She slogs to map 500 years of India's past

Documenting and elucidating famous maps which depicted India since advent of the Europeans 500 years ago,  acclaimed professional geographer, teacher and travel writer  Manosi Lahiri has surveyed an entire range from “topographical maps”, “revenue maps” to “the great trignometrical survey of India” in her just released
historically fascinating and amazing work, “Mapping India”, published by ‘Niyogi Books’, New Delhi.

Specialising in geography right from her college days in Kolkata up to her masters and doctoral work at  Delhi University, Manosi also took a course in urbanisation as a Ford Foundation scholar at  University College, London, and has been a
pioneer in India in propagating

geographic information systems technology. In Chennai recently to make an audio-visual presentation of her book, a six-year labour of love, Manosi spoke to M R Venkatesh of Deccan Herald on key issues of cartography and history.

Was this painstaking work inspired by your passion for geography
maturing into a love for history?

I was aware for a long time that there was a vacuum in our knowledge of the history of cartography of our country. In my career as a professional geographer I came across many instances where I realised that while we were often informed of the British contribution to mapping of our nation when it was their colony, we were largely uninformed of the earlier mapping efforts.

I would say that I was inspired to undertake this work when I visited archives and saw so many beautiful maps. I thought they would enthrall people  interested in the past of India.

How do you see maps telling the story of modern India and the
different types of maps you have dwelt on?

Sadly, modern India, or more precisely independent India, has not produced a large body of general maps of interest for the common man.

Nor has it been able to support its administrative and development efforts with good and easily accessible maps. However, the government does maintain a national coverage of topographic maps, but much of them are not available for public use.

They are used for military and specific government use. Some private companies have played a significant role in taking maps to the people of this country, for example, TTK and Eicher have made city maps of the large metropolises and they are popular among users. Now, of course, digital maps are widely available from the Web mapping companies.

The high-points that define the uniqueness of your book- some elucidations please.
 The book documents the mapping of India over the past 500 years.

It brings in one place many of the important maps that were made in that time and are difficult to find for they are distributed in many different archives in India and abroad.

Several of these maps have not been published before and remain in manuscript form. Some of them depict new knowledge of an area, or represents a theme in an interesting manner, or has a cartouche that reflects the West’s view of India, etc. I have shown a variety of maps that I hope will hold the interest of the lay reader as well as the researcher. But most importantly, the maps show trends in mapping at different times and for different purposes.

You mentioned in your Chennai talk a large number of paper maps done by the British were never published, but is in the National Archives. What is their significance for the Indian Republic at 60 plus years?

Yes, there are a large number of historical maps in the National Archives that have never been published. Many of these unpublished maps are in large scale and made on several large sheets. They are of historical significance, being made by army engineers after a war or during route marches or exploration of new territories.

A large number of these maps of peninsular India were made in the last quarter of the 18th century, when the East India Company was fighting battles with Indian rulers or making treaties with them to expand their territories. Interestingly, these maps show routes taken by the armies, where battles were fought, and statements show how much tax was collected from various humbled adversaries.

Besides, these were the first maps which showed mountains, rivers, forests, villages and towns. So it is significant for us to understand that the mapping in this period was a result of colonial objectives of expansionism and military strategy. Also, we learn that maps were required for administrative purposes.

Maps too get controversial at times like political cartoons – Your comments please and if there are any such Maps in this work.

Yes, that can happen when the maps represent features or themes that are contrary to expectations of opposing powerful countries or political parties. This usually is the fate of disputed boundaries. Because maps are expected to be the representation of what is on the ground, sometimes conflict zones appearing on maps can lead to controversies.

For example, the Durand line was surveyed, pillars placed along it and maps made. But because the Afghans did not agree to this line demarcating the boundary between British India and Afghanistan, it became controversial and to this day remains so. A completely different example would be the cartouche in James Rennell’s Map of Hindustan. When it was published, he probably tried to show the British sense of “humane interposition” where British law was to protect Indian customs and society from interference, but today we would find this same drawing offensive.

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