The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 3/Chapter 14

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Concerning the Island of Seilan[edit]

When you leave the Island of Angamanain and sail about a thousand miles in a direction a little south of west, you come to the Island of SEILAN, [1] which is in good sooth the best Island of its size in the world. You must know that it has a compass of 2400 miles, but in old times it was greater still, for it then had a circuit of about 3600 miles, as you find in the charts of the mariners of those seas. But the north wind there blows with such strength that it has caused the sea to submerge a large part of the Island; and that is the reason why it is not so big now as it used to be. For you must know that, on the side where the north wind strikes, the Island is very low and flat, insomuch that in approaching on board ship from the high seas you do not see the land till you are right upon it.[2] Now I will tell you all about this Island.

They have a king there whom they call SENDEMAIN, and are tributary to nobody.[3] The people are Idolaters, and go quite naked except that they cover the middle. They have no wheat, but have rice, and sesamum of which they make their oil. They live on flesh and milk, and have tree-wine such as I have told you of. And they have brazil-wood, much the best in the world.[4]

Now I will quit these particulars, and tell you of the most precious article that exists in the world. You must know that rubies are found in this Island and in no other country in the world but this. They find there also sapphires and topazes and amethysts, and many other stones of price. And the King of this Island possesses a ruby which is the finest and biggest in the world; I will tell you what it is like. It is about a palm in length, and as thick as a man's arm; to look at, it is the most resplendent object upon earth; it is quite free from flaw and as red as fire. Its value is so great that a price for it in money could hardly be named at all. You must know that the Great Kaan sent an embassy and begged the King as a favour greatly desired by him to sell him this ruby, offering to give for it the ransom of a city, or in fact what the King would. But the King replied that on no account whatever would he sell it, for it had come to him from his ancestors.[5]

The people of Seilan are no soldiers, but poor cowardly creatures. And when they have need of soldiers they get Saracen troops from foreign parts.








  1. 1.0 1.1 Mr. Geo. Phillips gives (Seaports of India, p. 216 et seqq.) the Star Chart used by Chinese Navigators on their return voyage from Ceylon to Su-men-ta-la.--H.C.]
  2. 2.0 2.1 Valentyn appears to be repeating a native tradition when he says: "In old times the island had, as they loosely say, a good 400 miles (i.e. Dutch, say 1600 miles) of compass, but at the north end the sea has from time to time carried away a large part of it." (Ceylon, in vol. v., p. 18.) Curious particulars touching the exaggerated ideas of the ancients, inherited by the Arabs, as to the dimensions of Ceylon, will be found in Tennent's Ceylon, ch. i. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang has the same tale. According to him, the circuit was 7000 li, or 1400 miles. We see from Marco's curious notice of the old charts (G.T. "selonc qe se treuve en la mapemondi des mariner de cel mer") that travellers had begun to find that the dimensions were exaggerated. The real circuit is under 700 miles!

    On the ground that all the derivations of the name SAILAN or CEYLON from the old Sinhala, Serendib, and what not, seem forced, Van der Tuuk has suggested that the name may have been originally Javanese, being formed (he says) according to the rules of that language from Sela, "a precious stone," so that Pulo Selan would be the "Island of Gems." [Professor Schlegel says (Geog. Notes, I. p. 19, note) that "it seems better to think of the Sanskrit sila, 'a stone or rock,' or saila, 'a mountain,' which agree with the Chinese interpretation."--H.C.] The Island was really called anciently Ratnadvipa, "the Island of Gems" (Mem. de H.Y., II. 125, and Harivansa, I. 403); and it is termed by an Arab Historian of the 9th century Jazirat al Yakut, "The Isle of Rubies." [The (Chinese) characters ya-ku-pao-shih are in some accounts of Ceylon used to express Yakut. (Ma-Huan, transl. by Phillips, p. 213.)--H.C.] As a matter of fact, we derive originally from the Malays nearly all the forms we have adopted for names of countries reached by sea to the east of the Bay of Bengal, e.g. Awa, Barma, Paigu, Siyam, China, Japun, Kochi (Cochin China), Champa, Kamboja, Maluka (properly a place in the Island of Ceram), Suluk, Burnei, Tanasari, Martavan, etc. That accidents in the history of marine affairs in those seas should have led to the adoption of the Malay and Javanese names in the case of Ceylon also is at least conceivable. But Dr. Caldwell has pointed out to me that the Pali form of Sinhala was Sihalan, and that this must have been colloquially shortened to Silan, for it appears in old Tamul inscriptions as Ilam. Hence there is nothing really strained in the derivation of Sailan from Sinhala. Tennent (Ceylon, I. 549) and Crawford (Malay Dict. p. 171) ascribe the name Selan, Zeilan, to the Portuguese, but this is quite unfounded, as our author sufficiently testifies. The name Sailan also occurs in Rashiduddin, in Hayton, and in Jordanus (see next note). (See Van der Tuuk, work quoted above (p. 287), p. 118; J. As. ser. IV., tom. viii. 145; J. Ind. Arch. IV. 187; Elliot, I. 70.) [Sinhala or Sihala, "lions' abode," with the addition of "Island," Sihala-dvipa, comes down to us in Cosmas [Greek: Sielediba] (Hobson-Jobson).]

  3. 3.0 3.1 The native king at this time was Pandita Prakrama Bahu III., who reigned from 1267 to 1301 at Dambadenia, about 40 miles north-north-east of Columbo. But the Tamuls of the continent had recently been in possession of the whole northern half of the island. The Singhalese Chronicle represents Prakrama to have recovered it from them, but they are so soon again found in full force that the completeness of this recovery may be doubted. There were also two invasions of Malays (Javaku) during this reign, under the lead of a chief called Chandra Banu. On the second occasion this invader was joined by a large Tamul reinforcement. Sir E. Tennent suggests that this Chandra Banu may be Polo's Sende-main or Sendernaz, as Ramusio has it. Or he may have been the Tamul chief in the north; the first part of the name may have been either Chandra or Sundara.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Kazwini names the brazil, or sapan-wood of Ceylon. Ibn Batuta speaks of its abundance (IV. 166); and Ribeyro does the like (ed. of Columbo, 1847, p. 16); see also Ritter, VI. 39, 122; and Trans. R.A.S. I. 539.

    Sir E. Tennent has observed that Ibn Batuta is the first to speak of the Ceylon cinnamon. It is, however, mentioned by Kazwini (circa A.D. 1275), and in a letter written from Mabar by John of Montecorvino about the very time that Marco was in these seas. (See Ethe's Kazwini, 229, and Cathay, 213.)

    [Mr. G. Phillips, in the Jour. China B.R.A.Soc., XX. 1885, pp. 209-226; XXI. 1886, pp. 30-42, has given, under the title of The Seaports of India and Ceylon, a translation of some parts of the Ying-yai-sheng-lan, a work of a Chinese Mahomedan, Ma-Huan, who was attached to the suite of Ch'eng-Ho, an envoy of the Emperor Yong-Lo (A.D. 1403-1425) to foreign countries. Mr. Phillips's translation is a continuation of the Notes of Mr. W.P. Groeneveldt, who leaves us at Lambri, on the coast of Sumatra. Ma-Huan takes us to the Ts'ui-lan Islands (Nicobars) and to Hsi-lan-kuo (Ceylon), whose "people," he says (p. 214), "are abundantly supplied with all the necessaries of life. They go about naked, except that they wear a green handkerchief round their loins, fastened with a waist-band. Their bodies are clean-shaven, and only the hair of their heads is left.... They take no meal without butter and milk, if they have none and wish to eat, they do so unobserved and in private. The betel-nut is never out of their mouths. They have no wheat, but have rice, sesamum, and peas. The cocoa-nut, which they have in abundance, supplies them with oil, wine, sugar, and food." Ma-Huan arrived at Ceylon at Pieh-lo-li, on the 6th of the 11th moon (seventh year, Suean Teh, end of 1432). Cf. Sylvain Levi, Ceylan et la Chine, J. As., Mai-juin, 1900, p. 411 seqq.

    Odoric and the Adjaib do not mention cinnamon among the products of Ceylon; this omission was one of the arguments of Dr. Schumann (Ergaenz. No. 73 zu Petermann's Mitt., 1883, p. 46) against the authenticity of the Adjaib. These arguments have been refuted in the Livre des Merveilles de l'Inde, p. 265 seqq.

    Nicolo Conti, speaking of the "very noble island called Zeilan," says (p. 7): "Here also cinnamon grows in great abundance. It is a tree which very much resembles our thick willows, excepting that the branches do not grow upwards, but are spread out horizontally: the leaves are very like those of the laurel, but are somewhat larger. The bark of the branches is the thinnest and best, that of the trunk of the tree is thicker and inferior in flavour. The fruit resembles the berries of the laurel; an odoriferous oil is extracted from it adapted for ointments, which are much used by the Indians. When the bark is stripped off, the wood is used for fuel."--H.C.]

  5. 5.0 5.1 There seems to have been always afloat among Indian travellers, at least from the time of Cosmas (6th century), some wonderful story about the ruby or rubies of the king of Ceylon. With Cosmas, and with the Chinese Hiuen Tsang, in the following century, this precious object is fixed on the top of a pagoda, "a hyacinth, they say, of great size and brilliant ruddy colour, as big as a great pine-cone; and when 'tis seen from a distance flashing, especially if the sun's rays strike upon it, 'tis a glorious and incomparable spectacle." Our author's contemporary, Hayton, had heard of the great ruby: "The king of that Island of Celan hath the largest and finest ruby in existence. When his coronation takes place this ruby is placed in his hand, and he goes round the city on horseback holding it in his hand, and thenceforth all recognise and obey him as their king." Odoric too speaks of the great ruby and the Kaan's endeavours to get it, though by some error the circumstance is referred to Nicoveran instead of Ceylon. Ibn Batuta saw in the possession of Arya Chakravarti, a Tamul chief ruling at Patlam, a ruby bowl as big as the palm of one's hand. Friar Jordanus speaks of two great rubies belonging to the king of SYLEN, each so large that when grasped in the hand it projected a finger's breadth at either side. The fame, at least, of these survived to the 16th century, for Andrea Corsali (1515) says: "They tell that the king of this island possesses two rubies of colour so brilliant and vivid that they look like a flame of fire."

    Sir E. Tennent, on this subject, quotes from a Chinese work a statement that early in the 14th century the Emperor sent an officer to Ceylon to purchase a carbuncle of unusual lustre. This was fitted as a ball to the Emperor's cap; it was upwards of an ounce in weight and cost 100,000 strings of cash. Every time a grand levee was held at night the red lustre filled the palace, and hence it was designated "The Red Palace-Illuminator." (I.B. IV. 174-175; Cathay, p. clxxvii.; Hayton, ch. vi.; Jord. p. 30; Ramus. I. 180; Ceylon, I. 568).

    ["This mountain [Adam's Peak] abounds with rubies of all kinds and other precious stones. These gems are being continually washed out of the ground by heavy rains, and are sought for and found in the sand carried down the hill by the torrents. It is currently reported among the people, that these precious stones are the congealed tears of Buddha." (Ma-Huan, transl. by Phillips, p. 213.)

    In the Chinese work Cho keng lu, containing notes on different matters referring to the time of the Mongol Dynasty, in ch. vii. entitled Hwui hwui shi t'ou ("Precious Stones of the Mohammedans") among the four kinds of red stones is mentioned the si-la-ni of a dark red colour; si-la-ni, as Dr. Bretschneider observes (Med. Res. I. p. 174), means probably "from Ceylon." The name for ruby in China is now-a-days hung pao shi, "red precious stone." (Ibid. p. 173.)--H.C.]