India And The Universe Through 18 Beautiful Maps Across Centuries

Temples, pilgrimages and landscapes from Kolkata to Chennai.
Jan Huygen van Linschoten India Amsterdam
Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1563-1611). India and the Middle East. Amsterdam, [1596]. Copper-engraving with hand colour, 44 X 59.5 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

There’s a lot that maps can tell you – not only about a place, but also about our perceptions, experiences and dreams. Take the 18 stunning maps below from the ongoing exhibition Cosmology to Cartography: A Cultural Journey of Indian Maps at the National Museum, New Delhi. Culled from the museum’s collection and Hyderabad’s Kalakriti Archives, these beautiful images illustrate everything from Hindu cosmological beliefs to colonial maps of the subcontinent and blueprints for our early cityscapes. The exhibition is on until October 11, 2015. Get a glimpse of its cartographical wonder below. The maps are displayed under the various sections of the exhibition, with descriptions from the catalogue.

Hindu Universe

“Amongst the earliest portable maps in the Indian subcontinent are those based on Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious texts and related tracts. These were in active circulation from the early medieval period, usually painted on cloth, and are abstract representations of the various aspects of the Hindu cosmos. The purpose of these cosmological maps is to demarcate the religious and phenomenal world, the world of the gods, humans and demons, space-time and, above all, the attributes of an ordered universe.”

Below is a “printed map of the Jambudvipa, from the Ain-e-Akbari, depicting the seven-layered universe”.

Ain-e-Akbari Jambudvipa Universe

A map of Jambudvipa or Earth according to the Hindoo geography. London, early 19th century. Copper engraving, 26.4 X 21.2 cm. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives


Jain cosmic map Rajasthan

Jain cosmic map, Rajasthan, mid-17th century. Opaque watercolour on cotton, 70.5 x 69.5 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

“The Jain maps represent a microcosm of this wider universe as they depict only the inner two-and-a-half islands inhabited by humans (and are thus often called Adhaidwipa or two-and-a-half worlds).”



The pilgrimage route map below depicts “the river Ganga and one of its chief headwaters, the Alaknanda, as seen by the devout pilgrim making a pilgrimage from Haridwar where the Ganga debouches into the plain, as far as the shrine at Badrinath in the Garhwal Himalayas. It is read from left to right.”

River Alaknanda Ganges Badrinath Garhwal

Map of the Ganges. Pilgrimage Map of River Alaknanda depicting shrine at Badrinath Garhwal. Early 18th century. 39.5 X 35.6 cms, 39.5 X 223 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

“Variable in size and rich in detail, these painted maps depict the pilgrimage circuit at the sacred Jain site of Shatrunjaya (modern town of Palitana in Gujarat). Such compositions are therefore generally referred to as “Shatrunjaya pata”. The key purpose of these paintings is to provide a panoramic view of the key shrines, the pilgrimage route and details of significant features and episodes along the devotee’s path.”

Shatrunjaya Pata Gujarat

Shatrunjaya Pata (Pilgrimage Map of Shatrunjaya). Sirohi. C. 1750. Opaque watercolour on cotton, 142 X 122 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives


Temples and Towns

Rajasthan Nathdwara Pichcwai Shrinathji

Nathdwara Map. Pichcwai of Shrinathji Haveli. Nathdwara, Early 20th century. Opaque watercolour on cotton, 17.40 X 11.20 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

“This pichhvai simhasan (or throne cloth) depicts the Shrinathji temple complex at Nathdwara, Rajasthan. Composed from a series of courtyards (including various shrines, palaces and service rooms) within a bastioned boundary wall and with one main gate at the heart of the town, the complex follows the architectural tradition of a large Rajasthani mansion or haveli, rather than a traditional North Indian Hindu temple. It is hence often referred to as the Nathdwara Haveli by devotees. The haveli plan was a popular subject for both paintings and pichhvais, particularly in demand by visiting pilgrims to take back as mementos of their visit and did not otherwise serve any particular religious purpose. This plan, like most such plans, depicts the occurrence of the Annakuta Festival, the day after Diwali, which is the most important festival for the Vallabha sect.”

Puri Shankhalavi pata Orissa

The cosmic geography of Puri. A shankhalavi pata depicting the sacred geography of Puri. 1850-75. Gouache on cloth, 83 X 137 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

The map above is an example of “symbolic representations of the ritual topography of city-temples. Presented here are rare and early examples of pilgrimage souvenirs painted by the hereditary chitrakars or painters associated with the great temple of Jagannath at Puri in Orissa.”


Early Encounters

This section showcases “maps that represent Europeans’ attempts to comprehend the geography of India. While all of these works were drafted by non-Indians and printed in Europe, the picture is more nuanced than it may initially appear, as much of the information they present was gained from Indian sources.”

Sri Lanka Maldives Sea

Robert Dudley (1574-1649). Southern India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Florence, Italy, [1646]. Copper-engraving, 55 x 83 cms.Photo:Kalakriti Archives

“An exquisitely engraved sea chart depicting Southern India, printed in Florence by the English exile Sir Robert Dudley. This highly elegant sea chart embraces the southern part of the Indian Peninsula, Sri Lanka, the Lakshadweep Islands and Maldives and extends eastward to embrace the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as well as the extremities of both Burma and Sumatra. True to the nature of sea charts, the coastal areas are rich in detail, while the interior regions are left almost entirely blank. Dudley showed a keen awareness of the importance of the Monsoons in navigating the coasts of India. Off the Malabar Coast, he includes the annotations ‘Venti buoni sono monsoni’ (Good monsoon winds) and ‘Lungo la costa non si puo navicare massimo Giunio luglio è Agosto’ (Along the coast you can’t navigate principally between June and August). Located in the waters between what is today Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, he includes the annotation ‘Venti Aquiloni sono gui pericolosi in Aprile’ (The winds here make it dangerous to navigate during the month of April).”

Samuel Purchas (c. 1577-1626). [Northern India–Mughal Empire]. A Description of East India. London, 1625. Copper-engraving with hand colour, 322 x 375 m.Photo:Kalakriti Archives

Samuel Purchas (c. 1577-1626). [Northern India–Mughal Empire]. A Description of East India. London, 1625. Copper-engraving with hand colour, 322 x 375 m.Photo:Kalakriti Archives

“The first basically accurate map of northern India, by the English adventurer William Baffin, based on geographic intelligence obtained at the court of Emperor Jahangir. This revolutionary map embraces the entire Mughal Empire and extends from Afghanistan and Kashmir in the north, down south to the middle of the Deccan, and from the mouths of the Indus in the west, to Burma in the east. While far from scientific, and featuring some obvious inaccuracies (notably, areas in the upper part of the map are placed way too far to the north), it is the first map of northern India to evince a basic level of planimetric accuracy.”


Clash Of Empires

Jan Huygen van Linschoten India Amsterdam

Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1563-1611). India and the Middle East. Amsterdam, [1596]. Copper-engraving with hand colour, 44 X 59.5 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

“Linschoten’s beautiful map of India and the Middle East was at the heart of history’s most consequential case of corporate espionage, which saw the fall of Portuguese hegemony in India and the arrival of other European powers on the subcontinent. This magnificent map embraces all of India, the Middle East and the northern Indian Ocean. Its coverage extends from Cyprus in the west, over to Burma in the east, and from the Caspian Sea in the north, down to the Maldives in the south. Based on secret Portuguese charts acquired by the Dutch adventurer and spy Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, it presents by far the most accurate overall mapping of these regions published to date.”

Bengal John Thornton

John Thornton (1641-1708). Bengal and Parts of Odisha and Bihar. London, [1703]. Copper-engraving, 43.8 X 53.3 cms.Photo:Kalakriti Archives

“The earliest detailed printed English map of Bengal, dedicated to the English East India Company by its official hydrographer John Thornton. This elegant chart depicts Bengal and adjacent regions as the English conceived of it around 1680. It is centred on the Ganges Delta of Bengal and extends from Patna, Bihar in the west, to Arakan, Burma in the east, and reaches southwards to embrace much of the Bay of Bengal and northern Orissa. Importantly, Thornton’s map of Bengal was the first detailed English map of the region and the authoritative map used by the EIC for several decades following its initial publication in 1685.”

Raousset de Bourbon. Chennai (formerly Madras), Tamil Nadu. Madras, 1746 Manuscript, pen and ink with red wash on paper, 46 X 61 cms.Photo:Kalakriti Archives

Raousset de Bourbon. Chennai (formerly Madras), Tamil Nadu. Madras, 1746 Manuscript, pen and ink with red wash on paper, 46 X 61 cms.Photo:Kalakriti Archives

“A beautifully executed contemporary manuscript map depicting the Fall of Madras (1746), a great French victory over the British East India Company (EIC), accompanied by a printed edition of the same scene. The exquisite, yet unfinished, manuscript map was prepared by a French officer to illustrate the Fall of Madras, which represented the worst defeat that the British would endure on the subcontinent during the period. During the First Carnatic War (1746-48), the first widespread conflict pitting France against Britain for colonial dominance over India, French forces managed to besiege and quickly conquer Madras, one of the EIC’s three most important bases in India.”


Rise Of The Raj

Calcutta East Indian Railway North West Provinces

George Stephenson/ J and C Walker. Map of the East Indian Railway Shewing the Line proposed to be constructed to connect Calcutta with the North West Provinces and the Immediate Civil and Military Stations to Accompany the Report of the Managing Director of the East Indian Railway Company London. 1846 Lithograph. 110 X 117 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

This is a “rare map depicting the projected route of the East Indian Railway, which was to run from Calcutta to Delhi and which helped to hail the rise of Modern India. The construction of the railway system across India during the second half of the 19th Century utterly transformed the subcontinent’s society, communications and economy.”

Jaipur Rajasthan Lithograph

Surveyor General’s Office Of India. Jaipur, Rajasthan. 1878 Calcutta, 1883 Lithograph dissected on original linen, with original hand colour, 142 X 118 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

This is a “fascinating topographical map of Jaipur State, featuring text entirely in Hindi, published by the Surveyor General’s Office of India.”


Bangalore Karnataka Rt. Honble

Robert Home. Bengaluru, Karnataka. Plan of Bangalore taken by the English Army under the command of the Rt. Honble. Earl Cornwallis. 1791. London, 1794 Copper Engraving, 66 X 49.5 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

This is a “most accurate and detailed early printed map of Bangalore, depicting a major Indian city prior to the influences of European urban planning. This fascinating map of Bangalore grants a magnificent impression of a sizable Indian city before it was altered by European (in this case British) modifications. The large ‘Pettah’ (town) in the upper centre is encircled by an elaborate system of walls and takes on an ovoid shape common to many Indian cities. Within are dense and uneven built-up blocks divided by warrens of narrow streets, a labyrinth which was, in theory, ideal for confusing invaders who might dare to storm the city. A connecting ovoid palace-fort complex projects off the town to the south.”


Anonymous. Puducherry, Union Territory of Puducherry. Manuscript, pen and ink with wash colour. 61 X 89 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

“A magnificent large-scale manuscript plan of Pondicherry, the capital of French India, drafted during the city’s historical apogee. This exquisitely drafted, and exceptionally large, military engineer’s plan depicts Pondicherry, founded as the capital of French India in 1674, which developed into the finest European-planned city in India of its era. Here the city is depicted as it appeared in 1741, during the height of its prosperity. Focusing tightly in on the city proper, this exactingly-drafted and finely-coloured plan is adorned, in the lower right quadrant, by an elegant rococo cartouche. The map’s grand appearance suggests that it was intended as a presentation piece for a senior French official, although curiously it is unsigned.”

West Bengal Calcutta Jean Baptist Tassi

Jean Baptist Tassin. Kolkata, West Bengal. Calcutta: Oriental Lithographic Press, 1832. Lithograph with hand colours, mounted on linen. 49.5 X 69.5 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

“J.B. Tassin’s spectacular map of Calcutta is among the finest early urban plans lithographed in India. Issued by Jean-Baptiste Tassin’s Oriental Lithographic Press in Calcutta, it features exceptionally fine original hand colouring by Bengali colourists employing Indian pigments, resulting in an extraordinary appearance distinct from maps produced in Europe. It is predicated on the important survey of the city and its environs conducted by Major John Augustus Schalch and completed by Captain Thomas Prinsep, from 1820 to 1828. This endeavour was instigated by the need to provide the city with an integrated drainage system, although it ended up having much broader applications.”

East India Company Bombay Fort Maharashtra

Anonymous. Mumbai, Maharashtra. Bombay, 1840. Manuscript, watercolour on paper, edged with contemporary green linen, 54 x 74 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

“A magnificent manuscript map of Bombay Fort, then the epicenter of government and military affairs in Western India, one of the few surviving highly detailed maps of the complex. This fascinating original manuscript map depicts the massive complex of the Fort of Bombay, as it appeared around 1840. It housed the nucleus of the East India Company’s Presidency of Bombay, including the headquarters of the civil government, military and the financial establishments, making it the densest concentration of power on the subcontinent. The Fort also played a major role in the life of what was becoming one of the world’s most important commercial ports.”

Delhi Edwin Lutyens

Edwin Lutyens. New Delhi Calcutta, 1913. Chromolithograph, 79 x 78 cms. Photo courtesy Kalakriti Archives

“This map is an early version of Edwin Lutyens’ master plan for the construction of New Delhi, dating from 1912, just before the mega-project was commenced in earnest. On first impression, one is confronted with the map’s powerful symbolism, as Lutyens’ design literally projects British imperial power over the existing Indian landscape, just to the south and southwest of Old Delhi. The bold orange lines, representing the proposed network of broad boulevards which run between planned monumental edifices, literally overwhelm all aspects of the countryside, which is subordinated in soft blue tones underneath. It is implicit in the design, that the British Raj intended to not only to co-opt the imperial legacy of the Mughals and the ‘Seven Cities of Delhi’, but also ventured to go beyond that towards creating the grandest capital of them all, and one which would signify the permanence of their regime.”


Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?