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Charting indoustan


TRAVEL GUIDE: This exquisite 17th century work on cloth is actually a map of Surat. It tells the user what to expect, where to stay and where to shop

Were ancient Indians really terrible at map-making ? And why do we prefer to stop and ask for directions instead of consulting a map? Cartographer Manosi Lahiri has some answers.

You could call it a tourist map of late 17th-century Surat. You could also call it an incredibly beautiful work of art on a 2 x 2 square meters of fabric. It tells the traveller or the trader what to expect when he sails into the riverine port city. There is a Mughal sarai marked by a white Islamic flag where he can stay;a fort and a wall to stave off the marauding Marathas;and warehouses owned by the British, the Dutch and the Portuguese. There is no signature on the map but it is drawn with great pride and effort - some buildings seem upside down along the edges, but the artist obviously expects the viewer to walk around it to figure out the 'you are here' spot.

This map would have stayed in the vaults of the City Museum in Jaipur if it weren't for cartographer and map lover Manosi Lahiri's exhaustive efforts to collate the most outstanding and priceless maps of India from across the world in her book Mapping India.

Last month, when Lahiri delivered a talk at the Royal Geographic Society in London, she left her audience of geographers and explorers stunned. Was this actually a map maniac from India? Indians, for the most part, are not a nation of map lovers or map users, preferring to stop and ask for directions at every turn rather than pore over map minutiae.

"Although a space sense is natural to everybody --we know we have to turn left here and right there to get to a certain place - putting this information down as a document is not something Indians were very good at, " says Lahiri, the CEO of ML Infomap, a company that provides digital maps and GIS services. "Most of our information is part of our oral history. So when our traders, armies and pilgrims traversed the country in ancient times they used well-marked paths along known routes and used this oral information. "

Maps of India that conform to modern rules of cartography started appearing only in the late 15th century and were based largely on Ptolemy's measurements. They were drawn and used mainly by Europeans, says Lahiri. These early maps told mariners, explorers and traders where to expect pirates or find water bodies and local riches.

Initially, the maps were ornamented with an exotic cartouche, or pictorial emblem, at the bottom of the imagined Indoustan. These maps were not strictly accurate. They had phantom lakes and imaginary rivers drawn from old travellers' tales. But then the British moved in, inching their way from trade to occupation and administration. The maps changed. They became painstakingly scientific. They were maps a ruler needed to establish and consolidate authority. Revenue zones, roads, forts and villages had to be clearly demarcated. The first surveyed map of India drafted by James Rennell, surveyor of British East Indian Company, appeared in the Atlas of Bengal in 1779.

"Historical maps of India were never for Indians, they were for European explorers, traders, colonisers, " says Lahiri. It is not as if the Arabs, the Mongols and other Central Asians who travelled to or invaded India did not know mapping (Al Beruni took many astronomical measurements a millennia ago), but somehow none of them produced significant, scientific cartographic works, she points out.

The post-Independence map story of India is even more frustrating. After 1947, maps became the sole preserve of the Survey of India, which guarded this right zealously, refusing to see how the world of cartography was opening up across the world. "The SOI is responsible for excluding maps from the imagination of most Indians, " says Lahiri in her book.

The problem was that SOI dealt in topographical maps, technically hard to read and meant for the military and government departments. Also, it was extra sensitive about the mapping of border zones, which meant that whole coastal cities like Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Cochin almost fell off popular maps. The unwritten rule was that maps were a government concern, a security issue, not for the riff-raff to delight in. Contrast this with, say, the effort by Britain's Ordnance Survey to encourage people to read maps.

Until recently in India, the only maps available to the public were Eicher's City Guides and the maps printed by TTK. But SOI's monopoly crumbled with the advent of satellite technology that made it possible to map the earth from the skies. Google appeared on the scene and, suddenly, nothing was sacred anymore. Boundaries and longitudes and latitudes were up there for all to know - friends, enemies, map lovers, explorers and common folk alike. In 2005, SOI sensibly decided to turn user friendly and launched its Open Series, withholding only the topographical details, of little use to the average consumer anyway.

The last ten years have seen a map revolution, even in India. "It's quite remarkable, " says Lahiri. "The government has changed its attitude and people are becoming more comfortable with map reading and usage. The fact that there are several other GIS companies like ours shows clearly that maps are an integral part of our lives and businesses now. Once our networks and streaming systems improve, digital map usage will increase. "


Were ancient Indians as map-illiterate as is widely believed? Cartographers are divided on this. Old Indian maps did not conform to western tenets of scientific cartography but that did not make them any less relevant because they did deal with spatial representation, says one group. The other points out that Indian maps were simply not dependable enough.
Susan Gole, who has spent years researching indigenous Indian maps and authored several books including India within the Ganges, points out that when East India Company surveyor James Rennel set out to map India in the 18th century, he looked for local work to help him and he found four. These were more like illustrations of the land they mapped - hills, forts, rivers and distances.

The History of Cartography, Volume 2, edited by J B Hartley and David Woodward says it is time we redefined the Eurocentric notion that maps had to be terrestrial, scientific and scaled, "so that star maps, cosmographical maps, and imagined maps" were ignored. The book maintains that works that "facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world" are maps too. So the Surat map may be elementary but it is a valid piece of cartography. Indians had a "mapping impulse", just a ifferent one.

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