The Indian subcontinent, it need hardly be stated, has a rich history of more than 500,000 years. During this long period it has been a melting pot of diverse cultures in varied geographical settings and has managed to assimilate, accommodate, and preserve several traditions to make the modern secular society of India. There do exist several standard books on the political, social, economic, and cultural processes of the Indian past. They, however, lack adequate cartographic presentation of the facts, which is very essential to a proper understanding of the subject. There are of course a few separate atlases to present the history cartographically. J.E. Schwartzberg's A Historical Atlas of South Asia (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Honolulu, 1978) is an important and pioneering work of this sort, but, being too extensive in scope, it could not devote enough space to each and every major region of the vast country. Similarly Irfan Habib's Atlas of the Mughal Empire (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1982), another monumental work, had to restrict its scope to the Mughal period and territory. The Political Geography of the Chola Country (Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology, Madras, 1972) by Y. Subbarayalu (incidentally the co-ordinator of the proposed project), an early work relating to Tamil Nadu, has mapped only the Kaveri delta and its immediate surroundings during the 8th to 13th centuries. There is therefore need for a comprehensive atlas of each major region of India covering the entire period.

Inspired by these early works, and at the same time feeling that they do not answer to the needs of the specialist, the French Institute of Pondicherry and the Tamil University, Thanjavur, initiated a collaborative project two years ago to explore the possibility of developing a comprehensive Historical Atlas of South India in Digital format. It was intended to be accessed on the Internet through a combination of maps, photographs, illustrations, texts and Geographical Information System (GIS) functionalities, a feature absent in the earlier works mentioned. The original idea was that the Digital Atlas could, on one hand, create interest among the general public on the rich historical heritage of the region, and on the other hand, stimulate collaboration among scholars working in History and Archaeology, by providing a novel and more dynamic way of presenting historical knowledge related to a geographical region and by providing more concrete tools to clarify the current issues relating to economic activities (hunting, gathering, pastoralism, agriculture at various levels, craft production, etc.), society (migrations of people, demography, religious movements), nature of state-formation (e.g., Segmentary state hypothesis), movements of art styles over time and space, settlements as part of water management and land use patterns, and so on.

The first phase was completed early in 2005 and the outcome was a prototype for the Pudukkottai (Central Tamil Nadu) region, which works both from a CD-Rom and on the Internet. This work provided the team an opportunity to explore multidisciplinary approaches in research using IT&C, with History and Archaeology on one hand and GIS and Informatics on the other hand. The prototype CD-Rom has already been used to present the project at various seminars and workshops, and has also been sent to scholars who would be interested in working with us in the future phases.

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In the current phase of the project (starting from 2005 May onwards), we intend to extend the scope to the entire states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as well as two pilot areas in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka (Figure 1). The idea behind initiating the two new pilot areas is to prepare for the extension of the project area further north so that the entire South India could be covered during the subsequent phase. The primary source of data for Tamil Nadu will be contributed by the Department of Epigraphy and Archaeology, Tamil University, Thanjavur. The Laboratory of Geomatics and Applied Informatics of the French Institute of Pondicherry will contribute towards the technological aspects broadly including GIS and software development. These two institutions have now joined with three other institutions from the states of Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, sharing with the latter the experience gained during the previous phase.

The collaborating institutions will then be:

This extended phase has been generously funded by the Ford foundation, New Delhi office under the Knowldege, Creativity and Freedom Program. This program works globally to advance understanding and achievement in five fields viz., Education and Scholarship; Sexuality and Reproductive Health; Religion, Society and Culture; the Media; and the Arts and Culture. Further information on Ford foundation, India can be accessed from here. For Ford Foundation's global website, click here.

The team:

Project Period: May 2005 to April 2008.