maps from the ages

Border wars: How European colonisers used maps to build empires in India

An exhibition of 71 rare maps shows the changing shapes of the Indian subcontinent.

Whenever Anubhav Nath’s grandfather was about to leave for a trip, he would ask him to point his destination on a pair of old maps hung in his home office – a wall-sized world map and a smaller one of Delhi from 1687.

“The 1687 map shows the Mughal territories and has a rare view of the Red Fort in Delhi, on the 50th anniversary of the creation of Shahjahanabad,” said Nath, describing the memento from his grandfather that is now part of an exhibit marking the 71st year of Indian independence.

This map of Delhi was published by Johann Wagner, and is one among the collection of 71 rare maps that Nath has collected over the years. The exhibition, called A Mapful Story, is on display at Ojas Art Gallery, New Delhi, till August 20. The collection curated by Nath is a visual narrative of how boundaries have changed over the centuries, through pre-Independence maps that were printed in England, France, and Italy between 17th century and 19th century.

“Each map has a story to tell,” said Nath. “These stories are shaped by colonisation, geographical discoveries, or simply by who commissioned the map and paid for it. Depending on these factors, the boundaries change, shapes differ.”

A map marking 50 years of Red Fort, engraved by Melchior Haffner and published by Johann Wagner, 1687. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath
A map marking 50 years of Red Fort, engraved by Melchior Haffner and published by Johann Wagner, 1687. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath

“The Wagner map is very significant as one doesn’t get to see a map with inscriptions announcing 50 years of a fort or a monument,” said Nath, referring to the three cartouches (frames) lining the top of the map, written in German. The cartouches at the right and the centre explain that the map is an illustration of Shahjahanabad, the empire and residence of the grand “Mogols”, while the one on the right reads, “50 years ago in this place, Delhi was built”.

“The building and spacing are very accurate though some shapes have gone wrong,” said Nath. “But Diwan-e-aam and Diwan-e-khaas are clearly identifiable.”

Nath’s collection, which began with the two maps from his grandfather, grew as he found hidden gems with dealers, collectors, in flea markets and with scrap dealers.

A Jacques Bellin map of the Myanmar region, featuring the Bay of Bengal, 1767. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath
A Jacques Bellin map of the Myanmar region, featuring the Bay of Bengal, 1767. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath

Studying the boundaries and the lines on the maps gives insight into how the Western powers that commissioned these maps used them to define empires. While Pakistan and Bangladesh are part of the pre-Independence maps of the Indian subcontinent, they naturally disappear in those drawn post-1947.

A map by French cartographer S Robert de Vaugondy of the Indian subcontinent, 1761. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath
A map by French cartographer S Robert de Vaugondy of the Indian subcontinent, 1761. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath

British cartographer AJ Johnson’s 1865 map of Hindostan depicts a shape that most will not recognise. Starting from the Indus River, it extends eastward to include territories of Burma, Siam or Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malacca or Malaysia and Vietnam. It also includes parts of what is now Pakistan, Nepal, China, Bhutan, Sumatra, and Ceylon or Sri Lanka. French cartographer Pierre M Lapie’s map from 1829 covers what was known as the “greater” and “lesser India” and includes Afghanistan as well.

AJ Johnson’s 1865 map of British India. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath.
AJ Johnson’s 1865 map of British India. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath.

The maps, published by iconic cartographers like Matthaus Seutter, James Rennell and Lapie, qualify as works of arts. “The cartouches are usually aesthetically pleasing and tell the untold story of the map being drawn,” said Nath. “The cartographers used to get fine artists to contribute their ideas. Most of the cartouches on India maps, for example, represent the ideas and ideals of colonisation.”

According to Nath, a 1730 map published by Seutter from the Atlas Novus, of East Indies and part of Australia, perfectly demonstrates how cartouches can be used efficiently. The map extends from Japan and Persia in the north, to the Maldives and Australia and the Ladrones Islands in the south and west. “The cartouche is one of the most ornate Seutter cartouches we have seen, with elaborate scenes from sea, land, jungle and mythology.”

Matthaus Seutter's map of the East Indies and part of Australia, 1730. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath
Matthaus Seutter's map of the East Indies and part of Australia, 1730. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath

A 19th century map of British India uses the cartouches to depict an Indian procession, scenes of battle and the iconic Qutub Minar. The map was published by John Tallis, who was renowned for his accurate and visually attractive maps of the world during the Victorian Age.

The bulk of the exhibition is made up of maps from the 18th century and 19th century, when European powers were battling each other to establish colonies in India. The maps from this period steadily became more detailed, showing cities, small towns, rivers and mountains.

Cartography became a way of charting territories and establishing European control over the Indian subcontinent.

A map of British India by John Tallis. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath.
A map of British India by John Tallis. Image courtesy: Anubhav Nath.
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