. “In this period, maps became tools for military planning. The focus was on boundaries, marking territories, and routes through which the army could march, calculating taxes among other things,” she said.

And since maps were made for military use, they were unavailable to the public. The monumental Great Trigonometrical Survey which was conducted in this phase, scientifically measured the surface of India.

“The surveyors mostly travelled by boat as interiors were thick with jungles. Their maps too reflect this, and show where they sighted tigers, for instance,” Lahiri said. The last phase is Independent India.

“At one time maps were so valuable that ships were attacked to get hold of them,” she said. Since some maps were based on hearsay, and used earlier maps as a reference point, many maps carried phantom places which either ceased to exist or never existed in the first place. For a very long time, said the author, inner territories too remained unmapped because of the fear of travelling inland.

So what kind of maps did we have prior to the arrival of European powers?

“They were mostly drawings and sketches, which did not always represent reality. They were not modern maps in the sense that one could not, for instance, go from place A to place B using them,” Lahiri said. From maps marking pirate infested oceans, to a 1785 map of Aurangabad for which miniature artistes where used to depict the Ellora caves, to those carrying artistic representations of ports in the region, the book packs in maps marking places where famines occurred and the course Mahatma Gandhi took for his salt satyagraha.

“The 1596 map of Goa by Dutch missionary van Linschoten, who lived in the city, working for the Portuguese archbishop, is very interesting for its detail and beautiful embellishments. It was widely circulated and several copies were made from it and published even a century later. The map is with The Asiatic Society in Kolkata,” said Lahiri. The book also has maps which have not been published earlier, and lie as manuscripts in the archives.

Maps, she said could not be viewed in isolation. “One needs to look at the circumstances under which a map is made. Every map is situated in a particular era, reflecting the attitude, culture, and politics of the period. You need to look at a map from a multi-disciplinary approach.”

However, she said that while most libraries and archives abroad had a system in place for sourcing and reference, in our country it is very difficult, especially if one is an independent researcher. “Many maps are disintegrating,” she said.


Asha SridharJune 28, 2012

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