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The Mahâbhârat, Râmanujâchârya and a map of the world
Even before the world realized that Earth actually had a design, this Sanskrit epic had precisely described how the world actually looks like. Don’t believe us, then go and read Mahabharata and you’ll surely find all the answers.
The first ever world map was sketched thousands of years ago by Indian saint Ramanujacharya, who simply translated the following verse from Mahabharat and gave the world its real face.
In Mahabharat, it is described how Maharishi Ved Vyasa gave away his divine vision to Sanjay, Dhritarashtra's charioteer so that he could describe him the events of the upcoming war.
But, even before questions of war could begin, Dhritarashtra asked him to describe how the world looks like from space.
This is how he described the face of the world:
यथा हि पुरुषः पश्येदादर्- शे मुखमात्मनः- ।
एवं सुदर्शनद्व- ीपो दृश्यते चन्द्रमण्ड- ले॥
द्विरंश- े पिप्पलस्तत- ्र द्विरंशे च शशो महान्।।-
(भी- ्म पर्व, महाभारत)
अर्थ- जैसे पुरुष दर्पण में अपना मुख देखता है, उसी प्रकार यह द्वीप (पृथ्वी) चन्द्रमण्ड- ल में दिखाई देता है। इसके दो अंशों में पिप्पल (पीपल के पत्ते) और दो अंशों में महान शश (खरगोश) दिखाई देता है।
Just like a man sees his face in the mirror, so does the Earth appears in the Universe. In the first phase, you see Peepal leaves and the next phase you see a rabbit.
Based on this shloka, Saint Ramanujacharya sketched out the map, but the world laughed it off on seeing some leaves and a rabbit. Much later, when the picture was switched upside down, the reality struck in.
Don’t believe us, try turning the above picture upside down and you’ll know what I am talking about.
A Secret History of Maps
The Times of India, May 18 2016
The [cartographic] insanity takes India back around 2,000 years in history . In the early 1970s, Hendon Harris, a Baptist missionary fluent in Chinese, Japanese and Korean, discovered a rare trove of ancient Chinese maps. One, called `Tian Xia', or `Everything Under Heaven', was particularly exciting.
China and Korea took up the centre of the world. But off to one side, was a coastline, called `Fu Sang' that looked oddly familiar to Harris. It was the coast of America. “I became weak. I was forced to sit down,“ he wrote later. His collection is now curated. It is almost certain now that the Chinese had reached America 1,500 years before Columbus.
Empires, like nations, used to guard their maps jealously . Chinese exploration and trade reached its zenith under the eunuch Muslim admiral Zheng He in the 15th century . Then, the emperor decided that too much knowledge was a bad thing. Zheng had died in Kozhikode, Kerala. His fleet was grounded and allowed to wither. Maps were locked up in imperial vaults.
China's loss was Europe's gain.Because of Europe's incessant conflicts over trade and territory , its mapmakers of land and sea were prized. But their output became state secrets. One new trade route, one shortcut through a mountain range could yield windfall gains to whichever despot learnt of it first.
By 1500, Portuguese voyages yielded a huge hoard of information which royal cartographers put down on a remarkable map. This charted the eastern coast of South America, the Africa-Atlantic coast, but most important, located India with proper latitude numbers. It was, literally, priceless.Everyone wanted it.
So the Italians sent in a spy called Alberto Cantino, disguised as a horse trader. Cantino actually got the map and smuggled it back to Ferrara, Italy .Ironically , it is after the spy and not its makers that the map is now celebrated as the CantinoPlanisphere.
Soon after the Battle of Plassey , 1757, the British East India Company commissioned the Survey of India (SoI). It was called an engineering institute, but its real job was to map territories west of British-controlled Bengal-Bihar-Orissa, overrun by Marathas and others, which the Brits wanted to seize.
By the 1850s, the British were terrified about Russia's `plans' to expand southward. Thus began the Great Game of the 19th century . The Brits created a contingent of spies, drawn from local `pandits', to travel uncharted territory from Tibet to Central Asia and provide data to make maps.
Their methods, described by historian Peter Hopkirk, were ingenious. First, each was taught to maintain a pace of exactly the same length whether they went up or downhill, or flat land. To keep count, they used a rosary , which had 100, instead of the usual 108 beads: at every 100th step, the pandit would turn one bead: one complete circuit would be 10,000 paces.
Prayer wheels were useful. Instead of the usual prayer scroll inside, there was a roll of blank paper to record a day's observations. Compasses were concealed on top of the wheels, thermometers hidden in walking sticks, mercury in cowrie shells, sextants in hidden pockets in robes. I cannot resist mentioning fellow Bengali Sarat Chandra Das, who not only survived two clandestine trips to Tibet between 1879 and 1882, but wrote books about his travels afterwards. He was the man after whom Rudyard Kipling modelled HurreeChunderMookherjee, boss of Kim the child-spy , in his eponymous bestseller. Imagine, a Bong Bond.
All were trained at the SoI's headquarters in Dehradun. Despite all these precautions, around one in four of these intrepid explorer-sleuths returned alive.Even today the SoI's website marks out certain categories of maps as off-limits to civilians and foreigners.
During the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union competed to map the other's territories and hide their own. Secrets once thought well-kept by America have been blown apart by the hundreds of satellites that orbit Earth today .
The Soviet Union's collapse released a gigantic horde of classified cartography which astonished western researchers: for example, European road networks also showed their load-carrying capacities. Local British maps from the 1980s had blanked out a coastal region, which the Soviets had plotted accurately as a submarine base, down to loading docks. Cold War veterans say the penalty for losing maps was imprisonment or worse.
National Atlas & Thematic Mapping Organisation (Natmo)
2017: A braille map
Seventy years after Independence, India's visually challenged will finally know what the Indian map is like, with the National Atlas & Thematic Mapping Organisation (Natmo), a central government undertaking under the department of science & technology , preparing an atlas of the country in Braille.
“There is a lot of excitement, in our organisation and more so in schools for the blind, to see the expression of students when they lay their hands on the atlas,“ said Natmo director Tiasha Banerjee.
The launch of the Braille atlas is an emotional moment for Banerjee and her team as the initiative had begun two decades ago. Natmo had first prepared it on a sheet of metal but the experiment flopped as children called to test it did not like the feel. It was then attempted on a vinyl board.Once again, it was rejected.
Finally , Natmo returned to paper. When the maps were given to some boys from the National Institute for the Empowerment of Persons with Visual Disabilities, their faces lit up. “You could tell the joy they felt,“ said Banerjee.
A new chance
Visually impaired PwC executive Asif Iqbal used a tablet with a map-based software to learn the locations of states, but can't wait to check out the Braille map. “I have a rough idea of India. It will be great to experience the Braille atlas,“ he added.
He is excited about the fact that the different maps in the atlas will help him understand the Indian topography in all its vagaries. The atlas explains physical features like plains, mountains and rivers through lines of varying thickness. Each line will be referenced with text in Braille. Experts in the field have lauded the initiative, but also offered suggestions.
“Some of the textures that differentiate various features, like plains and hills, need to be made more prominent. The gap between the Braille dots also needs to be reduced,“ said Biswajit Ghosh, principal of Narendrapur Ramakrisna Mission Blind Boys' Academy .