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Family History, Place and Diaspora

Locating family, community and national geographies

Research by Chandan Mahal

Chandan Mahal

September 2014 start. 2022 completion. Queen Mary, University of London; PI Professor Alison Blunt.



The research explores the relationships between family, place and diaspora, working collaboratively with people of Punjabi descent living in London. The project explores the different practices for doing family history, particularly through the wider relationship that many Punjabis have to ancestral place and land. It also examines the opportunities and challenges of using genealogy websites, or public archives that hold significant material about place and geography, including the RGS-IBG Collections.

The research has used participatory research methods, to examine selected archival sources alongside participants’ own photographs, letters and possessions, raising questions of ancestral place, identity and family heritage. The RGS-IBG Collections have extensive material that provide details of the geography and history of India, Pakistan and East Africa where several participants had lived. This includes maps, gazetteers, to photographs and accounts of colonial administrators. The research explores how Punjabi family and community histories are located within these types of records in the context of ancestral place, residence, departure, journeys, settlement and return.

Geography and place are an intrinsic part of the experience of family heritage and genealogy for Punjabis and is examined from different perspectives including how place features in genealogy practices through family history websites. It explores the potential for creating digital sources from public archives as well as the use of oral histories, and considers the different scales and forms of these sources for opening new networks of information to share significant content about place, people or key historical events that have impacted the Punjabi diaspora.  


Find out more

A printed copy of this thesis is available for consultation in the Foyle Reading Room (reference only). An electronic copy is available here.

You can view a recording of a talk given by Chandan about her research.

Watch Chandan's talk


Useful starting references

  • Bonnerjee, J., Blunt, A., McIlwaine, C. and Pereira, C. (2012) Connected communities: diaspora and transnationality. Report funded by AHRC and published by QMUL.

  • Burn, R. (1908) The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 56, No. 2884, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce Stable.

  • Kapur, A. (2019) Mapping place names of India: Routledge, Taylor Francis Group

  • Menon, R. (1999) Cartographies of nations and identities: A post-partition predicament, 1:2, 157-166.

  • Ryan, J. (1997) Picturing Empire: photography and the visualization of the British Empire. London: Reaktion Books.

  • Tolia-Kelly, D. (2011) Landscape, Race and Memory Material Ecologies of Citizenship. Aldershot: Ashgate

  • Vernon, P. (2011) African Diaspora Approaches to Family History & the Collections of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).


Key collections and sources

Map collections

The RGS-IBG holds 30,000 maps of the region from the 15th century onwards, including 20,000 items from the Survey of India. These include a range of maps of the Punjab, including maps listed in ‘The Gazetteer of India and Pakistan’. Compiled under the direction of the Geographical Section, General Staff, Army H.Q., India (1950-53), which were at the centre of this research.

Photography Collection

Another key collection is the images of various key places. With over 7,500 images of India in the collections, including people, festivals, landscape and architecture, there are many items relating to some of the larger cities in the Punjab including Amritsar with some of the earliest images by Samuel Bourne (1834-1912), and W. Howe-Greene’s photographs of significant places in Lahore.


There are over 8,000 books from the 16th century onwards. These include many different travel accounts of individuals who British officers and administrators, or some of the Indians who served the British and provide an insight into the people they have encountered, and the places they have visited. These include books on the history of the Punjab, and genealogy accounts of the elite families in the Punjab including important rulers like Maharajah Ranjit Singh and those who served under him.