The Traiphum cosmography from the Siamese provides a good example. At first glance, it already differs greatly from the maps that we are familiar with. For one, there are images within the cosmography, and the routes do not seem particularly instructive. This is because it is a symbolic and pictorial representation of King Ruang’s “Three Worlds”, which is a Theravada Buddhism text about the religious universe where Thai Buddhists have traditionally lived. Within the Three Worlds, there are 31 levels, and where one resides depends on the merit accrued from one’s previous life. The damned are doomed to exist at the lowest levels of hell, whilst the most meritorious beings are at the highest.
However, this is not to say that the Traiphum cosmography only represents the spiritual realm; it also details the life of the Buddha in the human world, as well as the legends of Buddhism arriving at Suwannaphum, which we now know as mainland Southeast Asia.
This coexistence of the spiritual and the profane can be seen in panels one to ten, which details the story of Buddha’s life (each rectangle stands for a panel, to be read horizontally from left to right). You can see the tree under which the Buddha was born, the seven trees under which he rested, and the various places where he preached, such as the mountain of giants and demons, and a town of animals. Moreover, because stories take precedence over geography, the Traiphum can stretch from Lanna, or northern Thailand (panel five) to Lao and Vietnamese regions (panel five to seven), and to Ceylon, or Sri Lanka (panels nine to ten) in a seemingly continuous route.
Their conception of space then, is fluid and not confined by what is observable and material. Instead, the cosmography illustrates the Siamese culture’s subjective and imaginative understanding of the world where demons, sages, deities, nature and humans could all roam in different realms.