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Sri Lankan Muslims

In Search of Taprobane: the Western discovery and mapping of Ceylon

by Ananda Abeydeera

z_fea01.jpg (35113 bytes)Western cartographic interest in Taprobane, later Ceylon now Sri Lanka, is of hallowed antiquity. In

pre-Christian times, it was Onesicritus, companion of Alexander the Great's campaigns in northwestern India, who gave that name to an island in the Southern Sea.

Determining its size, shape, and exact position was a vexed question from the earliest ages of classical geography and there has long been speculation among the ancient Greeks and the Romans as to whether Taprobane was a second world or whether it was a very great island. Strabo, the geographer and historian who oriented it wrongly in the direction of Ethiopia gave its length as over 5000 stades and Eratosthenes estimated the length of the island as equal to 8000 stades.

z_fea02.jpg (21715 bytes)Repeating a similar misconception of his time the anonymous Greek sailor from the Roman Egypt stated in the Periplus Maris Erythraei That Taprobane extended from the east to the west and that it was large enough almost to reach the coast of Africa. Pomponius Mela was uncertain whether he should consider Taprobane a large island or the commencement of another world. Hipparchus saw it as a new hemisphere and the Elder Pliny, the celebrated Roman encyclopedist, observed that it was held to be another world and that it was discovered to be an island only in Alexander's time. Ptolemy depicted it as an Indian ocean island of nearly continental size giving it 15 degrees breadth and located it athwart the equator in the final regional map of his Geography.

Ptolemy's Geography fell into oblivion in the West, only to be revived after the fall of the Byzantine empire in the fifteenth century when it became available to European scholars through a number of editions. In this way, the ancient name "Taprobane" also was revived, but it now had to compete with another, newer name, "Saylam", one of the several names Sri Lanka knew during its long history. An island called Saylam was known to the West as early as the thirteenth century through the travel account of Marco Polo. Apparently European cosmographers and travellers did not understand that "Seylam" or "Seylan" of their time was merely another name for island Ptolemy called "Taprobane" twelve centuries earlier.

z_fea03.jpg (23645 bytes)The great esteem in which Ptolemy was held on matters of geography and cartography was such that travellers and map makers, believed in its existence, were now looking for an obsolete Taprobane, a name that was long lost.

The name Taprobane had been applied to Sumatra from the fifteenth century onwards, after a misunderstanding by the Italian traveller Nicolo di Conti. Conti was the first European traveller who distinguished Ceylon from Taprobane and identified the latter as Sumatra, which it will be noted, athwart the equator. Subsequent geographers, historians, cosmographers and thinkers alike became engaged in a controversy over its proper identification. Considerable confusion began to exist as to whether Ceylon or Sumatra was the island of Taprobane described by Eratosthenes, Strabo, Pliny, Ptolemy, Cosmas, Indicopleustes and depicted in the Hereford, Ebstrof, "Catalan Atlas' mappaemundi and on Fra Mauro's planisphere and Martin Behaim's globe. The maps such as "Cantino", "Caverio" and "Contarini" have misled the contemporary viewers who in their turn transmitted this confusion either through implicitly casual discussions or even deliberately explicit instructions to mapmakers who in their turn propagated it just as naively and with the same degree of intelligence as their informants through the documents they were producing for their immediate users.

Groping in the hazy conceptions of his geography to make sense of his discoveries, Christopher Columbus, finding himself on Hispaniola, thought that he had already reached Taprobane and made an offering thereof to Ferdinand and Isabella thinking they were worthy of possessing an island of such vast magnitude. Castilian prelate and overzealous friar Jimenezd de Cisneros disparaged Columbus's pretensions that he had been to Taprobane but asserted that he himself would embark upon a voyage in search of the "true Taprobana" if their most Christian majesties would favour him with their permission and provide him with a formidable fleet.

In the course of the Renaissance in Portugal, at the height of their geographical and political expansion, there took place a flurry of serious discussions on the Taprobane question. All the chroniclers, cosmographers (including the author of the "Cantino" and "Caverio" maps) and King Dom Manuel himself who sponsored the expeditions of discoveries seemed to think that they were obliged to express their opinion in one way or another on this controversial issue. The two letters that King D. Manuel addressed to the Emperor Maximilian and Castillian kings served the purpose of bringing into fuller knowledge of the latest news that concerned Taprobane, subsequent to the return voyage of Vasco de Gama. The third letter that D. Manuel addressed to the Cardinal protector, announces that his power extended as far as "Taprobana considered a long time ago as a another world".

Taprobane stirred the minds of people in every country and filled them with wonder. Scholars of all nations and persuasions entered the fray: in Portugal, Joao de Barros, Diogo do Couto, Luis de Camoes, Faria e Sousa, Garcia da Orta, and Castanheda; in Italy humanists such as Porcacchi, Bordone Ramusio, Fra Castoro, Gastaldi, the travellers and adventurers Nicolo di Conti and Ludovico di Varthema and the famed discoverers Caboto, Amerigo and Juan Vespucci; Tommaso Campanella located his utopian "City of the Sun" on Taprobane to reflect his dream of converting all mankind to Catholism; in Germany and France, such reputed cosmographers as Sebastian Munster, Andre Thevet, and Francois Belleforest; and among prominent mapmakers, Waldseemuller, Laurent Fries, Mercator, Ortelius, and Hondius; in Spain the chief cosmographer of Philipe II Alonso de Santa Cruz and humanist Las Casas,

Cervantes made Don Quixote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza two of the greatest characters in European fiction to encounter the emperor and lord of the great island Taprobana.

The peculiar geographical vicissitudes of Taprobane drew the attention of leading figures from western history, Ramusio, Gossellin, Kant, and Cassini who concerned with the dilemma, attempted to resolve the question of Taprobane's identification with countries ranging from Sumatra to Madagascar: Venetian geographer, historian and humanist Ramusio relying on an account of an anonymous Portuguese and based on geographical and astronomical data sought to reconcile the location and dimensions of Sumatra with the position and size of the island that Iambulus the Greek merchant claimed to have discovered. The aim of his argument thereby was to determine that this island was precisely the Taprobane of the classical authors.

To justify the greatly exaggerated size that Ptolemy attributed to Ceylon, the French geographer, Gosseinn, assumed that the geographers of Alexandria erroneously considered the entire landmass of the Deccan from the Bay of Cambay downwards as separated from the Indian subcontinent and hence depicted it as forming part of the island of Taprobane. Immanuel Kant, the foremost thinker of the Enlightenment, lecturing on physical geography, on the other hand, rejected the strange hypothesis of Gossellin that Taprobane in fact was the virtually non-existent Dekkan Peninsula in Ptolemy's map of India, ventured to maintain that it was nothing other than Madagascar situated far apart from both the Dekkan and Sumatra. Prominent astronomer and geodesist Giovanni Dominique Cassini took a totally divergent view and sought in the Maldives archipelago sufficient proof to salvage Ptolemy's Taprobane inundated by tempestuous tidal effects of the sea, and the remaining atolls alone attesting to where it had been before.

R. V. Tooley thought Ptolemy's inflated 'Taprobane' may have been distended with place names from Sumatra as well as from Ceylon. Norman J. W. Thrower spoke about Ptolemy's truncated India with an exaggerated Taprobane. Crone wrote that Ptolemy perhaps confused the greatly overestimated size of Taprobana with the peninsular form of the Indian sub-continent.

Seeking a possible explanation for causes which might have generated this deformity, J. Schwatzberg drew attention to he troublesomeness of the usage of the term dvipa in the Indian cosmographic texts which is variously rendered as "island", "Island continent" or simply "continent" and assumed that the southern region of Deccan might have been taken by Ptolemy as a great southern island without any recognition of its separateness from ancient Lanka. For this assumption Schwatzberg based his argument on a faulty translation he made himself from French to English, of a commentary by Gossellin on Ptolemy's India. Susan Gole thought that Taprobana was in fact the peninsula of South India, mistakenly divided from the mainland.

Forty and fifty years ago, Pierre Paris and Jean Filliozat of the Ecole francaise de I'Extreme-Orient became the partisans of a polemic respectively rejecting and maintaining the identification of Ceylon with Taprobane. Although recent decades have given us important historical contributions supported by archaeological, philological, and numismatic evidence to elucidate sufficiently this vexing question, the recent exchange of views on the Internet discussion list MAPHIST gives the impression that the issue is still unresolved. On top of all that, very recently. S. Arasaratnam and Alain Bartleet seem to misunderstand the interpretations of historians thereby complicating further an issue already heavily confusion-laden.

Besides its intrinsic interest to students of South Asia, the Taprobane story, with its broiling controversies and conflicting interpretations will shed important light on the processes of discovery and on the transmission of geographical knowledge in classical times, in the Middle Ages, and in the era of the great discoveries. Taprobane, like El Dorado, Ultima Thule and Atlantis, was a touchstone for the geographical imagination.

A talk titled The Western Discovery and Mapping of Taprobane (Sri Lanka) will be delivered at the Sri Lanka Foundation, Institute, Lecture Hall 3, Torrington Square on Friday 18th February 2000 at 5 pm by its writer of this article who is a researcher, and formerly visiting lecturer at the School of Oriental Languages and at the Ecol des Hants Etudes on Sciences Socially, Paris.