06 April 2005

India Tertia and the mapping of the colonial imaginary

Original version of my (drastically shortened) essay on the same subject for Outlook Traveller's latest book on Heritage Travel in India

India Tertia and the mapping of the colonial imaginary

By Siddharth Varadarajan

“…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forbears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some pitilessness was it that they delivered it up to the inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are tattered ruins of that Map, inhabited by animals and beggars; in all the land, there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography”.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘On Exactitude in Science’,
Collected Fictions, New York, 1998, p. 325.
Translated by Andrew Hurley

If Borges’s parable about the perfect map establishes forever the impossibility of exactitude, then we must also accept his implied claim that as with other fictions of the human mind, maps usually convey to us more about their creators – their knowledge and ignorance, their fears and ambitions – than they do about the objects sought to be represented. Unlike Marx’s philosophers, who were content to describe the world without seeking to transform it, inherent in the cartographic imagination – in the very act of rendering intelligible the world with lines and shapes on stone, parchment or vellum – is always and everywhere an attempt to fashion new social boundaries and domains from the arid reality of geography. This is as true of Ptolemy and the anonymous mapmakers who carved petroglyphs in ancient southern Africa as of the Chinese Ch’uan Chin, the Arab Ibn Sa’id or the Dutchman Gerardus Mercator. However, it is in the hands of European merchant-explorers and colonial surveyors that cartography abandons all pretences of mere geographical description and portraiture and emerges as an intrinsic prop to the act of staking claims, of appropriating territory and peoples.

Hidden within the phantasmagoric but often ‘empty’ land masses and elaborate decorative cartouches of the earliest European maps of Asia, Africa and the Americas was an innocent dread of the unknown that Christendom and Capital were destined eventually to conquer through brave and improbable acts of “Discovery”. “I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration”, Joseph Conrad’s Marlow recounts in Heart of Darkness. “At that time, there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map, I would put my finger on it and say, when I grow up, I will go there”. As European trading interests irradiated outwards through hundreds of sea voyages, the imprecision and tentativeness of the early mapmakers made way for the more definite lines demanded by the metropolitan centers of power. As newer lands were conquered, the ‘blank spaces’ were gradually filled in.

Though tainted inevitably by assumptions of cultural and moral superiority on the part of travelers whose descriptions formed pretty much the only the basis for cartographic knowledge, the earliest European maps of India were not necessarily instruments of conquest. Missionary explorers gave free vent to their prejudices about the nature of the ‘savages’ they encountered – and one sees this reflected in the decorative flourishes on some maps – but often the maps and cartouches were surprisingly value free or even deferential to the distant kingdoms and empires being depicted. Jordanus , the 14th century Dominican explorer and missionary who traveled to Asia via the overland route and lived awhile in Surat, divided India in his Mirabilia Descripta into three parts: India Minor, India Major and ‘India Tertia’, an almost imaginary land mass which connected the regions west of Sindh with Ethiopia. This was not Lemuria, the lost continent which supposedly existed between India and Africa, an idea which British geologists would conjure up only in the 19th century.

Sir Henry Yule -- the geographer, Orientalist and co-author of the Hobson-Jobson glossary of Anglo-Indian words and phrases -- has claimed that Jordanus’s division of India corresponds closely to the Hind, Sindh and Zinj of the Arabs[1]; whatever the truth, the Arabs certainly did not share the Dominican missionary’s exotic description of the men of India Minor and Major as people who "dwell a long way from the sea, underground and in woody tracts, seem altogether infernal, neither eating, drinking, nor clothing themselves like others who dwell by the sea”. Elsewhere in this region were islands, writes Jordanus, whose women are said to be beautiful even if “the men are having the heads of dogs”.

British historian Ian J. Barrow argues in his paper ‘Moving Frontiers: Changing colonial notions of the Indian frontiers’, that mediaeval travel writing like that of Jordanus or the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and Mandeville's Travels “are each probing for ways to articulate either the unimagined or the undiscovered: all are searching for a vocabulary and methodology with which to reveal what lies hidden”. Central to this project, he argues, is the notion of a “world of polarities” in which “the further the traveler went from known lands (the Mediterranean basin) the more bizarre and antipodean the inhabitants became”. Thus in the Periplus, a supposed account of the land and peoples of the Indian Ocean (or Erythraean Sea) littoral, distance from the Mediterranean accentuates the physical peculiarities of the natives present. Barrow describes how for the Periplus, the lands just before the Ganges are inhabited by "many barbarous tribes, among them the Cirrhadae, a race of wild men with flattened noses, very savage; another tribe, the Bargysi; and the Horse-faces and the Long-faces, who are said to be cannibals."

Barrow goes on to argue that these fanciful mediaeval accounts set a standard or benchmark which subsequent travelers and explorers had to match or validate in order for their own descriptions to be taken as genuine. But though he posits a link between such literature and European cartographic practice, it is evident that pre-colonial European maps do not necessarily follow Jordanus or his counterparts in their more fanciful geographical or ethnographic assertions. For example, a famous 15th century Catalan mappamundi or world map, made
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before Europe’s colonial encounter with the rest of the world had begun, depicts Africa south of the Mediterranean region and Asia beyond the Levant (including India) with considerable imaginary detail. But there are no fearsome beasts lurking in the margins other than sea nymphs and no deformed beastlike men. Indeed, India and sub-Saharan Africa are shown being ruled by a number of lustrously robed, dignified kings.

One reason for this more enlightened cartographic practice could be the production of newer travel writings such as the volumes published by the Dutch physician and scholar, Olfert Dapper, or the De Bry brothers. Producers of ‘travel’ literature like Dapper rarely traveled themselves, relying entirely on secondary information that was nevertheless state of the art as far as the time was concerned. Though he never left Amsterdam, Dapper produced in the early part of the 17th century several finely illustrated volumes describing travels in Asia, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Africa. Culled from a variety of accounts, his works were hugely popular at the time and were prized for their maps and illustrations. His volume on India had detailed accounts of Hindu and Buddhist myuthology and a double-page map of ‘Indostan’. In this genre were the Petit Voyages of Johann Theodor and Johann Israel De Bry, published in Leiden and Frankfurt between 1598 and 1619, and considered one of the most elaborate and richly illustrated accounts of major voyages undertaken by European seafarers during the Age of Discovery. Parts II and III, where the De Brys cover regions of Indiae Orientalis that are today a part of modern India, contain one of the earliest maps of Goa, and a rare plan of Agra.

The exquisite India Orientalis by Mercator and Jodocus Hondius from their Atlas sive cosmographicae meditations, 1606, is one of the most important examples of European cartography’s depiction of India, made more than a century after Vasco da Gama’s arrival in the land after circumnavigating Africa. There is very little unknown territory and a large number of the place names mentioned within correspond to cities or regions still in existence today – ‘Jessalmer’, Berar, Daulatabad. Goa is the only European presence on the subcontinent, but figures solely as a place name without the artistic accoutrements of coloniality and conquest.

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Mercator and Hondius, India Orientalis

Johannes Janssonius's Magni Mogolis Imperium of 1638 is today more highly prized than the Blaeu family map of the Mughal empire he copied because of the decorative cartouche he inserted depicting two Mughal emperors. The cartouche affords dignity and agency to an empire that a 120 years from then would be conquered by Europe. It is especially significant because
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Johannes Janssonius, Magni Mogolis Imperium

Janssonius’s map draws on one published twenty years earlier in London by the Englishman, William Baffin, but drops his arrogant, Eurocentric inscription under the heading: "Vera quae visa; quae non, veriora"-- The things that we have seen are true; those we have not seen are truer still, an inscription -- which Barrow considers an exemplar of the mindset of the earlier mediaeval travel writers. Incidentally, the Blaeu brothers' original Magni Mogolis Imperium includes in its cartouche the standard Eurocentric, colonising image of a cherub aiming arrows at the Indian coast.

By the 18th century, cartographic practices in Europe had become too enmeshed in the pursuit of geopolitical power and wealth to retain their innocence. With the European race to secure colonies in Asia in full swing, the presence of trading vessels on the edges became a standard part of most maps. George Matthaus Seutter’s 1750 map, Imperii Magni Mogolis sive Indici Padschach, for example, depicts sailing ships despite the regions being mapped – northern India and Afghanistan—being quite far from any coast. It also became common for maps of this period -- when the transition from exploration and ‘discovery’ to conquest and control was being effected -- to be decorated by angels, cherubs and nymphs, sometimes with the pigmentation of the peoples they were looking over, as if to reinforce the European or Judeo-Christian hold over the earth and all its inhabitants. Maps of the New World would also now depict slavery as a benign institution, as in Seutter’s Recens edita totius Novi Belgii in America Septentrionali, 1760.

In India, as the British stranglehold tightened, scientific mapping techniques – via trigonometric surveys and the like – became another way of creating fresh political facts on the ground. James Rennel’s 1782 map, Hindoostan, best illustrates the political purpose of the new cartography that was under way. Rennel was the first surveyor general of Bengal and in his first full map of India, the actual depiction of territoriality is given the same prominence as an illustration of native supplicants receiving envelopes from a mythical Queen Boadicea, symbolizing that she was not just mistress of all that was being surveyed by Rennell but also the benevolent dispenser of justice and source of well-being for the people who were in the process of being subjugated.


The author is deputy editor of The Hindu. He combines an interest in the history of cartography with a modest collection of old maps, mostly of South Asia and Africa.


[1] Sir Henry Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither: Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China -- Vol. 1, London, 1861, p. 487, n. 1.

© Copyright Siddharth Varadarajan, 2005


Anonymous said...

Very interesting writing about coloniality.

Cheers from Sweden.


jaipas said...

As I deal with maps of India as a job, I found this essay very useful.

Poster said...

I wonder where all of the pre-colonial, pre-western imperialist maps are? And the egalitarian (read: indigenous!)cartographers who inked them?

If such maps exist, one can be sure they use the term "Common Era" in an effort to avoid any cultural bias...

rajarshi sengupta said...

hi, mr.varadarajan, it's rajarshi from hyd. i liked ur article about mapping.i want to know about personal mapping.which may not be perefct as a cartographer's one but traces back the starting and flows along with the journey. am a fine arts student working on cultural shift.