Suvarṇabhūmi (Sanskrit: सुवर्णभूमि; Pali: Suvaṇṇabhūmi)[a] is a toponym, that appears in many ancient Indian literary sources and Buddhist texts such as the Mahavamsa, some stories of the Jataka tales, the Milinda Panha and the Ramayana.
Suvaṇṇabhumī means "Golden Land" or "Land of Gold" and the ancient sources have associated it with one of a variety of places throughout the Southeast Asian region. It might also be the source of the Western concept of Aurea Regio in Claudius Ptolemy's Trans-Gangetic India or India beyond the Ganges and the Golden Chersonese of the Greek and Roman geographers and sailors. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea refers to the Land of Gold, Chryse, and describes it as "an island in the ocean, the furthest extremity towards the east of the inhabited world, lying under the rising sun itself, called Chryse... Beyond this country... there lies a very great inland city called Thina". Dionysius Periegetes mentioned: "The island of Chryse (Gold), situated at the very rising of the Sun". Avienus referred to the Insula Aurea (Golden Isle) located where "the Scythian seas give rise to the Dawn". Josephus speaks of the "Aurea Chersonesus", which he equates with the Biblical Ophir, whence the ships of Tyre and Israel brought back gold for the Temple of Jerusalem. The city of Thina was described by Ptolemy's Geography as the capital city of the country on the eastern shores of the Magnus Sinus (Gulf of Thailand). Some have speculated that this country refers to the Kingdom of Funan. The main port of Funan was Cattigara Sinarum statio (Kattigara the port of the Sinae).
There is a common misunderstanding that the Edicts of Ashoka mention this name. The truth is the edicts relate only the kings' names and never reference Suvarnabhumi in the text. Moreover, all of the kings referenced in the text reigned their cities in the region that located beyond the Sindhu to the west. The misunderstanding might come from a mixing of the story of Ashoka sending his Buddhist missionaries to Suvarnabhumi in "Mahavamsa" and his edicts.
The location of Suvarnabhumi has been the subject of much debate, both in scholarly and nationalistic agendas. It remains one of the most mythified and contentious toponyms in the history of Asia. Scholars have identified two regions as possible locations for the ancient Suvarnabhumi: Insular Southeast Asia or Southern India. In a study of the various literary sources for the location of Suvannabhumi, Saw Mra Aung concluded that it was impossible to draw a decisive conclusion on this, and that only thorough scientific research would reveal which of several versions of Suvannabhumi was the original.
Insular Southeast Asia theory
The strongest and earliest clue referring to the Malaysia Peninsula came from Claudius Ptolemy's Geography Geography (Ptolemy) who referred to it as Chersonesus Aurea (which literally means Golden Peninsula) which pinpointed exactly that location in South East Asia.
The term Suvarnabhumi ("Land of Gold"), is commonly thought to refer to the Southeast Asian Peninsula, including lower Burma and the Malay Peninsula. However there is another gold-referring term Suvarnadvipa (the Golden Island or Peninsula, where dvipa may refer to either a peninsula or an island), which may correspond to the Indonesian Archipelago, especially Sumatra. Both terms might refer to a powerful coastal or island kingdom in present-day Indonesia and Malaysia, possibly centered on Sumatra or Java. This corresponds to the gold production areas traditionally known in Minangkabau highlands in Barisan Mountains, Sumatra, and interior Borneo. An eighth century Indian text known as the "Samaraiccakaha" describes a sea voyage to Suvarnadvipa and the making of bricks from the gold rich sands which they inscribed with the name dharana and then baked. These pointing out to the direction of western part of insular Southeast Asia, especially Sumatra, Malay Peninsula, Borneo and Java.
Benefitting from its strategic location on the narrow Strait of Malacca, the insular theory argued that other than actually producing gold, it might also be based on such a kingdom's potential for power and wealth (hence, "Land of Gold") as a hub for sea-trade also known from vague descriptions of contemporary Chinese pilgrims to India. The kingdom referred to as the center of maritime trade between China and India was Srivijaya. Due to the Chinese writing system, however, the interpretations of Chinese historical sources are based on supposed correspondences of ideograms – and their possible phonetic equivalents – with known toponyms in the ancient Southeast Asian civilizations. Hendrik Kern concluded that Sumatra was the Suvarnadvipa mentioned in ancient Hindu texts and the island of Chryse mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and by Rufius Festus Avienus.
The interpretation of early travel records is not always easy. The Javanese embassies to China in 860 and 873 CE refer to Java as rich in gold, although it was in fact devoid of any deposits. The Javanese would have had to import gold possibly from neighbouring Sumatra, Malay Peninsula or Borneo, where gold was still being mined in the 19th century and where ancient mining sites were located. Even though Java did not have its own gold deposits, the texts make frequent references to the existence of goldsmiths, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence such as Wonoboyo Hoard, that this culture had developed a sophisticated gold working technology, which relied on the import of substantial quantities of the metal.
The Padang Roco Inscription of 1286 CE, states that an image of Buddha Amoghapasa Lokeshvara was brought to Dharmasraya on the Upper Batang Hari — the river of Jambi, transported from Bhumi Java (Java) to Suvarnabhumi (Sumatra), and erected by order of the Javanese ruler Kertanegara: the inscription clearly identifies Sumatra as Suvarnabhumi.
Southern India theory
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The other theory maintains that Ashoka's missionaries did not travel further east than Sri Lanka (called "Tamraparni" in the Mahavamsa) and identifies Suvarnabhumi as a toponym in the extreme South of present-day India, outside of Ashoka's empire but still on the subcontinent, possibly in the land of the Cholas or Pandyas. This theory is based on equally vague archaeological evidence in southern India and the claim that there is no independent evidence, either historical or archaeological, proving Ashoka's missionaries ever visited South-East Asia.
A popular interpretation of Rabindranath Tagore's poem Amar Shonar Bangla serves as the basis for the claim that Suvarnabhumi was actually situated in central Bengal. In some Jain texts, it is mentioned that merchants of Anga (in present-day Bihar) regularly sailed to Suvarnabhumi, and ancient Bengal was in fact situated very close to Anga, connected by rivers of the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta. Bengal has also been described in ancient Indian and Southeast Asian chronicles as a "seafaring country", enjoying trade relations with Dravidian kingdoms, Sri Lanka, Java and Sumatra. Sinhalese tradition holds that the first king of Sri Lanka, Vijaya Singha, came from Bengal. Moreover the region is commonly associated with gold- the soil of Bengal is known for its golden color (gangetic alluvial), golden harvest(rice), golden fruits (mangoes), golden minerals (gold and clay) and yellow skinned people. Bengal is described in ancient Sanskrit texts as 'Gaud-Desh'(Golden/Radiant land). During the reign of the Bengal Sultans and the Mughal Empire, central Bengal was home to a prosperous trading town called "Sonargaon" (Golden village), which was connected to North India by the Grand Trunk Road and was frequented by Arab, Persian and Chinese travelers, including Ibn Battuta and Zheng He. Even today, Bengalis often refer to their land as 'Shonar Bangla' (Golden Bengal), and the national anthem of Bangladesh- Amar Shonar Bangla (My Bengal of Gold)- is based on this theme.
Due to many factors, including the lack of historical evidence, the absence of scholarly consensus, various cultures in Southeast Asia identify Suwannaphum as an ancient kingdom there and claim ethnic and political descendancy as its successors. As no such claim or legend existed prior to the translation and publication of the Edicts, scholars see these claims as based in nationalism or attempts to claim the title of first Buddhists in South-East Asia.
In Burma, both the ethnic Burmans and the Mons claim that Suwannabhumi (သုဝဏ္ဏဘူမိ) was the Thaton Kingdom located on the Tenasserim coastal area centered on Thaton. This belief may stem from two references in the fourth century Sri Lankan history "Mahavamsa" and Dîpavamsa which told the story of the Ashoka missionaries (seven centuries removed), stating "Sona and Uttara were dispatched to Suvarnabhumi" and identifies this land with the contemporary (fourth century) area of Râmaññadesa or Thaton. If true, however, it is unlikely that the people of this area were either Burman or Mon since, according to accepted archaeogical and historical evidence, the Tibeto-Burman peoples had not yet begun their migration into the peninsula and the Mon were just beginning to filter into and settle the Khorat area of modern-day Thailand in the third century BC.
In Thailand, government proclamations and national museums insist that Suwannaphum was somewhere in the coast of central plain, especially at the ancient city of U Thong, which might be the origin of the Dvaravati Culture. These claims are not based on any historical records but on archaeological evidences of human settlements in the area dating back more than 4,000 year and the findings of 3rd century roman coins. The Thai government named the new Bangkok airport, Suvarnabhumi Airport, after the mythic kingdom of Suwannaphum, in celebration of this tradition. This tradition, however, is doubted by scholars[who?] for the same reason as the Burman claim. The migration of the Tai peoples into Southeast Asia did not occur until centuries later, long after the Pyu, Malays, Mons and Khmers had established their respective kingdoms. Suphan Buri (from the Sanskrit, Suvarnapura, "Gold City") in present day west/central Thailand, was founded in 877-882 as a city of the Mon-Khmer kingdom of Dvaravati with the name, Meuang Thawarawadi Si Suphannaphumi ("the Dvaravati city of Suvarnabhumi"), indicating that Dvaravati at that time identified as Suvarnabhumi.
The oldest archaeological evidence of Indianized civilization in Southeast Asia comes from central Burma, central and southern Thailand, and the lower Mekong delta. These finds belong to the period of Funan or Nokor Phnom, present day Cambodia and South Vietnam including Thailand, Lao and South Vietnam], which was the first political centre established in Southeast Asia. Taking into account the epigraphic and archaeological evidence, the Suvarnabhumi mentioned in the early texts must be identified with these areas. Of these areas, only Funan had maritime links with India through its port at Oc Eo. Therefore although Suvarnabhumi in time became a generic name broadly applied to all the lands east of India, particularly Sumatra, its earliest application was probably to Funan. The Chinese name, "Funan", may be a transcription of the "Suvaṇṇa" of "Suvaṇṇabhumī". In December 2017, Dr Vong Sotheara, of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, discovered a Pre-Angkorian stone inscription in the Province of Kampong Speu Basedth District, which he tentatively dated to 633 AD. According to him, the inscription would “prove that Suvarnabhumi was the Khmer Empire.” The inscription, translated, read: “The great King Isanavarman is full of glory and bravery. He is the King of Kings, who rules over Suvarnabhumi until the sea, which is the border, while the kings in the neighbouring states honour his order to their heads”.
The European search for the Isles of Gold during the Age of Discovery
The thirst for gold formed the most powerful incentive to explorers at the beginning of modern times; but although more and more extensive regions were brought to light by them, they sought in vain in the East Indian Archipelago for the Gold and Silver Islands where, according to the legends, the precious metals were to be gathered from the ground and did not need to be laboriously extracted from the interior of the earth. In spite of their failure, they found it difficult to give up the alluring picture. When they did not find what they sought in the regions which were indicated by the old legends and by the maps based thereon, they hoped for better success in still unexplored regions, and clutched with avidity at every hint that they were here to attain their object.
The history of geography thus shows us how the Gold and Silver Islands were constantly, so to speak, wandering towards the East. Marco Polo spoke, in the most exaggerated language, of the wealth of gold in Zipangu, situated at the extremity of this part of the world, and had thus pointed out where the precious metals should preferably be sought. Martin Behaim, on his globe of 1492, revived the Argyre and Chryse of antiquity in these regions.
In 1519, Cristóvão de Mendonça, was given instructions to search for the legendary Isles of Gold, said to lie to "beyond Sumatra", which he was unable to do, and in 1587 an expedition under the command of Pedro de Unamunu was sent to find them in the vicinity of Zipangu (Japan). According to Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, in 1528 Alvaro de Saavedra in the ship Florida on a voyage from the Moluccas to Mexico reached a large island which he took for the Isla del Oro. This island has not been identified although it seems likely that it is Biak, Manus or one of the Schouten Islands on the north coast of New Guinea.
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