“Terrestrial Lessons: The Conquest of the World as Globe” by Sumathi Ramaswamy


According to the ancient Indian Hindu scriptures called the Puranas, the Earth is shaped like a disc and it rests upon different animals in different versions—the cobra, the elephant or the turtle. In her new book Terrestrial Lessons, historian Sumathi Ramaswamy says that in the process of signing treaties and carrying out diplomatic negotiations with the rulers of the various small kingdoms in the subcontinent from 18th century onwards, the officials of the British East India Company saw an interesting opportunity in these myths. They began to “smuggle in” the various curiosities of modern geography—the globe, the maps, the atlases, the orrery, and treatises on geography and astronomy—to be presented as gifts to the native kings, to impress upon them the superiority of European knowledge systems. The objective was not just sharing of knowledge, learning and scientific temper. It very smartly concealed the real agenda: an “epistemological and cognitive takeover of the world by other means.

Terrestrial Lessons is a  history of the globe as an icon of scientific temper, education, and empire around 19th-century India. Ramaswamy argues that the globe has many histories—and the one in South Asia differs greatly  from that in the West. She explains that the question “What is the shape of the Earth?” is a “gatekeeping question” that the British used to identify the knowing, modern Indian subject (to determine “entry into the select club of the educated and the enlightened”) because it mostly close represented a “scientific” way of looking at the world, nature, life, and even religion in general. In studying the way the question is framed and asked, and its answer explained and demonstrated with the help of the globe, Ramaswamy gives many insights into how South Asians were given a sense of the world and their “proper” place in it, and colonized, with the use of science as the method. In other words, they were “worlded”


as per the terms of Enlightenment geography (albeit considerably leavened with a heavy does of Christian salvational truths).


This evangelizing, packaged as knowledge, has interacted in interesting ways with Hinduism, among other things.

Working with some photographs of the globe as it circulated in colonial India, along with correspondence among the different players in the history of the globe in India (the bureaucrats of the empire, the Protestant missionaries working in India, the royalty from the princely states, and the school teachers in India, for instance), Ramaswamy reconstructs the ways in which the “innocent” globe was turned into a “weapon of mass education”, and a ploy in the civilizing mission of the empire. Children were recruited as appropriate targets for the reception of the gospel of geography. The pupils were taught about the shape of the earth and other details about the universe with the help of “physico-theology”, the lessons delivered through the genre of “geographical catechism”:


Q: What is Geography?
A: A description of the Earth.
Q: Into how many parts is the Earth divided?
A: Into four: namely, Europe, Asia, Africa and America.
Q: By whom was the Earth re-peopled, after the flood
A: By the children of Noah.
Q: For what is Europe celebrated?
A: As the centre of the arts, sciences, and commerce; and, although much smaller than either of the other divisions, its power and resources are so great as to give laws to a great portion of the rest of the globe.
Q: Do we derive any advantage from studying Geography?
A: Yes; for without a competent knowledge of geography, neither chronology, history, nor politics would be understood; nor is to possible to have any just ideas either of navigation or commerce; consequently, then, in this country [England], it most particularly becomes an object of education, and should always precede the study of those other sciences.


This kind of catechism reinforced the nexus among “the Empire of Christ, the Empire of Geography and the Empire of the British.” Ramaswamy dubs the missionaries (and the natives, especially the priestly class of the Brahmins, who got converted to the gospel of geography, and very often to the gospel of Christ) as “cartographic evangelists”. The introduction of the globe, like the introduction of English as a means of education, was a “mask of conquest” that the British used to “demolish heathenism”. It is in assertions like “geography gives to Europe the superiority over the rest of the world” that one learns that the globe is not a scientific carrier of knowledge. Its ties with geography have deep colonial prejudices. Geography was thus an imperialist study or subject, furthering, or, at least facilitating, the imperialist agenda, helped tremendously by the Mercator projection that “visually privileged the North and Europe in a manner found a technical echo in the discursive parts of the geography.”

In these lessons, the terrestrial and the scriptural go hand in hand. As a part of the proselytization activities, the British attacked


the very status of Indian knowledges and millennia of learning as these collided, sometimes catastrophically, with the colonizing thrust of Europe and its knowledge formations.


Ramaswamy suggests that the point of these lessons was to overturn Hindu religion, to demolish the “trash of the Puranas”. One begins to understand the strategy behind these blows delivered to Hinduism if one ponders the fact that although the origin theories of the Puranas were possibly very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries when the British were expanding their territorial hold over India, they were not the only notions existing at the time. There is another set of texts, on astronomy specifically, called the Siddhantas that came very close to the heliocentric model. There was also the work of the Islamic scholastics. The British colonial bureaucrats pitted “Christian knowledge” against one strand in what they dismissed as ignorant ways of the natives. One British mentor put it to a young prince,


As Colonel Braithwaite has given you a Globe you ought to learn something of Geography, as you live in the world, you ought to know something of the world which God has created that you may get some Idea of the great God – the creator of the heaven & earth. It is the ignorance of the work of God that incline us to value the Creature more than God – a good prince is obliged to imitate God – But how can he imitate him if he does not know him & his goodness wisdom power & justice [sic].”


Terrestrial Lessons: The Conquest of the World as Globe, Sumathi Ramaswamy (University of Chicago Press, October 2017)
Terrestrial Lessons: The Conquest of the World as Globe, Sumathi Ramaswamy (University of Chicago Press, October 2017)

Hinduism has the capacity to accommodate or even appropriate any kind of rival thought and parade it as its own. In postcolonial India, the dissonance that was created at the advent of geography (and Christianity) is resolved in unexpected ways. The late 20th century saw a rise in circulation of images of Indian gods and goddesses with the globe, an icon loaded with Christian message, seen in the background or as a sort of prop around the gods. Ramaswamy’s book comes a full circle with a discussion of these images:


An entirely novel and innovative way of seeing these gods as earthbound cartographed divinities is thus inaugurated in the subcontinent. Most consequentially, through such a visual and cartographic instruments, Hinduism’s ancient deities, rather than becoming irrelevant or redundant, are rejuvenated as members of the emergent nation’s geo-body, lending it their aura, their powers, and, most importantly, their divinity. Correspondingly, the territory of India is sacralized, transformed from a geo-body on the impersonal face of the terrestrial globe into a hallowed land, a punyabhumi specially favored by gods themselves.


A sculpture dating back to late fifth or sixth century from the ancient town of Eran in Madhya Pradesh shows Vishnu in the avatar of Varaha (half man, half boar) rescuing the Earth, imagined as a female and helpless goddess Prithvi. A “god poster” that from the late 19th or early 20th century depicts the same moment of saving the Earth, but this time the Earth is the globe! Ramaswamy suggests:


European Enlightenment project is undone at its (post)colonial address by the revival of old myths and the return of fancy. Rather than heathenism being demolished as many a cartographic evangelist discussed in these pages zealously hoped, the gods come back even more realistically, exuberantly, and potently, transformed from sectarian “Hindu” deities into nationalized “Indian” divinities through the mediation of the very scientific knowledge that ought to have banished them from the lives and livelihoods of their devotees.


Meant for scholars and academicians, those already familiar with jargonised writing around cartography, “thing theory”, colonial history, pedagogy and the like, the book is thus hampered by a reliance on academic language and, perhaps not coincidentally, a certain inaccessibility to the argumentation. Nor is Ramaswamy entirely clear about correlation vs causality; there is, for example, no discussion of how the globalization of the globe played out in other regions of the global South. A comparison with other places that were not colonized, for instance, could be juxtaposed to the process unleashed in the Indian classrooms.

Nevertheless, from being an object seen as exotic to becoming something banal to being incorporated into the Hindu iconography of the sacred, the globe’s has been quite a journey. Ramaswamy’s history is a reminder that while “terrestrial sphericity” or the “planetary consciousness” was so abstract a concept that the globe heroically sought to simplify for the Indian subjects of the British empire by standing in as a proxy for the planet, it has now, as an artifact, almost disappeared from the classrooms and is more likely to be found in sites unrelated to that of education, yet at very accessible sites of popular imagination.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.