“The book makes an important point through its arguments for understanding how mythical spaces inform people’s current critical and practical engagement with the geographic spaces that they traverse, occupy, and negotiate.”

J.P. Singh & M. Khan (Ed.). 2002. Mythical Space, Cosmology and Landscape: Towards a Cultural Geography of India. New Delhi: Manak. 206 pages. Rs. 700.

Inasmuch as formal Indian geographic theory (and praxis) uses etic paradigms, it has been called ‘derivative.’ An indigenous Indian geography paradigm is yet to develop into a coherent whole – able to subsume and sustain an emic structure. Neither one, etic or emic, in and of itself, will suffice for each has its own advantages. Natural physical Earth processes are not determined by culture. Their study can be based on universally applicable physical, chemical, and biological laws of nature. However, these Earth processes do not occur in a vacuum. We imbue them with cultural meanings when we try to explain their origins, existence, and future. Myths and legends are one set of explanatory tools with which human societies have tried to understand antecedent natural and cultural geographies of their world. These also lead to values and meanings with which the present geographies are loaded. These, in turn, inform what these geographies’ futures might be. The ongoing Sethusamudram issue is an excellent example.

Indigenous constructions of geographies derive from the larger endeavor of our cosmologies. In India, as we may geographically define it now, we should really be looking at a collection of (often competing) ‘Indic’ rather than ‘Indian’ cosmologies. The ‘here and now’ geographies, their ‘there and then’ antecedents and futures are part of these cosmologies. In the move towards uncovering, defining, establishing, and refining an emic Indian cultural geography paradigm.

For some decades now, Indian and Indianist geographers have been working on this. The volume under review represents a consolidation of Singh’s and Khan’s contributions in the efforts “towards a cultural geography of India.”

The volume is a collection of academic papers that the authors have published from the late 1980s to2000. Their rationale for this collection is, “[The essays] embody sustained efforts at cultural explanation of some selected aspects of [the] cultural geography of India [and] reveal the importance of [the] Hindu horizon of meaning, … images of space and place, … way of spatial abstraction and systematization and the symbolism of Hindu landscapes.” To a limited extent, the authors also include Muslim influences in their purview.

The collection can be seen to have two parts:
1. Establishing the cosmology, its evolution, and the imbedded geography of ‘India’. (Chapter 1)
2. Examining the practical dimensions of this cosmology on extant and historical landscapes of India in various contexts. (Chapters 2-8)

The first part deals with the mythical geography of saptadv?p? vasumat? – the seven-continent Earth. Scriptural sources are used to trace the evolution of the ancient Hindu sense of space and place (location). The authors argue that we need not seek real-world places to particularize this model; the mythical geographies in this cosmology are inherently valid as self-defined entities.

Mythical space is malleable and can give mythical meanings to our physical spaces. The physical inherits meaning from the mythical in myriad ways – e.g., ritual acts such as mandala-creation, pilgrimage, homa, etc.

In the second part, the chapters examine the connections between the mythical geographies and the real (historical) geographies. Here it is important to remember that the ‘mythical’ includes the imagined, asserted, and historical (real) spaces. The patterns of natural environmental changes and concomitant cultural changes (in production, value systems, land use, pantheons, etc.) are brought out vividly. In the process, the essays analyze human settlement, circulations, inscriptions, and imaginings.

All these produce nested hierarchies of both human spatial arrangement and cultural geographies of the psyche where local spaces inherit characteristics in a cascade which are informed and tempered by local concerns (of caste, social status, economic niches, etc.).

The book makes an important point through its arguments for understanding how mythical spaces inform people’s current critical and practical engagement with the geographic spaces that they traverse, occupy, and negotiate. This connection is of more than academic importance. Policy-makers, human rights and environmental activists, planners, and indeed everyone consciously involved in writing on the landscape would benefit from understanding the points made in this book.

A popular version of this book would help bring a wider audience to its, and geography’s, ken. Expansion of the subject matter to cover tribal, Jaina, Bauddha, Muslim, and Christian cosmologies and their impacts on Indian geographies is needed for an inclusive and therefore stronger paradigm of Indian cultural geography to be formulated. This will take considerable time and effort.

This eminent collection of essays is a very important step in that direction.

— Chandra Shekhar Balachandran


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