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Mapping India down the ages

Baishali Adak, October 1, 2012

Past perfect

Exhibitions in the City are many, but this one was certainly in a league of its own.

Acclaimed historian Arundhati Virmani recently showcased 30 maps made by her, tracing the history of India from the Ashokan times (6th century BC) to the present. These maps are a part of her latest book The Historical Atlas of India which contains 90 such maps.

Containing information never presented in maps before, they will be definitely help to students and history-enthusiasts in future.

Arundhati is currently a research fellow at the Centre Norbert Elias in Marseille University, France. She graduated in history from Indrap­r­a­stha College, moved to France to pursue PhD and married French historian Jean Boutier in 1991.


She returned to Delhi to first teach at the Jesus and Mary College, became Reader in European History at the History Department (DU) and then went back to Marseille to teach there.

Since then, she has publi­s­h­ed several books and pap­e­rs on history in English and French, lectured in various academic institutions and is also an analyst of the current transformations of Indian society. “Maps are generally considered tough to make and even tougher to understand. That is why hardly any historians try their hands at map-making and students simply gloss over them. However, through the centuries, they have proved to be crucial for conquering far lands, administration purposes as well as national unification. Without them, history wouldn’t be as it is today.”

“The first national atlas of India was made 10 years after Independence. Since then, we have hardly had any new maps. I decided to use the information available in books, inscriptions etc. and make new maps,” Arundhati says.

These maps skillfully trace the history of India from the advent of Buddhism to Ashokan times, early commerce with China and the Mediterranean, arrival of Islam, settling in of the first Christian communities in Malabar, British conquest, 1857 revolt, birth of associations like Brahmo Samaj and the Theosophy movement, growth of national politics and finally, Independence.

One of the most difficult maps to make, she says, was the ‘Map of Mutinies,’ “I had lots of information and wasn’t sure how to transform it into the language of graphic semiology. Ideally, a map should be simple and self-explanatory. It shouldn’t require elaborate notes to go with it.”

The most unique maps are the ones tracing Mahatma Gandhi’s movements across the country, chairs of Sanskrit in Europe in 19th century, unifying independent India through branches of Punjab National Bank, All India Radio and India in the world. She has also put together a very informative map on communal riots in India since Independence. Certainly, a lot of history to ponder on.   

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