Early Southeast Asian Geographic Thought

By Thomas Suarez (Thomas Suarez Rare Maps)
Copyright © 1999 Periplus Edition (H.K.)
Used with permission of the Publisher

This article is adapted from Early Mapping of Southeast Asia, a major new work by ABAA member Thomas Suarez, published by Periplus Edition (H.K.), 1999, and distributed in the US by Charles E. Tuttle Co.

To medieval Europe, the East was the source of silks, spices, and other exotica. It was the environs of Paradise, the place of the original Garden but also of the original Sin. It was the horizon from whence the sun rose, the point from which humankind dispersed throughout the inhabited earth, and the subject of much philosophical speculation. The East invoked montages of strange people with exotic customs, such demontry as the realm of Gog and Magog, and such holiness as the land of Prester John, the apostle Saint Thomas, and even Paradise itself. Beyond these splendorous images, the first "modern", substantive report about the region came to Europe from Marco Polo.

What was going on in Southeast Asia in the period when Marco Polo skirted the region en route to Europe from China that European travelers might have discovered had they veered to the south and east? A flourishing civilization in Cambodia, based around Angkor, extended through much of what is now Thailand. Its sophisticated irrigation systems harnessed the region's alternating six months of torrential rain and infertile drought, producing three rice harvests a year to feed more than one million Cambodian people. The magnificent temple at Angkor, whose ruins remain the largest religious structure in the world, was a century old, and a new temple-mountain, Bayon, was already finished. Angkor's magnificence was rivaled by that of Pagan, in what is now Burma, though that splendid metropolis was destroyed by the Mongols in 1287. In the north of what is now Thailand, Thai people were reaching the area of Lan Na, and in 1296, within a year of Marco Polo's return to Venice, Lan Na's principal city-state of Chiang Mai was founded. The great maritime trading empire of Srivijaya, based around Sumatra and Malaya, had flourished for half a millennium, but was now waning as direct Chinese trade through the Southeast Asian threshold was beginning. In the jungles of central Java, the imposing complex of Borobudur, which had inspired awe-struck pilgrims for generations, was already abandoned, being overgrown by the jungle. The various peoples of the Philippine archipelago remained aloof from the Hindu-Buddhist sphere of the mainland and Indonesian islands, and although Chinese and Arab merchants were frequenting their coastal communities, little is known of the Philippines from this period.

In order to examine early indigenous Southeast Asian maps, we first need to ask: What is a map? We will use a fairly broad definition: a map is a spatial representation of a place, thing, or concept, actual or imagined. Note that the subject of the map is not restricted. A map can chart the path to one's neighboring village, to a successful endeavor or a fortuitous event, or to the next life; it can illuminate the relationship among various levels of existence or desire, or between a previous or future age of the earth. Whether a monk charting the metaphysical, a king illustrating the divine link he shares with the gods, or an ordinary person inspired to scratch out a plan of her paddy in the moist earth for the sheer pleasure of doing so, our definition gives no parameters for the medium used; a map need not even be of a material nature.

Until the arrival of Islam, the Indian tradition was the paramount influence on the Southeast Asian view of the place of the individual on earth. This tradition, which was itself the result of co-mingling among Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain beliefs, placed the earth as a small part of a vast cosmos, according it a far less central role in Creation than Christian doctrine. As a result, the desire to understand the cosmos was a natural matter, since it was simply an extension of knowledge about one's immediate environment. The nature of the cosmos gained yet further significance when Buddhism took hold in Southeast Asia, and 'other-worldliness' took an increasingly important part in formalized cultural practices. The Buddhist concept of release from the cycle of birth and death, for example, required a far-encompassing view of the cosmos.

Jain thought stressed a spatial boundlessness in which the universe contained both known and unknown universes. Hindu traditions stressed the infiniteness of time, illustrated by the concept ofmahakal, the 'time which lies beyond knowable time', while space was often bounded to reflect the spheres of influence (kshetra) of various manifestations of the Hindu concept of god. Early Indian instructional texts, compiled over a period of several hundred years and known as the Purana, were principally devoted to the mysteries of the creation of the universe, rather than the genesis of humankind on earth. This less mortal-centric perspective likely contributed to a greater emphasis on metaphysical mapmaking in early Southeast Asia than in the West, where philosophically-engendered geography, such as is epitomized by 'T-O' maps or Terra Australis, used the earth rather than the cosmos as its vehicle.

Indian and Southeast Asian thought regarding the actual Genesis was typical of what appears to have been a nearly universal concept. As with the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions which later joined it in Southeast Asia, Indian cosmogony envisioned Creation as beginning with a formless seed material; the allegory of an egg, with its yolk surrounded by amorphous embryonic fluid, was a common and natural expression of this thought. This primordial matter gradually assumed the anatomy of the universe (or universes) through the combination of elemental materials formed in the first stage, as well as through the intervention of various agents and natural laws. Eventually, the original fertile substance became articulated with the stars, planets, and all other components of Creation.

In the pre-modern era such cosmology, with regional variation and nuance, was accepted in Asia and in the West. In the West, however, it gradually lost favor when empirical testing and scientific methods became a new gauge of truth, while in Southeast Asia it remained until the pervasive Western influence of the latter nineteenth century. If the importation of Indian beliefs into Southeast Asia began as a means of legitimizing Indian-style political authority, Indian influence may have to some extent dampened empirical cartography in Southeast Asia.

Indian-derived Southeast Asian thought envisioned a large cosmos with many universes. Earth and its universe was pivoted on Mount Sumeru, an axis-mountain of fabulous proportions in the Tibetan Himalayas or Central Asia. Water, mountains, and continents grew from this mountain-axis; the continents were arranged symmetrically as if the petals of a lotus, or as concentric circles of alternating seas and continents. The inhabited earth, called Jambudvipa, formed a central concentric circle, or southern 'petal', and contained the Bharatvarsha, which was the traditional territorial reach of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain cultures. In the nearest sea, called 'Salt Ocean' (Lavansagara), there was a continent, Angadvipa (dvipa = land with water on two sides, or continent), which may have represented Malaya, and Yamadvipa, which may be Sumatra. Another 'continent' which is frequently cited in popular Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain writings is Suvarnadvipa, identified with Indochina, Sumatra, or Southeast Asia in general. In one Thai world view which evolved from this imagery, the earth was a flat surface divided into four continents separated by unnavigable seas, the whole of which was encompassed by a high wall on which all the secrets of Nature are engraved; holy men agilely transported themselves to these walls to learn from its inscriptions.

The sense of humility imparted by concepts of temporal and/or spatial boundlessness nurtured a relatively equitable view of the worth of outside realms. This extended fully from other universes and other worlds, to foreign territories and cultures. In fact, as one moves outward from the Jambudvipa[Indianized sphere] of Indian/Southeast Asian cosmology, the various terrae incognitae one encounters are not forbidding, but rather become progressively more sublime and idealized (though never reaching the status of the various heavens, which lie vertically 'above'). As a result, Southeast Asian perspective of other peoples, and even bloody Southeast Asian conquest, was rarely characterized by the chauvinism of the 'Middle Kingdom' notions of the Han Chinese, or of the West's propensity for dividing the world into 'civilized' and 'savage' nations.

Throughout pre-modern Southeast Asia, the earth was presumed to be flat. In most regions this belief did not begin to fade until well into the nineteenth century, and in rural areas it could be found even into the early twentieth century. Acceptance of the earth's sphericity had to overcome religious objections, since writings in Buddhism contained perceived contradictions to a spherical earth that needed to be interpreted anew before the flat world could be respectfully discarded. Some limited parallel might be made with Western writers who used the Bible to debunk the established Greco-Roman view of a spherical earth, though the flat earth was a minority belief in medieval Europe. Both Christianity and Buddhism rationalized discrepancies between canon and science in similar ways: the writings of their faiths were meant to be taken literally regarding only matters of spiritual truth; details of natural science are revealed figuratively and allegorically. Perhaps Buddha knew that the people to whom he preached were not yet capable of understanding such fantastic notions as a spherical earth, so it was better that he left such spiritually irrelevant matters aside. To address them could only have distracted the people from more important truths.

The mechanical workings of the universe were rationally envisioned within the context of a flat earth. A representative Thai cosmographical text, the Traiphum, described a path between two mountain ranges through which the stars, planets, moon and sun pass "in an orderly fashion" to calibrate time and facilitate astrological knowledge. The celestial objects' flight through the valley "enables us to know the years and the months, the days and the nights, and to know the events, good and bad."

This approach to explaining the mechanics of the universe is analogous to a medieval European concept of a mountain which facilitated night and day by forming a partition behind which the sun and moon disappear in the course of their travel. Many Southeast Asian peoples were conscious of their physical orientation on the earth and in the universe, as regards cardinal directions (the framework for which was set by Sumeru), as well as such semi-metaphysical concepts as earth and sky, inside and outside (one's abode), upstream (or upmountain) and downstream (or downmountain), or towards and away from the right of one's kingdom (equated with the right of a mandala). As with other Asian civilizations, such concepts were often paralleled with male and female attributes.

For the typical peasant working the fields and harvesting the rivers, the 'world' probably amounted to such immediate concerns as the itinerary from home to field to market -- as indeed it still does. The larger view was a more abstract, cosmological and spiritual matter. In this, again, the ordinary Southeast Asian was not different from his or her European contemporaries. Mariners involved with travel on the open seas, boatsmen shuttling up and down a river route, and hills people collecting produce for a central market, all perceived quite a different world 'map'. Those societies of Southeast Asia which were on major commercial itineraries, such as the cosmopolitan Srivijaya kingdom which dominated trade through the Malacca Strait and along the coasts of Sumatra and Java from about 800-1300 A.D., were likely to be more sophisticated about their knowledge of the world. Regions that had accepted Islam might have inherited the Arabic cosmographical tradition, and by the seventeenth century some Islamic courts -- notably Makassar -- had already solicited and zealously studied European geographic and other scientific texts. Others island civilizations, such as the Balinese, preserved a very introspective world view.

Extant Buddhist literature from Lan Na illustrates how the world view of peoples of the inland regions was geographically narrow. The authors of these records were interested in the events of their own region, their own village, and their own monastery. Distant places entered into the archives only when specifically relevant to an event at home, for example if the inspiration for the founding of a local school or temple originated elsewhere. Lan Na records -- the oldest of which are Mon inscriptions on stone dating from the early 1200s -- do not record the history of the local Lawa people, nor any neighboring Burmese kingdom, nor China, nor the Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai or, later, Ayuthaya. The Chiang Mai Wat Jet Yot (temple of the seven spires) symbolically maps seven places in distant India, because these places relate directly to Buddha's life and Buddhist teaching. Similarly, other maps show the temple of Bodh Gaya, the place where Buddha attained enlightenment.

In early Southeast Asia, there was no absolute distinction between the physical, the metaphysical, and the religious; although something might be predominantly sacred or profane, essentially abstract or physical, such concepts blurred together at the edges. Southeast Asian geographic thought, like Southeast Asian life, could be at once empirical and transcendental. However, as with other seemingly exotic characteristics of pre-modern Southeast Asian cosmographic thought, this oneness of the mundane and the fantastic was typical, not extraordinary, in the medieval world.

Astrology, along with its necessary ingredients, astronomy and mathematics, flourished in ancient Southeast Asia, as it did in Europe. In turn, the study of mathematics and astrology connected with celestial and cosmographic ideas. For example, in parts of Southeast Asia, the numbers four, eight, sixteen, and thirty-two were considered to be attributes of Sumeru and thus to have special meaning (the sequence of numbers corresponds to increasing powers of two, and to the numbers 10, 100, 1000, 10,000, and 100,000 in a binary system). Cosmological and mathematical geography had repercussions in the actual political geography of some kingdoms: in the Malaysian courts of Kedah and Pahang there were four great chiefs, eight major chiefs, and sixteen minor chiefs; Perak and Malacca once added thirty-two territorial chiefs. During the enthronement ceremonies in Cambodia and Thailand, the new king was surrounded by eight Brahmans, representing the Lokapalas (world protectors in Hindu mythology) guarding the eight points of the Brahman cosmos. In ninth-century Java, the kingdom ofHi-ling was ruled by thirty-two high officials.

Allegories were naturally suited to Southeast Asian cosmography. The people of volcanically active Banda, for example, believed their archipelago to lie on the horns of a great ox, which caused earthquakes when shaking its head. Bali was said to lie on the back of a turtle, Bedawang, who floated on the ocean. In seventeenth century Mataram (Java), troops were sometimes envisioned as being arranged in the form of a crayfish.

Although Chinese texts record Siamese geographic mapmaking by the year 1373, when the French ambassador Gervaise visited Siam three centuries later, he wrote of the Siamese king's "eight or ten warehouses, among several others, that are of unimaginable wealth," he made no reference to maps, but simply stated that "it is impossible to say how many precious, rare, and curious things" are in these warehouses.

Simon de La Loubère, who followed Gervaise in Ayuthaya (1687-88), specifically stated that he never saw a Thai map, yet he left us a tantalizing hint of a Thai geographic item of some sort. He wrote that he had hoped to secure a Siamese map of the kingdom, but had to settle for one done by a French engineer, M. de la Mare, "who went up the Menam [Chao Phraya], the Principal River of the Country, to the Frontiers of the Kingdom." But since La Loubère believed this map to be inadequate, he had Jean Dominique Cassini, the director of the observatory at the Académie Royale in Paris, "correct it by some Memorials which were given to me at Siam [Ayuthaya]." What were these 'memorials' given to him which helped improve his map of the kingdom? Apparently, they were geographic items of some sort -- yet nothing which in his mind befitted the definition of 'map'. La Loubère did, however, offer an insight into Thai cosmography, having studied and recorded the "rules of the Siamese Astronomy, for calculating the Motions of the Sun and Moon."

Writings loosely attributed to Kosa Pan, a Thai emissary who traveled to France in 1686, reveal a conscious interest in maps. In these memoirs, Kosa Pan matter-of-factly requests a plans of Chambord Castle and "the great temple Notre Dame". At the Siamese embassy's audience at Versailles, Ambassador Pan "made no secret that our most desired objects were maps of the country, plans of palaces and fortresses [and military images]." A contemporary account of Kosa Pan's visit to France contained in the Mercure Galant supports the spirit of these quotes. Independent confirmation of his keen interest in maps and that he indeed obtained them from European sources came four years later, in 1690, when Engelbert Kaempfer visited the ambassador, who was now 'High Chancellor' in charge of foreign affairs, at his home in Ayuthaya. Hanging in "the hall of his house," wrote Kaempfer, were only "pictures of the royal family of France, and European Maps."

The Thai poet Sunthorn Bhoo (1786-1855) speaks of maps quite naturally, writing in a work of fiction that a "ship went out of the way and drifted to an unknown place where nobody could tell where the spot was located on any map."

The absence of any evidence of Philippine mapmaking, nor even any clear mention of them by early visitors, is a great enigma. There is no record that maps played any role in the bustling intercourse that had developed in the many islands of the Philippines, even though entrepreneurs from Luzon were adventurous enough to have established a trading colony in Malaya before the Portuguese burst on the scene at the turn of the sixteenth century. When Thomas Cavendish returned to England in 1588 he brought a map he acquired in the Philippines, but it was of Chinese, not Southeast Asian, origin. In the mid-eighteenth century Alexander Dalrymple, the first head of the British Hydrographic Office, reported that a servant from Luzon had given him a map whose bearings generally agreed with Dalrymple's own, but we do not know whether that 'indigenous' map was ultimately based on Filipino or Spanish information.

Whether this silence represents the lack of any substantial geographic tradition in these regions, or simply the failure of such works to survive the centuries, is disputed. None of the spatial imaging involved with travel, construction, the levying of taxes, or other endeavors necessarily required the making of maps. Various sorts, from nomads to pilgrims to traders and caravaners, routinely traveled confidently without maps. Experience taught the traveler the nature of a route and its itinerary.

Indigenous Southeast Asian maps were not, as far as is known, reproduced via printing methods. To put this aspect into perspective, we can note that all but a minute fraction of the impressively large inventory of extant early European maps is due to their mass-production by woodblock or copperplate, which began in the latter part of the fifteenth century, and (to a much lesser extent) to the establishment of chart-producing houses, which produced multiple manuscript copies of a given map. Nor did Southeast Asian peoples bind their maps into atlases or other books, save for Chinese-influenced Vietnamese works, and the Traiphum and other cosmographic or itinerary-related works from Thailand. A comparison of extant copies of European maps bound into books as compared to maps produced in similar numbers but sold as loose sheets will demonstrate the enormous effect this has on survival rate. If we were to subtract from the surviving corpus of European maps those reproduced by printing, by chart-copying houses, and those preserved in books, the history of European mapmaking would be little less mysterious than that of Southeast Asia.

Other factors limited the chance of a document's survival to our time. The climate in most parts of Southeast Asia promoted decay of organic materials. Vast archives were lost in war; most famously, the Burmese sacking of Ayuthaya in 1767 is said to have destroyed most contemporary Thai records. Finally, the cultures themselves perhaps lacked any concern for the survival of such items to the distant future, or deliberately conceived such documents as temporary creations. This is seen in the extreme in Tibet, where cosmographic mandalas painstakingly created from powdered sand were swept away after brief ceremonial use, symbolizing the Buddhist concept of the impermanence of life. There is also speculation that Siamese authorities periodically purged their archives of older materials which were no longer current. This practice, known as chamra, may have been especially common when Siamese authorities began adopting Western surveying techniques during the nineteenth century, their new mapping 'language' rendering the entirety of their past cartographic archives no longer relevant.

Secrecy may have played a role in limiting the survival of indigenous maps, just as it did in Renaissance Spain and Portugal, and in Japan. La Loubère speculated about secrecy in Siam in the seventeenth century, observing that "the Siamese have not made a Map of their Country" or that they "know how to keep it a secret." But while the experiences of La Loubère offered no direct evidence of Thai cartographic secrecy, those of a British ambassador in the early nineteenth century most certainly did. John Crawfurd, sent as ambassador to Bangkok in the early 1820s, actually detailed his acquisition of geographic data from a Thai mariner. The account of the embassy, published in 1828, contained a "Map of the Kingdoms of Siam and Cochin China" by John Walker, which was compiled from the embassy's own surveys and older sources, as well as from information obtained (we learn from the book's final appendix) from "a Mohammedan mariner, a native of Siam," whose vessel's ports-of-call occasionally coincided with those of the British mission. But Crawfurd gathered his information from his Thai source only when far from Siamese soil. His records describe how the mariner grew increasingly apprehensive about divulging information as they approached Siam.

The power structure in Dutch-held Indonesia may have promoted secrecy regarding population and land divisions. Dutch authorities, in the interest of corporate efficiency, relegated some responsibilities to local chiefs rather than burden the Dutch East India Company with direct responsibility for indigenous infrastructure. These chiefs, in turn, would have benefited from keeping confidential particular information about their turf and its population.

Although there is only scant record of maps in early Southeast Asia, there is ample reference to writing materials and methods. With the exception of stone edifices, the media used were often volatile, and the climates with which they had to contend promoted decay. Maps for day-to-day affairs may have been drawn on leaves, a common medium for writing in Southeast Asia. As described by Ralph Fitch, a visitor in Burma in the late sixteenth century who witnessed appeals being made to the king, "supplications [to the king of Burma are] written in the leaves of a tree with the point of an iron bigger than a bodkin. These leaves are an ell long and about two inches broad; they are also double." This was a description of palm leaves, which maximally measure about 6-7 cm wide by about 55-60 cm long. The 'iron bigger than a bodkin' was the stylus which was used to incise the characters. A thick paper, made from the bark of mulberry and other trees, was another common writing medium, and was more durable than leaves. This khoi paper was brown or black, but could also be bleached white.

Writing on palm leaves may not always have been obvious to European eyes not privy to the medium. The initial 'bruising' of the leaf with the stylus did not necessarily make an obvious image; to heighten the image, the leaf would be rubbed with a sooty substance and then wiped clean, leaving a black imprint in the rubbed areas of the yellowish leaf. These leaves were quite practical, as they could be rolled and carried without concern for their getting wet, which in the downpours of the rainy season and in river travel must have been a common occurrence. Although water might wash off the image, leaving the leaf 'blank', the messenger or recipient had only to apply some soot (even from a dirty finger) to restore the image. Thus the writing on a leaf being couriered through the elements might, in such circumstances, not be visible to another person. A Chinese ambassador in Angkor in 1296-97 was struck by this, writing that when the leaves are "rubbed with something moist, [the characters] disappear."

A more durable medium than palm leaves was described by the same Chinese observer. Chou noted that "for ordinary correspondence, as well as official documents, deer skin is used, which is dyed black" and written on with a type of white chalk. The Thai word for 'book', nangsü, derives from nang(skin, hide, or bark) and sü (written character). Cloth and cowhide were also used as writing media.

Maps of an inherently transient nature are documented in the Caroline Islands, also known in the eighteenth century as the 'New Philippines'. The Philosophical Transactions from the Year MDCC included a map of the Carolines copied from an indigenous map consisting of stones arranged to represent islands. The Transactions explains that

the map was not made by Europeans, for none have yet been upon these islands, but by the islanders themselves, after this manner. Some of the most skilful of them arranged upon a table as many little stones as there are islands belonging to their country; and marked out, as well as they could, the name of each, its extent and distance from the others: And this is the map, thus traced out by the Indians, that is here engraved.

Peripheral evidence suggests that the human body might have served as a cartographic medium in Southeast Asia, though this is only speculation. There are two forms this might have taken, one 'permanent', the other temporal: tattoing, and the positioning of the hand and fingers into a map. Tattoing was prevalent in much of Southeast Asia before the dictates of Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity suppressed such body art. A batik map from Java, tentatively dated at bout 1800, is known to exist, and tattooing and batik may have a common past. There is no record of tattooed maps in Southeast Asia proper, but what appear to be tattooed cartographic motifs are described in some detail by a Frenchman traveling in the Caroline Islands in the early nineteenth century.

The positioning of the hand and fingers into the form of a map was codified by João de Barros, Lisbon's official historian of Portuguese adventures in the Indies. Writing in the mid-sixteenth century, Barros 'made' a map of Southeast Asia by instructing his reader to hold his left hand's fingers in a prescribed position. Not only were the coastal contours of mainland Southeast Asia reasonably well-represented by the fingers, but inland points were marked as well, by way of the knuckles and joints. The origin of the idea is not known.

We do not know how representative surviving Southeast Asian maps are, either in terms of quantity or characteristics, since the durability of the various media used, as well as the inclination of their makers to preserve them, spanned the range from perhaps as little as seconds, to millennia. The extant corpus of Southeast Asian maps probably does not accurately represent the relative numbers of various types of maps in everyday Southeast Asian life, since the survival of maps is heavily skewed in favor of cosmological maps. Stone edifices, by a great margin the most durable of cartographic media, were used for cosmological and religious cartography, and such cartography did not become obsolete. Geographic maps would more likely have been on far less permanent media, would have been subject to wear and loss, and might be superceded by more current mapping. The sand mandalas of Tibet are the exception, since the impermanence of these cosmographic maps was part of their very meaning, but their story is part of 'permanent' record of their society.

With these limitations in mind, we can look at the various types of Southeast Asian maps, the dates of surviving examples of each, and comment on their counterparts in the West. We can divide Southeast Asian maps into four general categories:

  1. Those which are purely cosmographic (in this context meaning 'metaphysical' or 'spiritual') in nature, or otherwise non-geographic. 
  2. Those that symbolically represent actual geographic features for religious or cosmographic purposes. 
  3. Those that attempt to record true geography, whether by report or empirical observation.
  4. Itineraries, whether written, memorized, or committed to song, that served as maps, constructing in one's mind an image of time and space, direction, topography, and landmarks.

There is not always a fine line separating these categories. Just as daily life in Southeast Asia could entwine the mundane with the magical, Southeast Asian cartographic thought could blur the distinction among the cosmographic, symbolic, and empirical.

In pre-modern Southeast Asia, mapping one's path to a different level of existence was as important as charting the way to the next valley. Maps representing the intangible or metaphysical world in the form of stone temples or edifices are the earliest surviving Southeast Asian maps.

In order to look at Southeast Asia's cosmological maps, it is necessary to look at the place of mountains in Southeast Asian life. Mountains, a primary feature of the Southeast Asian physical landscape, were part of the region's spiritual landscape as well. A king's sovereignty was often inextricably linked with a mountain, actual or symbolic. Mountains could represent the embodiment of higher states of existence, or be the dwelling place of gods. Reverence for mountains was indigenous, and was complemented by outside influences. The most famous of spiritual mountains was Sumeru, believed to lie to the north, in the right of the world, that is, in the Tibetan Himalayas or the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia.

When Hinduism spread through Southeast Asia, beginning in about the first century A.D., it imported Sumeru and other traditions about mountains, which merged with indigenous animist religions. The Hindu god, Indra, was sovereign of Sumeru, and dwelled in a place called Trayastrima at the mountain's summit. The Khmers of Cambodia had their own equivalent of Sumeru, which they called Mount Mahendra; when Hindu beliefs reached Cambodia, the religious aspect of Mahendra merged with early Khmer rulers thus creating a god of mountains. Siva, the most powerful of Hindu gods, was the 'Lord of the Mountain', and the belief in Siva as a mountain deity existed in Cambodia as early as the fifth century. Early thirteenth century Chinese annals record that in a country to the west of Cambodia "there is a mountain called Wu-nung [probably from the Malay word for mountain,gunong]" from which one has entered Nirvana. In Burma as well, the imported Hindu veneration of mountains assimilated indigenous spirits.

Bali, according to a common legend of the island, was originally a flat, mountainless land; however, when Islam supplanted Hinduism throughout most of Java, the Hindu gods, having elected to resettle on neighboring Bali, first needed to create on their new island, mountains that were high enough to be their new homes. In another version, the mountains were moved from eastern Java. The most exalted of these god-dwellings, the Balinese 'Sumeru', was Gunung Agung, on the east of the island. Bali was the world, and Mount Agung was its 'navel' (puséh). Representations of Sumeru, which are in effect cosmological maps, are invariably found in the temples of even the most humble Balinese villages.

Mountains were the source of spiritual life; they were also the origin of the other 'element' of the world, rivers, and thus were the source of physical life as well. As the source of life, the perfect silhouette of an Indonesian mountain, towering above the valley floor or rising above the seas, was sometimes compared to the image of a breast.

Sumeru was symbolically replicated throughout Hindu-Buddhist Southeast Asia. Hindu temples righted on shrines representing Sumeru, the axis of the universe, date from the seventh century in Java, and edifices with Buddhist architectural symbols based on Sumeru survive from the eighth century. The epitome of these is the great temple at Borobudur (circa 800 A.D.). Borobudur and neighboring Hindu-Buddhist temples which chart the various states of existence, are the earliest surviving maps in Southeast Asia. The lower levels of Borobudur depict mundane matters and represent lower states of reality; as one rises to the upper levels the subjects become increasingly elevated and metaphysical, with the very top symbolizing blissful enlightenment. Taken as a whole, the structure maps the oneness of the cosmos.

Similar motifs, with different media, are recorded in early Vietnam. By the late tenth century, about the time Vietnam regained independence from China after nearly a thousand years of vassalage, Vietnamese artists mapped cosmological beliefs by the construction of a 'mountain' of bamboo in a river, and the following century by a brick edifice with adjoining ponds.

In Cambodia, the magnificent temples at Angkor (early twelfth century) also form a cosmological map, charting both space and time. Modern researchers have discovered that the distance between elements of the temple, going east to west, corresponds to the number of years in the present -- final -- age of the earth, according to Hindu belief, measured in hat (1 hat = approximately 0.4 meters).

When Buddha stepped back onto earth after reaching enlightenment, his feet made an imprint in the various places he stepped, the first and most venerated of these being the supposed imprint atop Adam's Peak in Ceylon. This not only added to the Southeast Asian veneration of mountains, since it was via Ceylon that Southeast Asia assimilated Theravada Buddhism beginning in the late twelfth to early thirteenth century, but also led to the use of Buddha's footprint itself as a cosmological framework. For a follower of the faith, the symbolism of Buddha's footprint upon the earth is roughly comparable to that of the crucifix for Christians. Just as the cross assumed some cosmographic iconography in medieval Europe, the image of Buddha's footprint sometimes served as the framework for maps, known as Buddhapada, of Creation in Southeast Asia.

Representations of a multi-dimensional universe, such as the temples that emulate Sumeru and its spectrum of states of existence, are a hallmark of Asian cartographic thought, but have analogies in the West as well. Homeric mythology speaks of the heights of Mount Olympus as the abode of the gods, a region of great tranquility, and this idea was perpetuated in medieval Europe by such authors as Pomponius Mela and Solinus. Cosmological renderings of the earth in the context of the elements and religious/celestial spheres reflected many Europeans' view of Creation. Had Dante known of Borobudur, he would have found its symbolism eminently natural -- like Dante's Commedia, it uses a mountain to stratify good and evil, heaven and hell.

The Portuguese poet Luis vaz de Camões, who himself passed many years sailing about the Indies, described such metaphysical geography in his epic poem, The Lusiads. In imagery that might be understood as well in Borobudur as in Lisbon or Rome, Camões describes Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese conqueror of the sea route to the Indies, being led by a nymph up a mountain to a "lofty mountain-top, in a meadow studded with emeralds and rubies that proclaimed to the eye it was no earthly ground they trod." On this mountain, which a Buddhist or Hindu could easily mistake for Sumeru, "they beheld, suspended in the air, a globe" which replicated the "the mighty fabric of creation, ethereal and elemental."

Next, in words that could equally well describe the symbolism of Borobudur's summit, the nymph explained that the highest sphere "rotates about the other lesser spheres within, and shines with a light so radiant as to blind men's eyes and their imperfect understanding as well." This highest level, where "the souls of the pure attain to that Supreme Good that is God himself," seems interchangeable with the state of moksa of Hinduism and Jainism, and the nirvana of Buddhism. Camões' nymph then described the various spheres below, which include the stars, sun, and planets. Below these, in the right, lies "the abode of mankind", and underneath is the realm of Hecate, goddess of darkness. Thus in European metaphysical thought, as in that of Southeast Asia, 'higher' and 'lower' physical space was a metaphor for higher and lower states of existence, and in turn for good and evil.

Some early Southeast Asian maps symbolically depict the geography of spiritual events, thus forming a genre intermediate between the cosmographic and geographic. Such representations of sacred geographic space, found in several stone temples, represent the earliest surviving non-cosmographic Southeast Asian maps. Burmese temples in Pagan (thirteenth century) and Pegu (fifteenth century), as well as Lan Na temples in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai (both fifteenth century and now part of Thailand), replicate sites around Bodh Gaya in northeast India, where Buddha attained enlightenment. Burmese chronicles record that artisans were sent to the temple at Bodh Gaya, thought to have been made in the third century B.C., to draw plans for the Pegu rendering of the temple.

As with cosmological maps, there are abundant Western analogies to such maps. Representations of the path of the Buddha, which we have already seen in the arrangement of temple spires and will find again in the Traiphum manuscript, parallel European maps which illuminate the peregrinations of saints and prophets, or the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. A more subtle example is found in the medieval 'T-O' map, which depicts the earth as a circle with a superimposed 'T' shape, dividing the circle into Asia (the area above the 'T'), Africa (lower right), and Europe (lower left). The 'T' itself, while providing the rudimentary divisions of the continents, may have been derived from the Greek tau, an ancient form of the cross that was adopted by early Christians as a clandestine symbol of their faith. Thus, the 'T' symbolically superimposed Christ upon the entire earth, and, in fact, some medievalmappaemundi placed the literal figure of Christ over the world. The letters 'T' and 'O' may, for some authors, have also denoted Orbis Terrarum, that is, the 'sphere of the earth'.

The mapping of Southeast Asian soil, in a most rudimentary sense, may be found in semi-cosmographic, semi-'terrestrial' stone carvings which were placed at the right of some Cham villages or territorial groups. Such monoliths were a microcosm of a well-defined territory, spiritually linked with stones on the territory's boundary. The all-important central stone was in part an elementary cadastral symbol, a 'map' of the land; at the same time, it was a guarantor of fertility and an object of religious veneration. Since territorial statues and religion were entwined, and since religion partly served to legitimize rights to land, the monolith's cadastral, fertility, and religious aspects worker together in harmony.

Beyond the purely speculative evidence cited earlier to suggest a long history of indigenous mapmaking, true record of empirical Southeast Asian mapping begins with textual references to maps from Vietnam, Java, and Thailand. Chinese records demonstrate that mapmaking had a part in the Thai court by the later 1300s. The Ming Annals record that in 1373 the Ming court received an embassy from the country of Hsian-Lo (believed to be the region of Sukhothai, Ayuthaya, and Lop Buri, central Thailand). According to the Ming Annals,

. . . envoys were sent [from Hsian-Lo] to congratulate on the New Year Festival of the next year and to present native products. Moreover, they [the Thais] submitted a map of their own country.

The earliest known reference to a map from insular Southeast Asia is found directly in a Chinese account of the Yuan invasion of Java in 1292-93. Compiled in 1369-70, the Yuan shi (History of the Yuan) records that in 1293 Raden Vijaya, a leader of the Javanese state of Kediri, presented a map and census record to a Yuan military commander, thus symbolizing submission to Chinese rule. This event suggests that mapmaking had already been a formal part of governmental affairs in Java.

Although surviving Southeast Asian geographic maps present a wide diversity of characteristics, some generalizations can be made. Cartography was doubtfully a profession in itself. As with pre-Renaissance Europe, Southeast Asian cartographers rarely left any mark of their authorship, and maps were rarely dated. Maps generally lacked uniform scale and were not constructed on any particular projection. No known Southeast Asian map has any grid to represent latitude or longitude, though both Varthema and Albuquerque alluded to rhumb lines on Javanese charts.

Southeast Asian cartographers tended to stylize features and exaggerate waterways. Chinese art and cartography are similar in this regard, and the stylization of water systems can be found on medieval European maps as well. Stylized maps are still used when simplicity and clarity are a higher priority than accuracy of scale or direction, such as in the mapping of subway lines and electronic circuits.

Travel in early Southeast Asia was probably more dependent on itineraries than maps per se. The sorts of geographic aids used by Southeast Asian peoples may well have amounted to instructions, not so different from the types of aids a pilgrim or sailor may have used in medieval Europe. The village to which one was traveling would be 'mapped' as being so many days by perahu upriver, after which the traveler finds a bend in its course and a certain landmark, at which point one then leaves the boat and crosses the mountains just to the left of where the sun rises, and after two more days following sundry other topographical clues, one reaches the destination.

In such itineraries, two different methods could be used to measure distances traveled: distance could be noted in units of linear measure, or in units of elapsed time. In Thailand, linear distance was measured in wa (fathom), a unit which probably equaled about 1.8 meters, but is today fixed at 2 meters. According to oral tradition, one of the people in the king's retinue would carry a 'wa-stick', a stick cut to the exact length of one wa. It would be that person's responsibility to flick the stick over and over with his wrist, as they walked, to record the number of wa traveled.

Elapsed travel time was, however, the more common gauge of distance for longer journeys, and was usually measured in khrao (overnight stages). The association of physical space with time, rather than literal distance, is perhaps one reason why indigenous maps generally appear to have no uniform scale -- scale may have been consistent with elapsed time of travel rather than linear distance.

Interpreting route lists was a bit of an art -- as it was to interpret the itineraries and pilot guides of medieval Europe (it is no coincidence that the title of a great Spanish navigational treatise, published in 1545, is Arte de Navigar, The 'Art' -- inferring an acquired skill rather than a precise science -- of Navigation). As with European and Arab pilot books, it is likely that even if a map was drawn to illustrate a journey, the guiding data would be the itinerary.

Caroline Islanders memorized the relative distance between their islands in terms of travel time on the sea. Spanish missionaries visiting the islands in the early eighteenth century solicited this data and recorded it on the map engraved for the Philosophical Transactions of 1721. The Transactionsexplains that the numbers on that map placed in, and between, islands are travel times as related by the islanders:

The figure in the midst of every island, shows how many days sail it is in circumference. The figure between each island, shows how many days are required to pass from one to the other.

Thus the number within each island indicates the island's size measured in the number of days it takes to circumnavigate, and the number between islands indicates the distance between islands, likewise recorded in units of sea-borne days. Such indigenous itinerary data were later converted to European linear scales, such as leagues of 3 Italian miles on the map by Father Cantova.

That the assimilation of Western mapmaking and cosmography was not an even process is colorfully illustrated in mid-nineteenth century Siam. Western cosmological principles were by that time already accepted by some members of the Siamese court, yet mapmaking within its doors showed no need to 'look' Western. Excerpts from an account by Frederick Neale, an Englishman who visited Siam in the 1840s and who was shown a map by the king paint a vivid image of this.

The king, to illustrate a territorial dispute with Burma, produced "a chart of the two kingdoms which had been drawn by his prime minister." The visitors thought it such gibberish that they were "very nearly outraging all propriety by bursting into fits of laughter, and very painful was the curb we were obliged to wear to constrain our merriment."

The map, indeed, was hardly a 'map' in their eyes: "The map was about three feet by two; in the right was a patch of red, about eighteen inches long by ten broad; above it was a patch of green, about ten inches long by three wide. On the whole space occupied by the red was pasted a singular looking figure [representing the Siamese king], cut out of silver paper, with a pitch-fork in one hand and an orange in the other; there was a crown on the head, and spurs on the heels . . . His Majesty [explained that] such portion of the chart as was painted red indicated the Siamese possessions, whereas the green signified the Burmese territory." Within Burma, an ill-formed black figure represented Tharawaddy, the Burmese king, and many disoriented small figures represented his subjects.

In closing, let's look at one interesting, early example of Southeast Asian witness to European mapmaking techniques, specifically a French attempt to use an eclipse of the moon to determine the longitude of Siam. Paris in the latter seventeenth century had become a right for the sciences, including cosmography and the determination of longitude. With scientific, commercial, political, and religious aims all in mind, France embarked upon a series of embassies to Southeast Asia, the first setting sail for Siam in 1685, with Chevalier de Chaumont as envoy. Soon after the embassy's return to France in 1686, five accounts were published by its participants; two of the accounts are especially useful here, that of Father Guy Tachard, a Jesuit missionary who returned to Siam in 1687 and again in 1698, and Abbé de Choisy, a fascinating character who had the rank of co-ambassador and who brought with him a reputation for transvestism, seducing young women, and then dressing them up as men. Add to that the humorless, impossibly rigid Chaumont, and the embassy must have been an interesting bunch indeed.

The expedition was endowed with a veritable laboratory. For the necessary celestial observations they brought "several large telescopes of 12, 15, 18, 25, 50, and eighty Foot." For the all-important task of keeping time during the lunar eclipses they lugged along "two repetition-pendulum-clocks," and for various other experiments and measurements they carried "lodestones, microscopes, several thermometers and barometers, and the tubes and machines that serve in making experiments of vacuity," and two "machines of Romer", a type of orrery, "one of which represents the motion of the planets, and the other the eclipses of the sun and moon." Related to the longitude theory and experimentation, they also brought "tables of the satelites of Jupiter, which have been made with so great labour." By recording the difference in local time between the two locations when the eclipse occurs, they hoped to establish a more accurate figure for the longitude of Siam.

The eclipse was observed from Lop Buri, a town city north of Ayuthaya used by the king as a country retreat. With their native hosts looking on, the French scientists assembled their gear at "a royal house called Thlee-Poussonne, a short league from Louvo eastwards, not far from the forest where the king was hunting elephants" (-Tachard). There, on December 11, King Narai joined the French in observing the heavens through a twelve-foot telescope.

"The King expressed a particular satisfaction," Tachard wrote, "seeing all the spots of the moon in the telescope, and especially perceiving that the type of map that was made at the observatory of Paris,agreed so well with it." The technology was a novelty for Narai, but the prediction of celestial events was not; this same eclipse had been predicted to within about a quarter-hour by a "Bramen astrologer" in Lop Buri, though he misjudged its duration.

Map of Southeast Asia by Jodocus Hondius, 1606,from the Mercator Atlas.

Although Western mapmaking philosophies have now replaced native cartographical thought, it would be misleading to see the evolution of Southeast Asian cartography as a gradual incorporation of European values. The modern Western ethic of mapmaking -- that is, that maps should present geographic data in the most 'accurate' and clear, analytical fashion possible -- was not a principal goal of Southeast Asia's cartographers, just as it was doubtfully a major concern of most mapmakers of medieval Europe.

This article is Copyright © 1999 Periplus Editions. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the copyright holder and/or the author.


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