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The Paravars: Chapter 6 – The Muhammadan Invasion of the Pandya Kingdom


Myself

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 5 – The Pre-Muhammadan Period

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The Arab invasion of northern India began in 712 AD at the Sindh Valley and by 1300 AD they had subjugated entire northern India.

The Muhammadan Invasion from the  north

Bishop R. Caldwell in his work “History of Tinnevelly” says in Chapter II, page 44:

The Muhammadans appeared in the Dekhan in 1295, when Alauud-din took Devagiri.

On October 21, 1296, Alauddin Khilji was formally proclaimed as the Sultan in Delhi.  Alauddin’s slave-general Malik Kafur led multiple campaigns to the south of the Vindhyas: Devagiri (1308 AD), Warangal (1310 AD) and Dwarasamudra (1311 AD) forcing the Yadava king Ramachandra, the Kakatiya king Prataparudra, and the Hoysala king Ballala III to become Alauddin’s tributaries.

In 1310 AD, the Pandya kingdom was reeling under a war of succession between the two brothers Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan III and Jatavarman Veera Pandyan II, sons of Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I. In the middle of 1310 Veera Pandyan with the help of his army vanquished Sundara Pandyan who then took refuge in Delhi under the protection of Sultan Alauddin Khilji.

During March–April 1311, taking advantage of the fraternal feud for succession to the throne, Malik Kafur raided several places in the Pandya kingdom, including the capital Madurai and plundered and appropriated all the riches there—diamonds, pearls, emeralds, rubies, gold, elephants etc.

After Kafur’s departure to Delhi, the Pandya brothers Sundara Pandyan and Veera Pandyan resumed their conflict which resulted in the defeat of Sundara Pandyan, who again decided to seek the assistance of Alauddin Khilji.

Alauddin again sent his army under Malik Kafur to subjugate Veera Pandyan. Malik Kafur entered Madurai and penetrated the Coromandel Coast with his army.

Amir Khusru, the court-poet of Alauddin Khilji who had accompanied Malik Kafur in his expeditions to the Pandya kingdoms refers to some Muslims who had been subjects of the Pandya kings and their wish to join Malik Kafur’s ranks. Kafur pardoned and accepted them into his ranks as they could recite the ‘Kalima’, the profession of faith, though they were ‘half Hindus’ and not so strict in their religious observances. Amir Khusru’s remark about they being ‘half Hindus’ can be surmised as “recent converts to Islam” who would not have abandoned their Tamil culture in dress, manners, language, etc., but Islam would have become central to their lives, given their capacity to recite the Kalima.

This brings out the fact that local Muslim communities had struck strong roots in the Tamil country by the fourteenth century. As Amir Khusru does not mention anything about their Arab ancestry, it could be reasonably concluded that a good number of them were local Hindu Tamils of various castes including the Hindu Paravars converted to Islam and many of whom would have served in the Pandya army, probably under the influence of Takiuddin Abdur Rahman, who in addition to being appointed by King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan as the prime minister and adviser was also bestowed with the coastal cities of Kulasekharapatnam, Kayalpattinam, Fitan and Mali Fitan for his services to the crown.

By 1314, with help of Alauddin Khilji’s forces, Sundara Pandyan re-established his rule in the South Arcot region.

Later, during the reign of Alauddin’s son Qutb-ud-din Mubarak Shah Khilji , his slave general Khusrau Khan raided the Pandya territories. Over the next two decades, the northern part of the Pandya kingdom was captured by the Mohammedans, first under the control of the Tughluq dynasty, and later became part of the short-lived Madurai Sultanate. However, the southernmost part of the Pandya territory where the Paravar community lived remained independent.

The Muhammadans from Kerala

Even prior to the Arab invasion of northern India, there were Middle Eastern Arab traders in Calicut, Quilon and Malabar in southern India. This region was in the major sea trade route running through south-east Asia and on to China. The Arabs traded spices, cotton, precious stones and pearls. Some of these Arabs were also pearl divers who had gained their experience in the waters of the Persian Gulf.

The Zamorins (Malayalam: സാമൂതിരി/സാമൂരി / Samoothiri) – originally Eradis of Nediyirippu (Eranadu) were based at the city of Kozhikode, one of the important trading ports on the south-western coast of India. In the early 12th century, after the fall of the Cheras of Cranganore (Kodungallur), the Zamorins asserted their political independence. At the peak of their reign, the Zamorin’s ruled over a region from Kollam (Quilon) to Panthalayini Kollam. They maintained elaborate trade relations with the Middle-Eastern Arab sailors who plied the Indian Ocean and patronized them. Hence, the evolution of Kozhikode as a trading centre of international repute.

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The Zamorin of Kozhikode (1495–1500) on his throne as painted by Veloso Salgado in 1898.

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The Zamorins were not antagonistic towards the local Hindu converts to Islam. In fact, the Mappila community, the foremost among the Muslim communities of Kerala is traced back to the Arab merchants who settled at the seaports of Kerala who by marrying the native low caste Hindu women, made possible a constant increase in the Muslim population. This fact is confirmed by the 16th-century writer Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese writer and officer from Portuguese India who says in his book Livro de Duarte Barbosa (Book of Duarte Barbosa), that the Moors of Malabar married as many wives as they could support and kept many concubines of low caste (of the Tiyan or Mukkuwa caste) as well. If they had children from these alliances, they made them Moors. He also makes it clear that one-fifth of the total population of Kozhikode belonged to the Muslim community whose settlements were situated adjacent to the port and shores.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, the powerful seafaring Arabs having the support of the local South Indian rulers like the Zamorin of Calicut coerced the under-privileged Tamil Paravars of the caste-ridden Hindu society to embrace Islam. They converted a significant number of Paravars to Islam through preaching and by marrying Tamil Paravar women, thus giving rise to a new generation – the Muslim Paravars.

The descendants of these Muslim Paravars became known as the Lebbais and their main settlement was the town of Kayal. Kayal is the Tamil word for a backwater.

In 1292, Marco Polo described Kayal as a bustling port and the centre of the pearl trade. The town of Kayal was known to the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India in 1497 by sea. Duarte Barbosa, mentions Kayal in his book Livro de Duarte Barbosa (Book of Duarte Barbosa), one of the earliest examples of Portuguese travel literature.

By the mid-16th century, the port at Kayal probably ceased to operate and was replaced by another port, Punnaikayal (new Kayal) under the influence of the Portuguese colonists. Punnaikayal was at the mouth of the river, which as part of an estuary was under constant change, around 4 km from Palayakayal (old Kayal). It is difficult to determine with any consistency which of these locations is being referred to at various times by various authors but what does appear to be a common factor is that this was until modern times a major port for the pearl trade.

Kayalpattanam, Kulasekaranpattanam and Kilakkarai were the main villages of the Tamil Muslim Paravars.

 

Next: The Paravars: Chapter 7 – The Hazardous Occupation of Harvesting Pearl Oysters

Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 5 – The Pre-Muhammadan Period

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • History of Tinnevelly by Bishop R. Caldwell, Asian Educational Services.
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The Paravars: Chapter 5 – The Pre-Muhammadan Period


Myself

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 4 – The Paravar Caste

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There are different methods of assessment to understand any particular society. For example, in accordance with their respective academic and social backgrounds the anthropologists, ethnologists, and sociologists all attempt to study and understand communities. However, a complete understanding of any given community is impossible without taking its historical background and it requires an unbiased and unprejudiced approach. The writing of this series on the Paravars has been motivated by such a sense of responsibility.

As south India is situated along the ancient maritime trade routes that connected Europe and West Asia with the Indian subcontinent and East Asia, it was but natural that the ancient Tamil literature is replete with references to foreigners such as the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Arabs, and the Chinese.

In his work on ancient India, Ptolemy who appears to have resided in Alexandria during the first half of the second century AD had identified Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) and the Gulf of Mannar as a centre of pearl fishery. He had also mentioned that Korkai, the ancient Tamil port city to the east of Kanyakumari, as the cynosure of pearl trade.

An Arabic work of the tenth century, Adja’ib Al-Hind, refers to a merchant from Alexandria known as Cosmas Indicopleustes, who sailed to south India in the sixth century AD before Egypt was Arabised or Islamised.

To the pre-Islamic Arabs, ports and towns in South India, Ceylon, and south-east Asia were along their trade routes to China. In ancient Tamil literature, the pre-Islamic Arabs along with the Greeks, Romans, Persians and Jews, who had fled their homes in West Asia, were frequently referred to as Yavanas.

In the seventh century AD, the Islamic political-cum-religious revolution, based on the principle of equality that swept across Arabia opened a new chapter in world history. Very soon,  parts of the world stretching from Spain to Arabia and from Arabia to China, Persia, and Sind in the Indian sub-continent, came under the influence of the revolutionary wave of Islam.

Among the early Islamised Arab travellers who sailed to India in the 9th-century was Sulaiman al-Tajir. He was a merchant, traveller and writer initially from Siraf in modern-day Iran. He made several voyages from the Persian Gulf to the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, and China and wrote an account of his voyages around ad 850 AD.

J. B. Prashant More in his book “Muslim Identity, Print Culture, and the Dravidian Factor in Tamil Nadu” writes that Abu Zeyed Al Hassan of Siraf, though he had never set foot on Indian soil, edited and completed the work of Sulaiman al-Tajir by gathering information from merchants and travellers who had been to India and that he has left us a vivid account of certain social and political conditions of southern India and Ceylon.

According to Abu Zeyed in the densely populated country called ‘Al-Comary’, which has been identified as Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari), the inhabitants went barefoot, abstained from licentiousness and from all sorts of wine, and that ‘nothing indecent’ was to be seen in this region. However, Abu Zeyed mentions the ‘Devadasi’ custom that was prevalent in the country, where some females were consecrated to the gods and such females were allowed to have sexual relationships with foreigners in exchange for money.

Also, Abu Zeyed notes that the men and women of Ceylon were extreme licentious and even the king’s daughter did not hesitate to flirt with a newly arrived Arab merchant, with the full knowledge of the king. On account of such sexual permissiveness, Arab merchants of integrity avoided sending their vessels to Ceylon, especially when there were young men on board.

Neither Sulaiman nor Abu Zeyed refer to the presence of Tamil Muslim communities of mixed descent or otherwise, during the 9th-century. However, there is a strong possibility, though it cannot be clearly ascertained, whether relationships either with the women of the Pearl Fishery Coasts in the Gulf of Mannar or with the Devadasis of the Kanyakumari country resulted in offspring of mixed Arab-Indian descent.

Both Ibn Khurdadba (d. 912 AD), the famous Arabian traveller, historian and geographer who converted to Islam and the Arab historian Al Masudi (896–956), who were contemporaries of Abu Zeyed have nothing more to add to our knowledge of the origin of Muslim communities in the Coromandel Coast. However, Ibn Khurdadba noted that in the country of Kumar (Kanyakumari), both drinking wine and fornication were unlawful.

During the second half of the tenth century, neither did the Persian writer, Al-Istakhri (d. 957 AD), nor the Arab Muslim writer Ibn Hawqal (d. 978 AD), who spent the last 30 years of his life traveling to remote parts of Asia and Africa, shed any light on the Tamil Muslims of the Coromandel coast.

In the 9th century, Southern India came under the control of the Cholas but around the mid-1200s, after a series of battles reverted back to the control of the Pandyan kings.

The 9th century Tamil classic Thiruvasakam written by Manikkavasagar does not shed any light on the Tamil Muslim communities in the Coromandel Coast but mentions the Arab horse traders. that was carried on in the Tamil country with the Arabs.

Though the 12th century Tamil classic Periya Puranam written by the great poet Sekkilar does not mention the presence of Tamil Muslims on the Coromandel coast, we nevertheless find in it many references to ships, merchants and the conservative nature of the then Tamil society.

The earliest available written records by a foreigner about the Tamils of the southern coast are the accounts of Marco Polo (1254-1324), the Venetian traveller, merchant, explorer, and writer. In 1292 CE, while returning home from China in a merchant ship he entered the kingdom of the Tamil Pandyas on the Coromandel coast. His accounts reveal that the most powerful sovereign of the Indian sub-continent of that period was Nasiruddin Mahmud, the Turkish Sultan of Delhi and though both Sind and Bengal acknowledged his supremacy, no part of south India was under his control.

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King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I

During the middle part of the 13th century, the Pandya kingdom was ruled by many princes of the royal line. This practice of shared rule with one prince asserting primacy over the others was common in the Pandyan Kingdom.

Between 1268–1308/1310 AD, the Pandyan king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I ruled most of the regions of the Pandya kingdom by asserting his primacy over other princes of the Pandyan royal family. The other co-rulers of the Pandiyan kingdom were Jatavarman Vira Pandyan I (ruled 1253-1275 AD), Maravarman Vikkiraman III (acceded 1283 AD) and Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan II (acceded 1277 CE).

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Yapahuwa rock fortress (Photo: Adam Khan)

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In Sri Lanka, Bhuvanaika Bahu I, the king of Dambadeniya who reigned from 1272 to 1284 AD moved his capital northward to Yapahuwa, lying midway between Kurunegala and Anuradhapura for security. The citadel Yapahuwa was built around a huge isolated granite rock rising abruptly almost a hundred meters above the surrounding lowlands which he strengthened with ramparts and trenches. The fortress was also known as Subhagiri as the rock was used by a military officer named Subha before King Bhuvenekabahu converted into his citadel.

In the late 1270s, King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan sent an expedition to Sri Lanka headed by his minister Kulasekara Cinkaiariyan Aryachakravarti who defeated Savakanmaindan of the Jaffna kingdom, a tributary to the Pandyans. He then plundered the fortress of Subhagiri (Yapahuwa) and brought with him the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Bhuvanaika Bahu’s successor Parâkkamabâhu III went personally to King Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan”s court and persuaded him to return the tooth relic.

Sri Lanka was under Pandyan Suzerainty for the next twenty years and regained its independence only in 1308 AD.

The Persian historian Abdulla Wassaf of Shiraz claims that an Arab Muslim named Takiuddin Abdur Rahman, son of Muhammadut Tibi was appointed by Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan as the prime minister and adviser, he was also bestowed with the coastal cities of Kulasekharapatnam, Kayalpattinam, Fitan and Mali Fitan for his services to the crown.

In 1292 CE, while returning home from China in a typical merchant ship the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo arrived on the Coromandel Coast of India. Marco Polo refers to king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I as the “eldest of five brother kings“. His accounts reveal that the hitherto independent kingdoms of southern India were as yet untouched by foreign conquest and the gold accumulated through the ages lay in their temples and treasuries, making them easy prey for any invader.

Marco Polo identified the port at Kayal under the control of king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan. Ships from the Islamised countries of Hormuz, Kis, Dofar and Soer, Aden and the other Arabic countries touched Kayal, carrying merchandise and horses. Foreign merchants, mostly Arabs and Persians, were well received and treated with fairness by the ruler of Kayal who might have been Takiuddin Abdur Rahman.

In 1296 AD, Jatavarman Veera Pandyan II, the illegitimate but favourite older son of Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan associated himself with the government. Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan III, the legitimate younger son attained to that dignity sometime in 1302 AD.

Sundara Pandyan felt discontented by the preference given to Veera Pandyan by his father by advancing him to the position of co-regency. According to Muslim historians, Wassaf and Amir Khusrow, in 1310 AD, Sundara Pandyan killed his father Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan in a moment of rashness and placed the crown on his head in the city of Madurai. With the support of the troops loyal to him, he moved a part of the royal treasures to the city of Mankul (must be one of the Mangalams, Méla Mangalam or Kila Mangalam, in the western hills, not far from Madura and quite close to Periyakulam.)

The death of King Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan led to a long protracted war between his sons Veera Pandyan and Sundara Pandyan that lasted from 1308 to 1323.  During a skirmish, both the brothers fled from the battle field, each ignorant of the fate of the other but Veera Pandyan being unfortunate, and having been wounded, seven elephant loads of the gold fell to the army of Sundara Pandyan.

Until then, during Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan’s rule which extended over forty years, neither any foreign enemy entered his kingdom, nor any severe malady confined him to bed.

Until then, the Paravar community lived and traded their catch of fish and natural pearl oysters in peace and prospered.

Next: The Paravars: Chapter 6 – The Muhammadan Invasion of the Pandya Kingdom

Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 4 – The Paravar Caste

 

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A European in the Orient: Part 3 – Did Marco Polo Really Travel to the Far East?


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Marco Polo died at his home in Venice on January 8, 1324. Before his death, friends and readers of his book visited him and urged him to admit that his book was a fiction. Marco would not relent. He told them:

I have not told half of what I saw!

​Marco Polo has been long regarded as the earliest and most distinguished of European travelers of all times for traversing Asia from one extremity to the other. He surpassed every other traveler of his time in the extent of the unknown regions he visited, as well as in the amount of new and important information he had collected. His description of the Chinese imperial court and the Chinese empire under the most powerful of the Asiatic dynasties, and tales of the adjacent countries in the Far East, forms a grand historical picture not painted by any other traveler of his period.

Authenticity is important in any travel narrative, otherwise it altogether becomes a worthless romance. A profound ignorance veiled  Europe when the Polos returned from the East. Doubts of the authenticity of Marco’s tales arose since most of the regions he had traversed were wholly unknown at that time. And his discoveries far transcended the knowledge of his age. Also, many editions of Marco Polo’s travelogue proliferated in an age when printing was unknown. The narratives varied from one another, often corrupted to a great extent.

Even now, some argue that Marco Polo never reached China, but cobbled together secondhand accounts of what he had heard. They say there are inaccuracies in the tales. They point out that he never mentioned the basic elements of Chinese culture, such as drinking tea, the use of chopsticks, the Chinese characters, or the tradition of foot-binding.

Responders to such skeptics have stated that if the purpose of Marco Polo’s stories of travels was to impress others with tales of his high esteem for an advanced civilization, then it is possible that Polo shrewdly would omit those details that would cause his readers to scoff at the Chinese with a sense of European superiority. Marco lived among the elite Mongols. Foot-binding was almost unknown among the Mongols and was rare even among Chinese during Polo’s time.

Some observers, who have only a cursory view of the history of China, say he never mentioned the Great Wall in his book. These people are ignorant of the fact that the Great Wall, familiar to us today, is a Ming structure constructed, about two centuries after Marco Polo’s travels in China, to keep out northern invaders.

New Evidence

It is odd that Marco Polo never produced a single map to accompany his narrative accounts in the ghostwritten book. Hence, scholars have long debated its the veracity. Now, there is new evidence in favor for this historical puzzle of whether Marco Polo did indeed visit China and the Far East. The proof is in the form of a curious collection of fourteen little-known maps and related documents purported to have belonged to the family of Marco Polo.

In the 1880s, Marcian Rossi, an Italian, immigrated to the United States. He brought along with him a collection of sheepskin vellum he said were of the 13th and 14th century. There were 14 little-known maps and related documents detailing Marco Polo’s journey to the Far East. These  documents bear the signatures of the three daughters of Marco Polo — Fantina, Bellela and Moreta.

The existence of these parchments came to light only in the 1930s, when Marcian Rossi contacted the Library of Congress. He explained that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian Admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family. But the collection did not undergo exhaustive analysis.

Are the maps forgeries or facsimiles?  They created a problem for the historians of cartography. Did Marco Polo’s daughters, whose names appear on some of these artifacts, preserve in them geographic information about Asia as told by their father? Did they inherit the maps created by him? Did Marco Polo entrust the maps to a Venetian admiral who had links to Rossi’s family line? Or, if the maps have no connection to Marco Polo, who made them, when, and for what purpose?

While some historians discounted the 14 parchments as mere fantasy, forgeries, or facsimiles, others wanted a balanced, detailed study of the documents.

Benjamin B. Olshin, a historian of cartography and a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, spent more than a decade studying the artifacts. He translated the Italian, Latin, Arabic and Chinese inscriptions found therein. All but one of the original documents, a map Marcian Rossi donated to the Library of Congress, remain in the possession of Rossi’s great-grandson Jeffrey Pendergraft in Texas. Olshin is the first scholar in decades to see those originals.

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Marco Polo's 'Map with Ship' (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)
Marco Polo’s ‘Map with Ship‘ (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

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The map donated by Marcian Rossi to the Library of Congress, dubbed “Map with Ship,” is a curious one. It has an illustration of a Venetian sailing vessel and a sketch of what appears to be outlines of Japan, Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, the Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands and the coastlines of present-day Alaska and British Columbia. The map was not a navigational aid because it lacks longitude and latitude reference lines.

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The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin
The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin

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Olshin has detailed the results of his intensive research in his book, “The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps.” The book is the first credible book-length analysis of these parchments. It is a balanced, detailed, and a non speculative work of cartographic scholarship, not another ‘who discovered?’ sensation. Olshin charts the course of the documents from obscure origins in the private collection of the Italian-American immigrant Marcian Rossi in the 1930s. He describes the investigations by the Library of Congress, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI for their authenticity. Olshin describes his own efforts to track down and study the Rossi maps.

After a  thorough tracing of Marcian Rossi’s ancestry, Olshin asserts that Rossi’s explanation that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family was credible.

Olshin describes himself as an “evidence guy” and makes no claims that the document “Map with Ship,” depicts Alaska for certain although there are similarities. Olshin also admits, the authenticity of the ten maps and four texts is not settled. The ink on the parchments remains untested. A radiocarbon study of the sheepskin vellum of one key map, the only one subjected to such analysis, dates it to the 15th or 16th century, making it at best a copy.

Regardless of the origin of the documents, Olshin offers insights into Italian history, the age of exploration, and the wonders of cartography. He then takes his readers on a fascinating journey to the early legendary lands of the Chinese.

Alessandro Scafi said in Times Literary Supplement (UK):

“Olshin plays with the idea that Marco Polo’s relatives may have preserved geographical information about distant lands first recorded by him, or even that they may have inherited maps that he made. If genuine, Olshin argues, these maps and texts would confirm that Marco Polo knew about the New World two centuries before Columbus, either from his own experience or through hearing about it from the Chinese … Fascinating material … Olshin himself admits that there is no hard evidence to support his thrilling speculations. Including translations of every annotation and inscription, Olshin’s study and description of the fourteen parchments are exhaustive. His analysis, however, leaves many questions open … A fascinating tale about maps, history and exploration.”

The parchments in the Rossi collection may not only back up Marco Polo’s claim that he journeyed to the Orient, but also could reveal he might have set foot on the North American continent, 200 years before Christopher Columbus. It is purported that Columbus carried a well-worn copy of “The Travels of Marco Polo” with him on his historic 1492 voyage. It is conjectured that the travels of Marco Polo inspired Columbus to seek a westward sea route to the riches of East Asia, but instead landed in the New World.

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← Previous: Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”

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A European in the Orient: Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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When Niccolò, Maffeo, and Marco Polo,  arrived in Italy they found the Republic of Venice at war with the Most Serene Republic of Genoa, that had one of the most powerful navies in the Mediterranean.

Marco Polo joined the Venetians in the war. He commanded a galley equipped with a trebuchet, a type of catapult that used as a siege engine in the Middle Ages. The Genoans captured Marco in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta, and imprisoned him.

While spending several months in prison between 1298–1299, Marco became a friend of a fellow prisoner Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian writer of romance. Marco told Rustichello about his time in Asia. Rustichello soon committed his stories to paper in Old French. The romance writer also incorporated into it tales of his own as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China.

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Le livre des merveilles du monde. Marco Polo
Le livre des merveilles du monde. Marco Polo

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After his release in 1299, Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa together turned the written notes into a travelogue titled “Livre des Merveilles du Monde” (Book of the Marvels of the World) or “Devisement du Monde” (Description of the World). In Italian the account appeared as “Il Milione” (The Million) or Oriente Poliano and was published later in English as “The Travels of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China.

Marco Polo was the first to leave a detailed popular chronicle of his experience in medieval China to the world, but he definitely was not the first European to travel to the Far East.

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John of Plano Carpini's great journey to the East. His route is indicated, railroad track style, in dark blue. From the "Historical Atlas" by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923 (2nd edition)
Giovanni da Pian del Carpine’s great journey to the East. His route is indicated, railroad track style, in dark blue. From the “Historical Atlas” by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923 (2nd edition)

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During the time of the great Mongol invasion of eastern Europe, the Battle of Legnica on April 9, 1241, proved disastrous. The loss threatened to cast European Christendom under the rule of Ögedei Khan, the 2nd Khagan of the Mongol Empire.

Four years later, with the dread of the Mongols still on the mind of the people in eastern Europe, Pope Innocent IV, dispatched the first formal Catholic mission to the Mongols. It was partly to protest against the latter’s invasion of Christian lands, partly to gain trustworthy information about Mongol armies and their intention for the future. The Pope chose 65-year-old Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine to head this mission.

The mission started on Easter day April 16, 1245, from Lyon, where the Pope then resided. Giovanni bore a letter “Cum non solum” dated March 13, 1245, from the Pope to Ögedei Khan, the Mongol Emperor. Another friar, Stephen of Bohemia, accompanied Giovanni, broke down at Kaniv near Kiev. Another Minorite, Benedykt Polak, appointed to act as interpreter joined Giovanni at Wrocław.

Their journey was perilous. The Papal legate wrote that they were, “so ill that we could scarcely sit a horse; and throughout all that Lent our food had been nought but millet with salt and water, and with only snow melted in a kettle for drink.

Friar Giovanni and his companions rode an estimated 3000 miles in 106 days. By the time they reached their destination Ögedei Khan was dead.

On August 24, 1246, Giovanni and his companions witnessed the formal enthronement of Güyük Khan as the Third Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The new emperor refused the invitation to become a Christian, but demanded that the Pope and rulers of Europe should come to him and swear  their allegiance to him.

When Güyük Khan dismissed the expedition in November, 1246, he gave them a letter to the Pope, written in Mongol, Arabic, and Latin. It was a brief imperious assertion of the Mongol emperor’s office as the “scourge of God.”

Later on, other Catholic emissaries followed. In the 1250s, William of Rubruck, traveled east on a quest to convert the Mongols to Christianity. These early missionaries were largely inspired by the myth of Prester John (Latin: Presbyter Johannes), Christian patriarch and king popular in European chronicles and in the tradition of the 12th through the 17th century.

The accounts about this mythical king vary. They are just a collection of medieval popular fantasy. One such account depicts him as a descendant of the Three Magi, ruling a kingdom full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures. Polo mentions the fictional monarch in his book, and even asserts that Prester John fought a great battle against the Mongol ruler Genghis Kahn.

A Lombardian surgeon also had reached the city of Khanbaliq in 1303. A merchant named Petro de Lucalongo, had accompanied the monk John of Montecorvino to Khanbaliq in 1305.

In his work “Histoire de l’Empire Mongol,” Jean-Paul Roux,  a French Turkologue and a specialist in Islamic culture says that a person named André de Pérouse had mentioned that there was a small Genoese colony, in the harbor of Zaytun in 1326. Andolo de Savignone was the most famous Italian resident of the city. In 1336, Toghon Temür, the 15th Khagan of the Mongol Empire and the 11th Emperor of the Yuan dynasty sent him to the West to buy “100 horses and other treasures.

In 1339, a Venetian named Giovanni Loredanoto returned to Venice from China during the reign of  Emperor Toghon Temür.

A tombstone with the name of Catherine de Villioni, daughter of a Dominici, who died in 1342 during the reign of Toghon Temür was discovered in Yangzhou.

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An illuminated manuscript on Marco Polo's fascinating and adventurous travels (Source: facsimilefinder.com)
An illuminated manuscript on Marco Polo’s fascinating and adventurous travels (Source: facsimilefinder.com)

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Well-known master artists of the medieval times steeped the manuscripts like the one shown above in enchanting colors.

The Travelogue, “The Travels of Marco Polo” soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form.  It gave the curious Europeans in the Middle Ages craving to know more about the marvels of the Orient,  the first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan. Rarely have secular topics had such an intense echo.

The Travelogue is divided into four books:

Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco Polo traveled through on his way to China.

Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai Khan.

Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, India, and the East Coast of Africa.

Book Four describes some of the then-recent wars among the Mongols, and some of the regions of the Far North, like Russia.

No authoritative version of Marco Polo’s book exists. The early manuscripts differ much from one another. Also, inadvertent errors and discrepancies crept in during the process of copying and translating.

The published editions of the travelogue either rely on single manuscripts, or a blend of many versions. For example, the popular translation published by Penguin Books in 1958 is the handiwork of R.E. Latham, who blended several manuscripts together to make a readable whole.

A.C. Moule and Paul Pelliot based their  1938 English translation on a Latin manuscript found in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932, and is 50 percent longer than other versions.

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Probable view of Marco Polo's own geography drawn by H. Yule, 1871. (Source: The Book of Ser Marco Polo. London, 1871, vol. I, p. cxxxv)
Probable view of Marco Polo’s own geography drawn by H. Yule, 1871. (Source: The Book of Ser Marco Polo. London, 1871, vol. I, p. cxxxv)

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Some published editions carry notes to clarify, as exemplified in the English translation by Henry Yule.

To date, approximately 150 manuscript copies exist in various languages.

After his release from prison, Marco Polo returned to Venice. He married and raised three daughters. During the next 25 years, he carried on the family business.

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Next → Part 3 – Did Marco Polo Really Travel to the Far East?

← Previous: Part 1 – The Adventures of Marco Polo.

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A European in the Orient: Part 1 – The Adventures of Marco Polo


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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A 13th-century travelogue titled Livre des Merveilles du Monde (Book of the Marvels of the World) or Devisement du Monde (Description of the World) introduced Europeans to the geography of the Orient and the ethnic customs of its indigenous peoples.

The book described the travels of the Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo between 1276 and 1291, through Asia: Persia, China, Indonesia, Burma, Tibet, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, and his experiences at the court of Kublai Khan, the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire. The book described Cathay (present-day China) in great detail and its abundance of riches. Though Marco Polo was not the first European to have visited the Far East, he still became famous after the publication of the book.

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Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

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Marco Polo was born in Venice on September 15, 1254 to a wealthy Venetian merchant named Niccolò Polo. Marco’s father and his uncle Maffeo Polo being merchants had established trading posts in Constantinople, Sudak in Crimea, and in a western part of the Mongol Empire in Asia.

In 1264, the Polo brothers joined up with a diplomatic mission sent by  Hulagu, the ruler of Il-khanate to his brother Kublai Khan, both grandsons of Gengis Khan. They reached the seat of Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, in Dadu (present day Beijing, China) in 1266.

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Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.
Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.

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Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor, received the Polos well and expressed his interest in Christianity. He then sent them back to Italy with a Mongol named Koeketei as an ambassador to Pope Clement IV. They carried a letter from the emperor requesting the Pope to send 100 educated people to teach Christianity and western customs to his people. He also requested oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. The emperor also gave them  the paiza, a golden tablet a foot long and 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide, to signify certain privileges and authority, allowing them to acquire lodging, horses and food throughout  his dominion.

Koeketei left in the middle of the journey, leaving the Polos to travel alone to Ayas in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. From that port city, the Polos sailed to Saint Jean d’Acre, capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Pope Clement IV died on November 29, 1268. The long sede vacante between the death of Pope Clement IV, and the election of a new pope delayed the Polos from fulfilling Kublai Khan’s request.

In 1269 or 1270, Teobaldo Visconti, then papal legate for the realm of Egypt suggested that the brothers return to Venice and wait for the nomination of the new Pope.

Niccolò Polo once again saw his son Marco, now a teenager, who had been living with his aunt and another uncle in Venice since the death of his mother at a young age.

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Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.
Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.

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In 1271, Theobald Visconti was elected as Pope Gregory X. He received the letter from Kublai Khan brought by the Polo brothers.

The Polo brothers left Venice on their second voyage to the Orient along with a 17-year-old Marco. Unable to recruit the 100 people that Kublai Khan had requested to teach his people, the Polos left with only two Dominican friars:  Niccolò de Vicence and Guillaume de Tripoli. They set sail to Acre.

At Acre they joined a caravan of merchants travelling to the Persian port of Hormuz. Soon, bandits attacked their caravan using the cover of a sandstorm to ambush them. The marauding bandits killed many members of the caravan and enslaved the rest, but the Polos managed to escape to a nearby town.

Marco reveled in the adventure, but the two monks after getting a taste of the hard journey ahead of them, soon turned back for home.

When they reached Hormuz they wanted to sail straight to China, but the ships in Hormuz were not seaworthy, so they continued overland through the Silk Road.

The journey was challenging and at times they had to traverse harsh terrain. In what is now Afghanistan, Marco fell ill. He had to retreat to the mountains to recuperate from the illness.

Crossing the Gobi desert, proved long and, at times, arduous. Marco told later: “This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end. And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.

In 1274, three and a half years after leaving Venice, when Marco was about 21 years old, the Polos reached Kanbaliq or Dadu, the capital of the Yuan dynasty (present day Beijing). Kublai Khan who welcomed them into his summer palace known as Xanadu, a grand marble architectural wonder. The Polos presented the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to the Mongol Emperor.

The Polos spent the next 17 years in China under the patronage of Kublai Khan. Niccolo and Maffeo were granted important positions in Kublai Khan’s Court. The Mongol Emperor took a liking to Marco, an engaging storyteller. Marco’s immersed himself into the Chinese culture and mastered four languages. He served as an official in the salt administration and made trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. At one stage, he was the tax inspector in the city of Yanzhou.

Marco Polo marveled at the use of paper money in the Mongol empire, an idea that had not reached Europe at that time.

Kublai Khan employed Marco Polo as a special envoy.  He sent Marco to Burma, India, Tibet and other far-flung areas hitherto never explored by Europeans. Marco was promoted again and again for his work. He served as governor of a Chinese city. Later, Kublai Khan appointed him as an official of the Privy Council.

The Polos asked permission on many occasions to return to Europe, but Kublai Khan liked them so much that he would not agree to their departure.

In 1291, Kublai Khan entrusted the Polos with their last duty. It was to escort the Mongol princess Koekecin to her betrothed, the Il-khan Arghun of the breakaway state of the Mongol Empire in Persia, ruled by the Mongol House of Hulagu.

The Polos departed from the southern port city of Quanzhou with a caravan of several hundred passengers and sailors. They sailed to Sumatra, Ceylon and India. They visited Mylapore, Madurai and Alleppey in India. Marco Polo nicknamed Alleppey as the “Venice of the East.”

The journey was harrowing due to storms and disease. Many perished. By the time they reached Il-khanate in Persia in 1293 or 1294, only 18 people, including the princess and the Polos, were still alive.  They came to know that Il-khan Arghun to whom the princess was betrothed had died. They left the Mongol princess Koekecin with the new Il-khan Gaykhatu. The Polos then moved to Trebizond . From there they sailed to Constantinople and then reached Venice in 1295. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).  The Polos returned to Venice with thier fortune converted in gemstones. In Venice, the Polos struggled to converse in their native tongue. Above all, they were unfamiliar to their family.

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Marco Polo's Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)
Marco Polo’s Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)

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Next → Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”

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