Maps of history

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

An exhibition of antique maps marking the commemoration of William Lambton's Great Indian Trigonometrical Survey, which began in Chennai, shows why geography matters.

PERHAPS for the first time in India, a fabulous collection of old maps belonging to the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, in the possession of private collectors, was thrown open to the public in Chennai from August 30 to September 7. The focus of the maps is mainly Madras (now Chennai), south India or India in general. Exquisite works of art, these maps, all of which are handcrafted, are surely a labour of love.

With rich embellishments and decorative cartouches in various colours, they have legends written in flowing, stylised hand. Their beautifully drawn pictures transport the gazer to those centuries. Sail ships, catamarans, gateway to harbours, elephants and lions in the wild, traders from the Malabar bartering with Arab merchants, divers about to plunge into the sea for pearl fishing... .

One map has a long Historique Remarque, written in a superb hand. The collection covered a wide range. There were maps on the Plan of Fort St. George (1744) and the city of Madras; Madras and the South Maharashtra Railway System; the Geology of Mysore showing the various rock types; the extent of the Diocese of Madras, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (circa A.D. 1860); the swath of a plague; the Army movement; and maritime cartography, and several maps relating to hydrography. The English, French, Italian and Dutch artists who sketched these maps had probably never seen these places, but the maps reveal their keen eye for detail.

Take for instance "Malabar & Coromandel and Ceylon", which has a cartouche showing a man from the Malabar riding a decorated elephant and holding a staff in one hand. The elephant is draped with a piece of cloth, which reads: "Peninsular Inde, Citra Gangem... Malabar & Coromandel cum adjacente... Ceylon... " Near the elephant are traders from Malabar dressed in native clothes. They appear to be bargaining with Arab merchants, who are dressed in caftans and fez caps. On the ground are ivory tusks, bundles of sandalwood, pearl necklaces, spices and coconuts. The map also shows mountains. The places mentioned include Madraspatan (Chennai), S. Thome (Santhome) and Meliapour (Mylapore) Travancor, Cananoor, Mangeloor, Tripiti (Tirupati) and Soulapour (Sholapur). This is an original engraved map done painstakingly by J.N. Bellin in 1764 in Paris.

Another exquisite map is titled "Tutecoryn", the present-day beach-front town Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu. This map has superb embellishments, showing paddyfields, houses, churches and men in sail boats about to dive into the sea to fish pearls. It is an original copper engraving from Churchill's "Collection of Voyages and Travels", dated 1746.

The exhibition of old maps was part of the week-long celebrations called "The William Lambton Commemoration". The theme of the commemoration was "Geography Matters". The celebrations were organised by the Association of British Scholars (ABS), Chennai chapter; the Survey of India; Association of Geography Teachers of India, Tamil Nadu chapter; Lalit Kala Akademi; INTACH, Tamil Nadu; and the British Council.

S. Muthiah, historian, who was also the head of the largest map publishers in the private sector in India, said the aim of the exhibition was to whip up interest in maps among schoolchildren. He regretted that although there were 300-400 million schoolchildren in the country, only between three million and five million atlases in various languages of the country were sold every year.

Dr. T. Vasantha Kumaran, Professor, Department of Geography, Madras University, said: "The purpose behind the exhibition is to make schoolchildren see, appreciate and have an idea of the usefulness of reading maps." The exhibition showed only a fraction of the "fantastic" antique maps available in private hands. Each map is priceless. "They are expressive of so many ideas. You have to read between the lines and points to learn what those who drew the maps wanted to convey to themselves and to you. This is what we want to convey to children. It is not the simple fact of maps being part of geography," he said. . The maps, he said, told pictorial tales of the lifestyle of the people of the day. The men who drew them were artists as could be seen from maps titled "Malabar & Coromandel and Ceylon", "Tutecoryn" or "A Prospect of Fort St. George and Plan of the City of Madras". These could be depicted only by an artist, and not a cartographer, the Professor asserted. In several maps, the annotations were done by accomplished calligraphers.

Dr. Vasantha Kumaran, who is also general secretary of the Indian Geographical Society, added: "These artists had an eye for detail and aesthetics, which is lacking in the computer-generated maps of today. Although it is possible to use graphics, as in the case of weather maps, they are not as beautiful as hand-drawn maps."

C. Venuprasad of the ABS said that its aim was to promote and encourage Indo-British links in diverse fields.

IT was on April 10, 1802, that the British surveyor William Lambton began an ambitious, arduous and meticulous scientific expedition from St. Thomas Mount, Chennai. It was called "The Great Indian Arc of the Meridian" (Frontline, May 10 and September 27, 2002, and July 4, 2003). Lambton laid the baseline from St. Thomas Mount, with its second point being one of the hills in nearby Pallavaram and the third point in Foreshore Estate near the beach. This measurement alone took 57 days. The Great Arc grew into a gigantic geometric web of "triangulations" along the 78o meridian from Kanyakumari to the foothills of the Himalayas, covering a distance of about 2,575 km (1,600 miles) in the south-north direction.

The expedition went on for about 50 years across forests, mountains and raging rivers, and it claimed more lives than any contemporary war. The survey proved in 1843 that the Himalayas constituted a mountain range higher than the Andes, and established the fact that Mount Everest was the tallest point on earth. The peak was named after George Everest, "the bewhiskered and cantankerous martinet", who was an assistant to Lambton. Everest carried forward the Great Arc after Lambton's death at Hinganghat near Nagpur in 1823. An important result was that the Great Arc enabled the mapping of the entire country and gave birth to the Great Indian Trigonometrical Survey. It made possible the mapping of the subcontinent and the development of its roads, railways and telegraph lines. Muthiah pointed out that although the Great Arc was born in Madras and Lambton was stationed in the city, there were no celebrations in Chennai to mark its 200th anniversary, while there was much fanfare in New Delhi and the United Kingdom. While nobody today knows about the Lambton Hill in Salem district, Tamil Nadu, Mount Everest is known all over the world. "So we decided to do something about it," Muthiah said. Hence the William Lambton Commemoration with an exhibition of antique maps, a series of lectures, written quiz competitions for schoolchildren on Chennai, Tamil Nadu and India. The quiz competitions entailed that children read maps, draw them, locate places and write the historical and geographical importance of these places. The awards for the winners in these competitions were sponsored by The Hindu and TTK Healthcare Printing Division. The lectures included one on the Great Arc by noted British writer John Keay, who has written a riveting book called The Great Arc.

The maps displayed at the exhibition belonged to Dwarakanath Reddy, Ashok Saran, P.T. Krishnan and R. Vaidyanathan. The time, money and energy these persons have spent in collecting and preserving the maps were obvious. The maps are all authentic.

One of the maps, titled "Plan of the Town of Madras and its Limits", was surveyed for the Justices in Sessions by W. Ravenshaw, Captain Civil Engineer. It was engraved by J. Walker in 1822. The map shows Black Town, Fort St. George, (Arcot) "Nabob's Palace" and so on. Madras at that time was dotted with tanks such as Spur Tank or Ellemboor (modern-day Egmore) Tank, Long Tank and Nungambakkam Tank. These big irrigation tanks no longer exist. Another map called "Madras and its Environs" shows Viyasarapadi Tank, Perambur Tank, Long Tank, Nungambakkam Tank and Kodambakkam Tank. This 1909 map was published by John Murray, London.

A legend on the map captioned "A Prospect of Fort St. George and Plan of the City of Madras" says that it was "Actually Surveyed by the Order of the late Governor Tho. Pitt Esq". What is unique about it is the three-dimensional picturisation of the sea front, in front of Fort St. George, with the church. The map shows the entrance to the harbour, ships with sails, catamarans and people standing on the beach, and "a place to refitt shipps" too. The present-day Island Ground is simply called the Island. On it are The Slaughter House, The Watch House and The Powder House. There is a garden and a tank on The Island. The present-day Cooum River is called "R. Alambore" (Egmore). John Harris engraved the map in 1744, printed it and sold it. It has an interesting cartouche that reads: "To the Directors of the Honb'le East India Company, This Map and Prospect is most humbly dedicated by their most obedt. servts. Jn. Harris, Jn. Friend."

Several maps focus on Malabar (in present-day Kerala). They include "Malabar and Coromandel and Ceylon", "The Coast of Malabar", and the map of the Mughal Empire. The last is titled, "Empire ... Mogol". It was published in 1683 in Paris. It has a cartouche in the form of a garland. There is an inset map with details of several towns and villages. Malabar in particular and south India in general are shown. Golconda, "Bisnagar" and "Afghistan" are mentioned. Another map called "The Coast of Mallabar" depicts the coast from Balsalore to Cape Comaroon (Kanyakumari). There is a map in Dutch, "La Ville de Cochin and La Ville de Cannanore", by cartographer J.F. Lafitan, drawn in 1734.

That maritime cartography was given importance in the 18th century could be deduced from several maps on the Indian ocean, the Coast of Coromandel, the Coast of India, the Palk Straits and the Bay and Ramisseram Island, Part of the Coast of Coromandel, and so on.

An invaluable map is `India and Adjacent Countries in the Fourth Century A.D'. It shows many kingdoms of the time: Pallava, Pandya, Chola and Chera in the south; Kadambas, Kasmir, Gandhara, Nepala and Vidharbha in the north; and Kamapura and Davaka in the northeast. The map portrays the peaks of the Himalayas. Mt. Everest's height is measured at 29,002 feet and Kanchenjunga at 28,146 feet.

The exhibition was inaugurated by Stuart Innes, the British Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai. He said Lambton's trigonometrical survey provided the most accurate land measurements on record. It was the longest measurement of the earth's surface ever attempted, he said. Lambton conceived the idea, and took the Arc from the southern tip of the subcontinent to Nagpur where he died. It took almost 50 years to complete 1,600 miles of survey. In the end, India was defined.

The project led to the development of new survey techniques and instruments, Innes said. Formidable computation was done by human brains (mainly Indian ones) rather than computers. New mathematical insights were developed. Throughout the project, both Lambton and Everest worked with a strong team of Indians, from surveyors and mathematicians to coolies carrying the instruments and clearing the obstacles to sight lines. Their work laid the foundation of the Survey of India, and Everest created the headquarters in Dehra Dun where it remains today. Many of the instruments the 19th century surveyors used are still preserved there.

For both the artists who drew them and the collectors of maps, it has been a commitment to preserve geography. Dwarakanath Reddy has been collecting maps that detail the Coromandel coast and he has in his possession many maps drawn by hydrographer Samuel Thornton. A large part of his collection are original copper engraved maps. His maps are authenticated by the Map House, London. P.T. Krishnan is an architect whose involvement in maps comes from his interest in geography. Old maps to him are planning tools that provide insights into the origins of the urban problems of today. Ashok Saran's interest in map and chart collection began when he was young. His collection includes maps on railways and epidemics and military and political maps. R. Vaidyanathan, Chief Sub-Editor, Sports, The Hindu, has a fabulous collection of autographs, British India coins and antique maps. As a philatelist, he specialised in Cochin Postal History from 1791 to 1954. His two books, The Communication History of the Dutch under India and Pudukottai's Postal History have won praise.

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