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Ptolemy's Taprobane
Ptolemy's Taprobana as published in Cosmographia Claudii Ptolomaei Alexandrini, 1535

Taprobana (Ancient Greek: Ταπροβανᾶ) or Taprobane (Ταπροβανῆ) was the historical name for an island in the Indian Ocean. (The name's two forms are the result of the Attic-Ionic dialectical vowel shift.)

Reports of the island existence were known before the time of Alexander the Great as inferred from Pliny. In the treatise "De Mundo, supposed to have been written by Aristotle (died 322 BCE) but according to others by Chrysippus the Stoic (280 to 208 BCE), the island is stated as being as large as Britain.The name was first reported to Europeans by the Greek geographer Megasthenes around 290 BCE. There is no mention of the island in Herodotus (444 BCE)and the first Geography in which it appears delineated is that of Eratosthenes (276 to 196 BCE)and was later adopted by Ptolemy (139 CE) in his own geographical treatise to identify a relatively large island south of continental Asia.[1] Taprobana may be the Greek rendition of Tamraparni or Tambapanni "copper-coloured", the descriptive name of one of the ancient ports of Sri Lanka, Kudiramalai. According to Western legend, the inhabitants had a single giant foot which they used to protect themselves from the sun.

For some time the exact place to which the name referred remained uncertain, the likely possibilities included:

Since Ptolomy the location of the island was a source of much confusion but appeared more defined as being the present day Sri Lanka in medieval maps of Abu-Rehan (1030) and Edrisi (1154) and in the writing of Marco Polo (1292).[2] However, in the maps of the Middle Ages, the fashion of using Latinised names and delineating places with fanciful figures contributed to absurd designs and confusion regarding the location of the island and with that of Sumatra. In the fifteenth century, Niccolò de' Conti mistakenly identified Taprobana with a much smaller island.[3] Taprobana/Ceylon/Sri Lanka is clearly located in the 1507 Martin Waldseemuller map (http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2001/01-093.html)

The old question if the isle of Taprobana shown in the map of the world drawn by Ptolemy was Sri Lanka or Sumatra has resurfaced recently with the display at the Australian National Library (ANL) Map Gallery during the months of January to March 2008, of Sebastian Munster’s map of Taprobana drawn in 1580 carrying the German title, ‘Sumatra Ein Grosser Insel’, (Sumatra, a large island). The old debate was settled earlier in favour of Sri Lanka, but the display of Munster’s map with its title has reignited the debate. However, by the time Munster’s map was produced based on Ptolemy’s map, which had been lost since its production around the 2nd century A.D., and some copies were rediscovered in the Middle East around 1400 A.D., the Portuguese had had made their way into Asia. They had knowledge of both Sri Lanka (then Ceylan) and Sumatra, a knowledge which was at least 80 years old. It appears that Munster based his erroneous identification of Taprobane with Sumatra on 16th century knowledge.

Taprobana is mentioned in the first strophe of the Portuguese epic poem Os Lusíadas by Luís de Camões (c. 1524 – 10 June 1580).

As armas e os barões assinalados,
Que da ocidental praia Lusitana,
Por mares nunca de antes navegados,
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados,
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram;

In literary works, Taprobana is also mentioned in Tommaso Campanella's The City of the Sun, written in 1602 (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2816/2816-h/2816-h.htm). Jorge Luis Borges mentions the island in the story "The Lottery in Babylon" in the collection "The Garden of Forking Paths" (1941) of his book "Fictions" (1944).[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Suárez, Thomas. Early Mapping of Southeast Asia. Periplus Editions. p. 100. ISBN 962-593-470-7. 
  2. ^ Suckling, HJ(1876) Ceylon: A General Description of the Island, Historical, Physical, Statistical, Volume I. Chapman & Hall, London. 
  3. ^ R. H. Major, ed. (1857). India in the fifteenth century. p. xlii. 
  4. ^ Borges, JL (1999) Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley. Penguin Classics De Luxe Edition, Sept 1999 ISBN 0-14-028680-2. 

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