Under my byline

There you are, Raju mistri

Posted in Architecture/Design, Books, Living by Rrishi on 13 April 2010

BS blog 15

Over the past couple of weeks I have spent a fair bit of time peering at Wikimapia, ostensibly because I had to review a book on the Saraswati river. Not the mythical river that meets the Ganga and Yamuna at Allahabad but the real historical one on whose banks the Rg Vedic sages did whatever sages do.

According to the book, the Saraswati was the progenitor of the modern Ghaggar-Hakra, an interconnected set of river channels that stretches from the Shivaliks through the Thar desert and down to the Rann of Kachchh. According to the author, who summarises the scientific evidence very nicely, this river, which has a very wide bed but is now nearly always dry, was once fed by the Sutlej and the Yamuna, which did not at that time meet the Indus and Ganga.

On the dry banks of the dead river, where now only desert nomads live, are many, many ancient towns and villages, now buried in sand. They, too, point to a time when water was much more abundantly available.

So naturally, I took to Wikimapia to check all this out, to look for signs of ancient rivers and traces of buried cities. I found all of that, yes, and it was thrilling — but I also realised that just about every single screenful of satellite imagery was also full of personalised place tags.

That’s the way Wikimapia works — it marries Google Earth with Wiki. Google Earth provides the imagery, and ordinary individual users add in the information. So on a satellite image of your part of the world you yourself can identify your office or school or bank or favourite paan shop or bicycle repair man. You can outline your own house. Anyone anywhere in the world who zooms in on that area can then see what information you have added in.

This being an exercise that only computer users can perform, and then only when they are online and with a Net connection fast enough to download image data with, I found it amazing to see the degree of detail available.

For example, in the little town of Bhatner (now Hanumangarh), in Rajasthan, you can snoop on “lilitmohan pareek advocate”, “Mubarak House”, “nitish parek a cool person”, “Lokesh DJ”, “raju mistri” and “Amit Chilana 941——-” (I can’t bear to give his phone number, even if he doesn’t appear to mind). And there’s lots more like this.

Outside the town, in the farmland around, you can pay a visit to “Ram singh sandha dhani”, “karan sandha marriage album editor home”, “vashudha ’s house”, “K.I.U. Dinesh”, “Hamuman Mandir”, and so on and so forth. There’s also a “Johal Farm House” sitting — perhaps illegally? — on the damp bed of what may once have been a channel of the Saraswati.

Something like this is true of most small towns and their surrounds that I looked at. In Punjab the density is much greater — around Ludhiana the fertile countryside is littered with tags.

Now, utility: clearly a lot of tags are people proudly identifying their homes (”my sweet home”) and land. Indeed, it’s very interesting to see the territorial patterns made by caste surnames — certain localities are dominated by certain names. Other tags are little business ads, with a number, description (”pind di motor”) and address. Some are neighbourhood place markers (”Hissaria chowk”). Others are civil, religious and historical sites: clinics, hospitals, railway stations, mandir, masjids, gurdwaras, forts, museums, havelis, etc.

In cities like Delhi, although the density of tags is much greater, the tags refer more to localities and small businesses or facilities like parks and hospitals — fewer people (relatively speaking) identify themselves and their homes.

With time, as information builds up (worldwide, some 10,000 “places” are added every day; the total is now about 12 million), and if Wikimapia stays popular, then it may become a very useful tool for historians, sociologists and anthropologists, not to mention businessmen and corporations. Find out where your competition is or isn’t, where your market is and you aren’t… And it works in the easiest way, with the information being handed to you by hundreds of thousands of local reporters rather than an expensive, imperfect and slow research team.

For the moment, Wikimapia is an extraordinarily interesting, amusing and educational way to spend a few hours. Soon it could be a lot more.

The image of Bhatner fort is from the official website of Hanumangarh District. Read my review of Michel Danino’s The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati.

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