Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /nfs/c03/h07/mnt/56080/domains/varnam.nationalinterest.in/html/wp-content/themes/canvas/functions/admin-hooks.php on line 160
Tag Archives | Ibn Battuta

How did Adam reach Sri Lanka?

In this picture, taken in 1885, you will see a small ladder placed near the top-right window. In this picture, taken more than a century later, you can see the ladder exactly at the same position. The building is Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built where Jesus is believed to be crucified and burried, and in Jerusalem, moving even a ladder requires divine intervention.

There is another place in the world, which is holy not just for Christians and Muslims, but also for Hindus and Buddhists where such problems do not exist. Located in Sri Lanka and currently called Adam’s peak, it was called Samanalakanda by the Sinhalese and Shivanolipatha Malai and Shiva padam by Hindus.So connection does Adam have with Sri Lanka and how did it become Adam’s peak?

First, what’s at the top of the mountain.? Captain John Ribeyro who fought in the civil war in the 17th century described the summit[5].

Text not available

Hindus believe that this depression on the mountain which resembles a giant foot is the foot step of Shiva; for Buddhists it is the foot print of Buddha. Chrisitians believe that it belongs to St. Thomas and there are many other traditions which attribute the foot print to Jehovah, Eunuch of Candace and Satan[1]. It is Muslim tradition that attributes the foot print to Adam, their first prophet.

In fact there is an explanation for how Adam, a person from a middle eastern tradition, reached Sri Lanka. God, upset by Adam and Eve, threw them out of heaven and Adam landed in Sri Lanka creating an impression on the peak. He repented for a millennium when Gabriel took him to Arabia where Eve had landed. They both then returned to Sri Lanka and propagated the human race[4].

Soleyman, an Arab merchant who visited Ceylon in the ninth century, mentioned the Adam tradition, which suggests that it was prevalent within two centuries of Islam’s founding. Sindbad the Sailor’s tales, believed to be partly based on real sailors tales, also mentions a pilgrimage to the place “where Adam was confined after his banishment from Paradiese.” It is believed that this tradition originated among the Copts (Egyptian Christians) of the fourth and fifth centuries[4]. There is also a story which mentions that a group of three Arabs led by Sheikh Seijuddin, who according to tradition, converted Cheraman Perumal of Kodungallur, were on a pilgrimage to Adam’s peak.

Diego de Couto, a Portuguese writer of the 16th century did not believe it was the foot print of Adam; he thought it belonged to St. Thomas. Marco Polo had heard from Muslims and Christians that there was a monument to Adam, but he did not agree with that it had anything to do with Adam. This was because, according to the scripture of Marco Polo’s Church, Adam belonged to another part of the world. Instead he believed the Buddhist version and that the teeth, hairs and bowl of some “venerable figure” was commemorated[2].

When he heard about the relics, Marco Polo’s patron Kublai Khan sent emissaries to Ceylon
to ask Parakkamabahu II, a Sri Lankan King without a Wikipedia entry, for these items. It took three years for the emissaries to reach Ceylon and they got two molar teeth, some hair, and the bowl. According to Marco Polo, Kublai Khan received these items with respect[2].

Marco Polo never climbed the mountain, but Ibn Battuta did. He went to Ceylon specifically for mountaineering. With an entourage of 10 Brahmin priests, 15 porters, 10 courtiers and 4 yogis (provided by Martanda Cinkaiariyan of the Aryacakravarti dynasty) he made the trip to the peak and back. The final climb was quite hard  – a vertical ascent “by means of little stirrups affixed to chains suspended from iron pegs.” There he prayed with Buddhists and Muslims but does not mention seeing Christians[3].

The mountain was officially renamed to Adam’s peak by Major James Rennell, the British geographer who worked in India.


  1. The History of a Mountain By Elise Reclus, Bertha Ness, John Lillie
  2. Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by by Laurence Bergreen
  3. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta by Ross E. Dunn.
  4. Adam’s Peak by William Skeen
  5. History Of Ceylon: Presented By Captain John Ribeyro To The King Of Portugal, In 1685 (1847)

(Image Credit: Munir)

Comments { 4 }

Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (2/2)

Zheng He’s map (via Wikipedia)

Read Part 1

Turning Inward

After the death of Zhu Di, China turned against naval expeditions for which there are many reasons.

The simplest is that the Confucians prevailed. The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. “Barbarian” nations were thought to offer little of value to China. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral]

Confucius thought that foreign travel interfered with family obligations. In Analects he said “While his parents are alive, the son may not go abroad to a distance. If he does go abroad, he must have a fixed place to which he goes.” Since this was the moral code for the upper class, government service and farming were considered noble professions

Other factors contributed: the renovation of the north-south Grand Canal, for one, facilitated grain transportand other internal commerce in gentle inland waters, obviating the need for an ocean route. And the tax burden of maintaining a big fleet was severe. But the decision to scuttle the great ships was in large part political. With the death of Yongle, the Emperor who sent Zheng He on his voyages, the conservatives began their ascendancy. China suspended naval expeditions. By century’s end, construction of any ship with more than two masts was deemed a capital offense. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral

Then things took a turn for the worse. The ships were let to rot in the port and the logs books and maps were destroyed. A major attempt at erasing history was done. Then as they say, life finds a way.

Unlike Agathocles, whose memory survived only through coins, Zheg He’s traces were scattered around for it to be erased quickly. In some countries he was worshipped as a god. The chronicles of Zheng He’s translators Ma Huan (Overall Survey of the Western Shores) and Fei Hsin (Overall Survey of the Star Fleet) survived. So did a few imperial decrees and some maps. Zheng He died in the seventh voyage and was probably buried at sea; his tomb contains his clothes.

Though Zheng He’s voyages were meant to be a peaceful projection of power, they often interfered in local politics and projected force. A Chinese pirate Chen Zuyi who was active in the Sumatra was captured in a battle in the Straits of Malaca and taken to Nanjing and executed. Michael Yamashita mentions that the Chinese put a new king – Manavikarma – on the throne of Calicut. The Sri Lankan king Alakeswara refused to be a tributary to the Chinese; he was captured and taken in chains to Zheng He’s boss.

If the Chinese were a naval power during the ascent of the European powers, the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean would have seen a different geo-political equilibrium.

References: This article was motivated by the lecture on China by Prof. Matthew Herbst in MMW4 series. By then Maddy had posted his well researched article on Zheng He (Cheng Ho) in Calicut. Michael Yamashita got paid to travel along his path for a year resulting in the book Zheng He (Discovery) which has amazing photographs. I did not read Gavin Menzies’ book, but picked the PBS documentary 1421: The Year China Discovered America (PBS)? based on it. When China Ruled the Seas devotes few pages to what they did in Calicut. Maddy also has a comprehensive article covering the Chinese trade in Calicut.

Postscript: A British submarine commander, Gavin Menzies, in a best selling book 1421: The Year China Discovered America argued that Zheng He’s fleet reached America in 1421. A PBS documentary by the same name put Gavin Menzies on camera and contradicted most of his assumptions. Mr. Menzies agreed with the producers that most of his evidence is flimsy, but he still stood by his theory.

Comments { 5 }

Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (1/2)

Chinese treasure ship (via Wikipedia)

In 1498, three ships — Sao Gabriel, Sao Rafael, and Sao Miguel — appeared in Calicut heralding a new era in geopolitics and world trade. Vasco da Gama would become immortal for finding a route from Europe to India, avoiding the Muslims who had a monopoly on overland trade. But for the residents of Calicut, this was not a major event. They were used to foreign traders and many foreigners lived in the Malabar coast. Even da Gama’s ships and crew of less than two hundred people was not a jaw dropper since they had seen huge Chinese ships with larger crew in Calicut port.

Much before Europeans became major players in the Indian Ocean, traders routinely sailed from the Malabar coast to the Swahili coast. During that time the Chinese built the biggest ships of the era and under Admiral Zheng He (pronounced Jung Huh) made seven voyages reaching as far as the Swahili coast. With such technology, the Chinese could have dominated trade, instead of the Europeans, but they did not. It is interesting to see why.

Ming and Zheng He

This story begins on September 10, 1368 when Ukhaantu Khan of the Yuan dynasty fled to Inner Mongolia unable to face the rebels under the leadership of Zhu Yuanzhang. These rebels would establish the native Ming dynasty. The third Ming emperor Zhu Di, wanted to improve trade, enhance the empire’s prestige, and encourage a tribute system for which he ordered an armada to be built.

Zhu Di’s admiral for the mission was Zheng He, a six and half feet tall two hundred pound man. This 34 year old Muslim originally named Ma Ho, was captured as a child by the Ming army from the Mongol village of Yunan. Like the Egyptian Mamluks, these slaves had career paths, but only after castration and so Zheng He eventually became the Grand Eunuch.

Even before the Ming dynasty, huge Chinese ships were spotted in Kerala. In 1340, Ibn Battuta, who was in Calicut, saw 13 Chinese junks wintering in the port. Ibn Battuta who had traveled in various type of ships and dhows in his travels from Morocco to India never mentioned much construction details in his accounts, but the Chinese ships impressed him so much that he wrote about three types of ships — the large junks, middle sized zaws, and small kakams. Ibn Battuta also expressed happiness at the privacy offered in their cabins that he could take his slave girls and wives and no one on board would know about it.

In 1330, Jordan Catalani, a Dominican monk saw them in Quilon and wrote that they had over 100 cabins and 10 sails. They were triple keeled and held together not by nails or metal structures, but the thread of some plant. Ibn Battuta wrote that these ships carried thousand men of which four hundred were soldiers.

Zhu Di’s ships, under the command of Zheng He sailed in 1405. There were 317 ships of which 60 were the large junks. These treasure ships held lacquers, porcelain, and silks. They carried a total of 27,000 men which included soldiers, carpenters, physicians, astrologers, cartographers and interpreters. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan or Francis Drake would never command such a fleet nor as many men.

Under his leadership, the fleet made seven voyages trading, transporting ambassadors and establishing Chinese colonies. Three of those were to India, one to the Persian Gulf and three to the Swahili Coast and in the process he visited the Champa kingdom, Cambodia, Sumatra, Nicobar Islands, Ceylon, Maldives. One item which Zheng He took back to China was a giraffe; how the giraffe was transported on a ship passing through a rough ocean is not documented well, but it certainly amused the king. So did zebras which were called celestial

They called Calicut, “a great country” and people as “honest and trustworthy”. They had good opinion of the Zamorin and observed that Calicut had a highly structured society, well trained army and a harsh system of justice. In Calicut they traded using the language of the fingers.

(Read Part 2)

Comments { 1 }

The Slave Dynasties of Cairo and Delhi

(via thovie333)

India and Egypt have a lot in common.Both are ancient civilizations. Trade ships used to ply between the West coast of India to Egypt as documented in 1st century book, The Periplus of the Eritrean Sea. Following Independence, Chacha Nehru, along with a bunch of people founded the Non-Aligned Movement and conned a bunch of countries to join so that they could align themselves with the Soviet Union. One of Nehruji’s friends was Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt who in 1967 Tughlaqian move tried to wipe Israel off the map.

A lesser discussed fact is that both Delhi and Cairo were once ruled by members of the Slave Dynasty who were Turks. Nothing illustrates this better than the story of two such Turks, Baibars [2] and Qutb-ud-din Aybak.

Baibars was captured by the Mongols, sometime after 1223, and sold as a slave. He was passed up by many buyers since he had cataract. Sold at a discount, he ended up in Syria and was later sold to an Egyptian Mamluk. He had charisma and soon became a commander defeating the Seventh Crusade by Louis IX of France. A quick promotion and he became the Sultan of Egypt ruling about half a million people.

Baibars was a Mamluk – a Turkish speaking warrior class who ruled not just Egypt but Syria and Palestine, thus controlling Jerusalem. The Mamluk tradition was to capture pagan boys as slaves from the north of Black Sea and Caspian Sea. The captured boys were converted to Islam, trained in religion and warfare, and given freedom and employment. They remained separate from the Egyptian population.They were patrons of Islam, building mosques and madrassas, and hence was tolerated by the local population.

Qutb-ud-din Aybak was born before Baibars in Central Asia and captured as a slave when he was a boy. He was sold to a qazi of a town in Iran who gave him very good education. After the qazi’s death, his sons sold him to a slave merchant and finally he was bought by a person called Muhammad of Ghor.

Muhammad of Ghor soon owned a major portion of India. He had one problem though – no male heirs. But he had a way around it which was clarified by the remark, “I have thousands of sons, my Turkish slaves who will be the heirs of my dominions, and who, after me, will take care to preserve my name in the Khutba throughout these territories.” After Muhammad’s death Qutb-ud-din Aybak established the slave dynasty in India. This is a slumdog millionaire story which even Vikas Swarup can’t make up.

In Egypt, minorities like Jews and Christians were treated as second class citizens during the Mamluk era; they had to wear distinguishing clothing. Sometimes synagogues and churches were destroyed to build mosques.This was the time of crusades and some believe that the attacks on Jews and Christians of Egypt were a reaction[2]. In India which was not affected by the Western crusades, Qutb-ud-din Aybak, who constructed the Qutub Minar inspired by the Minaret of Jam, would also build the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque from the parts of twenty seven Hindu and Jain temples. In Varanasi, Aybak demolished idols in a thousand temples and made them the place of worship of one true God[3].

Apart from such religious tolerance, a major achievement of the Mamluks was keeping the Mongols out. Due to this Cairo prospered and became a refuge for scholars, artists and merchants and became a cosmopolitan center among Islamic countries. In India, Gengis Khan crossed the Indus in 1222 and a similar exodus of Muslim refugees into India happened making Delhi a another Islamic cosmopolitan center. The Mongols would try again, after Raziya Sultana’s time, but would be held back by another slave, Ghiyas ud din Balban.

When Ibn Battuta visited Cairo in 1326, it was still under Mamluk control; they would be defeated by the Ottomans. By the time he reached Delhi in 1333, the Tughlaq dynasty was in power[1]; the Turkish slave dynasty was put to an end by the Khilji dynasty in 1290.


  1. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century
  2. Making of the Modern World 4, Lecture 2, by Prof. Mathew Herbst.
  3. India: A History
  4. Wikipedia:Qutb-ud-din Aybak, Baibars, Qutub Complex, Ghiyas ud din Balban


Comments { 6 }