Mapping the Maps – a guest post from Natasha Pairaudeau

Mapping the Maps – a guest post from Natasha Pairaudeau, 18/04/2017, Cambridge University Library Special Collections Blog

Imagine maps as big as bedsheets, and then imagine the sheets big enough for beds made wide enough to sleep extended families. Only such a double stretch of the imagination can provide the scale of the three Burmese maps in the University Library’s collection, which have recently been made available online in digital format.

From bedsheet to map is not a great leap: all three maps are inked or painted on to generous lengths of cloth. Yet they do not depict lines on a map as the eye in the 21st century is accustomed to seeing them. The most colourful of the three maps, the map of the Maingnyaung region [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.1 ; see also above for an extract from this map] is the one which forces the most abrupt lurch, down from that comfortable view on high of modern mapping convention.  Instead, the viewer is positioned near ground level, and invited here to view a stupa, there a crocodile down in the river, away in the distance a noble line of hills. Trees are no mere generic features. While the perspective is mostly from the ground, it co-exists with other even less familiar conventions. Pagodas and stupas either loom large or sit very small, their size and their sanctity apparently intermeshed. Towns and villages, rivers and streams are the sole features which come close to appearing from a bird’s eye view. Yet the neat tracings of brickwork, and of waves on the water’s surface, suggest they may be meant to convey not the lay of the land from the air but other rules of belonging, of enclosure or of flow.

The other two maps, the map of the Royal Lands [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.3] and map of Sa-lay township [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.2], are less colourful than the first, but in some respects even more intriguing. Like the Maingnyaung map, they take many of their bearings from ground level. Manmade landmarks use scales which vary, apparently,  according to their importance rather than their physical size. With vegetation, there is an insistence on specifics. Yet both maps feature grids traced carefully and evenly across the entire surface. These maps present two worlds at once. There are vistas to be contemplated and meaningful features to be explored in the landscape. But there is also a view from on high, where trees were counted and areas under crop were calculated, and probably, somewhere off the surface of the map, converted into tax exactions.

These maps have already received a share of attention. Allegra Giovine (a doctoral student in the History of Science who studies the production of economic knowledge in colonial Burma) helped to translate notes on the Maingnyaung map from Burmese. The Cambridge maps formed the core of a survey of indigenous Burmese maps in UK collections by Professor Tin Naing Win, the inaugural Charles Wallace Burma Trust Fellow (2015) at the Cambridge Centre of South Asian Studies. They sparked the interest of Marie de Rugy in her recent thesis (Paris 1 – Sorbonne) on Maps and the Making of Imperial Territories in the Northern Indochinese Peninsula. François Tainturier of the Inya Institute continues to study these maps and to re-assess their role in pre-colonial Upper Burma. Much remains nonetheless to be learned about these maps, by those equipped to read the Burmese script which annotates them, and to interpret the wider context of their production and the modes of representation they employ.

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