The Journal of Asian Studies

Research Article

Mapping a Colonial Borderland: Objectifying the Geo-Body of India's Northeast

David Vumlallian Zou and M. Satish Kumar


India's Northeast frontier is at the margins of three study areas: South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. This paper attempts a history of “mapping” in its broader sense as a cultural universal over a relatively long period. It is not a history of cartography, but focuses on the interface between cartography and cosmography, which were, in turn, shaped by imperial power and geographical knowledge. This approach offers a high-altitude view of this Asian borderland as the imperial frontier of both the Mughals and the British, and the national fringe of Republican India. The authors argue that imperial geographical discourses invested the colonial Northeast (British Assam) with a new kind of territorial identity. Surveyors and mapmakers objectified the “geo-body” of this borderland in a spatial fix and visualized it as a Northeast-on-the-map. Cartographic territoriality naturalized traditional frontiers into colonial borderlands, which, in turn, forged national boundaries.

David Vumlallian Zou ( is Assistant Professor in the Department of History on the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Delhi.

M. Satish Kumar ( is Associate Professor and Director of the India Initiative in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland.