India only began to be accurately mapped in the 1850s

Poulomi Banerjee:

East India Conteyning th’Empire of the great Mogoll from Samuel Purchas’ Purchas, His Pilgrims, 1625. Sir Thomas Roe, a diplomat, spent four years in northern India. On his way back he met William Baffin, known for his explorations in Canada. They drew a map of north India. Roe had heard that the Ganges issues out of the mouth of a cow. So in Haridwar he drew a lake and a cow’s head and the Ganges coming out of that.(Courtesy: Alkazi Foundation for the Arts)


It was sometime in the 1970s. Susan Gole wanted something to hang up on one of the walls of her house in London. Another person might have gone looking for a work of art, but Gole wanted a map. “I have always been interested in maps. My father had a big collection of maps of Africa because he had travelled to Africa. So I decided I should have a map of India, because I had travelled here,” says Gole. The collector of maps of India who has also published books on the subject is in the country to deliver a series of talks on maps of India.

“It was five years after decimalisation and maps of India were not even priced in the modern currency because no one wanted to look at maps of India,” Gole continues. “The shopkeeper pulled out some old maps – one done in 1730 and an old one from the previous century. I told him to show me a book about them, to prove that they were as old as he was claiming them to be. That’s when I found that in a general book of cartography, maps of India rated only half a page.” So Gole decided to write about them herself. Her first book, Early Maps Of India, was published in Delhi in the late 1970s. “But it was very deficient since I didn’t know much about maps at the time. I rewrote the whole book in 1984 which was published again in India, and it was a much better compilation of maps printed up to 1800.”

  • What: A talk by Susan Gole
  • When: April 22, 6.30 pm Where: Annexe Building, IIC, 40 Max Mueller Marg Nearest Metro station: Jor Bagh

The first maps were printed in the early 1470s, says Gole. “And these were maps drawn from the coordinates of Claudius Ptolemy, who lived in the Alexandria in the third century AD. After the fall of Constantinople, the Westerners came to know of these because the geography was translated in Greek and then into Latin. The maps were printed later.” But the number of maps being printed of India went up in the sixteenth and seventeenth century as Europeans started travelling to India. “They would go back and write their accounts and maps were printed so that people could know where the places were,” explains Gole. The first maps were often inaccurate or incomplete. “India was only accurately mapped in the 1850s,” she says.

The president of the International Map Collectors Association had 1580 maps of India, drawn between 1470 and 1947, which are now with the Alkazi Collection of Photography, New Delhi. This month Gole is scheduled to deliver five lectures in Delhi, on subjects ranging from 18th century Shahjahanabad: Maps of Chandni Chowk, Faiz Bazar and the Palace to Printed Maps of India in the Alkazi Collection and Indian Mapping: Local tradition or foreign influence. “But indigenous maps of India are very different. They are all manuscripts and have no scale,” says Gole.

Plan de Bombay et ses Environs. No. 25 from Vol. III of Le Petit Atlas Maritime, Paris, 1763 and 1764. A map by Jean Nicolas Bellin, a Frenchman who made many maritime maps. At this time the French were leaders in map making and another French cartographer, d’Anville, published a map of the whole of India, but left many gaps (Courtesy: Alkazi Foundation for the Arts)

A Map of the Countries Round Surat and Bombay in the East Indies, with the adjacent Provinces & settlements, from the London Magazine Vol. XXVIII, 1759. This is a map by T Kitchin. Bombay was just an empty island when the Portugese queen brought it with her dowry to the British and the latter built it up. (Courtesy: Alkazi Foundation for the Arts)

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