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Mapping the Maps at Cambridge University Library

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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] 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.

Photographing the Burmese maps was quite a challenge for the Library’s Digital Content Unit. The smallest map was made of 126 images, the largest of 420 and it had to be stitched into 9 parts first before being put into one piece. Some parts of the process took a few hours to complete for the computer with 64 GB RAM memory and 3Ghz 8 core computer. The biggest challenge was obviously handling. It was impossible to move the map without changing the arrangement. Hence the last map, the largest [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.3] took a long time to prepare as they had to experiment with different stitching methods.

Great credit goes to the Map Department of the UL, both in finding the will and securing the resources to have the maps conserved and digitised, and to the Cambridge Digital Library, for producing digital pages so effortlessly navigable that they take nothing away from the joy of poring over them. They make it easier, in fact, to hover over the details, whether you are contemplating the view from the ground or from on high. What’s more, the speed of the internet has improved to such an extent in modern Myanmar, that these massive cloth maps can be viewed with ease in Yangon or Mandalay. Maps such as these are rare, non-existent even, in the location where they were originally made. No such maps produced on cloth are known to have survived within Myanmar today. This only adds to the hope and expectation that they will be pored over, enjoyed, and further studied and interpreted from quarters near and far.

To read the full article on these three maps and their provenance written by Natasha Pairaudeau, please visit the Cambridge University Library Special Collections website.

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Documenting a frontier: spectacular hand-painted fabric maps of Burma

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Cambridge University Library welcomes you to ‘Documenting a frontier’ – an opporturtunity to view some spectacular manuscript maps of Burma dating from the 1860s, alongside rare early photographs of the region from the Royal Commonwealth Society’s collection.

The event forms part of the University of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas (event 66) and takes place on Saturday afternoon, 26th October 2013 in the Map Room, Cambridge University Library. Ticketed entry is at three times: 1:30pm – 2:15pm, 2:30pm – 3:15pm and 3:30pm – 4:15pm.

Please book your place online at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/festival-of-ideas or by phoning: 01223 766766 (lines open Monday-Friday , 10am – 4.30pm)

Event URL: http://www.cam.ac.uk/festival-of-ideas/events-and-booking/documenting-a-frontier
For more information about the event, please email: rcs@lib.cam.ac.uk or phone: 01223 333146

Map of Maingnyaung region (Cambridge University Library, MS.Plans.R.C.1, courtesy of Rachel Rowe)

Map of Maingnyaung region (Cambridge University Library, MS.Plans.R.C.1, photograph courtesy of Rachel Rowe)