November 08, 2011

Maps That Sing of Forlorn Places

Publication: The Economic Times Mumbai;Date: Nov 7, 2011;Section: Frdm frm Economics;Page: 24

A group of mapheads turns geographical blank spaces into a cartographical narrative of history, heritage & art, reports Soma Banerjee

The Binsar sanctuary in Uttarakhand is not strange to wildlife enthusiasts. However, for lesser mortals who have little kinship with animals the place had almost fallen off the map.

Till a modest cartographic intervention helped it find place in the list of the worlds’s most innovative eco-tourism spots 2011 published by The Guardian newspaper. The jury at Guardian chanced upon an ambrosial map of Binsar. A discovery that put Binsar amongst the top 20 eco-friendly destinations globally, the only Indian place to have made it this year

The map is the work of the innovative minds of a handful of young men and women working in Archi, a non-profit trust established in 2009. This team led by founder-member Anne Feenstra, an architect from Netherlands, has taken upon itself the task of creating maps of little known locales.

Unlike most traditional maps with longitudes and latitudes the Archi maps depict stories of the place through the people and culture of the local inhabitants while providing information to tourists.

Anne Feenstra who teaches at the School of Planning and Architecture describes maps as friends. “What you make of a friend is up to you. You could exchange courtesies and move on (which is what happens with most maps) or engage in long conversations. A good map is a like a friend that will arouse your curiosity and lead you to spend time exploring the place, its people and its culture.”

Many adventurers have been lured into serendipitous quests by maps. For some others making a map is itself an adventure. The act of mapping was a near happenstance for Anne and his team that began at Garli, a village in in Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh. Archi, that is involved in a wide spectrum of activities from designing sustainable buildings to city planning and restoration, stumbled upon map making almost by accident. A group of men from the Sood and Lal trading families, calling themselves Friends of Garli, approached Archi in 2009 to help promote their hamlet.

Setting out to first know the place, Anne’s team soon discovered this little dorp has a highdensity of heritage buildings and pedestrian walkaways. “Being traders from the colonial times the men of this land had borrowed heavily from all kinds of architecture for their buildings,” he says.

The oldest house in this area dates back 140 years while the youngest would pre-date to independence. Archi decided to first create a map of this little hamlet that would tell the story of this place and its forgotten tribe. The hamlet has now been declared a ‘heritage village’ by the Himachal Pradesh government. Shop owners and descendants of the Sood and Lal families, some of whom who had fallen upon bad times after partition, are a happy lot today. The economic fallout of putting Garli on the map has come as manna from heaven.

This was just the beginning. Archi then went on to discover many new destinations, each time, finding the story of a place through the lives of its people. So while Chota Haldwani was about a village that Jim Corbett had adopted, Binsar was about the ecological flavour of its distinct seasons.

In some cases, the map-making job is much more than just locating a place. Like the work that Archi has taken up in collaboration with World Wildlife Foundation in Nathang and Kopuk in East Sikkim. A place known for Red Pandas, younger sisters of the black and white Panda, who may soon lose their wild habitat as locals of the place cut down forests to survive the cold. The challenge here, is much more as Anne and his team go about trying to convince the locals the need to protect the natural habitat.

“But that is not easy. After all the forest wood provides heat to these people without which they would perish,” he says. Archi is helping build thermal insulated houses.

Currently, Archi is working with the Uttarakhand government in preparing an eco-tourism map for the state. The team is mapping all such destinations that could be promoted for ecotoursim. But that needs money as well. Archi has mainly worked with state governments, forest departments and now with WWF to take up these projects. “We are paid a small consultancy for research,” Anne explains. The other costs of printing and publishing are normally taken care of by the agencies.

Asked what enthuses him to carry on in India, a country he first came in mid-2000 to visit Fatehpur Sikri, to trace his textbook design course, Anne says India is not a country; it is a continent by itself unveiling new places and people all the time. For Anne and Archi it also means creating cultural artifacts like their elaborate, multicoloured rendering of those places and people.

All About Archi

• NGO charging on services

• Formed in 2009 by a group of designers & architects

• Map making, buildings, community programmes, restoration & research

• Drawn maps; held shows; set up learning centre in Kargyak, Zanskar Valley

The map of Binsar by Archi that helped it find place in the Guardian list of 20 most eco-friendly destinations (above); Anne Feenstra, founder of Archi (inset)

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