Cosmology to Cartography


Cosmology to Cartography: An epic journey from mythological visions of the universe, pilgrimage and religious depictions, to the accurate scientific representation of modern India. Exhibition was held at the National Museum of New Delhi, in 2015.
Culled from the museum's collection and Hyderabad's Kalakriti Archives, these beautiful sacred maps illustrate everything from Hindu cosmological beliefs to colonial maps of the subcontinent and blueprints for our early cityscapes. 


Map of the Jambudvipa, from the Ain-e-Akbari, depicting the seven-layered universe

The evolution of maps can be traced from cosmological representation of the ‘World of Mortals’ to pictographic depictions of ritual landscapes, to the growth of scientific cartography.
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.

The four paintings above are fine examples of adhaidvipa patas ranging from the 15th to the 19th centuries.The first example, dating from the 15th Century, 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 is characteristic of the early period.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. This sensibility of formalization is taken forward through the mid and late 17th century as is evident from the third painting.The fourth example, dating from the mid18th 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.

This pilgrimage route map 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.


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 cosmic man is a popular theme in late Jain painting although its origins are evident from the fourteenth century.
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 with 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.


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. 


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.

Linschoten’s 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. It 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. 

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