Maps and views blog

06 August 2010

Magnificent maps that didn't make the exhibition #6

[Jain cosmological map of the Universe],
Gouache on cloth
British Library Add.Or 1814


Once the eye has become accustomed to - or recovered from - the intense colour and abstract complexity of this map, its order and symmetry emerges. It shows the world (or worlds) according to Jainism, a religion founded in the 5th-6th century BC in Northern India, and is based on Jainist texts which prescribed precise and detailed measurements for the form of the universe.

The map consists of a series of continents, worlds and universes through which the soul must travel on its way to enlightenment. The land inhabited by humans - Jambudvipa - is the flesh-coloured central area, and names corresponding to India, the Himalayas and the Ganges are present there. Shrines and cities appear in the outer continental areas.

It is tempting to compare Jain maps with the medieval mappaeumundi due to the strong spiritual aspects of both. There are visual similarities too - isn't the Jain map sort-of what a cosmological mappamundi would look like? Yet there are crucial differences, which have as much to do with the maps' purposes as with the historical or philosophical groundings of their respective belief systems. For example, the mappaemundi are not exclusively contemplative, devotional objects like the Jain maps appear to be. 

And this was the problem we faced when deciding whether to include this map in the exhibition. We were unable to be sure of the exact context in which Jain maps were looked at. As contemplative objects yes, but this did not necessarily mean that they would have been displayed in temples, but studies or libraries, where they would possibly not have been constantly displayed. Indeed, the survival and good states of preservation of a number of Jain maps suggest that they were not on permanent show. With this ambiguity, we felt it important not to guess or assume.   

There are a number of Jain maps in existence, exhibiting remarkable variety, but this late example, painted onto cloth, is the best one I have seen. Precise, symmetrical, and visually incredible.  


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