India in maps
Lines of history
A visual chronicle of a sweeping—and often fraught—landscape
Mapping India. By Manosi Lahiri. Niyogi Books; 320 pages; £90. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
INDIA’S Hindus considered the subcontinent a single country for centuries, even before foreign powers tied its disparate kingdoms together (see article). The country’s four corners were marked bydhams, or pilgrimage centres, from at least as early as the 8th century. But Indians did not create maps—this task fell largely to Europeans, says Manosi Lahiri in her richly illustrated book, “Mapping India”.
The first maps came from newly arrived traders in the early 16th century. Many concentrated on safe navigation routes in the treacherous Ganges delta. Others provided elevations of the hills and mountains sailors would see as they approached the peninsular coast. Around the same time, ambassadors and travellers to the Mughal empire sketched small-scale maps of the India Intra Gangem—the land between the Indus and Ganges rivers. Their source material included mythology, so for much of the 17th century these maps featured fabled details, such as a cow’s head as the source of the Ganges.
As competing European powers fought for territory, maps went from being tools for navigation to instruments of warfare. Large-scale maps of forts, citadels and key towns proliferated. After a successful campaign, the first job was to make a plan of the conquered fortifications. With Britain’s consolidation of power came maps to help the new rulers extract revenue and traverse inhospitable terrain.
India’s government still tries to use maps to assert control over territory. It is so sensitive about maps that illustrate the line dividing Indian and Pakistani Kashmir—the de facto border—that it censors copies of The Economistcontaining them.
“Mapping India” contains a wealth of illustrations, from a 15th-century map based on Ptolemy’s “Cosmographia” to the red dividing lines drawn by Cyril Radcliffe in 1947. The maps from the intervening centuries serve as a fascinating visual history of the creation of the modern Indian state. Empires rose and fell, boundaries shifted and capitals moved. But India has remained, very nearly, the land bordered by the Himalayas to the north, the Indian Ocean to the south and great rivers on either side.