Theses Doctoral

Geography Triumphant: Maps, Cartographic Truths, and Imperial Frontier-making in Tibet in the Long Nineteenth Century

Mukherjee, Sayantani

This project focusses on the historic border region of the Himalayas as a central space for negotiations of power and identity in British South Asia. It particularly focusses on the standardization of mapping and surveying practices as socio-technological discourses through the 1840s to the 1920s that lead to the transformation of trans-Himalayan and Tibetan land into British territory that could be invaded, settled, and controlled. With a unique focus on subaltern agents moving through and past the Himalayas, this project writes a history of the transformation of the imaginary of the mountains, from a spatial feature that connected vibrant pre-colonial geographies to a natural resource object and a political border that delineated the limits of imperial territory.

While previous scholarship has tended to examine the history of the Tibeto-Himalayan borderlands in the context of its importance to the British Indian, Indian, or Chinese nation-building practices, this project foregrounds the importance of trans-Himalayan connections and exchanges in examining the structural transformation of a region where historical forces simultaneously undermined the power of the British Indian state while reflecting the hegemony of its imperial project. Additionally, this project explores the tensions between the construction of “universal” discourses of empirical scientific practice in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which claimed to orient the practices of geography, cartography and ethnography, and the constraints of the British imperial system predicated on the same coercive technologies to identify territory. The epistemic regime governing the production of geo-knowledge about Tibet and the Himalayas rose out of a series of contestations between the appropriation and rejection of local and indigenous knowledge, networks, and actors. Tracing a near hundred-year arc, I locate geography as a unique facet of colonial modernity that dictated imperial logics of developmentalism at the frontiers of the British empire, thereby demonstrating the birth of modern geography as mired in haphazard expeditions, rather than proceeding from well-defined scientific theory and protocols.

This dissertation concentrates on three main aspects to revisit the history of construction of the geo-knowledge of the Tibeto-Himalayan borderlands by focusing on situated actors and connections: the epistemological contributions of native Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese surveyors in the employ of the Survey of India, the mobilization of labor for trans-Himalayan military and surveying expeditions, and the interactions between imperial knowledge productions and “indigenous” modes of spatial thinking as related in Tibetan revelatory guidebooks detailing the space of the Himalayas. Each of these aspects was critical in the re-constitution of the Himalayan mountains as a spatial unit that divided rather than connected political communities on either side.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ahmed, Manan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 20, 2021