Cosmology To Cartography - Sacred Maps from the Indian Subcontinent

Cosmic Map of the Mortal World as Two and a Half Continents_ Rajasthan, mid-17th Century (Mid 17th Century)Kalakriti Archives


This exhibition presents the multiple cultural perspectives towards representing the ordered world in the Indian sub-continent. The evolution from early cosmological representations of the ‘World of Mortals’, to pictographic depictions of ritual landscapes and sacred pilgrimage sites, through to the evolution of cartography is testament of the diverse, competing and global interests and influences – religious, economic and political - which have contributed to the perception of ‘India’ as we understand it today.  

Buddhist Map of the World: ‘Outline Map of All Countries of the Universe (1710) by Zuda Rokashi (Priest Hotan)Kalakriti Archives

The exhibition features a rich variety of sources - painted and printed Indian maps produced in the sub-continent and a variety of nations, including original manuscript representations. These date from the late fifteenth century until the early nineteenth century and each of them speaks to broader themes. The journey commences with Jain and Hindu cosmological representations, through to painted hangings depicting sacred rivers and pilgrimage sites, and ultimately to the transition of cartographic depictions of the ancient European conception of the subcontinent. The exhibition continues with the first vaguely accurate maps of India done in the wake of Vasco Da Gama’s arrival in 1498, documents the evolution of map making as part of the military contestation for supremacy by various European powers and ultimately the cartographic consolidation of India through the map makers of the British Raj.   

Puducherry, Union Territory of Puducherry (1741) by AnonymousKalakriti Archives

The historical cartography of India charts a progressive quest for the accurate physical depiction of the subcontinent and many of its various regions. However, this journey was not linear, as it was channeled by the particular priorities, limitations, experiences and cultural biases of the mapmakers, who were invariably not native to India. Many maps fundamentally reflect a European view of India, and not necessarily India as it truly existed. That being said, much of the cartography made by Europeans heavily relied on the knowledge and support offered by Indians, making it a medium of cultural exchange.   

Southern India (1788) by William FadenKalakriti Archives

During the 16th Century, Portugal had a virtual monopoly on the European interaction with India. However, from the early 1600s, new powers arrived in India, and the maps of the British, Dutch, French, Danes and Flemings speak to their endeavours and their complex interactions with various Indian players. This is followed by maps depicting the contest for imperial dominance over India, fought between France and Britain, backed by their respective Indian allies. With British dominance across the sub-continent came the use of scientific methods to create accurate general maps of India, which could be used as devices of military and juridical power, supporting the creation of ‘The Raj’. This impressive cartography established an estimable intellectual endowment, however, the people of India would have to wait until their nation’s independence in 1947 to assume their ownership of this legacy.

Cosmic Map of the Mortal World as Two and a Half Continents_ Rajasthan, mid-17th Century (Mid 17th Century)Kalakriti Archives


The Jain Cosmic Maps

The four cosmological depictions represent the mortal world according to Jain philosophy. In Jain texts the universe is divided into three worlds – the upper occupied by the gods, the middle by mortals and the lower belonging to the damned.

The most significant is the middle world, manushya-loka (world of the mortals), where liberation from the chain of rebirth is possible and where the Jinas (of saints and devotees) are born. Paintings of the phenomenal world therefore have remained popular in the Jain tradition and survive from the fourteenth century through to the present day.

The world of mortals is abstracted as a diagram of concentric circles. The blue circles and narrow streamer like (often symmetrical configurations) that traverse these represent water whilst the buff in-between areas represent land masses.

The central circle is of particular significance as it depicts Jambudvipa (the island of the wood apple trees) which includes the Indian sub-continent with the cosmic Mount Meru at its the very centre.

The inner-continent is encircled by two oceans and two further continents; the outer-most landmass ends amorphously with a chain of mountains and shrines with sages or Jinas at the four quarters.

This is why such depictions are often called Adhaidvipa Pata or paintings of the two-and-a half continents.

Cosmic Map of the Mortal World as Two and a Half Continents_ Gujarat, early 15th Century (Early 15th Century)Kalakriti Archives

The first example, dating from the 15th Century, small in size and rich in detail is comparable to Jain manuscripts of the period, most significantly the Kalpa Sutra.

The outer ridge of mountains is less defined compared to later examples as is characteristic of the early period.

Adhaidvipa Pata.
(Cosmic Map of the Mortal World as Two and a Half Continents).
[Gujarat, early 15th Century].
Opaque watercolor on cotton,
510 x 515 mm.

Cosmic Map of the Mortal World as Two and a Half Continents_ Gujarat, early 17th Century (Early 17th Century)Kalakriti Archives

The second example, dating from the early 17th Century, is rich in detail and draws in scale and format from its earlier predecessor, however, shows firmer geometry and a stronger representation of the outer mountain range.

Adhaidvipa Pata.
(Cosmic Map of the Mortal World as Two and a Half Continents).
[Gujarat, early 17th Century]
Opaque watercolor on cotton,
650 x 505 mm.

Cosmic Map of the Mortal World as Two and a Half Continents_ Rajasthan, mid-17th Century (Mid 17th Century)Kalakriti Archives

This sensibility of formalization is taken forward through the mid and late 17th Century as is evident from the third painting.

Adhaidvipa Pata.
(Cosmic Map of the Mortal World as Two and a Half Continents).
[Rajasthan, mid-17th Century]
Opaque watercolor on cotton,
705 x 695 mm.

Cosmic Map of the Mortal World as Two and a Half Continents_ Rajasthan, 18th Century. (18th Century)Kalakriti Archives

The fourth example, dating from the mid 18th Century is a fine example of the stylization and incorporation additional embellishments.

In this instance the strong circle of mountains, trees, banners and larger shrines located in the outer rim, characteristic of this period where such paintings clearly become more decorative.

Adhaidvipa Pata.
(Cosmic Map of the Mortal World as Two and a Half Continents).
[Rajasthan, 18th Century]
Opaque watercolor on cotton,
1150 x 1200 mm.

Indian Cosmography (Early 19th Century)Kalakriti Archives

A Map of Jambudweepa or the Earth according to the Hindoo Geography.
[Indian Cosmography].
[London, early 19th Century].
264 x 212 mm.

Cosmic Man (Late 19th Century)Kalakriti Archives


The Cosmic Man

Late 19th Century
Opaque watercolor on cotton,
1320 x 650 mm.

The cosmic man is a popular theme in late Jain painting. Its origins are evident from the fourteenth century onwards.

This example is a striking and beautiful painting, characteristic of the north Rajasthan region centred around Bikaner state, and is possibly a late 19th Century rendition of an earlier 17th Century version.

The cosmological scheme of the Adhaidvipa – world of the mortals – is superimposed on the human body in an attempt to homologize the microcosm.

The human body symbolism is sub-divided into the adhaloka (lower world), madhyaloka (middle world), and, urdhvaloka (upper world) each of which is represented differently.

The depiction overall is thus acts as cosmic representation - both a picture for the worship of the mandala of the world of the mortals and the enormous body form of Lord Mahavira – the twenty forth Jina, which also embodies the three worlds.

The evil lower world is represented by seven horizontal registers of various colors depicting various carnal acts.

The middle world, with the point of origin at Mount Meru and the concentric world of mortals, incorporating all humanity, flora and fauna, is placed over the navel of the cosmic man; the origin myths of man and universe being aligned very literally.

The upper world of the gods, in its orderly formulation of courtly tiers, is located on the torso of the cosmic man.

The iconography, stylization and chromatic palette of this painting draws from illustrations in contemporaneous manuscripts such as the Samgrahanisutra.

Map of the Ganges (Early 18th Century) by Rajasthani ArtistKalakriti Archives

Map of the Ganges

Pilgrimage Map of River Alaknanda depicting shrine at Badrinath
Early 18th Century
Opaque watercolour on cotton,
395 x 2230 mm.

This route map depicts the river Ganga and one of its chief headwaters, the Alakananda, as seen by the devotee making a pilgrimage as far as the shrine at Badrinath in the Garhwal Himalayas.

In keeping with such route maps, features on the left bank of the river are depicted upside down. The scroll is plentifully supplied with inscriptions, naming sacred places, villages, mountains and trees.

The path is conspicuously painted yellow all the way along the scroll, and we see travellers and pilgrims following it up and down mountainsides and over the bridges across the rivers.

Many are on foot and equipped with staves, though the wealthy are carried in hill doolies or jampans, while two men carry women in panniers on their backs.

The river and its tributaries are depicted in brilliant blue and white basket patterns, while the hillsides and mountains are in shades of mauve and brown (white for the highest mountains) set off by the brilliant depiction of the various trees in traditional Rajasthani style and by the numerous shrines.

Badrinath is one of the four great religious sites at the extremities of India along with Dwarka, Puri and Ramesvaram, as established by the great sage Sankaracarya in the ninth century. In keeping with this foundation, the chief priest or Rawul is always a Nambudiri Brahmin from Sankaracarya’s homeland of Kerala.

The main road ends in Badrinath where the pilgrims bathe in the river beside the temple of Visnu, who is seen enshrined and being worshipped.

Snow covered peaks rise above the temple including the mountain Nara which along with Narayan guards the shrine.

Nonetheless the artist has gone to considerable trouble to include all the sacred spots in the immediate vicinity, hence accurate information about them did exist.

Pilgrimage Maps of Shatrunjaya (Mid 19th Century)Kalakriti Archives

Satrunjaya Patha

(Pilgrimage Maps of Shatrunjaya).

Satrunjaya Patha.
(Pilgrimage Maps of Shatrunjaya).
[Rajasthan, late 19th Century].
Opaque watercolor on cotton,
4550 x 3030 mm.

Pilgrimage Maps of Shatrunjaya (Late 19th Century)Kalakriti Archives

Satrunjaya Patha.
[Gujarat, mid 19th Century],
Opaque watercolor on cotton,
2400 x 1850 mm.

Pilgrimage Maps of Shatrunjaya (Mid 19th Century)Kalakriti Archives

Large in size and rich in detail, these painted maps depict the pilgrimage circuit at the sacred Jain site of Satrunjaya (modern town of Palitana in Gujarat). Such compositions are therefore generally referred to as Satrunjaya 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.

The artist depicts the topographic context of Satrunjaya hill with its two ridges. The first ridge is dominated by the main temple complex of Adinatha.

The other ridge is the setting for nine smaller temple complexes patronized by Jain merchants.

The painters of the two patas depict the pilgrimage route from the point of view of the devotee’s experience rather than a topographic expression of the actual site; despite this, these examples show strong geomorphic coherences.

Pilgrims arrive on foot, horseback, carts drawn by elephants or horses, or palanquins and commence their journey to the top of the hill by foot, flowing the winding path up and paying respects to the various shrines or features enroute.

Pilgrimage Map of Vraj (Mid 19th Century)Kalakriti Archives

Pichhvai of Vraj Yatra

Pilgrimage Map of Vraj

Pichhvai of Vraj Yatra
Mid-19th Century
Opaque watercolor on cotton,
2900 x 2900 mm.

This pichhvai depicts the pilgrimage landscape of Vraj, the district around Mathura on the banks of the River Yamuna, and includes the sacred sites associated with Krishna’s boyhood and the discovery of the Shrinathji image.

It shows the route for the religious procession or Vraj Yatra which pilgrims undertake each year lasting several weeks. Commencing from Mathura, the birth place of Krishna, devotees move in a clockwise direction around the city.

The boundaries of the Vraj Yatra are represented in the central portion of this pichhvai and the River Yamuna dominates the landscape.

Located at the bend of the river, is Mathura. Key sites include Mount Govardhana with its bluish rocky mass in the centre.

Chandrasarovara (moon lake) is directly below Mount Govardhana where Krishna enjoys the Ras Lila with his gopis, Kamvana (upper left corner), Barsana, the birthplace of Radha (edge of pinkish hill) and Nandgrama, the home of Nanda (upper centre).

The scenes in the upper part of the pichhvai focus on Krishna’s play with the gopis whilst those in the lower half depict specific episodes, shrines and places in Krishna’s life.

Plan of the Shrinathji Temple at Nathdwara (Early 20th Century)Kalakriti Archives

Plan of the Shrinathji Temple at Nathdwara
Early 20th Century
Opaque watercolor on cotton,
1740 x 1120 mm.

This pichhvai depicts the Shrinathji temple complex at Nathdwara. Composed from a series of courtyards (including various shrines, palaces and service rooms) within a bastioned boundary wall.

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.

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. Various courtyards are depicted as in use.

Unlike most other haveli plans, the depiction of the haveli and its associated townscape is shown in a wider pilgrimage landscape setting of the Vraj country, amidst holy streams, shrines, villages and palace complexes.

Buddhist Map of the World: ‘Outline Map of All Countries of the Universe (1710) by Zuda Rokashi (Priest Hotan)Kalakriti Archives

Other Pilgrimage Maps

Zuda Rokashi, a.k.a. ‘Hotan’
Buddhist Map of the World: ‘Outline Map of All Countries of the Universe
Woodcut with contemporary outline colour,
1145 x 1415 mm.

A monumental early 18th Century Japanese map of the World, focusing on the continent of ‘Jambudvīpa’ and centred on the heart of Buddhist cosmology, Lake Manasarovar, Tibet, where Buddha was conceived.

This grand and beautiful work is the earliest Japanese map to embrace the entire world and represents a fascinating synergy of Buddhist cosmology and knowledge gained from a variety of Asian and European sources.

The map was devised by the Japanese Buddhist priest Zuda Rokashi and printed in Kyoto by in 1710 (‘Hoei 7’ in Japanese dating).

In the centre the continent is the mythical Lake Anavatapta, which represents the actual Lake Manasarovar in Tibet. It marks the centre of the Buddhist universe, as the location where Queen Maya conceived Buddha.

The map was intended to emphasize the importance of regions that were traditionally central to Buddhism, such as India and China, at the expense of Europe, Africa and the Americas, which appear as small islands along the periphery.

Course of the Ganges and Ghaghara Rivers (1784) by Joseph TieffenthalerKalakriti Archives

Joseph TIEFFENTHALER (1710-1784) /
Abraham - Hyacinthe ANQUETIL DU PERRON (1731-1805).
Course of the Ganges and Ghaghara Rivers
Paris, 1784.
Copper engraving,
610 x 762 mm.

This fascinating map of the courses of the sacred Ganges River and the Ghaghara River represents a synergy of Indian and European sources and a bridge between Indian Pilgrimage mapping and European Enlightenment era cartography.

The composition is dominated by the principal map which is based on the explorations of the Jesuit cartographer Joseph Tieffenthaler, who spent over 40 years wandering India, charting the countryside.

The five inset maps depicting various interpretations of the sources of the Ganges and the Ghaghara rivers, four of which are based on maps made by Indian cartographers under Tieffenthaler’s employ.

The ‘Gomukh’ (the ‘Cow’s Mouth’) at the foot of the Gangotri Glacier (Fig. II) and Lake Manasarovar (Fig. III), are ancient pilgrimage sites & identifying their locations had long been a source of curiosity to Europeans.

Interestingly, portions of the composition feature toponymy and annotations in both French and Persian (the language of the Mughal Court).

Credits: Story

Dr. Vivek Nanda
Alex Johnson

Maps part of
Kalakriti Archives
Prshant Lahoti Collection

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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