Adventures of a self-made cartographer

A 12-year research project by a historian goes deep into the infrastructural transformation of the ‘hyper-engineered landscape’ in and around the river Ganga

August 21, 2017 08:58 pm | Updated June 12, 2021 07:12 pm IST

In 2005, Anthony Acciavatti was mapping the Narainpur Pump Canal system near Varanasi when he was stopped by three armed Naxalite women. It was Acciavatti’s first year in India. “They had machine guns. I was alone and petrified and just blurted out aapka desh bahut sundar hai (your country is very beautiful). They looked at me, lowered their guns and started laughing,” recalls Acciavatti. They asked if he was from the government, he said no and fled from the scene.

The incident almost made him change his mind about continuing his work in India, creating the first comprehensive visualisation of the river Ganga. Luckily, the historian, cartographer, architect and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University, didn’t go back. Today, his research is on display at the Nehru Science Centre as an exhibition titled, The River Ganga: India’s iconic water machine .

River of life

Organised by Columbia Global Centers, Mumbai, the show features a screening of the documentary, The Agony of the Ganges and two panel discussions. ‘Rivers of the Future’ that takes place today will explore the emerging challenges of river management and new, integrated approaches to tackle them; and ‘When River Becomes Machine’ on the next day will be a webinar with Vinod Tare, Head, Centre for Ganga River Basin Management and Studies, IIT Kanpur. “I will also be doing walkthroughs for school children and college students, teaching them about how rich and provocative the Ganga is, and how to map the area in different ways,” adds Acciavatti.

The exhibition is a condensed version of Acciavatti’s research spanning a decade. The visual exploration of the descent of the Ganges, from the Himalayas to Varanasi, uses drawings, photos and an animated model depicting the changes in terrain as the monsoon hits the Indian subcontinent and the Bay of Bengal. Other sections showcase the development of ground water resources in India, the change in landscape during the Kumbh and Magh Mela, instruments that he made to measure soil and water, a drawing showing the level of infrastructure within the Ganga basin, and 3D printed models of the canals, tube wells and step wells within the Gangetic plain.

Enduring project

Acciavatti’s love affair with the Ganga began in 2005. “I had always thought of doing some long-term project on the Amazon, the Nile, Ganga and other major rivers in the world. I found that Ganga, despite being densely populated, agriculturally expansive and a changing habitat, did not find space in research. I wrote a proposal to Fulbright saying I wanted to go to India and work out a new method of capturing and visualising the landscape,” he says.

The plan was to complete his project and go back to New York and work as an architect. Instead, his work continued for 12 years, over the course of 20 visits to India. “I’ve been coming here for about a third of my life now,” says Acciavatti with a laugh.

It was during his one year stay at Allahabad University as part of his Fulbright Fellowship that Acciavatti got the genesis for the project. “I was documenting the Magh Mela and the transformation of the area. During the festival, the space becomes home to a city of tents with new roads and water pipelines everywhere. Once the mela is over, the tents are removed but they leave behind a tattoo that farmers use as a grid for agriculture. It goes from extremely urban to rural in a matter of days. Then, once the farmers harvest their crops, the monsoons come in and the water of the Ganga rises and washes it all away. This happens every year. I’m not someone who is easily moved but this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life,” he says.

The close encounter with Naxal women was the scariest moment of what has been a good decade in India. “I’ve been a one-man army for the most part. I would just hire a car and driver or walk. At some places, villagers would help me collect samples, invite me for chai or to spend the night with them,” he says. “I’ve spent nights sleeping with boatmen on a boat. For company I had some of the most beautiful stars I’ve seen at night, and early morning, fresh water dolphins swimming about.”

While the villagers welcomed him, it was government officials that were highly suspicious of his motives. “I’ve often been asked if I am from the CIA, all because I requested a few maps from them,” he jokes. In the absence of proper maps, he ended up creating his own.

Mapping change

Acciavatti’s work features in his 2015 book, Ganges Water Machine: Designing New India’s Ancient River . It combines his extensive fieldwork, historic maps, and photographs with novel methods of imaging water and cities to create a systematic study and comprehensive mapping of the infrastructural transformation of the Ganga River Basin.

He wants his research to be a nudge for policymakers and politicians to look at the Ganga in a different light and learn from his research. “There’s intelligence to the way people use the land there. By all accounts, given predictions about pollution, the river should be in a much worse state now. My responsibility was to consider why things aren’t as bad as predicted and how can we build on what’s working. It is best to look at the infrastructure present and develop solutions around them. If I can nudge people to do that, I will consider these 12 years not wasted,” he says.

The River Ganga: India’s iconic water machine is ongoing at the Nehru Science Centre, Worli till August 27

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.