Mapping Ancient Indian Urban Spaces

GIS (Geographic Information System) can be a useful technology for Humanities’ scholars who are willing to collect, model, manage, and display spacial and geographical data in order to meaningfully interpret them. It might be a particularly interesting tool for those who are dealing with history and would like to better contextualize historical and archeological data within their geographical space.

As J. Bodenhamer et al. state “within a GIS, users can discover relationships that make  a complex world more immediately understandable by visually detecting spatial patterns that remain hidden in texts and tables” (2010, vii).

The scholar of Classical India might feel a bit skeptical about such a thing, being well aware of the difficulties that arise when trying to define geographical spaces of the Indian subcontinent as found in the Sanskrit texts of classical and premodern India. In this sense, as is the case in many other branches of the humanities, in ancient India we find the diffused use, within textual sources and manuscript material, of toponyms based on locally- and (at the time) widely-known geographical marks, often indicating more than one geographical spot; the widespread use of synonymic geographical terminology makes it hard for us to reconstruct precise geographies.

This brief sketch points out that GIS might not be the panacea for Indologists interested in historical geography, and invites us to be aware that there are obstacles that humanists face while turning to this technology. The main source of these obstacles is the fact that it was initially developed for environmental sciences: for this reason, the use of GIS “currently requires that humanists fit their questions, data, and methods to the rigid parameters of the software, which implicitly are based on positivist assumptions about the world” (Bodenhamer et al, 2010, ix).

However, obstacles should not restrain the use of GIS, since it has proven to be a valuable resource for the humanities (see, for instance GEO-LARHRA) and it should be taken into consideration as a helpful means also within Indological studies. Therefore, today’s introductory case-study consists of two main elements: qGIS and a map-based visualization of Vijayanagara.

What is qGIS? It is an open source software for GIS, available in various languages, with a simple and efficient interface.

What was Vijayanagara? Today known as Hampi, Vijayanagara (lit. “City of Victory”) is a city located on the southern bank of the Tungabhadra River, in the semiarid Deccan Plateau of southern India. Between the 14th and the 16th centuries CE, Vijayanagara was the capital of a vast empire that with time grew both in terms of geographical and political boundaries. The area, that covered in total around 400 m2, consisted of a sacred zone, located in the North, containing four important Hindu temples and various minor shrines and temples; a central irrigated valley with agricultural fields watered by river-fed canals; and a  “royal center”, in the south, covered in residential areas, columned halls, platforms, watchtowers, water pavilions, and tanks. It was an area of cultural and economical development, as attested to by both archaeological and textual evidence, where religious and political aspects were strictly intertwined and played an important role in the spacial definition of the city itself.

Fig. 1 – Vijayanagara from an archaeological perspective (downloaded from the publication available at

qGIS-izing Vijayanagara

qGis is a user-friendly tool that will make your attempts at qGIS-izing places quite fun. Since you can find many technical tutorials on the web, I will here sketch only the main passages and show you the results.

I chose two maps to qGIS-ize:

Fig. 2 – Map of Vijayanagaare Royal Center
Fig. 3 – An older map of Vijayanagara

At first, you do not work on the maps you have chosen, but create the “background map” on which you will geolocalize yours later on. When you open a new project on your qGIS interface, you should first add a vector layer, in the shapefile format.

Shapefiles are special geospatial vector data format that will serve as a base to create the background map. The shapefile format can spatially describe vector features such as points, lines, and polygons used to represents elements such as rivers, roads, administrative areas, etc. You can find and download these geographic spatial data for each country at DIVA-GIS.

Once you have a basic map such as this one:

Fig. 4 – Shapefile of India

you can add the Google Maps or any other map layer under this by clicking on the “web” icon (and by ensuring that the plugins for that, such as the QuickMapServices, are installed).

Fig. 5 – The area of Vijayanagara on Google Satellite on my project area

In fig. 5, you see the “Google Satellite” layer, which gives you the chance to zoom in more easily on the region of today’s Hampi. This is a helpful feature since it facilitates the finding of precise points when you georeference the map of your choice.

At this stage, you add a raster in which you open your own map, and select on it the points that you want to georeference. As soon as you select one, the software will want you to choose the corresponding point on the “map canvas” based on the “Google Satellite” layer. You can choose how many points you want – the only thing you need to check is that they correspond exactly in the two maps, otherwise the final results are going to be innacurate…and we don’t want that!

Fig. 6 – Adding a raster to georeferece your map

Once you are happy with the selected points, you can start the georeferencing process by clicking on the green arrow. You will be asked to set the transformation type, that means defining the transformation settings and the output setting. When this done, and you click again on the arrow, you should get the message “Georeferencing successful”.

If you then go back to your “Google Satellite” based map and add a raster layer (you should add the file in which the map of your choice has just been georeferenced), you will obtain an overlap of the two maps, as in Fig. 7. and 8. Remember to regulate the transparency of your raster (in the file properties)!

The results are nice – even with a file of slightly bad quality…imagine the possibilities with when using a good quality file!

Fig. 7 – Results with map from Fig. 2
Fig. 8 – Final Result with map from Fig. 3

Although this is just a preliminary step in the various analyses and results you can draw, its usefulness is already clear; for instance, from this very sketchy example, you can choose to focus on the urban developments that occurred in the area of Viajayanara/Hampi comparing the older map and the contemporary one, or locate in a more precise way certain architectural elements. Now it’s your turn to try!


Bodenhammer, D., J. Corrigan, & T.M. Harris, eds, The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, 2010, Indiana University Press.

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