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This article uses the British colonial history of border making in northern India to examine the assumptions and contradictions at work in the theorizing, configuring, and mapping of frontiers and borders. It focuses, in particular, on the development of the ‘water-parting principle’ – wherein the edge of a watershed is considered to be the border – and how this principle was used to determine boundaries in the northwestern Himalaya, a region that had long-established notions of border points, but no borderlines. By the twentieth century, the water-parting principle would become the dominant boundary logic for demarcating borders in mountainous regions, and would be employed by statesmen, treaty editors, and boundary commissioners around the world. But for the northwestern Himalaya, a region that British colonial officials considered to be the ‘finest natural combination of boundary and barrier that exists in the world’, making a border proved much more difficult than anticipated.


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I would like to acknowledge the advice of Nick Abbott, Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Amanda Blair, Daniel Haines, James Hevia, Elisabeth Leake, Zak Leonard, Thomas Simpson, Jesse Watson, Richard White, and the two anonymous reviewers of the original draft of this article. All of them provided insights and questions that substantially improved the final draft. All errors are my own.



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1 Holdich, Thomas Hungerford, Political frontier and boundary making (London, 1916), p. 280.

2 The ‘top-down’ focus of much of the historical scholarship on Himalayan borderlands reflected the need to understand why the world's two most populous nations went to war in 1962 over territorial claims at both ends of the Himalayas: the area in the eastern Himalaya now known as Arunachal Pradesh and in the northwestern Himalaya the virtually uninhabited Aksai Chin, a cold plateau roughly the size of Switzerland and situated almost entirely above 15,000 feet in elevation. Alastair Lamb's extensive writings offer in-depth detail about the geopolitical rivalries on British India's northern frontiers: Britain and Chinese Central Asia (London and New York, NY, 1960); The China–India border: the origins of the disputed boundaries (London, 1964); The Sino–Indian border in Ladakh (Canberra, 1973). Other works include Alder, G. J., British India's northern frontier 1865–1895: a study in imperial policy (London, 1963); Fisher, Margaret W., Rose, Leo E., and Huttenback, Robert A., Himalayan battleground: Sino–Indian rivalry in Ladakh (New York, NY, 1963); Woodman, Dorothy, Himalayan frontiers: a political review of British, Chinese, Indian, and Russian rivalries (London, 1969); and Maxwell, Neville, India's China war (New York, NY, 1970).

3 The use of border points was a sensible practice in a mountainous region where the limited number of routes into and out of the region functioned as effective points for the pre-colonial government to extract customs.

4 Matthew H. Edney's Mapping an empire perhaps comes closest, yet his work ends in 1843, stopping short of the late Victorian period when boundary demarcation, mapping, and their connected underlying geographical propositions became increasingly important to the configuration of the imperial state. Edney, Matthew H., Mapping an empire: the geographical construction of British India, 1765–1843 (Chicago, IL, 1997). Ian J. Barrow's Making history, drawing territory studies the Survey of India till 1905 and the end of Curzon's tenure as viceroy, a point often seen as the high-water mark of British imperialism in South Asia. Making history, drawing territory: British mapping in India, c. 1756–1905 (New Delhi, 2003). Yet unlike Edney's focus on the cartographic construction of modern India, Barrow is more interested in how British imperial identity was shaped by the ‘idea’ of India. Other work that explores colonial surveying include Burnett, D. Graham, Masters of all they surveyed: exploration, geography, and a British El Dorado (Chicago, IL, 2000); and Raj, Kapil, Relocating modern science: circulation and the construction of knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900 (New York, NY, 2007).

5 On the broad literature between colonial knowledge, imperial statecraft, and technology, see Mitchell, Timothy, Colonizing Egypt (Berkeley, CA, 1991); Arnold, David, Colonizing the body (Berkeley, CA, 1993); Bayly, C. A., Empire and information (Cambridge, 1996); and, most recently, Hevia, James, The imperial security state (Cambridge, 2012). For the concept of territoriality and its relation to practices of the state, see Maier, Charles, ‘Consigning the twentieth century to history: alternative narratives for the modern era’, Forum Essay, American Historical Review, 105 (2000), pp. 807–31.

6 Curzon, George N., Frontiers (Oxford, 1908), p. 7. Taking Curzon's metaphor seriously, it is worth asking whether anything can actually ‘hang suspended’ on a razor.

7 Ibid., p. 26.

8 This article draws inspiration from recent work by Bernard Debarbieux and Gilles Rudaz, which explored the ways in which mountains are socially constructed objects: The mountain: a political history from the Enlightenment to the present (Chicago, IL, and London, 2015).

9 For the history of the ambiguities of the northeastern Himalayan frontier, see Guyot-Réchard, Bérénice, Shadow states: India, China and the Himalayas, 1910–1962 (Cambridge, 2017). For a comparative study of the failures of mid-nineteenth-century frontier-making in the northeastern and northwestern extremities of the British empire, see Simpson, Thomas, ‘Bordering and frontier-making in nineteenth-century British India’, Historical Journal, 58 (2015), pp. 513–42.

10 Wood, Denis and Fels, John, The natures of maps: cartographic constructions of the natural world (Chicago, IL, and London, 2008), p. 26.

11 Harley, J. B., ‘Deconstructing the map’, in Barnes, Trevor and Gregory, Derek, eds., Reading human geography: the poetics and politics of inquiry (London, 1997), p. 164; Wood, Denis, The power of maps (New York, NY, 1992); and Scott, James C., Seeing like a state (New Haven, CT, 1999).

12 van Schendel, Willem, ‘Stateless in South Asia: the making of the India–Bangladesh enclaves’, Journal of Asian Studies, 61 (2002), pp. 115–47.

13 The term ‘geopolitics’ signalled a new approach to international politics, one that emphasized territory, natural resources, and geographical information in forming and sustaining states. Agnew, John, Geopolitics: re-visioning world politics (London and New York, NY, 1998); and Blouet, Brian, Geopolitics and globalization in the twentieth century (London, 2010), p. 187 n. 2.

14 Halford Mackinder presented to the Royal Geographical Society on 25 January 1904 his influential paper, ‘The geographical pivot of history’, which was subsequently published in the Geographical Journal. Mackinder, H. J., ‘The geographical pivot of history’, Geographical Journal, 23 (1904), pp. 421–37.

15 See, for instance, the Royal Charter of the Hudson's Bay Company, accessed on 1 July 2015:

16 On the role of mountains in shaping early modern borders, see Sahlins, Peter, Boundaries: the making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (Berkeley, CA, 1989); and Debarbieux and Rudaz, The Mountain.

17 See, for example, Ishikawa, Noboru, Between frontiers: nation and identity in a Southeast Asian borderland (Athens, OH, 2010).

18 Burnett, Masters of all they surveyed, p. 15.

19 Twiss, Travers, The Oregon question examined, in respect to the facts and the law of nations (London, 1846).

20 Ibid., pp. 148–9.

21 Emer de Vattel, Droit des gens; ou, Principes de la loi naturelle appliqués à la conduite et aux affaires des nations et des souverains (1758); and Henry Wheaton, Elements of international law (1836).

22 Curzon, Frontiers, p. 12.

23 See, for instance, Legislative Assembly, The proceedings before the Judicial Committee of Her Majesty's Imperial Privy Council on the special case respecting the westerly boundary of Ontario… (Toronto, ON, 1899).

24 Cunningham, Alexander, Ladák, physical, statistical, and historical; with notices of the surrounding countries (London, 1854), p. 42.

25 That is, a mountain range running perpendicular to the main axis of the Himalayas.

26 National Archives of India (NAI), Foreign Department (Foreign), A Pol E, 187–96, May 83, ‘Alluvial streams (Nipal). Permanent land line boundaries to be adopted in supersession of boundaries.’

27 NAI, Foreign, Secret, no. 41, Oct. 1896.

28 Ibid.

29 Jones, Stephen B., Boundary-making: a handbook for statesmen, treaty editors and boundary commissioners (Washington, DC, 1945), pp. 101–2.

30 See Bray, John, ‘Corvée transport labour in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ladakh: a study in continuity and change’, in van Beek, Martijn and Pirie, Fernanda, eds., Modern Ladakh: anthropological perspectives on continuity and change (Leiden, 2008), pp. 4366.

31 The northern principality of Jammu, ruled by a dynasty of Dogra Rajputs, was a tributary of the Sikh empire after its conquest and eventual annexation by the Sikhs in 1816. Gulab Singh, the Raja of Jammu (1822–57), invaded Ladakh at the likely behest of the Sikh emperor Ranjit Singh in 1834 to secure access to the high-value pashmina trade routes threatened by British expansion further south. Following the defeat of the Sikh empire in the first Anglo-Sikh war of 1845 to 1846, the East India Company granted Gulab Singh, who tacitly assisted them during the war, the title of maharaja of Kashmir and Jammu, thus inaugurating the Dogra dynasty that would rule the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu until 1947.

32 J&K State Archives, Jammu, ‘Treaty between Ladakh and Tibet: 1920, 276/R.P-4’.

33 NAI, Foreign, nos. 162–4, 28 Aug. 1847, ‘Instructions for his guidance on his approaching mission to the Thibetan frontier’.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 NAI, Foreign, 29 Dec. 1849, pp. 332–4, F. C., ‘Thomson, Asstt.-Surgeon T. Report on Western Thibet’.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid. My emphasis.

39 For a description of this surveying process by the large boundary commissions and surveying parties of the late nineteenth century, see Hevia, Imperial security state, pp. 73–106.

40 Lamb, The Sino-Indian border in Ladakh, pp. 8–9.

41 Kapil Raj, Relocating modern science.

42 NAI, Foreign, Political A, nos. 240–1A, May 1870, ‘Boundary between Cashmere and Lingti’.

43 NAI, Foreign, Political A, nos. 10–12, May 1872, ‘Boundary between Spiti and Ladakh’; and NAI, Foreign, Political A, nos. 203–6, Jan. 1873, ‘Settlement of the Spiti and Ladakh boundary’.

44 NAI, Foreign, Political A, May 1873, nos. 10–12.

45 Scott, James C., The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT, and London, 2009), pp. 1011.

46 India Office Records, Political and Secret, letters and enclosures from India, vol. 21, no. 49, 28 Feb. 1879.

47 Trotter, Captain Henry, Account of the survey operations in connection with the mission to Yarkand and Kashghar in 1873–74… (Calcutta, 1875).

48 NAI, Foreign, A Political E, nos. 201–2, June 1884.

49 NAI, Foreign, Secret F, nos. 1–3, Nov. 1885, ‘Trans-frontier information. Publication of frontier maps containing only sketchy survey(s) permitted’.

50 For a history of the Intelligence Branch, see James Hevia, Imperial security state.

51 NAI, Foreign, Secret Frontier, Mar. 1889, nos. 115–16, ‘Frontier between Ladakh and Chinese-Turkestan’.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid. My emphasis.

54 Curzon, Frontiers, p. 26.

55 Ibid., p. 7.

56 Ibid., p. 19.

57 Ibid., pp. 19–20.

58 NAI, Foreign, Secret F., Nov., nos. 110–14, ‘Kashmir-Frontier. Memorandum by Sir John Ardagh’.

59 Ibid.

60 China's Foreign Affairs body established in 1861 and replaced with a ministerial Foreign Office in 1901.

61 NAI, Foreign, Secret F, Aug. 1899, nos. 168–201. There is no known surviving version of this map.

62 Lamb, Sino–Indian border in Ladakh, p. 7.

63 NAI, Foreign, Frontier B, May 1912, nos. 125–6. My emphasis.

64 Hedin, Sven, Trans-Himalaya: discoveries and adventures in Tibet, 1 (New York, NY, 1909), p. 273.

65 Frontiers in theory and practice’, Geographical Journal, 49 (1917), p. 58. Emphasis given by the anonymous author of the review of Thomas Holdich's Political frontiers and boundary making (London, 1916).

66 NAI, Ministry of States, 1-K/51, ‘Defence of north–north-east border of Jammu and Kashmir [and] certain aspects of the administration of Ladakh’.

67 National Archives of the United Kingdom, DO 196/190, 1962. My emphasis.

68 Avaneesh Pandey, ‘India bans Al Jazeera for 5 days over “incorrect” Kashmir map’, International Business Times, 23 Apr. 2015.

69 Raj, Kapil, ‘La construction de l'empire de la géographie: L'odyssée des arpenteurs de Sa Très Gracieuse Majesté, la reine Victoria, en Asie centrale’, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 52e Année, 5 (Sept.–Oct. 1997), p. 1157.

I would like to acknowledge the advice of Nick Abbott, Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Amanda Blair, Daniel Haines, James Hevia, Elisabeth Leake, Zak Leonard, Thomas Simpson, Jesse Watson, Richard White, and the two anonymous reviewers of the original draft of this article. All of them provided insights and questions that substantially improved the final draft. All errors are my own.

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