Mapping the Stories of a Nation
Save for some assorted mariners‘ and travelers’ tales, not much was known about the geography of India to the outside world until the 18th century. Yet, India has very ancient traditions of surveying and mapping.
Mythology holds Vamana as the first surveyor of the universe, Parasuram as the first technologist who reclaimed land from the sea. The Mahabharat and the Ramayan have copious reference to geographical features described with great accuracy. The tradition of ‘teerthas’ which established the four ‘Dhams’ in the Northern, Southern, Western and Eastern corners of India and made the ‘Mahaparikrama’ a cherished goal, gave to geography a sacred quality which is truly unique. Tradition of ‘teerth yatras’ makes surveying a sacred duty and not merely a utilitarian function. Trigonometry, and the use of it for surveying, was anticipated by ‘Trikonmity’ – elaborated in the ‘Surya Siddhanata’ of the 4th Century B.C. and employed by Aryabhata in his calculations. Maps are depicted on the walls of temples built during 7th century. More recently, Raja Todarmal in the court of Moghul King Akbar introduced revenue mapping. An ambitious enterprise in the form of Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, throughout much of the 19th century, could never have been successful nor could it have been successful without one of the richest known traditions of mathematics, engineering and geography – providing fertile ground for the growth of a bold idea into a monumental mission.
Today, India has one of the most advanced and detailed coverage of any national map, utilizing a comprehensive array of modern and emerging technologies. The strong Indian Survey, the emergence of a strong Indian mapping industry, and the rapid evolution of a strong National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) are signals that this rich tradition is still alive and well. Other nations learn from India’s success in this pursuit.
Yet, it is the rich legacy of geographically aware storytelling within the ancient Indian epic poems of the Ramayana and Mahabharata that all of us should also look to for inspiration. These poems, originally composed in Sanskrit, are some of the oldest surviving epic poems on earth and form part of “Itihāsa” (“History”). This history calls out the places of the ancient subcontinent across which the epic journeys of the heroes unfolded. The narrative of these stories unfolds across place and time. This form of storytelling is compelling, and it reflects a basic characteristic of us as humans. We find value in stories that convey people’s experiences as they unfold over time over a geographic landscape.
Now, imagine a world where the best of both of these traditions can be harnessed to better understand the world around us. MapStory holds such promise. We now have a deep toolkit of geospatial and surveying techniques and technologies to record the human and physical geography, and encoding it temporally in order to understand its change over time. And, with MapStory we can share these observations as StoryLayers that anyone else can use in the construction of their own MapStory. Everyone can be empowered to be later-day epic poets who can tell their stories – their MapStories – about world as they see it.
There is not one story of a nation. The stories of our nations and our peoples will arise from an empowered, and geospatially aware community of MapStorytellers that help us all collectively better understand the changing world around us. These national communities of MapStorytellers, within a larger global community, will help us crowd source spatio-temporal observations about our world, along with the MapStories that share their distinctive viewpoint, in narrative form.
Thousands of years ago, when many societies were still struggling to negotiate the basics of material existence, India already had a body of thought and knowledge which was breath-taking in its range—cosmology, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics, grammar, logic, ethics, aesthetics, architecture. The Indian way of life was governed not by primitive awe and superstition and dogma and doctrine but by a societal awareness of the power of human reason. A strong, scientific understanding of the geospatial dimension of our world was a prime outcome, as well as a rich tradition of storytelling tied to place and time.
As a civilization, the Indian civilization can be proud of the sophistication, complexity and richness of its traditions of scientific inquiry into meaning and truth. With MapStory, all nations and societies can join this rich tradition, and help develop a better, shared understanding of ourselves, each other, and how our world and humanity has changed over time.
Dr. R. Siva Kumar is the CEO of India’s National Spatial Data Infrastructure.