History

Mapping the Way India Has Been Viewed Through the Ages

Pichhvai of Vraj Yatra (Pilgrimage Map of Vraj) Nathadwara, Mid 19th Century, 290 x 290cm, Opaque watercolor on cotton

Pichhvai of Vraj Yatra
(Pilgrimage Map of Vraj)
Nathadwara, Mid 19th Century, 290 x 290cm, Opaque watercolor on cotton

“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”- Reif Larsen

Maps have for long been a very crucial tool used to study the history of human settlements and society. Not necessarily because they paint an accurate picture of a space – something they almost never do – but because  they give us an insight into what might have shaped visual representations of geography, culture, cosmology and even commerce at different points in history at different places in the world. Studying these cartographic representations has been the life-long pursuit of various historians for centuries. Jerry Broton’s A History of The World in 12 Maps is the most recent example of an attempt to study the evolution of society through cartography as he uses maps to describe the socio-economic developments that shaped the way the world was viewed.

An important exhibition opening on August 11 at the National Museum in New Delhi presents map enthusiasts, historians and lay persons with a rare glimpse into the world of Indian maps.

Drawing on a comprehensive selection of maps preserved by the Hyderabad-based Kalakriti Archives, the ‘Cosmology to Cartography’ exhibition traces the evolution of mapmaking in India from early cosmological depictions to the products of modern cartography, giving us an opportunity to view the changing visual representation of spaces that we today have a completely different conception of. Beginning with early Hindu and Jain cosmological representations, which includes the depiction of the universe as a vast “Cosmic Man” divided into three worlds, the exhibition also traces the changing European conceptions of the sub-continent from ancient to modern times.

Maps made in the wake of the arrival of Vasco Da Gama in 1498 highlight the changes in depiction right through to the age of colonisation. The exhibit also chronicles the changes in representation, which formed a part of the competitive process for supremacy in the sub-continent by the various imperial powers in Europe.

The 16th century witnessed a Portuguese monopoly on interaction with India; this began to change in the early half of the 17th century. With the arrival of new European powers, British, French, Dutch and Flemish maps reveal the complex relationship between their conquests and interactions with local traders.

Map of the City and Environs of Calcutta constructed chiefly from Major Schalch’s Map and from Captain Prinsep’s Surveys of the Suburbs with the Latest Improvements and Topographical Details by J.B. Tassin. Calcutta: Oriental Lithographic Press, 1832.

Map of the City and Environs of Calcutta constructed chiefly from Major Schalch’s Map and from Captain Prinsep’s Surveys of the Suburbs with the Latest Improvements and Topographical Details by J.B. Tassin. Calcutta: Oriental Lithographic Press, 1832.

Surveys by colonial administrations in the country led to the development of maps that depicted the topography of specific cities within the country. These maps help highlight the changes Indian cities underwent as modifications to the landscape were made by subsequent administrators. ‘The Map of the City and Environs of Calcutta’ (above) is one among many such maps that the exhibition has on display. The exhibition also includes depictions of the early Indian City, medieval maps of Hyderabad and Bangalore and Pondicherry’s enlightenment model. The exhibition, which displays the 12-year collection of Prashant Lahoti, founder of the Kalakriti Foundation, will be on till October 11, 2015.