Maps and Map-making in India

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Colonial India Exhibit Section

In many of the maps of South Asia there are conventions concerning the way information was presented. Many of the British maps indicate British “ownership” by the color red. Often different typeface sizes were used in order to downplay other nations’ possessions. Of course, there are also out and out lies such as marking a territory as one’s own when it was really disputed.

Even though many maps do not specifically mention the military, in many cases it is clear that there are tactical considerations built into the maps. Often forts are labeled and commonly there are depictions of important cities, towns and garrisons. At first glance this appears to be a decorative device, but after careful examination it seems clear that the illustrations are strategic for the planning of assaults.

One other fascinating element of maps is their inclusion of fictional or non-existent geographic features. Some early maps have relatively less information with large empty areas, but some cartographers chose to fill these unknown lands with fanciful or legendary geographical features which were then perpetuated for years in other maps. An example of this is the depiction of the Ganges. Mapmakers were obsessed with the origin of the Ganges, and many early modern maps based on travelers’ tales and ancient geographies posited that it and other major rivers of South and Southeast Asia flowed from Lake Chiamay northeast of the Bay of Bengal (see A New Map of East Asia by John Speed). The only problem is that the lake didn’t exist, yet it continued to be depicted on many maps for many years.