A PhD research project, thesis, and book. A geography guru who is an expert in the geography of religion, and his student interested in taking those ideas to our young geographers in schools. These connect to help us understand that “India” is not a new concept.

Alien gift

I was having a cup of filter coffee with a friend of indeterminate age. Talking of this and that, somehow the conversation turned to India, the country, the nation. And things got very interesting very fast.

He said that the greatest gift of the British to India was our identity as a nation. I could kind of see where he was coming from. However, his next statement gave me pause: There was no India before the Mughal invaders or the British colonizers.

This is pure apple sauce (as P G Wodehouse might have put it).

I pulled out my copy of Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: a Study in Cultural Geography (2003: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi). This book started out as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) research work. It was first published in 1973 by the University of California. The author is my guru, Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj.


Cover of Dr. Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj’s book. Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India. (Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj (2003), Munshiram Mohanlal Publishers).

What has a study on Hindu places of pilgrimage have to do with the apple sauce that my friend had dished out?

Space and place

Another favorite geographer of mine, Dr Yi-Fu Tuan, wrote, “Space is movement; place is a pause in that movement.” This is a profoundly important idea for understanding our geographies. Space is the geographical area we move about in, along with other things such as goods, money, etc. Place is a specific point in that movement.

Individual places don’t exist in isolation from other places. Inhabitants of those places are connected to other places at least in nature, if not in culture. So, no place in India is an isolated entity. India is all of the places in it, interconnected, functioning as a part of a larger area. At the same time, the places function as individual units in their own right.

This gives us a hierarchy of places (see diagram). A village panchayat administers itself on many matters. Likewise, each level has its own administration also, but each place is also a part of the larger area (space).

“India” – ancient

I keep using quotation marks on the word India. There is a reason for this. In ancient times, the conception of “India” was different. For this, we have two very important sources (several others, too): the two epics of India – the Raamaayana and the Mahaabhaarata.

The “India” of the time is evident to us by the fact that the protagonists (main characters) in the two epics travel across the land for sacred purposes (i.e., on pilgrimage) as well as secular (non-sacred) purposes (e.g.: for exile, for conquest, etc.). These places are named and identifiable even today.

The puraanas and other accounts also list places of pilgrimage etc. by name. These places were all connected by certain common cultural features: shared beliefs, commerce, politics, etc.

Most importantly, common people traveled among them. Human movement always leads to exchanges of ideas and values. This was no less true in ancient times in “India.”

Since these places were very strongly interconnected, they formed a space. That space came to be called “India” (the land of the Indus) by outsiders. That name has stuck.

As a result of British colonial rule, “India” was divided into India, Pakistan, etc.

“India” is an ancient space that was produced by the movement of people belonging to the many interconnected places within that area. India was the space and the many places gave it its character.

Dr Bhardwaj’s book

In his book, Dr Bhardwaj, has provided several maps and other information to show how these places were interconnected. Just look at the table of contents selection shown here.

List of some of the maps included in Dr Bhardwaj’s book. These maps help us understand the concept of “India” in ancient times. “India” is not new, India is. Click on the image to view a larger version.
[Source: Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj (2003) Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India, Munshiram Mohanlal Publishers].

Look at the number of items with the word Tirthas (sacred places) in it. The sources predate any concept of “India” by centuries, if not millennia.

Pilgrimage places mentioned in the Mahābhārata: an ancient geography of “India.” Click on the image to see a larger version.
[Source: Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj (2003) Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India, Munshiram Mohanlal Publishers]

Why is this understanding important?

Well, geography is part of everyone’s identity. Our story is based on geography (space) and history (time). We all have ties to place – by birth or affinity or domicile. The inherited geography is also part of who we are today. For me, the idea that I inherit that larger identity of “India” is, in many ways, liberating. I feel that I am part of a much larger space than that is divided by modern history. I feel that the boundaries are less of a concern if people can communicate with each other. After all, the ancient people of “India” made a space by their movement and places by pausing their movement.

No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

(MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne, 1624)

 Explore: Mughal invaders vs British colonizers – what is the difference between these two types of rulers? The answer is geographical!

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 5 December 2018.

Featured image: Map of sacred places and routes from the Mahābhārata, in Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj (2003) Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India. (Courtesy, Munshiram Mohanlal Publishers).


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