The Story a Map Can tell

Posted by Rai Sengupta
August 19, 2017

It all began with the tracing of maps, three years ago-a routine procedure for preparing for one’s History Board examination. The Board had sent out a list of places which we, as students, had to practise identifying and marking on maps of India, with a complex legend of symbols and colours- finding our way past meandering lines for rivers and jagged edges for national boundaries. The night seemed long as I sat down with my tracing paper, beginning to cover the names on the list.

With a sharpened pencil and a slightly unsteady hand, I marked the first location on the map- a place that had perhaps been similarly charted on the first hand drawn maps of the subcontinent thousands of years ago: Harappa. The first name on my list, the earliest echo of our civilization.

The next location appeared just a little to the right of Harappa. Lying on the east route of the Indus River, once the seat of the Ghaznavid Empire and later ruled by the Khiljis, the Mamluks and the Sayyids, plundered and patronised, stood Lahore. About 200 kilometres separated the two sites- one, the fecund cradle of the Indus Valley Civilization and the other, a city privy to the troughs and crests of this Civilization’s future, a city that had witnessed the descendants of that cradle lay down their lives at the altar of Swaraj, many centuries later, a city that houses the prison where Bhagat Singh was hanged that spring morning in 1931.

And then, further back in time. Lothal- the world’s earliest known dock, evoking images of large cargo ships borne by the monsoons, from Egypt and Sumer, bringing the strange and the coveted, to a wide eyed crowd back home, some five thousand years ago. The villagers of present day Lothal still worship the sea goddess, paying homage to ancient port traditions and expressing gratitude for historical access to sea networks. Ironically, the British, in a different age and era, would establish their first factory in Surat, a three-hour drive from Lothal and another site on my list.

Dholavira, lying on the Tropic of Cancer, was easy to identify. Linked to Lothal by a sea route, it sat on the Makran coast, which in a different epoch, would be intensively quarried to yield marble for the ethereal Taj Mahal. Much of Dholavira remains a mystery, exemplified perhaps in a ‘signboard’- a wooden board with ten gypsum pieces forming a script that is yet to be deciphered. The symbolism of this message eludes the heirs of that civilization today; it continues to fascinate and frustrate historians in equal measure.

And not too far away, lay the next name on my list- a small coastal town where one man picked up a fistful of salt which became a symbol of resistance for an entire country: Dandi. The duality in India’s past and its present mingle effortlessly. An ancient encrypted code awaits unravelling just miles away from a place where one of the most unambiguous messages was proclaimed to the people of this country, in a single, simple act of making salt.

Moving down my list, I mapped Gandhara, the kingdom of the mythical Princess Gandhari in the Mahabharata. Gandhari, who blindfolded herself to experience the pain and debility of her blind husband Dhritarasthra. Renowned for the Gandhara School of Art with its toga clad and ringlet haired Buddhas in the ancient period, the associations with this site in the 21st century remain contentious and deeply saddening. With the ruthless demolition of the Bamiaan Buddhas by the Talibaan, a blind eye indeed seems to have been turned on our past and collective consciousness. Perhaps, beneath her blindfold, Gandhari weeps for her Gandhar.

I moved swiftly to Varanasi next, India’s other-worldly epicentre of mysticism and spirituality. Patronised by Akbar, vandalised by Aurangzeb, immortalised by the Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri in his lines “We will come bearing the light of a Benaras morning”. A city of the contrasts and conundrums of history. The waters of the Ganges, along with life giving silt from the mountains, carry with them the ashes of the dead and the teachings of the immortals- lapping the shores of Varanasi, the birth place of Kabir and paces away from Sarnath, where Buddha delivered his First Sermon.  It is located on the original grand trunk road of India, connecting Pataliputra and Taxila- which was later extended by Sher Shah Suri, embodying not just the longest highway in India- but the oldest continuum in its history.

I picked up a colored pencil to shade Magadha, one of the great kingdoms of India’s antiquity. Its capital Pataliputra lies squarely in modern day Patna. This should be easy to remember. The paradoxes of our past reemerge. The Magadha that once enjoyed the superfluity of food grains would come to suffer severe injustices in a different juncture of time, as the farmers of Champaran struggled to feed themselves under the pressures of the indigo plantations, enforced by the British Raj. The contrast is heart-wrenching.

I took a break to sharpen my pencil and proceed to mark Meerut on the map. Close by lies Lucknow. Both seats of the Revolt of 1857, sparking the first outrage against foreign dominion, issuing the first cry of protest ‘Chalo Dilli’ against injustice. And a smidge away from the nawabi charm of Lucknow is a small town, Kakori, known for its kebabs that offer little resistance and its people, with nerves of steel, who chose to not yield during India’s freedom struggle.

I moved now to the south, cross-checking the location of the Vijaynagar kingdom. Within its expanse is contained modern day Chennai, formerly known as Madras- shortened from Madraspatnam, a fishing village. What I shaded in yellow, minding the borders, was perhaps an act of the past re asserting itself in the present, of Portuguese cartographers jostling over where to dock, of the Dutch sailors breezing upon the southern shores, and of the British navy coolly calculating the extent of their profits. The temples to Virupaksha at Hampi share soil and historical context with the foundations of Fort St. George in Madras. India’s diversity manifests itself, continually, in not just its present, but its millennial past.

I ended with Kolkata, hardly requiring reference for its location. The familiar guides me. I absent mindedly trace the borders of its eastern side-its serrated edges –like a scar-speaking of the dull, unforgettable ache of Partition- the despair of parting, the anguish of loss and the uncertainty of starting afresh. Freedom came at a cost- of people displaced, stereotypes fuelled and some of India’s history parcelled to two different nations.

The maps are now complete. I put my pencil away and compared them with the tracing papers. The tracing papers- thin and translucent-one on top of the other; each a layer in India’s deep past. I created a stack of the finished ones. There it was – the different ages of India coalescing to create what it truly represented: a single unique identity, interspersed by dualities and contrasts, fuelled by pluralities and diversities. An enigma in itself, yet the unfailing carrier of the message of Dhamma. A young nation charging towards the unknown, drawing its strength from the oldest gene pool in the world. Of an endless thread linking the primordial and the present, the origins and what followed thereafter.

The maps told a story. I was glad to listen.