In 1811, one Captain Williamson of the British East India Company arrived at the Anglo-Gorkha frontier, along the northern reaches of what is now Gorakhpur district. Williamson was tasked with demarcating the boundary between the two states. However, his arrival and subsequent inquiries caused some anxiety to the Gorkhali fauzdar (an official) in charge of law-and-order in the area. This official, Maniraj Bhaju, was mystified by Williamson’s efforts to draw the boundary in a straight line without any reference to the status of the lands they cut through. This was particularly galling to Maniraj, because Williamson’s line cut right through lands where he had recently planted rice! The fauzdar asked Williamson to take his claim to these lands into account and draw the boundary around them. Williamson, needless to say, found this request highly “irregular” and promptly denied it.
This encounter was just one episode in a series of territorial disputes that surfaced in the 18th century, when both states came to share a common frontier. These disputes would be exacerbated along the border districts of Gorakhpur and Champaran, lying in the present-day Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (see Figure 1). Three years later, war broke out between the two states only to end with the defeat of the Gorkhalis in early 1816. The East India Company then formally demarcated the boundary separating its territories from Gorkha lying to its north. This time around, every effort was made to keep the line straight, pegged to masonry pillars. To this day, the line marks Nepal’s southern boundary with India.
The historical sources pertaining to the war tell a larger story about how this frontier was imagined, constituted, and navigated by communities and kingdoms on the ground, before it became a modern boundary. At a time when Nepal-India relations are at one of their lowest, following a renewed dispute over territories in the western Himalaya, there is growing popular interest in the history of boundaries and mapmaking in the region. In this context, the Anglo-Gorkha conflict and its background are a useful reminder of how the fuzzy precolonial borderlands of Southasia evolved into the neat demarcations of modern-day nation states.
The Anglo-Gorkha frontier formed a thin sliver of territory (variously called the tarai or tarriani) that abutted the foothills to the north. It remained a distinctive ecological zone with dense malarial forests, wild animals, interspersed with shifting pockets of cultivation. Despite forested lands being largely inaccessible during the malarial months of May to November, local officials, landholders, cultivating groups such as the Tharu, and other investors made every effort to organise clearing and cultivation. The situation was accentuated by an acute shortage of labour. Given the vagaries of the situation, lands tended to fall into and out of cultivation, frequently shifting hands. Thus, patches of land lying along the Anglo-Gorkha frontier could come under the extractive levies of a local chieftain in one year, lie waste in another, and revert to cultivation in the third, only this time in the hands of some new source of political authority.
Given this competition, these lands frequently shifted hands between the smaller kingdoms in the hills and plains, with little consideration for keeping territories and their boundaries continuous. Because the kingdoms were also dependencies of more powerful states, such as Gorkha and the East India Company, these tarai lands became further entangled in wider political hierarchies, relationships and struggles. Along the Anglo-Gorkha frontier, administrative divisions such as the parganas of Thathar and Gadh Simraon, and tappas such as Sheoraj and Rautahat, became the subject of disputes between the Gorkhalis and the East India Company and exemplified such territorial dynamism.
To complicate matters further, such lands were disbursed by local rulers on a variety of terms to their clients. These could take the place of cash salaries, remission of taxes in lieu of services provided, or outright gifts. Furthermore, the terms of these grants could be renegotiated or reimagined by the parties involved, as and when conditions were favourable. Along the Anglo-Gorkha frontier, this meant that local actors had the freedom to manoeuvre, outside the immediate scrutiny of their regional political bosses. By the end of the 18th century, central authorities in Kathmandu and Calcutta were increasingly drawn into these frontier affairs as they tried to discern and manage the political situation on the ground.
Within Southasia, the war marked an important milestone in the colonial project of mapping linear boundaries to separate states.
Contemporary historical materials, including official correspondence, maps, land grants and reports, allow us to reconstruct the territorial dynamics at work along the frontier. Given their tendency to idealise territories as continuous and unchanging, colonial officials would record territories using terms such as ‘detached’, ‘discontinuous’ and ‘intermixed’, and in need of ‘adjustment’. On the other hand, Gorkhali officials recorded their territorial ‘possessions’ in terms of jurisdiction (amval) determined by conquest, historical custom, claims to taxation, tribute, inheritance and so on.
The precolonial kingdoms that peppered the frontier, therefore, possessed territories unlike that of modern nation states. These smaller kingdoms – such as Argha, Khanchi, Bettiah, Gulmi, Makwanpur, Palpa, Ramnagar and Tanahu – were not stable unchanging bodies, as modern nation states tend to be. Rather, they were constituted out of a host of relationships derived from entitlements to lands, taxes and various kinds of political claims on each other. These claims arranged these polities in fluctuating hierarchies, and the conquest by one of the others gave the former access to all the rights, privileges and dependents of the latter. That is, these entitlements and claims, whether granted for a lifetime or inheritable, were always open to renegotiation and revision as these powerholders competed for resources. Such reconstitutions in rights and privileges is what produced the shifting geographies of these kingdoms. Such territorial characteristics could be seen not just along the frontiers of these precolonial states, but arguably even within their heartlands as well.
Before modern cartography created a new and simplified geographical scaffolding to view the world, people in agrarian, nomadic, seafaring and coastal societies inhabited fluid territories that were intermixed in their layout and organisation. Regimes that relied on agrarian resources created intricate categories of rights and privileges to designate claims to land, water, forests, labour, tribute, taxes, capital, goods – even intangibles like loyalty, dependence, and subordination. Land, which was always in short supply, was critical for raising cadet lines of supporters and a potential source for warmaking.
The ensuing dynamic of land control, warfare, and state building has been the subject of much study, debate, and discussion. Within such a context, precolonial subjects must have possessed a keen awareness of the political and geographical expressions of their relationships. They realised that under certain conditions, they could owe allegiance to multiple overlords whose political fortunes could fluctuate. This demanded agility and flexibility in deciding their options to remain obedient, take to arms, or vote with their feet. They were not pliant objects but subjects who navigated a world inhabited by powerful men, animals, spirits, and deities. They were not confused or in need of scientific maps and linear boundaries to depict the contours of the kingdoms, provinces and districts they inhabited. They lived in a world that had its own set of rules for establishing these lines on the ground.
The ability of a state to render its territories in straight lines is always a question of power.
Linear boundaries were not a modern invention. People in precolonial Southasia were keenly aware that boundaries could assume the form of lines of all kinds – determined by cities, forts, rivers, hills, embankments, signposts and etchings on the ground. But such lines could not be drawn in isolation from the specific geopolitical and historical contexts of those places. That is, these lines had to consider various claims (local and supralocal) to the entitlements outlined above. Such claims also coded notions of kinship, loyalty, honor, authority, and status that bound the various actors involved. Intricately woven into such rights to “enjoy” the fruits of the land were complex articulations of customary privileges concerning rights to exercise authority, claim loyalty, exact fees and services, collect allowances, confer exemptions, and bear titles, objects, emblems and honors.
Much was at stake as these actors discussed, argued, and fought over the constitution, preservation and reconstitution of these rights and claims, along with the associated boundaries that ultimately organised their states and societies. This was a world constituted out of overlapping sovereignties and jurisdictions, not the empty abstract spaces of empires and nation states bounded by straight lines that could be neatly engraved on maps by officials who came from afar.
At the same time, this is not to suggest that precolonial regimes outside Europe did not possess the capacity to deploy modern cartography to map their territories. When favourable historical conditions arose amidst strong centralising tendencies, they were eminently capable of pursuing cartographic projects that gave a singular, if idealised, view of their dominions. So, for instance, in the early 18th century, the Qing dynasty in China employed Jesuit cartographers at its court to map the kingdom and similar efforts were undertaken by the kingdom of Siam (present-day Thailand). From the 15th century onwards, Ottoman rulers and officials of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan began to produce maps of their dominions and cities.
Modern cartography and the new territorial order
Archival records relating to the Anglo-Gorkha war give fleeting insight, rarely captured by its chroniclers, into a world in the midst of territorial transition. Within Southasia, the war marked an important milestone in the colonial project of mapping linear boundaries to separate states. It was a vision driven by a desire to control, occupy and arrange resources while disciplining populations and their movements. The state was idealised as a container with clearly defined lines marking its edges. While there are many twists and turns, flows and counterflows, and nuances in this story, it ultimately gave root to a new fiction: states occupy a distinct portion of the earth’s surface, marked by continuous territories, and linear boundaries.
Agreeing on a postcolonial future for places where disputes persist, might call for more ingenuity than seeking solace from imagined pasts and the anxieties of colonial and national elites.
In the case of India, the colonial state supervised this monumental and rather unwieldy project with mixed success. Sustained efforts were made to rearrange its territories through various kinds of surveys that went hand-in-hand with the ‘adjustment’ of boundaries and exchanges of territory. Colonial surveys mapped topographic features, political and administrative boundaries, and cadastral information in an attempt to make territory legible for colonial rule. The revenue surveys of the 19th century, especially in northern India, would give a fleeting glimpse of the intermixed and discontinuous character of the territories inherited by the English East India Company, before they were rearranged and disappeared from view (see Figure 2).
The aim of these colonial projects was to create an image of the Indian Empire that on the surface seemed coherent, rational and ordered. Yet, this was far from the truth. The inexpressible complexity and fluidity that marks all social life never disappeared; rather, the graticule of modern maps merely hid them from view. Furthermore, at the time of Independence, the colonial state still shared sovereignty with over 500 princely states whose territories and boundaries remained unevenly surveyed and variously intermixed at places. The Survey of India – the office tasked with mapping the Subcontinent – pursued an unwieldy portfolio of activities with limited financial resources. The continued need to share sovereignty with indigenous rulers, along with the persistence of enclaves, dispersed and entangled territories, straggling corridors of imperial control and poor coordination between different surveys, are a reminder of the flip side of the neat lines, order, and rationality that have traditionally been viewed as the hallmarks of empire.
This is not to suggest that precolonial regimes outside Europe did not possess the capacity to deploy modern cartography to map their territories.
In post-Independence India, renewed efforts would be made to rearrange state boundaries and disentangle their intermixed lands. But this time the reorganisation would be around linguistic lines. In the case of Nepal, possibly the first maps of the country’s precolonial thum and praganna divisions can be found in the report on the census of Nepal prepared by the Department of Statistics in 1958.
The ability of a state to render its territories in straight lines is always a question of power. Convoluted and sinuous lines signal the presence of social forces and interests that the state has had to accommodate while delineating the boundary. Lines that have to traverse dense populations and political energies have to accommodate the force of those perspectives and make necessary adjustments to their linear flow. Contrast this to the unusually straight lines of some state boundaries in the United States, only possible in sparsely populated landscapes whose Native American populations had already been decimated or relocated. Here the state had greater freedom in pushing through straight boundary lines. In other words, boundary lines have histories that reflect not just the power of the state but its capacity to delineate and enforce them. Modern cartography and its growing archive of maps became the medium through which this knowledge was disseminated. Over the 19th and 20th centuries national identities would be imagined within this cartographically enshrined framework. Much of this history of cartography and borderland studies is being chronicled by scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds. A rich sampling of this literature can be found in the beautifully illustrated collections of the History of Cartography, and assorted journals and books. A number of volumes of the History of Cartography project are now freely available online. Such a geographical vision of the world has come to dominate human consciousness on a planetary scale. Today, maps have become objects of everyday use and are put to various purposes. Their ideological and territorial claims and impact on local communities are a constant reminder of the power they exert in the daily lives of people. For this reason, they merit continued scrutiny, both for their aesthetic qualities and for political reasons.
Patches of land lying along the Anglo-Gorkha frontier could come under the extractive levies of a local chieftain in one year, lie waste in another, and revert to cultivation in the third.
Today, much of the older territorial order has given way to the neat geographies of modern nation states. And yet, traces of the older world persist in the form of enclaves, exclaves, and straggling corridors around the world: the Chit Mahals along the Indo-Bangladesh boundary; the Belgian and Dutch enclaves of Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau; the Principality of Liechtenstein; the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, and Llivia in the French Pyrenees; the enclaves of Sokh and Vorukh along the shared border of the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan; the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad; the American exclave of Point Roberts on the Canadian border, and protuberances such as the Argentinian provinces of Misiones, Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor, and the Caprivi strip in northeastern Namibia.
Each of these cases represent an episode in the history of territory and cartographic rearrangements, possibly just like the one about the Anglo-Gorkha frontier. The Chhit Mahals along the Indo-Bangladesh boundary are a good example of precolonial territorial forms, here dating from the Mughal period, persisting into the present. Made up of at least 162 enclaves and exclaves and hosting a population of over 50,000 people, they represented possibly more than half of all the exclaves in the world. In 2015, the governments of India and Bangladesh initiated steps to rearrange these enclaves and transfer populations in order to eliminate these territorial discontinuities. In the 21st century, they serve as a reminder of an older territorial world whose existence the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-16 can help diagnose.
Geo-body of a nation
Whatever their trajectory, the lines humans have drawn on the ground (and anywhere for that matter) have histories. Maps and the lines etched on the ground, and in our minds, have real world consequences. Frontiers and boundaries are not just signifiers of territorial edges, they are also places for crossings. Throughout human history, labourers, nomads, pirates, traders, missionaries, mercenaries, adventurers, refugees and marginal groups, along with all kinds of biota and pathogens, have always participated in borderland crossings. More recently, political boundaries have been conscripted to provide immutable references to the space of the nation and its territorial limits. The historian Thongchai Winichakul called it the geo-body of the nation.
Every inch of national territories so defined has been zealously defended and fought over while disputes persist to this day about their edges. Today, colonial obsessions about boundaries and lines of control, which were also masculine anxieties about controlling space, have been inherited by successor nation states and their citizens. Here, it might be helpful to remember that too much intentionality, efficiency, rationality, and clarity cannot be attributed to colonial designs and intentions when it came to demarcation of boundaries and territorial rationality. Colonial rule, while an unsolicited imposition, was also an incomplete, ill-coordinated, unwieldy, and even contradictory process. The colonial constitution of territories and boundaries were as much the product of administrative rationality as of confusion, poor coordination, errors, and even incompetence. Understanding how these borders came to be requires a critical assessment of their colonial makings and an inquiry into their precolonial antecedents.
Agreeing on a postcolonial future for places where disputes persist, might call for more ingenuity than seeking solace from imagined pasts and the anxieties of colonial and national elites. These are deeply historical concerns. To paraphrase the American novelist, poet, and activist, James Baldwin – this history is not just our past; it is our present as well. We carry these histories with us, even within us. They flow through us, even impale us. Coming to terms with the triumphs and tragedies associated with these pasts will determine what becomes our future. It will surely call for great honesty, courage, imagination, and compassion than we are accustomed to. And because it is all historically determined – that is contingent on forces outside our control and their unintended consequences – it can only come with no guarantees.