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Taprobane - 327 BC - AD 1417

Taprobane is supposed to represent the Sanskrit Tamraparni ('red-leaved' or 'copper-coloured sand'), a slightly altered form of the Pali Tambapafini, which is found in the inscription of Asoka on the Girnar rock. Taprobane, under the name of the "land of the Antichthones," was long looked upon as another world. The name was entirely unknown in Europe before the time Alexander the Great invaded India in in 327 BC. But that conqueror, though he did not visit, had some how or other heard of it; with regard to any particulars, however, he seems to have been very slenderly informed ; and the accounts of ancient geographers concerning it are confused and contradictory.

There are two distinct periods in which Taprobane is mentioned; and a third period when the site, with the name itself, have utterly vanished. The first period is that of the early and ancient writers from the time of Alexander the Great to that of the Emperor Claudius. It embraces notices from Onesicritus, Megasthenes, and Pliny. They all use no other name than that of Taprobane. They furnish every possible detail regarding it. They had themselves either seen it, or lived near it, or conversed with its inhabitants. This period is the period of certain and personal knowledge.

About twenty years after Alexander's death Megasthenes was sent as ambassador by Seleucus Nicator, BC 302, to Sandracottus (or Chandragupta), Raja of the Pali, at Palibothra, on the Ganges, the modern Patna, and Pataliputra of the ancient Hindus, supposed to have been built 116 years after Buddha's death. From information derived at the court of Sandracottus, Megasthenes described Ceylon as a very fertile island divided by a river, which probably meant the Mahavilla-ganga. One part was infested by wild beasts and elephants, better suited for war than those of India; the other part produced gold, gems, and pearls.

The notion of an antipodal world in the southern hemisphere seems to have originated in a guess of Hipparchus that Taprobane about which the most absurd reports were brought to Europe might be the beginning of another world. This is very probable, says Mela, with delightful naivete, because Taprobane is inhabited, and still we do not know of anybody who has ever made the tour of it. Mela's contemporary, the elder Pliny, declares that Taprobane "has long been regarded" as part of another world, the name of which is Antichthon, or Opposite-Earth ; at the same time Pliny vouchsafes three closely printed pages of information about this mysterious country. Throughout the Middle Ages the conception of some sort of an antipodal inhabited world was vaguely entertained by writers here and there, but many of the clergy condemned it as implying the existence of people cut off from the knowledge of the gospel and not included in the plan of salvation.

The writers who speak of Taprobane are Onesicritus, Eratosthenes, Megasthenes, Hipparchus, Strabo, and Pliny. Onesicritus states that Taprobane was 5,000 stadia in length. This is confirmed by Pliny, who learned from his informants, natives of the country itself, who were ambassadors to the Roman Empire, that the land was considerably greater, the breadth alone from west to east being 10,000 stadia. There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of either statement, as between the time of Alexander the Great and Claudius there is an interval of several centuries, and the tendency of maritime states is always to enlarge their borders, e.g., early Greece, Tyre and Carthage, Holland, England, &c. Indeed, these ambassadors made one statement of the country enjoying two summers and two winters, which clearly show that the empire then embraced countries on both sides of the equator.

Eratosthenes has also given the dimensions of this island, as being seven thousand stadia in length, and five thousand in breadth: he states also that there are no cities, but villages to the number of seven hundred. It begins at the Eastern sea, and lies extended opposite to India, east and west. This island was in former times supposed to be twenty days' sail from the country of the Prasii,01 but in later times, whereas the navigation was formerly confined to vessels constructed of papyrus with the tackle peculiar to the Nile, the distance has been estimated at no more than seven days'95 sail, in reference to the speed which can be attained by vessels of our construction.

According to Pliny, in the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD) "a freedman of Annius Plocamus, who had farmed from the treasury the Red Sea revenues, while sailing around Arabia was carried away by gales of wind from the north beyond Carmania. In the course of fifteen days he had been wafted to Hippuri, a port of Taprobane, where he was humanely received and hospitably entertained by the king," etc. This "king," moreover, was so impressed with the character of the Romans, as exhibited by the fact that the denarii found in the possession of the freedman were all of equal weight, [although the different figures on them plainly showed that they had been struck in the reigns of several emperors] that he despatched the embassy in question, consisting of "four ambassadors, of whom the chief was Rachia." [raja?] These ambassadors further stated that the monarchy was elective, and that in the seas about Taprobane there were cetaceous and other monsters.

Strabo gathered many details from the ambassadors. Taprobane contained 500 towns and villages, and the capital had a large population of 200,000 souls. There was a lake in the country from which one river ran by the capital, and the other northwards towards India. There were corals, pearls, and precious stones; the soil was fruitful; life was prolonged to more than a hundred years; there was a trade with China overland, "the country of the Seres being visible beyond the Himalaya Mountains." The mode of trade and barter among the inhabitants themselves was peculiar, being done at night. The country and people were maritime and highly commercial.

Megasthenes was the ambassador of Seleucus Nicator to the court of the king of the Prachii, a country which embraced the north-western portion of modern Bengal, and the capital of which was Palibothra, which has been identified by Sir William Jones and other competent scholars as the modern Patna. Megasthenes describes Taprobane as divided into two parts by a river, one of them being infested by tigers and elephants, and the other inhabited by Prachii colonists, and producing gold and gems. Strabo mentions the boats being peculiarly constructed, and is confirmed in this by Pliny. The name of "ballams" is given to these boats.

Opinion was divided whether Taprobane was an island or a peninsula. Megasthenes says that Taprobane is separated from the mainland by a river; that the inhabitants are called Palaiogonoi,f and that their country is more productive of gold and large pearls than India. Taprobane is separated from India by a river flowing between: for one part of it abounds with wild beasts and elephants much larger than India breeds, and man claims the other part. The age and the arms of Alexander the Great were the first to give satisfactory proof that it is an island. Onesicritus, the commander of his fleet, related that the elephants of this island are larger, and better adapted for warfare than those of India.

The sea that lies between the island and the mainland is full of shallows, not more than six paces in depth; but in certain channels it is of such extraordinary depth, that no anchor has ever found a bottom. For this reason it is that the vessels are constructed with prows at either end; so that there may be no necessity for tacking while navigating these channels, which are extremely narrow. The tonnage of these vessels is three thousand amphorae. In traversing their seas, the people of Taprobane take no observations of the stars, and indeed the Greater Bear is not visible to them; but they carry birds out to sea, which they let go from time to time, and so follow their course as they make for the land. They devote only four months in the year to the pursuits of navigation, and are particularly careful not to trust themselves on the sea during the next hundred days after our summer solstice, for in those seas it is at that time the middle of winter.

The second period embraces the time from Ptolemy to that of Cosmas Indico-pleustes, late on into the Christian era. Ptolemy, referring to Taprobane, states that its name had been altered to Salike. While Pliny gives very few names of places in Taprobane, Ptolemy, on the contrary, supplies "a mass of information concerning the island, which is surprising by its copiousness, including not merely a complete periplus of its coasts, with the names of the headlands, rivers, and seaport towns, but also the names of many cities and tribes in the interior. But, unhappily, Ptolemy is almost as mystifying as Pliny. Ptolemy adduced no trustworthy authority (he wrote from mere hearsay), and furnishes no facts to prove that Salike supposed to be the same as Sielendib had before been called Taprobane. On the contrary, from earlier Hindu history Salike, Sielendib, or Ceylon emerged first into notice as Lanka, or Sinhala-dwipa, and these are the names it has ever since borne.

Cosmas Indico-pleustes [Cosmas the Indian Voyager], who wrote "The Christian topography" in the early 6th Century, took especial care several times to impress it on his readers that the island called Sielendib by the Indians was the Taprobane of the earlier Greeks. In the time of Cosmas the name Taprobane had vanished.

Most of the Arabian geographers who first began to write geographical works, about AD 700, place Serendib in the right position. AlBiruni (AD 1080) has two Serendibs, one to the south of India and the other, which he calls Zabage Serendib, in the Archipelago; while he makes Kalah and Lamuri an Arabian name for Sumatra, two small islands on the eastern coast of Ceylon. In Koger King of Sicily's "Round Table," engraved as a mappe-monde (AD 1154), supposed to have been compiled by Edrisi, Serendib is made a great size, and Sumatra called Kalah and Rami; in another of Edrisi's maps Ceylon is delineated much smaller. H. de Mayence, twelfth century, places the "Great isle of Paradise" south of the Ganges, and Taprobana near the Persian Gulf. In the Hereford map, fourteenth century, by Haldingham, a great island described as full of elepbants and dragons, placed in the Indian ocean adjoining the peninsula and called "Tuphana,"1 evidently means Ceylon.

In a Portuguese chart (AD 1501 to 1540), Ceylon is called Tragana, Sumatra Taprobane, and there is a Seulon near Java. Ruysch, in one of his maps (1507), has Sailan in the right place, and Taprobana for Sumatra with a small Taprobane south of Ceylon! Bernard Sylvanus, the Neapolitan (1511), exceeds them all in eccentricity, having "Seilan inferior" near Java, and Taprobane filling up the Bay of Bengal. In another of his maps Ceylon is called Insula Capane, which name occurs in the Itinerary of John of Hese, who says, " Insula Caphane, vel Taprobana." In contradistinction to all this confusion there is a very correct map in the Ducal palace at Venice, attributed to Marco Polo.

Down to the middle of the sixteenth century Ceylon retained its ancient reputation for size, Marco Polo (AD 1292) giving it a circumference of 2400 miles; the Florence map (AD 1417), and Friar Mauro (1457), a circumference of 3000 miles; and Porcacchi (1576), in his "Isolario," according to information obtained from the Moors, who extended the isle below the equator, makes the circumference 2500 miles. When the English mariners first arrived on the coasts in the early part of the sixteenth century, they found the old legends of the island's former extent, west and south, perpetuated in the charts of the period.

The majority of writers and travellers to the end of the seventeenth century believed that Sumatra was the Taprobane of the Greeks, but numbers rejected it and maintained the claim of Ceylon, while Kant undertook to prove it was Madagascar, and Dominick Cassini got rid of it by an inundation, the Maldives alone remaining to show where it had been. Among those who contended for the claim of Sumatra were Sebastian Munster, G. Frisius, Ortelius, Ramusio, Jules Scaliger, Di Conti, Mercator, M. Transylvanus, Franciscus, Varthema, Barboso, Sir T. Herbert, etc., and Linschotten, who says "Sumatra, the famous island of Taprobane and Ophir of Solomon."

It is possible some may have been confounding "Junk Ceylon," a small island on the north-west coast of Malay, with the real Taprobane, and this may have been the eastern Ceylon found in so many Mediseval maps. It is not known when the term Junk Ceylon, derived from the Malay Ajunk-Selang, was applied to this island. The idea of two Ceylons, which first appears in Mas'udi (AD 920), continued to exist until the arrival of the Portuguese in India, and is clearly expressed in the Florentine "mappe-monde" of the Pitti Palace (AD 1417), where Ceylon is called "Taprobana", and Sumatra "Taprobana Major."

William De Lisle (1700) was the first who set about the task of reconstructing the geographical edifice and clearing away the obscurity ages had thrown over it; in doing this; he made use of the improvements in astronomy, which his predecessors had neglected, and laid the foundation of our present correct knowledge of geography.

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