A Map Might Seem Like Just A Piece Of Paper Today, But Here’s Why It’s Much More

Posted on November 23, 2015 in Culture-Vulture

By Priyanka D’Souza:

Later that night I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered where does it hurt?
It answered

The recent attacks and calamities have sent made quote by Warsan Shire viral and it is so beautifully apt. Only the atlas knows where it hurts.

In Greek mythology, Atlas was sentenced by Zeus to hold up the crumbling sky (Oranos) because Oranos was too weak after enduring the war between the Titans and the Olympians.

With the ISIS trying to gain more territory, to Middle Eastern leaders wanting to unite the Arabic lands, to countries like the US and Russia, with their numerous other allies, extending their political influence into geographical areas they have no businesses in, to the innumerable border disputes world over— the map is being constantly tugged and twisted by power, money and vested interests.

You might be wondering how poeticising of current affairs and personifying a map makes any sense, but you see, map manipulation in its actual sense was used extensively during early modern times and has some interesting things to say about the times gone by.

16th and 17th century Europe was a time of great exploration and scientific discovery. Cartography then became an important discipline. Analysis of early modern cartography doesn’t only show us the progress mankind made in science and geography since maps aren’t just a product of scientific and mathematical measurement, but also reflect a socially and politically constructed world which speaks strongly about status and power.

European monarchs used globes and maps to express their symbolic possession of the world. Gayle Brunelle has noted that maps in those times constituted a form of possession in a society where symbols were often believed to be as real as material things. Therefore “maps were, in and of themselves, a source of power which was no dependent on actual conquest and territorial control. Obviously it was ideal to possess both map and the territory but… in the absence of an empire, a map asserting possession of one could be almost as empowering.”

Image source: WordPress
Image source: WordPress

Brunelle gives the example of Francis I of France (1515—47) whom she sees as the first French king to explore the use of maps to pursue imperial interests. Eager to outdo the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and to save face after his defeat at Pavia and captivity in Spain, Francis needed an empire and so he encouraged exploration of the New World and had maps prepared by his cartographers and geographers, the most famous of which is the cordiform world map of Oronce Fine. This was a heart shaped world map that symbolised Francis’ all-encompassing, compassionate rulership. It was based on the cartographical information of the New World from the courts of Europe and explorers’ expeditions at the time. Factually though, France had not conquered or colonised any part of the New World yet as per the Oronce Fine, with fictional territories of ‘Terra Francesca’ and ‘Terra Florida’, Francis was an important player in the race for possession of the New World. In fact, these virtual possessions of Francis even entered the rare maps of Spain (Spain who followed her own tradition of map-making, allegedly rarely had her maps printed to guard her advanced geographical knowledge).

Many rulers and important people came to associate themselves with maps, globes and orbs in visual portrayals to show power and status. Charles V, Francis I, Louis XIV, Queen Elizabeth I of England and even her admiral Sir Francis Drake, are visually represented alongside globes and orbs.

So we see, maps weren’t just scientific instruments but they were also incredibly important visual allegories. Here in India, the most extensively used tradition of allegories can be seen in the imperial Mughal painting, particularly under the reign of Jehangir and his son, Shah Jahan. They borrowed heavily from the European allegories and introduced this symbolism seamlessly into the preexisting Mughal painting style.

The Jesuit missionaries had gifted Emperor Akbar with a Polyglot Bible which marked the beginning of the exchange of visual ideas between the Mughal court and the European world. The purpose of these allegories was, as Ebba Koch puts it, “…to give abstract concepts or performed gestures of ideal kingship a pictorial expression.” This Europian inspired symbolism was explored as a major genre of Mughal painting under Akbar’s son, Jehangir (literally meaning ‘world-siezer’) who was an art connoisseur known for his refined tastes.” Under Shah Jahan (meaning Emperor of the world), globes continued being used as an imperial attribute… the invention of Jehangir’s highly original political allegories are formalised to express the ideology of Shah Jahan’s just and benevolent rulership favoured by the heavens. On the globes, allegory outweighs cartography; the justice symbol…obscure(s) any geographical representation” Koch adds.

Maps have for centuries been manipulated to serve the interests of the powerful. They may convey messages of political superiority, tell us of boundaries and demarcations, be analysed as social constructions and be used as even allegorical symbolism but neither an Indian world map where Kashmir is shown as the crown of the Indian subcontinent nor any other world map in which Kashmir is no man’s land, can convey the suffering of the people. You can draw out an Israel on the map and stuff it down the world’s throat but you can’t blame the atlas for the conflict and bloodshed that ensues.

“…it answered