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Taprobana: Sumatra or Ceylon?

The Greek explorer and historian Megasthenes wrote that Taprobana was divided by a river and abundant in pearls and gold. Taprobana  was located somewhere in the Indian Ocean and usually shown on historical maps as a large island south of India. There have been many theories about the identity of the island. Some thought Taprobana could have been a phantom island, Madagascar, or the lower peninsula of India; however, most geographers believed that the island was either Sumatra or Sri Lanka (Ceylon). In AD 150 Claudius Ptolemy wrote his treatise Geographia which greatly influenced later geographers. The map below is based on Ptolemy’s description of the world. Taprobana is shown as a very large island south of Asia.

Typus orbis descriptione Ptolemaei. Map by Lorenz Fries. 1541. Geography and Map Division.

Typus orbis descriptione Ptolemaei. Map by Lorenz Fries. 1541. Geography and Map Division.

The detailed map of Taprobana shown below was published in 1513. It was also based on Ptolemy’s Geographia.

Plate titled Asiae Tabula from Claudii Ptolemei viri Alexandrini mathematice discipline philosophi doctissimi Geographie... by Jacopo D'Angelo. 1513. Geography and Map Division.

Plate titled Asiae Tabula from Claudii Ptolemei viri Alexandrini mathematice discipline philosophi doctissimi Geographie… by Jacopo D’Angelo. 1513. Geography and Map Division.

Detail of a Sciapode from Buch der Croniken vnd Geschichten mit Figure[n] vnd Pildnussen von Anbegin[n] der Welt bis auf dise vn[n]sere Zeit. by Hartmann Schedel. 1493. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Detail of a Sciapode from Buch der Croniken vnd Geschichten mit Figure[n] vnd Pildnussen von Anbegin[n] der Welt bis auf dise vn[n]sere Zeit. by Hartmann Schedel. 1493. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

In AD 77 the author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, wrote an encyclopedic book titled Natural History.  Pliny wrote about the story of Annius Plocamus, a Roman tax collector who lived during the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54). Plocamus sent a freed slave to collect taxes in the Red Sea. His ship was blown off course and landed on Taprobana. The freedman described forests of trees that grew in the seas that surrounded the island. The trees broke the rudders of ships. People who lived on the island hunted elephants, tigers, and turtles with shells large enough to house whole families. Pliny also wrote that Taprobana was inhabited by Sciapodes, men with one giant foot which they used to shade themselves while lying on their backs.

Many stories were written about Taprobana. The island was described in the 14th century book The Travels of Sir John Mandeville as having mountains of pure gold which were guarded by giant man-eating ants. Ludovico di Varthema, an Italian traveler visited Taprobana in the early 16th century. Vathema wrote “it exports elephants that are larger and nobler than those found elsewhere.” He also stated “the island of Taprobane is today called Sumatra.”

Taprobana is shown as Sumatra on the map below, published in 1556 by Giacomo Gastaldi.

Ostro Sumatra. Map by Giacomo Gastaldi, 1556. Geography and Map Division.

Ostro Sumatra. Map by Giacomo Gastaldi, 1556. Geography and Map Division.

The German cartographer Sebastian Munster may have caused confusion when he published the two maps featured below.  The first map shows Sumatra as Taprobana. The second map is of a completely different island; however; it is also identified as Taprobana.

Sumatra Ein Grosse Insel / So Von Den alten Geographen Taprobana. Map by Sebastian Munster, 1597. Geography and Map Division.

Sumatra Ein Grosse Insel / So Von Den alten Geographen Taprobana. Map by Sebastian Munster, 1597. Geography and Map Division.

Geographiae Claudii Ptolemaei Alexandrini,...Map by Sebastian Munster, 1552. Geography and Map Division.

Geographiae Claudii Ptolemaei Alexandrini,…Map by Sebastian Munster, 1552. Geography and Map Division.

During the 17th century cartographers sometimes identified Ceylon as the island formerly named Taprobana. For example, the title of the map below translates to The Island of Ceylon, Once known to its Inhabitants as Taprobane, Tenarisin and Lankawa, most accurately mapped and very recently published by Nikolaas Visscher: Amsterdam; Holland.

Insula Ceilon olim Taprobana Incolis Tenarisin et Lankawn. Map by Nicolas Visscher, 1680. Geography and Map Division.

Insula Ceilon olim Taprobana Incolis Tenarisin et Lankawn. Map by Nicolas Visscher, 1680. Geography and Map Division.

Ancient Sri Lankan chronicles describe a kingdom named Tambapanni. According to the chronicles Prince Vijaya landed on an island named Lanka after he was exiled from India. Prince Vijaya ruled the island from 543 BC to 505 BC and named it Tambapanni. It is theorized that the name Taprobana was a Greek or Roman alteration of Tambapanni. Based on the ancient Sinhalese chronicles and similarity of names, most historians today believe Taprobana was present day Sri Lanka.

Learn More:

Find more information about Taprobana and how it was known to the ancient world on pages 26-29 in The atlas of legendary lands : fabled kingdoms, phantom islands, lost continents and other mythical worlds / Judyth A. McLeod.

Read additional stories about ancient Taprobana on pages 220-223 in The phantom atlas : the greatest myths, lies and blunders on maps / Edward Brooke-Hitching.

Learn more about historical maps of Sri Lanka in Maps and plans of Dutch Ceylon : a representative collection of cartography from the Dutch period / K.D. Paranavitana, R.K. de Silva.

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