Centre for Internet & Society

In the last post, I have articulated the nature of understanding and imagination of our urban and rural geography. As mentioned, the understanding of the land, its water and people is an essentially one, that comes through living and experiencing. In this post I will be posing issues around the historical legacy of maps in the Indian context. The issues of imagination of our cities is very much related to this legacy along with the shift that we are witnessing in geographical representation of maps on the Internet.

Story: The elusive government maps

The Survey of India office on the first floor of the Janpath Office and Shopping complex is a curious location for an outlet distributing maps of all the parts of India. Right in the middle of the capital city’s colonial pride (Cannought Place), the Survey of India office is perched in one of the first floor rooms of the complex. Paritosh Mukherjee had been going around the building for ten minutes to find the elusive office, but like all things “Dilli” and “sarkari”, you got to be a man to find it. When he asked the person selling the “imported” shoes in the shop below, he got a rude answer “age chalta ban. yeh enquiry office nahi hai bhai”. Somehow Paritosh was always reluctant to ask directions in this city. Maybe it was his small stature or perhaps his accented hindi he picked while at Doon that made him stand out. He knew being so self conscious in this big city doesn’t help, but deep inside he feared the public places and would rather prefer the comfort of his office or his barsati in Greater Kailash. The pan stain in the stair was a relief, and its aroma immediately alerted his neuro-sensors on the right side of his brain that intuitively told him a government department is very near.

Aap kaha se aarehe hai?” (Where are you coming from?) asked the lady at the counter wearing the red lipstick. Paritosh was about to say Saath; the NGO where he was doing his research project but some of his Delhi training took over, and he said “Madam sirji ne kutch map mangaye hai; Department of Agriculture, Delhi University. Main unke leye research kar raha hoon” (Sir has asked me to get some maps. I am doing research for the Department of Agriculture, Delhi University) . The red lipstick warmed up and gave him the catalog of Maps. Wow! he said to himself; he just crossed the first hurdle to reach the circle of bureaucratic trust. He remembered how his local friend had once explained the nine concentric circles of babus trust that need to be crossed to reach the inner sanctuary of the Indian government bureaucracy. He called it the Garba Graha (the sanctum of a Hindu temple), where all the prayers are answered. Being a son of a Lajpat Nagar contractor, he knew the value of being in the center!

Bhiaya yeh to out of print hai, aur koi chaiye to bataiyee?” (They are out of print. If you need anything else, let me know?) said the thin bespectacled man at the payment counter, who reminded him of Ritwik Ghatag’s film characters. He sat behind the heavy wooden counter with glass partition separating the rowdy public from the sacred babus space. The counter was the symbolic physical manifestation of the 8th circle of trust. The bespectacled babu looked surreal in the inner circle; as if he had always been there, since India became independent from the Bristish Raj. Piles of files behind him, ashtray that came as a gift from a Karol baug stationary trader, the dak-dak of the fan above, the filtered sunlight from the concrete jali exposing the dusty layer on the counter where Paritosh stood trying to make sense of the situation. Of late he had begun to enjoy these excursions in these old government departments. Even though things got done at its own pace, he found them more honest than the new corporates offices that pretended to be clean and efficient.

The exercise was becoming frustrating now. The maps were either out of print, or out of stock or restricted. He tried hard explaining  to the clerk that the maps are important for his research but he was not moved at all. Moreover the the clerk was getting more and more irritated by him and in a second snapped; “the Government is not making maps for you. Moreover with the security concern these days, do you think we will give all these to the terrorists on a silver plate. Do you know these maps were measured by the British and Indian engineers for years together and are some of the  finest maps in the world? Do you know that we have details in 1: 5,000 where you spot the difference between a cow and a buffalo. Sir aap naye lagto ho yaha pe. Yeh map jo aap ko chaiye restricted hain. Appne department walo ko bolo ki letter likhe Director saheb ko. Aesai nahi melete yeh maps. Proper channel se aaiye!” (Sir, it seems you are new. These maps are restricted. Tell your department people to write a letter to our director. You cannot get these maps like this. Please come through proper channel)

The clerk was merely following orders, Paritosh said to himself. “Maps of a cities are  very informative and important and hence the secrecy around it. They are perhaps the instruments that can be used by some evil minds to blow up our cities or worse occupy India or perhaps these guys are just purely sarkari and hence do not want to help. Maps are not my right, are they? Maybe I am being too naive in thinking they will give them to me”. Soon enough though, he discovered the “proper channel” to get them.

The state is the proprietor of the “scientific” and “authentic” imagery of the space. It is perceived to be so important and authentic that it is denied to common citizens. The accuracy of the documentation is in fact an important condition that becomes the reason why the state is perceived to be in the position to decide future development, present taxation and other policies applicable to various parcels of land. The claim to scientific accuracy coupled with secrecy is a potent combination that a state perhaps deploys to control space. Maps are the perfect instruments of such control, not to forget many others like Census data, Archaeological information, Geological data, etc.

The map as a state function

Maps have traditionally been associated with the state in the form of local government bodies, its survey departments and scientific arms. The initial mapping exercises in India for example were efforts as part of the larger objective to control and rule over the colonized territory by the East India company and then the British empire. The first survey of India during the 18th century was carried out by the Army of the East India Company. The survey themselves were done under various categories such as revenue survey, topographical surveys, economic survey,  The reliance on the correct scientific methods for accuracy and speed were important considerations. For example the use of geodetic survey by Colonel William Lambton while initiating the “Great Trigonometric Survey of India”. The British took extreme pride in their work, as evident by the words of A. S Waugh the Survey General of India, “This magnificent Geodetic understanding, which at present times extends from Cape of Camorin to Tibet and from meridian of Calcutta to that of Kashmir…”. The survey amongst other activities of documenting was in some sense concerned with the efficient management and utilization of all the resources. This was also the means by which the “native” population was dominated both at economic and cultural realm. The idea of the superior western scientific culture that is extremely accurate, precise and understands the geography of a place (unlike the uneducated locals) got further reinforced in the process of surveying and production of maps. In the process the rich history of the Indian traditions of geographical representation was perhaps seen as inaccurate and not scientific and hence not of much use. The older traditions of maps making were perhaps almost forgotten and relegated to background.

Fig 1: Historic Map: Sawai Madhavpur

Fig 1: Historic Map: Sawai Madhavpur

The above image is a historic map of Sawai Madhavpur old town indicating the water management and engineering plans for the area. Notice the qualitative visual description in the map by the use of colors, textures, text and landmarks. The visual representation techniques are consistent with the place, expressing the qualities of space.

Image 2

Fig 2: Historic Route Map; Shahjahanabad to Kandahar

Fig2 shows a more utilitarian map for finding ones way from Shahjahanabad to Kandahar; a route map. The route is abstracted as a straight line and important landmarks and rest areas are marked on the line with description as to what to expect. A very creative expression indeed; the map expresses the challenges of the journey.

Image 3

Fig 3: Map of Puri

Above is a beautifully painted map of the religious town of Puri. It shows the temple complex and also expresses the context of its existence; the mythological stories, the festivals, wars and imagined position of the town in the regional geography of forest, animals and water bodies. It expresses the geography in a poetic fashion loaded with anecdotes; much the way in which common people understand it.

All the three  maps are from the book “Indian Maps and Plan: From earliest times to advent of European Surveys” by Susan Gole, Manohar Publisher, 1989, New Delhi. These maps are very different from the survey maps that the British made in India. Obviously the later is based on accurate ground survey hence claims to be true representation of the exact physical condition as it exists on the surface of the land. The older maps on the other hand, almost always told the story of the place, its people and their belief systems. They were perhaps more contextual to the place and not merely physical representations.

Interestingly enough the surveyed map of the British India also became the basis of the partition of India and Pakistan. In some sense the arbitrary line drawn on a piece of map for the partition of India leading to displacement of some 12.5 million people and perhaps a million deaths, demonstrates the power of the “scientifically measured maps” in the hand of few

Maps for National Identity

The British maps were part of the large legacy, India received apart from efficient Railways, Post and Telegraph, Census and so on. But maps were important as they were the tools for forging a new national identity at one level, but also the tool to reinforce cultural identity (especially language) through drawing up of new sate boundaries. The map was the mediator of the imagination of our territory; “The Indian subcontinent extends from the great high Himalayan mountains in the North, seen here as green undulations to the tip of the Southern coast of Kanya Kumari where the three seas meets”,  as said by our school geography teacher. The good old map was the perfect companion of the children that had to be taught about the diversity of India, its flora, fauna, people and their distinct culture. We grew up imagining a lot of India through these maps. It was the tool for national integration at one level and for reinforcement of regional and state identity at another level.

Apart from the fact that all the maps that were available in the pre-internet era had similar visual quality (and seem to be offspring of the mother map), the information of the map was essentially the function of the state. The state was the surveyors, authenticator and producer of these maps. Access to maps is not necessarily your right. The state has the right to refuse to general public the sale of map of certain areas like restricted border zone till this date.

The state was central to the imagination of national, state and city spaces which as mediated through maps.

More often than not, maps became the medium in the hands of the state to “teach” or orient the citizen of India the wonders of India, like the uninterrupted Himalayan mountain ranges, holy rivers, western ghats and the long coastline. Maps really were seen as important means for maintaining national identity and pride. Apart from their symbolic value maps also had some practical value for navigation and locating spots.

Maps were essentially line drawing with or without color fills. The natural features were depicted using various graphical hatch like the grasslands, marshes, water or hills. Transportation networks depicted through different thickness or type of lines; the broken one for pedestrian trails, the toothed one for the railway line and so on. Essentially elegantly abstracted diagrams of space in the true tradition of cartographic representation as perfected by the Western World. It is obvious that depiction is abstract and refers to space that exists which you wish can visit to see, feel or touch if need be. The medium that carried this visual were also varied but the image was more or less constant. For example school textbooks, stand alone maps or maps of various government departments to name a few. The visual construct of the map had many constants like use of lines, fills, landmarks, natural and man-made features to name a few.

Why in some culture people prefer asking direction than use maps?

Use of map to find directions is essentially the result of the western modernist framework where the individual is the center in the imagination of the society. The individual with his preference, freedom and choices has to be preserved at all cost. The self becomes the center of existence and must never be violated. The use of map to navigate in cities or countryside is the perfect way of preserving the “self” in a public domain. Why be dependent on the advice of the person on the street when one can get the job done in a more efficient fashion? In contrast to this people in many other cultures love to ask directions and most like to give direction in most animated and excited fashion. There is no fear or shame in asking directions, and  in bargain people often strike a conversation about family and kids. This chance interaction, the meeting of strangers, the conversation about life, the meeting of the eye and a shared smile is the glue that binds our cities and creates the public realm. The “public” of cities is not defined through spaces alone but how people interact on the streets. The reliance on people rather than a piece of paper for locating oneself in city space is a symptomatic case, that very much explains the nature of our cities.

Indian cities are as much defined by community action in public places as much by their form. The conversation with strangers or casual acquaintances on the road is the glue that perhaps binds the Indian cities.

The other issue that gets raised is about how people, their verbal description, and animated gestures are preferred to visualize a route or landmark in space of cities.  So the imagination of space is not always mediated through the “top view” of a map. The personal interpretation and description are as important as the spatial triangulation.

The use of place-markers, text and pictures in google maps and similar such sites seems to be mimicking this aspect of the city; the opinions of people, their memory and impressions.

Image 4
Fig 4: Users Opinions in Google Earth

Image 5
Fig 5: The users view on Google earth

All of a sudden we are able to hear people in maps. This is an important development and needs further examination. The fundamental attitude is towards looking at our surroundings; in this case from the top. The “gaze” is an important conceptual phenomenon that will be need to be accounted for while understanding the deployment of any such image as a way of exploring geographical space. “The gaze is outside; I am looked at, that is to say, I am a picture” (Lacan, 126).

These  maps (Figure 4 & 5)  as such show the worms eye view superimposed on the bird eye view. The individual interpretation in space which is common (Cities; belongs to all) is a consistent pattern that one finds in most of the geographical representation of space on the internet. Two conditions come together here; the representation (in this case a satellite picture) of space that claims to be accurate and neat along with individuals marking there engagement with the same.

In some sense it (satellite maps on internet) presently represents two extreme scales; that of a large neat space of the city and the individuals readings of the space. Maps have, after a long time broken from the clutches of the state but still do not necessarily connect with larger social cultural processes of the city like the old maps did. It is still “work in progress”, but offer immense opportunities in creating representations of space that can tell lot more stories of our cities. Like many other mediums that have transformed due to the internet (like collaborative music, videos etc), there seems to be a possibility of creative expressions in generating new maps that may represent the rich vitality of our cities.

Maps perhaps were never tools to find directions. Are they not the story tellers of a place?


Gole, Susan. Indian Maps and Plan: From earliest times to advent of European Surveys, Manohar Publisher, 1989, New Delhi

Lacan, Jacques. What is a Picture? in The Visual Culture Reader by Mirzoeff Nicholas. Routledge, 2002. New York

Read the article in Pratyush's Blog

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