Life, death and the lie of the land

Royal Siamese Maps
July 8, 2005

In 1996, two royal officials were rummaging through cabinets in the Inner Court of the Grand Palace in Bangkok in search of regal clothing for a new museum display. They chanced upon five rolls of cotton cloth. When they unravelled them, they found exquisite hand-drawn maps dating back to the 18th century. Twelve more were discovered in the dusty cupboard. They took them to the Thai art historian Archan Julathusana Byachrananda, who showed them to Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who was interested in cartography.

Under her patronage, they were repaired with traditional mulberry paper, preserved and catalogued in Thai and English. She has contributed the foreword to this lavishly illustrated study by two distinguished academics.

These maps are a treasure trove for historians and geographers of South-East Asia. Santanee Phasuk and Philip Stott describe the meticulous process of dating them, assessing their cartographic and historical reliability and exploring them as a working catalogue. While they feature mainly Siam, they include Cambodia as well as the Malay peninsula. They are all genuine topographical documents, prepared principally for trade and military strategy and campaigns between 1782 and 1851, in the reigns of Kings Rama II and Rama III. They may be the only extant indigenous maps from this period, thus rendering them of international importance.

The maps are also beautiful works of art, comparable to mural paintings (as contributor Henry Ginsberg points out) embellished with enchanting pictorial elements using colour washes in muted shades of grey, green, red, yellow and blue. They are delicately drawn in pen and black ink, and reveal a lost world of South-East Asian landscapes, filled with vivid details such as temples, ships, houses, vegetation and marine life. Buddhist temples are drawn as pictograms that are often stylistically accurate. Of special importance are representations of travelling routes, remarkably precise river systems, mountain passes and military barracks, magnified here to enhance the artistic skill and texture of the material. There are records of events such as stormy seas, with waves drawn as concentric arcs in the traditional Thai convention and charming aquatic creatures disporting among them.

A fascinating reference to a case of arson at the home of someone called Phra Suwannakhiri appears on the Muang Thawai map, which covers the boundary between Burma and Thailand. Finely painted red flames flicker around the yellow roof. Inscriptions indicate that it was started by Siamese forces, although Burmese armies were attacking the area. The Three Pagodas Pass, linking the two countries, is shown with three evocatively rendered pagodas. What is interesting too, say the authors, is that this particular map shows that state boundaries existed in the 1700s, whereas it has been argued that they had not existed until Rama IV became king in 1851.

The Khmen Nai Ni map shows the temples of Angkor in Cambodia, an area under Siamese rule during the 17th century, featuring the Tonle Sap lake at the centre, with delightful, stylised fish in red and blue enlivening the scene. Highly sophisticated pictograms illustrate the temples, thus indicating that the site was clearly known in the 1700s, although its discovery is often dated to 1860 when it was visited by the French explorer Henri Mouhot. The city of Phnom Penh appears as a square topped by four turrets, and military barracks reveal defences built against the threat of Vietnamese invasion.

So rich a find suggests a significant cartographic tradition and the authors believe other maps may exist. As research continues on these rare documents, illuminating a wealth of historical and artistic detail, this book celebrates the discovery of a lost world.

Denise Heywood worked in Cambodia as a journalist for three years and is a lecturer for the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies and the British Museum's Asian art course.

Royal Siamese Maps: War and Trade in 19th-Century Thailand

Author - Santanee Phasuk and Philip Stott
Publisher - River Books, Bangkok
Pages - 208
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 974 8225 92 5

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