Cosmology to Cartography - The maps depicting the early encounter with Indian Subcontinent

Kalakriti Archives

A Cultural Journey of Indian Maps

The historical cartography of India charts a progressive quest for the accurate physical depiction of the Subcontinent and its various regions.  However, this journey was not linear, it was channeled by the particular priorities, limitations, experiences and cultural biases of the mapmakers, who were not native to India. Many maps fundamentally reflect a European view of India, and not necessarily India as it truly existed. This section includes maps and views printed in seven foreign countries, as well as several manuscript works prepared by Europeans resident in India. 
That being said, many of the maps made by Europeans heavily relied on the knowledge and support offered by Indians making this cartography a sophisticated and, in some instances, enlightened medium of cultural exchange. The maps showcased, which range in date from 1511 to 1822, each speak to broader themes. 
Early Encounters
‘Early Encounters’ commences with the Ancient European conception of India, based on the intelligence gained during the extensive contact maintained between the Greco-Roman civilizations and the Indian Subcontinent. India was reencountered by Europeans following Vasco da Gama’s arrival near Calicut in 1498, and the theme continues with the first broadly accurate maps of India. 
The relationship between Europe and the Indian Subcontinent extends over two millennia, all the way back to the 4th Century BC, when Alexander the Great conquered regions in the northwest, followed by the establishment of a Greco-Indian Empire in what is now the Punjab. The Romans developed extensive maritime trade with coastal India from their ports in Egypt. In the 2nd Century AD, the Greco-Egyptian cartographer, Claudius Ptolemy, developed a map of India which detailed the numerous ports visited by Roman mariners, and which represented the apogee of the Classical European cartography of South Asia. 
However, from the 7th Century AD, contact between Europe and India greatly declined and would not be revived until near the end of the 15th Century. In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama opened up the modern sea route from Europe to India, granting Portugal a virtual monopoly on European interaction with the Subcontinent that lasted for over a century.
While the Portuguese interests in India were largely confined to the coastal areas, many foreign powers were fascinated by the Mughal Empire. A fabulously wealthy state, it was based in Northern India and had been steadily growing, due to conquests, since its founding in 1526. Interestingly, many of the early maps of the Mughal Empire were based on extraordinary cross-cultural interactions. 

Bernardus Sylvanus after Claudius Ptolemy
Ptolemaic India
Woodcut, printed in two colours,
408 x 545 mm.

This fascinating map, while published in the early 16th Century, reflects how the Ancient Greeks and Romans conceived of India.

Importantly, it remained the most authoritative source of geographical knowledge of the subcontinent available to Europeans prior to Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India in 1498.

The map was devised by the Italian cartographer Bernardus Sylvanus and was printed in Venice in 1511. However, it is based on the work of Claudius Ptolemy, living in the 2nd Century AD, in Alexandria, Egypt, which was then part of the Roman Empire.

While the India depicted on the map is at first unfamiliar to the modern eye, once one becomes immersed in its details, the map comes alive.

While Ptolemy’s India is correctly framed by the ‘Indus flu.’ (Indus River), in the northwest, and the delta of the ‘Ganga flu.’ (Ganges River), in the northeast, the interceding coastline meanders jaggedly into the sea, as opposed to forming the familiar triangular peninsula of Southern India.

However, the map features a roughly accurate sequence of the main ports of India as they appear along the coastlines.

One will notice ‘muziris em.’, which refers to Muziris ‘Emporium’, one of the wealthiest and most famous ports of contemporary India. Preserved in the name of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the city’s legacy has long been associated with Kochi and its region, although the exact location of Muziris remains a source of debate amongst archeologists.

It is widely held that it was located near the mouth of the Periyar River (named by Ptolemy ‘Pseudostomus f’, meaning 'one with false mouths'), just to the north of Kochi, near Kodungallur. Muziris remained an important centre until it was destroyed by floods in 1341.

Lorenz Fries
India and East Asia
1522 / 1541.
Woodcut with hand colour,
300 x 475 mm.

This fascinating map embraces all of South Asia and much of East Asia, as it was conceived by Europeans near the beginning of the 16th Century. Most interestingly, India, which is named ‘India Intra Gangem’ (India within the Ganges), appears in its modern form, as a recognizable peninsula, for the first time.

East Asia is termed ‘India Extra Gangem’ (India beyond the Ganges) and assumes comparatively crude outlines.

India is framed by the ‘Indus Fl.’ (Indus River) and the Ganges River, while the west coast of India features many place, names that were ports of call for the Portuguese during the period immediately following Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India in 1498.

These include ‘Cambaia’ (Khambhat), ‘Caliqut’ (Kozhikode), ‘Cochim’ (Kochi),‘Cananor’ (Kannur), ‘Cangallor’ (Kodungallur) and ‘Mangalor’ (Mangalore).

The map is based on the depiction of the subcontinent featured on the “Cantino Planisphere” (1502), a revolutionary ‘top secret’ Portuguese manuscript world map.

This manuscript map was stolen from Lisbon by an agent of Ercole I d'Este, the Duke of Ferrara, and which was since disseminated across Europe.

Georg Braun & Frans Hogenberg
Views of Kozhikode and Kannur, Kerala with Hormuz, Iran and Elmina, Ghana
Copper engraving with original hand colour,
39.6 x 53.4 cm.

The present sheet of views includes two of the most popular early printed European impressions of Indian cities, printed as part of Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg’s celebrated series of urban views, published as Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1572-1618).

During the 16th Century, Europeans were dazzled by the immense wealth that flowed from the subcontinent and captivated by the accounts of travellers who described India’s exotic wonders.

The present views of Calicut (Kozhikode) and Cannanore (Kannur) are imbued with considerable importance as the authoritative contemporary views of these important trade centres, being predicated, in good part, on actual observation.

They are likely based on drawings that were part of a collection that Frans Hogenberg is thought to have acquired from a Portuguese mariner in Antwerp around 1570.

Jacobo GASTALDI (1500-1566) /
Giovanni Battista RAMUSIO (1485-1557).
Seconda Tavola.
Venice, 1554.
Woodcut map,
292 x 420 mm.

This attractive Venetian map is focused on Peninsular India, although its coverage extends from Sumatra to the Persian Gulf. It employs an ‘upside down’ southward-oriented perspective, which was not unusual during the 16th Century.

The Indian Peninsula appears as a broad, evenly shaped triangle, somewhat stylized from reality, but still familiar to the modern viewer.

Predicated on Portuguese sources, India’s coastlines are labeled with ports that were then critical to Portuguese trade, including: ‘Cochin’ (Kochi), ‘Calicut’ (Kozhikode), ‘Cananor’ (Kannur), ‘Mangalor’ (Mangalore), ‘Goa’.

Other locations marked include ‘Chaul’ (then an important centre, but abandoned in the 18th Century), ‘Surati’ (Surat), ‘Cambaia’ (Khambhat), ‘Diu’ and ‘Negapatao’ (Nagapattinam).

Within the ocean, the images of ships represent Portuguese caravels and are labeled ‘Vado a Calicut’ (‘Route to Calicut’), symbolically representing the sea route between Europe and India.

The labeling of the ‘Regno de Besinagar’ in the interior refers to the Vijayanagara Empire, a powerful Hindu kingdom that dominated much of southern India from 1336 to 1565.

During this period, the Portuguese were largely confined to coast and possessed a relatively limited understanding of the interior of India. One will notice that many areas in the Ganges Basin are placed way too far to the south of their true locations.

Jacobo Gastaldi &
Giovanni Battista Ramusio
Woodcut map,
292 x 420 mm.

These map sheets present a unique and important depiction embracing most of India and the Silk Road, being three sheets from an exceptionally rare gargantuan 12-sheet wall map of Asia, made by the Venetian master Giovanni Francesco Camocio.

Featured here are the western two-thirds of the Indian Subcontinent, extending about as far east as modern day Odisha and Bihar. Camocio based his map on unspecified, but fairly advanced Portuguese sources, as the overall shape of the Indian Peninsula is a marked improvement upon other contemporary maps.

Camocio’s mapping features a wealth of information, including the labeling of many places that were central to Portuguese activities on the subcontinent.

Observing the coastlines of India, from the west to the east, one will notice the common contemporary European misconception that the ‘Indu F.’ (Indus River) is shown to erroneously to flow through ‘Guzarate’ (Gujarat) and into the Gulf of Khambat.

That being said, a number of ports on the west coast of India are labeled, approximately in their correct locations, including: Diu, ‘Cambaia’ (Cambay / Khambhat), Surat, ‘Caul’ (Chaul), Goa (the capital of Portuguese India), ‘Mangalor’ (Mangalore), ‘Cananor’ (Kannur), ‘Calecut’ (Khozikode), ‘Cochin’ (Kochi) and ‘Tranocore’ (Trivandrum).

Beyond ‘Capo Comari’ (Kanyakumari), can be found ‘Puduchiera’ (Puducherry), and ‘Malipur’ (Mylapore, now a part of Chennai) accompanied by the annotation ‘Qui é si corpo de San Thomaso apostole’ (‘Here is the body of St. Thomas the Apostle’).

St. Thomas, was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ and traveled to India in 52 AD in order to spread the gospel. He spent many years in Kerala before moving on to the Coromandel Coast, where he died at Mylapore in 72 AD.

In the interior appears ‘Culconde’ (the great fortress of Golconda, in modern day Hyderabad), is located just to the southeast of a note that reads ‘Qui sitroveno le Diomoenti’ (Here Diamonds are found).

William Baffin
Northern India – Mughal Empire
Copper engraving with hand colour,
322 x 375 mm.

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 east to Burma in the west.

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.

The Indus River is shown to enter the Arabian Sea in the correct location, in what is now the Sindh, as opposed to Gulf of Khambhat, as shown on previous maps.

While the path of the Ganges River is incorrectly shown to flow in a general north-south direction, its depiction here is a vast improvement over previous maps.

The map divides the empire into the Mughal subhas (provinces), some of which have names that correspond to modern Indian states, including ‘Chishmeere’ (Kashmir), ‘Penjab’ (Punjab), ‘Guzarat’ (Gujarat), ‘Orixa’ (Odisha) & ‘Bengala’ (Bengal).

Prominently featured is the ‘The Longe Walke’, a straight road shaded by trees, representing the great Mughal Trunk Road, which connected Agra with Lahore.

The map is predicated on geographical information supplied by the Mughal Court to Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador to Emperor Jahangir. In 1619, Roe imparted this intelligence to the eminent cartographer & explorer William Baffin, who devised the present map.

Kâtib ÇELEBI (1609-1657) / Ibrahim Müteferrika (1674-1745).
Northern India – Mughal Empire.
Istanbul: Ibrahim Müteferrika, 1732.
Copper engraving with original hand colour,
267 x 356 mm.

This extraordinary map was published in Istanbul in 1732, making it the earliest map of India to be printed in the Islamic World and the first to employ typography in Arabic characters.

It embraces all of Northern India, being the heartland of the Mughal Empire, which was in its prime when the map was conceived, but in decline when the map was printed.

All major cities and rivers are noted, while the progress of the Mughal Trunk Road, which ran from Agra to Lahore, is expressed pictographically.

The Nesih Arabic typography flows elegantly across the composition, while the original colour palate the style of the fine cartouches are distinctly Turkish.

The map was printed by Ibrahim Müteferrika who directed the first press founded in the Ottoman Empire.

The map was part of the Cihannüma (1732), which translates as ‘Mirror of the World’, a magnificent manuscript atlas created during the mid-17th Century by the Turkish geographer Kâtip Çelebi.

Credits: Story

Dr. Vivek Nanda
Alex Johnson

Maps part of
Kalakriti Archives
Prshant Lahoti Collection

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