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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.