Mapping the cosmos: When religious symbolism meets historical maps

  • Furquan Ameen Siddiqui, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 19, 2015 16:12 IST
New Delhi, India - Sept. 17, 2015: People looking the exhibits "Cosmology to Cartography- A Cultural journey of Indian maps and how the exhibition space looks like" at Special Exhibition Hall - 1, National Museum, Janpath, in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, September 17, 2015. (Photo by Raj K Raj/ Hindustan Times)

Today, it isn’t at all difficult to locate a place. Google maps can find any place on the globe and GPS-enabled phones can lead you right to your destination. In this era, it is difficult to imagine how people found their way across the world a century or two ago. The ongoing exhibition, Cosmology to Cartography, at the National Museum, aims to take visitors back to an earlier era, to imagine how our predecessors got by in a pre-Internet world.

Hyderabad-based Prshant Lahoti has been collecting maps for over 12 years - a journey which began in a small antiques shop in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he found himself looking at a rare map of India. Since then, Lahoti’s collection of maps has grown to 3,000.

James Rennell (1742-1830), London: Andrew Dury, 1777 (Copper engraving with original hand colour). Rennell’s magnificent wall map of Oudh represents the first accurate map of what is now Uttar Pradesh and adjacent areas. It was prepared for the British East India Company.

Rajasthan, mid-17th Century, (opaque watercolour on cotton). In Jain texts the universe is divided into three worlds - the upper occupied by the gods, the middle by mortals and the lower belonging to the damned.

William Baffin (c.1584 - 1622), London, 1625 (Copper engraving with hand colour). The first accurate map of Northern India, by the English adventurer William Baffin, based on geographic intelligence obtained at the court of Emperor Jahangir.

The exhibition, which provides a rare glimpse of the world of Indian maps, displays 70 exquisite maps culled from the collection, and is broadly divided into two parts. The Cosmology section begins with early Hindu and Jain cosmological representations, which include depictions of the universe as Lokapurusa or the Cosmic man. Sacred rivers, pilgrimage sites and city-temples are also mapped. The Cartography section reveals the origin of maps of India through works printed in Germany, Italy, England and Ottoman Turkey. Here, sub sections like Clash of Empires features the dramatic struggle between the European powers and Indian states aiming to establish supremacy. Likewise, Rise of Raj focuses on Britain’s quest to scientifically map the subcontinent. The section on Cities/Urbanism displays maps that bear witness to the birth of modern Indian cities.

Lokapurusa Rajasthan, Bikaner, late 19th Century (opaque watercolour on cotton). The cosmic man is a popular theme in late Jain painting where the cosmological scheme of the adhaidvipa - world of the mortals - is superimposed on the human body.

Great Britain Ordnance Survey Office. [Delhi]. Plan of Dehli copied and zincographed at the Ordnance Survey Office, Southampton, August 3rd, 1857 (Zincograph with original hand colour). A fine plan of ‘Old Delhi’, depicting Shah Jahan’s imperial city as it appeared during the Siege of Delhi, a major event of the uprising of 1857.

But why combine cosmology and cartography, two distinct intellectual streams? “These [cosmic maps] represent the Indian tradition of religious and experiential mapping of places. They are accurate in spatial description. However, they are not measurable on a Cartesian scale,” says architectural historian Vivek Nanda, who has co-curated the exhibition with Alexander Johnson, an international authority on the historical mapping of the British Empire.

Pichhvai of Vrajyatra (Pilgrimage map of Vraj) Nathadwara, mid 19th century (opaque watercolour on cotton). The pichhvai depicts the pilgrimage landscape of Vraj, the district around Mathura on the banks of the river Yamuna, and includes the sacred sites associated with Krishna’s boyhood.

Jan Huyghen van LINSCHOTEN (1563-1611). [India and the Middle East]. Amsterdam, 1596. (Copper engraving with hand colour). Linschoten’s beautiful map of India and the Middle East was at the heart of history’s most consequential case of corporate espionage, which saw the fall Portuguese hegemony in India.

Art, aesthetics, antique collections, geographical representations, and a great deal of history runs parallel to the evolution of maps. “Paper maps are vanishing. This just might be the last generation with some experience of them,” says Lahoti. “Collections like these become of great historical importance and a resource for a learning experience”.

Where: National Museum, Janpath. Till October 11, 10am to 5pm.

(Maps and art from the collections of Kalakriti Archives, Hyderabad and National Museum, New Delhi)

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