Mapping the past with cartology in Delhi

New Delhi, Sep 22 (IANS) High on symbolism, politics, history and religion, the antiquarian cartography at the capital’s National Museum is a journey through time and space.

The stark and historic display of geographies titled ‘Cosmology to Cartography’ opens visitors’ mind to the intricate way science, art and sheer hard work blend into the making of a map.

The 72-map show, currently on display at the museum and being organised by Hyderabad’s Kalakriti Archives, is visually striking and detailed.

The exhibition features a rich variety of “painted and printed Indian maps produced in the subcontinent and a variety of nations, spanning 400 years until the early 19th century.

“In India, indigenous maps of the yore have in fact been a genre of painting,” says Kalakriti Archives owner Prashant Lahoti, who has been collecting historical maps for over 12 years. “The idea is to present landmarks ‘mostly temples’ along a certain timeline which can be followed when you visit the holy place,” said Lahoti.

Lahoti has contributed all but two of the maps put on display at the museum till October 11.

Vivek Nanda, curator of the exhibition, noted that the pilgrimage maps customarily tend to grade the sizes of the shrines, deities and other landmarks according to the level of sacredness. “That is often decided by the artiste painting it,” said Nanda, an urban planner and architectural historian.

The exhibition, set against red-and-black interiors, has a pilgrimage map of the Alaknanda, lining up the holy places along the river flowing down the Garhwal belt of the Himalayas.

Painted by a Rajasthani artist in the early 18th century, the rectangular 39.5 x 223 cm map is read from left to right, plentifully supplied with inscriptions, naming sacred places, villages, mountains and even trees. As most of the action is subsumed into the right bank of the river, things on the left are depicted upside down.

The largest map at the exhibition features a late 19th century depiction of Satrunjaya Patha — a 455x303cm Rajasthani work of opaque watercolour on cotton.

The Jain site of Satrunjaya (modern town of Palitana in Gujarat) provides a panoramic view of the key shrines, besides the pilgrimage routes and details of significant features and episodes along the devotees’ path.

“Such maps also serve as surrogates for those “often aged or infirm devotees” who are unable to visit the sites,” says Nanda.

On the eastern side of the country is a map showing the cosmic geography of Puri, now in Odisha. The 83x137cm gouache-on-cloth map, painted between 1870-75, envisages the sacred area of the pilgrim town being in the shape of Lord Vishnu’s conch (shankha) with the temple at its heart.

There is also a pichhvai painting that depicts the pilgrimage landscape of Braj, the district around Mathura on the banks of the Yamuna river. The 290x290cm work from the mid 19th century features the sacred sites associated with Lord Krishna’s boyhood and the discovery of the Shrinathji image.

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