A surveyor of southern India

A surveyor of southern India

In the Lews Castle museum in Stornoway, on the Island of Lewis, in northern Scotland, an exhibition is currently underway on one of the town’s most famous sons, Colin Mackenzie. Such an exhibition would be of little significance halfway across the world. Except that it is important for India, and in a small way for Bengaluru and Nandi Hills, in particular.

In October 1791, Colin Mackenzie was present at the ‘Siege of Nundydroog’ when he sketched the famous watercolour painting, ‘View of Nundidroog with the Batteries firing on the Place during the Siege of 1791’. It is an eerily accurate painting. Not only can one see the puffs of white smoke towards the right of the painting, coming from the mortars firing on the summit’s double row of ramparts from two ridges on the north-west side, one can also just about discern Tipu’s masjid on the bottom left of the picture.

It would have taken some extraordinary effort and eye for detail to sketch these nuances. Colin’s story and his life’s small connection with Nandi Hills are indeed remarkable; yet perhaps as a result of the depth of his work, a well-documented one. A few accounts that encompass Colin’s life and work are documented in books such as Illustrating India: The Early Colonial Investigations of Colin Mackenzie by Jennifer Howes and Colin Mackenzie: Collector Extraordinary by David Blake.

Born to the Postmaster of Stornoway, Colin secured a commission in East India Company’s army and joined as a cadet of Engineers in Madras in 1783. A keen mathematician, Colin had persuaded one of his benefactors to get him appointed to this regiment because he was keen to “prosecute his Oriental researchers in India” of “the knowledge which the Hindoos possessed of mathematics, and of the nature and use of logarithms” as noted in David’s book. Colin began his military career during the Third Anglo-Mysore War with Tipu Sultan in 1790-1792 and was involved in the reduction of a number of forts (Nundydroog, in particular). His talents and efforts were spotted by Governor-General Lord Cornwallis, who proposed his appointment as a surveyor. Sandeep Balakrishna, in a blog post on Colin’s career, writes that in no small measure it was Colin’s intimate knowledge of the geography of South India that won the British many of their military battles.

The years of the Mysore Survey between 1800 and 1809 lie at the heart of Colin’s career both as an official topographical surveyor leading to the compilation of detailed maps of the Mysore territory and in his personal capacity, as an antiquarian collector of historical, literary and cultural materials. For both these passions, Colin had official staff and personal assistants. His work in India was characterised by his close association with a handful of Indians. Chief among them was Cavelly Venkata Boria, who proved to be gifted in gathering information. So much was Colin beholden to his staff, that a portrait of Colin and his staff was painted by Thomas Hickey in front of the Gomateshwara statue at Karkala.

By the time Colin was ordered to Java in 1813, he had surveyed the entire Mysore region and many parts of the Madras Presidency. Returning after an intensive excavation of the Buddhist shrine at Borobodur, Colin was made a full Colonel, elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and made India’s first Surveyor General. Dogged by ill-health in his later years, Colin died on May 8, 1821.

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