Printer Friendly

"Magni Mogolis Imperium": an early manuscript map of India.


Maps have been sought after as collectibles for over a century now. An antique map may not provide accurate directions, but it is a piece of heritage and, more importantly, tells a story. It exemplifies human endeavour, the spirit of adventure, and the scientific aspirations of the times in which it was created. In recent times, antique maps have fetched record prices at auctions, and continue to increase in value. While in the past the demand has been mostly for maps of European countries and some 18th-and 19th-century maps of America at the time of colonization, more recently maps of the Indian subcontinent have fast gained in popularity.

Cartography, as a science and an art, has always been the forte of the Western world. Developments in map-making were fuelled by the spirit of discovery and the increase in seafaring of the 14th and 15th centuries, with the rise of the powerful naval powers in the West, especially in Spain, Portugal, Holland, and Britain. This was also a time when the old taboos and inhibitions against sea travel began to be questioned and abandoned. The quest for new lands and for secure trade routes to the East, especially to India, necessitated updated maps that incorporated the flesh discoveries of the age. Merchant guilds were formed in many European countries, patronized and supported by the rulers, to establish trade relationships with newly discovered countries. In most cases, these guilds employed or patronized master cartographers who established workshops to produce new maps. The map titled "Magni Mogolis Imperium" which is the subject of discussion here, is one such, produced by an eminent Dutch mapmaker. It is one of the earliest known maps of India.

The Dutch emerged as a major naval power by the end of the 16th century, and the Dutch East India Company was set up in 1602. Around the year 1633, the Company appointed Willem Janzsoon Blaeu (1571-1638) as its official cartographer. Blaeu was born in Holland near Alkmaar into a family of fishmongers, but his interests lay elsewhere. After his father's death, he trained under the renowned Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe between 1594 and 1596 and qualified as an instrument and globe maker. By 1599, Blaeu was back in Amsterdam where he founded his own business of making maps and globes. By the time of his appointment Blaeu's business was thriving and he had established himself as a reputed mapmaker. Blaeu's magnum opus was his publication of the World Atlas Atlas Novus (also known as Atlas Major) in 1635, of which the "Magni Mogolis Imperium" was a part. This was the time when Amsterdam was one of the wealthiest trading cities in Europe, the hub of the Dutch East India Company, and the centre of the banking and diamond trade. The Atlas Novus contained maps of almost all the known regions of the world, including India.

Original works by Willem Janszoon Blaeu are rare collectors' items, and his map of India, "Magni Mogolis Imperium" (or "The Kingdom of the Mughals"), is in my opinion a priceless piece. The map covers a large area comprising today's India (except for the southern peninsula), Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Nepal (figure 1). The fascination of 17th-century Europe with this region of the East created a demand for maps that was fulfilled largely by Dutch mapmakers, even though Dutch commercial interests in the East were concentrated elsewhere. Blaeu's map stretches from Persia to China and shows lands travelled by the Embassy of the Englishman, Sir Thomas Roe, to the Mughal emperor Jahangir in 1615, derived from a map published by William Bail:in in London in 1618.

The "Magni Mogolis Imperium" (henceforth "MMI") was prepared in 1634-38. This corresponded to the time in India when the glory of the Mughal empire was at its peak, and the emperor Shah Jahan was on the throne. India was considered a mystical land full of spices, honey, and jewels. The foundation of the Taj Mahal was yet to be laid, and the Renaissance was still happening in the West. The "MMI" is printed on thick handmade paper. Considering the fact that the paper is about 400 years old, one has to admire its quality. The paper of those days was handmade almost entirely from linen and rags pulped in water. After thorough mixing, a close-meshed wire tray was dipped into the pulp and a sufficient amount lifted out to give the required thickness. Subsequently, the water was drained off, the sheet dried between layers of felt, and then hung up to dry. The vertical and the horizontal lines made by the wire mesh of the tray are apparent on holding the paper up to the light. Around the time the "MMI" was produced, the finest and strongest paper in Europe was made in Germany, France, and Switzerland, with Ancona in Italy being another centre of excellence in the field.

The "MMI" is printed by means of copperplate engraving. Unlike lithography-which is a relatively modern technique used to produce several other historical maps of India--copperplate engraving is a labour--intensive and meticulous process where the engraver cuts into the copperplate a mirror image of the matter to be printed. The plate of copper selected for this purpose has to be of just the right malleability and hardness. The plate would be first hammered out to smoothen it and ensure an even topology. It was then polished to a mirror-smooth finish, first with a piece of grinding stone and water, then with a pumice stone, followed by a hone and water, a hardened bit of charcoal, and finally a burnisher. "[he design of the map was then transferred to the plate. This process would involve heating the plate, spreading a layer of wax over it with a feather, and laboriously tracing the map, in reverse, onto the wax coating. Once this was accomplished, the design would be "etched" or cut into the plate. This could be done by using a hard needle to scratch the outline of the map through the wax coating and then pouring acid into the gap left by the needle to burn the outline onto the plate, or by actually cutting the design into the plate by hand. Various tools were used for this purpose--the burin, the tint tool, the threading tool, and the roulette. All this was precision work, usually requiring a number of skilled people and a great deal of time. Once the plate was etched, it usually served as a template and was used many times over for printing. The actual printing process involved spreading ink over the plate and carefully wiping off the excess until the ink remained only in the grooves. The plate was then heated until it was just warm, and put onto the printing press. The paper to be printed upon was then pressed on the "inked" plate. In this method, the ink was transferred from the plate to the paper by capillary action.


Till the time chromolithography and colour printing came into vogue, manuscript maps were sold uncoloured. Mapmakers however soon discovered that colouring helped sell the maps at a premium. The best of the manuscript maps of this age, including the "MMI", were therefore hand coloured immediately before use. Hand colouring was an extremely skilled and laborious process, and followed certain conventions that changed very little over the centuries. Forests, woods, and estates were coloured in green; hills in brown or black; towns in red; seas, lakes, and rivers in indigo--and so on. Although the colours used did not change over the centuries, the pattern of usage and the mode of depiction did undergo transformation. Till the mid-1500s, the sea was described by swirling lines; then stippling came into vogue, and later still a wash of plain colour was used.

The renowned scholar C. Koeman made an estimate of how long it must have taken Janszoon Blaeu to print his Atlas Major. Assuming a relatively small print run of 300 copies of each of the first three editions of the Atlas (Latin, French, and Dutch), Koeman concluded that the composition and typesetting, with eight full-time workers, would have taken 1,000 working days; the letterpress printing (of the text parts of the book), involving nine printing presses, 330 working days; the copperplate printing, involving six printing presses, 900 working days; and the binding, involving three full-time workers, 300 working days. "The planning involved in printing the three editions ... within a span of three or four years," Koeman concluded, "exceeds the range of our imagination."

The making of any map, in short, is a painstaking process, and the amount of skill and attention to detail that went into the making of the "MMI" is remarkable (figure 2). Since the map is largely a political map depicting a vast area, smaller details have been omitted. The subject area of the map, i.e the kingdom of the Mughals, is demarcated from everything else by a uniform shade of light ochre yellow. The seas, as was the norm in those times, are depicted by a wash of plain colour. The trajectory of the rivers is amazingly accurate for the most part, and their size corresponds roughly with the thickness of the lines depicting them. Hill ranges have been depicted through drawings of small hills. Certain regions in the Deccan, near Kutch, and further north have been depicted as having a preponderance of forest groves--for no apparent reason. All the forts along the coast and on the mainland are depicted with great accuracy, presumably because of their geopolitical importance at that time.

The presence of animal motifs in this map is another point of importance and interest. Camels are illustrated to represent the arid regions of Afghanistan, in the vicinity of Kabul. Pictures of elephants indicate the region of the Indo-Gangetic plain in north India. In addition to representing the natural fauna of the land, it is tempting to imagine that these pictures were put in to increase the saleability of the maps as novelty items. Elephants and camels were exotic species for the Europeans who were the intended purchasers of these maps. Since Latin was the pan-European language of erudition at the time of the production of this map, the names of regions, rivers, and important landmarks have been Latinized to a large extent in the "MMI". The region shown in the map, for example is titled "India Intra Gangem Indostan". The Ganga is Latinized to "Ganges fluvius"; the Yamuna/ Jamuna to "Gemini fluvius". The province of Punjab is written as "Peniab", while some of the regions can no longer be identified from their names. It is interesting also to see that many of the major Indian cities do not feature in this map. In eastern India, Calcutta finds no mention, as the city was to be founded more than 100 years later. In the west, Bombay is not mentioned, though the nearby city of Surat finds prominence. Bombay as a port settlement was founded only in the mid-1700s by the Portuguese. Engravings of Bombay printed in Europe as late as the 1840s depict it as just a coastal hamlet (figure 3). It is thus fair to assume that at the time the "MMI" was drawn, Bombay was not a settlement deserving special mention. Interestingly, there is a coastal settlement labelled "Bombaira" in the map at almost the same location as modern Mumbai/Bombay, leading one to believe that this village of"Bombaira" grew to become Bombay. Obviously, Delhi finds a prominent mention in the map, as it was then the capital of the Mughal empire, and had already been an important city for several centuries.


Maps of India, much distorted in shape, appear in most world atlases from the time of Ptolemy. The earliest maps showed India as a small stump protruding from South Asia, while the island of Taprobana (Sri Lanka) was shown disproportionately larger. This trend of showing India much smaller than its actual size continued until the 17th century. The "MMI" does not show India in its entirety, but there are some fascinating errors in the representation of certain places which make the map interesting. One of these is the representation of"Lake Chiamay"--a nonexistent mythical lake where many of the great rivers of South Asia were thought to have their origin (figure 4). The earliest mention of the "Chiamay Lacus" or the "Lake of Chiang Mai" occurs in a Portuguese report dating from the 1540s. Tnereafter, the lake finds mention in various reports of varying authenticity. However, by the mid-1500s, the legend of the lake had become quite well established, and this featured in maps till the 18th century when finally in 1837 the McLeod and Richardson mission finally disproved its existence.

Overall, however, the "MMI" is quite an accurate map for its time. More than that, it embodies the collective effort and knowledge of numerous explorers, scientists, and adventurers of its time. In addition, the sheer amount of dedication, effort, and attention to detail that went into the colouring and preparation of each copy of the map is phenomenal. As in other maps of the period, "MMI" also feature elaborate cartouches, with the title inscribed in a colour-shaded cartouche at the top left corner, while the bottom left corner has a much more elaborate cartouche containing the seal and the details of the publisher and the printer (figures 5 and 6).

The beauty and aesthetics of the "MMI" are better appreciated when we compare it to other maps produced in much later times. Though the corpus of geographical knowledge got larger, and the technology of copperplate engraving improved with time, few of the maps of later ages match the finesse of the "MMI". A case in point is the map of Bengal Histoire Generale des Voyages titled "Nouvelle Carte du Royaume de Bengale" (A New Map of the Kingdom of Bengal), from Abbe Antoine Francois Prevost's 15-volume Histoire Generale Des Voyages.


Abbe Prevost (April 1, 1697-December 23, 1763) was an eminent French writer and novelist born in Hesdin. Probably better known for his romantic titled Manon Lescaut, Prevost is also well known for his Histoire Generale des Voyages published in Paris between 1746 and 1759. According to popular consensus, parts of the book were completed even after Prevost's death, and a few posthumous editions were also published. The book was supposed to embody all the extant geographical knowledge, and borrowed heavily from the observations and writings of many predecessors. It was rich in illustrations depicting the daily life, geography, history, royalty, and the exotica of far-off lands. Many of the maps in these volumes were executed by Jacques-Nicholas Bellin for publication elsewhere. Other maps were joint creations of Prevost and Bellin. Bellin (1703-72) was the official cartographer of the French navy, and a member of the Academie de Marine and of the Royal Society of London. Over a 50-year career he produced a large number of maps, many of which are a part of the Histoire Generale des Voyages. The illustrations from the Histoire are a rich visual source of information about Mughal India. All the maps and the illustrations were made from copperplate etchings.



The "Nouvelle Carte du Royaume de Bengale", like almost all other illustrations and maps of the time, is a monochromatic work in black ink on white paper, thus less visually appealing than the "MMI" (figure 7). Moreover, it covers an area substantially smaller than that of the "MMI". Unlike the "MMI", which is described in Latin, the "Nouvelle Carte" is described in French. It is interesting to note that while many of the conventions used to depict geographical features have remained the same over the 100-odd years between the execution of the two maps, some have changed. For example, while the hills and the forests are still depicted in pretty much the same manner, arable land in the latter map is depicted by motifs of paddy fields. Though the forts along the trading routes are depicted in the same way in both the maps, elaborate illustrations of boats no longer adorn the seas in the "Nouvelle Carte".


Due to the increase in knowledge about India in the over 100 years since the "MMI", the "Nouvelle Carte" also mentions many smaller towns and cities. These cities presumably were either important trading ports, or situated along important inland trading routes. While it is difficult to identify some of them today, many are easily recognizable by virtue of their location and the similarity of their names to extant cities. Thus Kolkata/Calcutta, the most important city in eastern India, exists in the map as the small village settlement of "Collecatte". Calcutta is said to have been founded by Job Charnock, an administrator of the British East India Company in the 1690s. By the 1700s, the British had completed the building of Fort William, and Calcutta was a British trading outpost; this is how "Collecatte" appears in the "Nouvelle Carte". Just above "Collecatte" is the fort town of "Soelanoeti"--deceptively similar to "Sutanuti"--one of the three villages from which modern Kolkata originated, and differing from it only because of the cross of a "T". The position of "Soelanoeti" is exactly at the place where one would expect "Sutanuti" to be. Close to these two settlements in the map is a small settlement labelled "Loge Danoise", which in English would mean the "Danish Cabin". There was a trading outpost of the Danish East India Company in Serampore; however, this map shows "Loge Danoise" and Serampore as separate settlements, close to each other. The earliest Danish settlement on the east coast was Dannemarksnagore (1698-1714) at Gondalpara, southeast of Chandernagore. It is probably this settlement that is referred to in the "Nouvelle Carte" as "Loge Danoise". Subsequently, in 1755, Fredericksnagore in present-day Serampore was established. Further down along the coast from "Coelcatte" is the important trading city of "Balaffor"--the precursor of present-day Balasore. There are other villages and towns in this region which are still recognizable e.g. Bandel, Congnerre, Aliepoer, etc. But some others--Calcula and Sandvoorsdorp--though obviously important in those times cannot any more be readily identified.

Doubtless, the "Nouvelle Carte" is an important document in the history of eastern India of the 1700s. The important land routes of the region are also shown in the map. It is interesting to see that the routes closely follow the trajectory of the rivers--both for access to habitation and water, as well as for the sake of safety. A continuous road stretches from Patna to Dacca, bifurcating near Murshidabad to connect Cuttack and Balasore in Orissa. It is romantic to speculate on how the history of India was determined by events in the trading posts mentioned in this map. A closer study will surely reveal many other informative and interesting facts. Despite being a treasure trove of information, however, the "Nouvelle Carte" is low in visual charm compared to the "MMI". It lacks the elaborate cartouches, the attractive hand painting, and the interesting pictorial depictions. Yet, both maps give us interesting insights into aspects of the history of India in its making. Above all, as we noted above, they are a tribute to humankind's spirit of adventure and thirst for knowledge.


The "Magni Mogolis Imperium", the "Nouvelle Carte de Royaume de Bengale", and the engraving (print) of Bombay illustrated here belong to the private collection of Drs Anirban and Rejina Sadhu, Basel, Switzerland.


Harvey, Miles. The Island of Lost Maps--A true story of cartographic crime Broadway Books, New York, 2000.

Koeman, Cornelius. Joan Blaeu and his Grand Atlas. Amsterdam, 1970

Moreland, Carl and David Bannister. Antique Maps A collector's handbook. Longman, London, 1983.

Skelton, R.A. Maps--A historical survey of their study and collecting. The University of Chicago Press, 1972.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Marg Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sadhu, Anirban
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Sep 1, 2008
Previous Article:The "light" of the Timuria: Jahan Ara Begum's patronage, piety, and poetry in 17th-century Mughal India.
Next Article:Muraqqa': Imperial Albums from the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters