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Review: Atlas of Ancient Indian History

This cartographic study of ancient India is insightful but can benefit with simpler explanations

books Updated: Jun 15, 2012 18:38 IST
Gautam Chikermane, Hindustan Times

Atlas of Ancient Indian History

Irfan Habib and Faiz Habib

Oxford University Press

Rs 4,350 pp 133 (+12 maps)

With its myths, stories, histories, ancient India is an idea that beats in the hearts of all Indians. To me, of particular interest is the time of the Mahabharata, a story I reread, adore, breathe. But like the story that began with 8,000 verses and stands at 100,000 verses today, the geography and the politics of India has also changed. So, how will we know, accurately, where the kingdoms of Kuru, Matsya, Gandhara, Kosala, Panchala, and Magadha stood?

The answers have come in this fascinating treatise by historian Irfan Habib and cartographer Faiz Habib of Aligarh Muslim University. The trouble with mapping the Mahabharata, however, are two. First, it was written when Indian society was literate, and the oral tradition gave way to the written word; and two, despite being important historical documents, there is superior evidence in the form of inscriptions during that time (the Mauryas). So, it is in Maps 5 and 6 (historical geography of India, 1800-600 BC; and India, 600-320 BC) that we get to see these kingdoms.

Which takes us to the zone of the Rig Veda. Here, we are better equipped, thanks to British surveyors. River Saraswati, for instance, has been dealt with in detail — there are three Saraswatis, all of which have been traced. Of the 12 maps in this Atlas, I spent a long time on two — Map 3 (Indus civilisation) and Map 7 (Mauryan India). The depth of detail, the rigour of historical research and the outstanding cartography has made these two a work nothing short of art.

The accompanying chapters provide insightful backgrounders from the cartographic perspective. One of the sources of Map 9 (Economic Geography, AD 1-300) is Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a treatise that was “not composed in the last quarter of the 4th century BC (the reign of Chandragupta Maurya), but considerably later.”

This Atlas is the culmination of my adventures in the cartographic study of ancient Indian history. Its precursors have been the Archaeological Surveys of India by Alexander Cunningham, the institution’s director-general in the 19th century, whose ‘Report of a Tour in the Punjab’ in 1878-79 is a sheer delight to read. Or Karl J Schmidt’s ‘Atlas and Survey of South Asian History’ that carries cartographic insights in abundance.

Today, Indian cartography is a neglected field. “At one time, Survey of India maps were the best in the world,” Irfan says. Since then, the field has been invaded by by technologies like satellite mapping and Global Positioning System (GPS). But a strange bureaucracy has tightened its hold on the knowledge. “Many maps were not available to us. We have overcome that difficulty by using old and foreign maps.”

Butwho cares for archaic paper drawings in this age of Google Maps? Cartography goes beyond history. “It can be used to illustrate culture, linguistics, economy.” For that, the authors will have to expand the scope of their work beyond scholars, libraries, schools. “This is a weakness of this atlas, we should have given simpler explanations for lay persons.” Maybe a second edition could fix this. Until then, I’m soaking in ancient Indian history — and mapping the Mahabharata.

First Published: Jun 15, 2012 18:38 IST