Prester John wrote in his letter to the kings of Europe that his dominion extended over the "Three Indias."
As mentioned in the previous section, at the time of this letter the Three Indias referred to India Major, from Malabar through the East Indies, India Minor, from Malabar to Sind, and India Tertia, the east coast of Africa.
This tripartite division comforms to the contemporary Muslim concept of Hind, Sind and Zanj with the last India referring specifically to the area around present-day coastal Tanzania.
Wolfram von Eschenbach, in the epic poem Parzival, which was written about half a century after Prester John's letter, confirms the location of Prester John in the Indies. He links the ruler with a kingdom known as Tribalibot in India 'near the Ganges.'
Hoax or history?
While it is popular today to claim that the correspondence of the Pope and European kings with Prester John was an elaborate hoax, substanial scholarship in the area suggests something quite different.
Prester John's intial letter addressed to Manuel of Byzantinum, Frederick Barbarossa and others did not just simply suddenly appear in circulation throughout Europe. It was brought to the courts of the Byzantine and Holy Roman emperors by actual ambassadors from the court of Prester John himself in 11651!
Later in 1177, Philippus the physician of Pope Alexander III brought another letter addressed to the Pope from Prester John after meeting with representatives of the king2. There is some dispute over whether Philippus actually claimed to have visited Prester John's court.
The letter to the Pope contained requests to build a church in Rome, an altar in Jerusalem and to receive instructions regarding the Catholic religion.
Alexander III responded by sending Philippus back with his reply to the kingdom of Prester John. No information is available as to whether Philippus succeeded in his mission.
So not only was there correspondence between Prester John and the emperors and Pope, but representatives of the King of the Indies appeared in Europe. Also, Philippus himself may have visited Prester John's court. Knowing these facts, it is hard to come to any conclusion other than one giving the kingdom involved in this correspondence an historical basis.
Indian empires of the 12th century
Was there any historical empire of the 12th century that indeed extended over the Three Indias?
There was one maritime empire that could possibly fit if one only sees the dominion extending to parts of the Three Indias. It was known in Chinese texts as Sanfotsi and among the Muslims as Zabag.
Chinese geographical texts like the Chu-fan-chi (1225) of Chau Ju-Kua mention that Sanfotsi ruled over numerous kingdoms within insular and mainland Southeast Asia. They further extend the rule of this kingdom to Si-lan or Ceylon.
The Muslim geography of al-Masudi confirms this latter claim when it states that Zabag, widely considered the equivalent of the Chinese Sanfotsi, ruled over Sirandib, the Arabic name for Ceylon.
Furthermore, the geography of Ma Tuan-lin (circa 1200) states that Chou-lien, was a vassal of Sanfotsi, verifying the same claim in the Sung-shih (960 - 1279). Chou-lien was the Chinese name for the Chola empire of India3. Again, the Chinese claim is verified by Arab geographers who state that Kalikut was among the dependencies of Zabag.
The Chola emperor Rajendrachola claimed to have made some conquests himself in the East Indies. However, his statements have no support from independent sources, i.e., Chinese, Muslim or other historians. Even Rajendrachola's son only claimed one of these victories -- that of Kadaram, possibly the state of Kataha in Malaysia.
The Chinese and Muslim accounts gain support from substantial evidence of royal influence from insular Southeast Asia in India at this time. Pali texts from 13th century Ceylon mention "Savaka" princes on the island.
As mentioned earlier, Sanfotsi/Zabag was known by the Indians as Suvarnadvipa:
"the eastern islands in this ocean (Sea of Champa), which are nearer to China than India, are the islands of Zabaj, called by the Hindus, Suvarnadvipa, i.e. the gold islands... because you obtain much gold as deposit if you wash only a little of the earth of that country."
(Al-Biruni, 1030 AD)
The monarchs of Suvarnadvipa were very active among the Cholas. In 1005, a Suvarnadvipa king built a Buddhist vihara in the Chola state, which the Chola king granted revenues4. In 1014-1015, gifts were sent for a Hindu temple5, and again in 1018-10196. In the 1080s, the king of Suvarnadvipa built the foundation for a Buddhist temple in South India7.
If we accept the historical claims of the Chinese and Muslim texts, then two of the three Indias would be covered so far. Or at least we can say that Sanfotsi/Zabag extended over significant parts of these two Indias. But what about the third India in East Africa?
We know that at an earlier period, Austronesian seafarers from insular Southeast Asia settled on the island of Madagascar forming the Malagasy-speaking population of the island. However, not many people are aware of the fact that during the medieval period, both regions maintained substanial contact with each other.
The Book of the Wonders of India, written by a Muslim author mentions in 945 an expeditionary raid off the East African coast by a fleet of 1000 ships from the East Indies. Centuries later in 1154, the Arab geographer Idrisi wrote in Kitab Rujjar that "the people of the isles of Zabag come to the land of Zanj on small and large ships...for they understand one another's languages." He also states: "The residents of Zabag go to the land of Sofala (near Beira, Mozambique) and export the iron from there supplying it to all the lands of India. No iron is comparable to theirs in quality and sharpness."
Idrisi, whose patron was Roger II of Sicily, also states about trade expeditions to Zanj: "The people of Komr (Khmer) and the merchants of the land of the Mihraj (ruler of Zabag) come among them (the Zanj) and are well received and trade with them."
Tanzanian traditions suggest that there was a settlement around Pemba and Zanzibar of a people they called the Debuli from “Diba” and Jawa8. They were supposed to be responsible for planting the coconut palms and mangoes along the Tanzanian coast. As we will examine in the section on the spice routes the relationship between the Tanzanian coast and the East Indies may extend back into deep antiquity. There are different theories as to where Diba and Jawa refer, but one possibility is that Diba is a form of Dabag, thought to be a Nestorian corruption of Zabag. Jawa can refer to any number of East Indian locations such as Java, Sabah, Davao, Toubok, etc. The Debuli were said to be a seafaring people whose ships had sails of coconut palm fiber.
That the kingdom of Sanfotsi/Zabag extended over a vast region that might be said to span the "Three Indias" we have this quote from Mas'udi:
"In the sea of Champa (eastern South China Sea) is the empire of Maharaja, the king of the islands, who rules over an empire without limit and has innumerable troops. Even the most rapid vessels could not complete in two years a tour round the isles which are under his possesssion. The territories of this king produce all sorts of spices and aromatics, and no other sovereign of the world gets as much wealth from the soil."
Prester John, The Christian King
The greatest obstacle to equating the kingdom of Prester John to Sanfotsi/Zabag come from that king's professed Christian religion.
However, we should note that even in Prester John's letter, he explains that there are many "Gentile" nations in his empire, and that later explorers into Asia had noted that his domains had quickly ceased to be Christian.
The problem might be solved by delving into the history of the Nestorian Christian church in Southeast Asia and also the syncretic practices that once abounded there.
In Asian tradition, it was common that if a king adopted a new religion, so did his whole domain to some extent. However, before the advent of Abrahamic faiths, a new religion did not mean necessarily discarding old beliefs. A king and his subjects could patronize many religions at once, non-exclusively.
In a similar way, we find in modern Japan, that many people may follow simultaneously the teachings and rituals of Shintoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. In fact, the same people might at the same time celebrate Christmas and opt for a Christian wedding ceremony.
In this sense, if a particular monarch decided to patronize the Nestorian church, he could rapidly implement this religion throughout his kingdom without the same kind of disheaval that would be expected if the adoption was exclusive of other faiths.
Researchers like S.H. Moffett and John England note that there is substantial textual and artifactual evidence of the presence of at least some Nestorian Christians throughout Southeast Asia prior to 1500.
As early as the 6th century, Cosmas Indicopleustes mentions Nestorians from Siam. In his work, Descriptions of Chronicles and Monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries, the Persian Abu Saliah mentions during the 7th century, a Nestorian church at Fansur, the Muslim name given to a kingdom in the Malay archipelago (probably Borneo or Sumatra).
Moffett has noted the theory of a number of researchers that the rapid acceptance of Christianity in the Philippines may have been due to the previous presence of Nestorian influence9. Early Roman Catholics in the Philippines reported many findings of apparently Nestorian Christian images in the country. The Filipino scholar Pedro Paterno has done research on the evidence of Christian theology in pre-Hispanic Philippine thought and language10.
The closest notice we have from the region in the time frame we are discussing is that of John of Marignolli who mentions a "few Christians" at Sabah, a location he visited on his way to India from China11. Obviously one possibility is that he was referring to the current place called Sabah in northeast Borneo. By this time, however, the Chinese and Arab writers seem to agree that Sanfotsi/Zabag had faded away.
Therefore, our theory is that Nestorian Christianity may have taken sway for a short while in the empire of Sanfotsi/Zabag, but not in a way that excluded other religions. Furthermore, the new faith may have faded away when the patronizing monarch passed on. The supporting evidence, here, is difficult at best, but overweighted by the fact that this kingdom otherwise is the only real candidate for Prester John's historical realm.
Parallels between Sanfotsi/Zabag and Prester John's kingdom
Many European travelers who ventured to eastern Asia during the 14th century painted a picture of Prester John's kingdom that pointed to a location in the present-day East Indies12. The Behaim Globe of 1492 showed Prester John's kingdom lying along the coast and archipelagoes of Ptolemy's Sinus Magnus, the most eastern sea in the world.
· Both are located in the "Indies" during the same time period
· Pygmies are found in both instances13
· Cannibals are present in both kingdoms14
· Both kings have brahmins included among their subjects15
· The use of fire-proof clothing is mentioned in both cases16
· Prester John's kingdom like Shambhala is associated with a subterranean zone. There is a similar story given regarding Sanfotsi by Chau Ju-Kua:
"There is an old tradition that the ground in this country once suddenly gaped open and out of the cavern came many myriads of cattle, which rushed off in herds into the mountains, though the people all tried to get them for food. Afterwards the crevice got stopped up with bamboo and trees and disappeared."
· Each kingdom was known for its fabulous natural wealth
· Tamed elephants were found in both empires
· A great bird capable of carrying away large beasts was found17. Indian tradition places the great bird Garuda on an island in the Milky Ocean southeast of India.
· Prester John mentions the phoenix living in his kingdom, while a bird known as samandal capable of living in fire, was found in the land of Wak or Wakwak, which was contiguous with Zabag.
· Adultery is strictly prohibited by both kings18. In contrast, adultery was often reported to be treated very liberally by European and Muslim standards in other parts of the Indies.
· Prester John says that Amazons are subject to him. Von Eschenbach notes that Prester John's land was ruled by Queen Secundille. The Muslim writers mention a queen ruling the land of Wak. The Chinese texts mention Queen Sima of Toupo, which was likely the same as the Arabic Wakwak. If the land called Tawalisi by Ibn Batutta in the 14th century was included in the older Zabag, an amazonian princess and tradition is mentioned there also.
· Prester John ruled as priest and king. The Tibetan texts record that the great guru Serlingpa was 'Lord of Suvarnadvipa," and at another instance state that he is of princely descent.
· Gog and Magog, the nations of the Anti-Christ are located within the domain of Prester John. Muslim traditions locate Bratayil the island of Dajjal, the Islamic Anti-Christ, among the possessions of Zabag19.
· The Muslim writers mention an island at the eastern reaches of Zabag where a volcano continously erupted. Some think that Prester John's letter refers to volcanoes as mountains that issue rivers of stones:
"Three days' journey from this sea are mountains from which rolls down a stony, waterless river, which opens into the sandy sea. As soon as the stream reaches the sea, its stones vanish in it, and are never seen again."
The description of a "sandy sea" associated with this river matches descriptions of the seas in insular Southeast Asia after volcanic eruptions (i.e., Krakatoa and Pinatubo) which become clotted with lahar and debris:
"In our territory is a certain waterless sea consisting of tumbling billows of sand never at rest. None have crossed this sea -- it lacks water all together, yet fish of various kinds are cast up upon the beach, very tasty, and the like are nowhere else to be seen."
· Prester John claimed to have descended from the "race of the Three Magi." The Muslim writers describe the inhabitants of Zabag and Wakwak as majus "fire-worshippers."
At this point we should also look at the parallels between Sanfotsi/Zabag and Shambhala:
Parallels between Sanfotsi/Zabag and Shambhala
· The Kalki kings of Shambhala held sway over matters both temporal and sacerdotal. The description of Serlingpa of Suvarnadvipa is very similar. Also, we might note that one Shambhala king, Sripala, is said to come from the Southern Ocean, which usually means the South China Sea. There are those who think that Sripala and Serlingpa are the same person.
· Both kings were known as founts of great knowledge. The Muslims considered the Mihraj of Zabag as the most knowledgeable of kings in the world. The Shambhala kings were known as Rigden "knowledge holders."
· Tibetan texts state that the Kalachakra Tantra was important in each kingdom (Shambhala and Suvarnadvipa) from at least the 10th to 14th centuries.
· Both kings are said to have ruled over empires of many kingdoms during about the same period.
· Sanfotsi/Zabag and Shambhala were both known for their great natural wealth and abundance.
· In both kingdoms, succession to the throne was not determined by primogeniture. However, the test for the heir was different. In Shambhala the heir to the throne was said to be determined by a 'rain of flowers' at birth20. In Sanfotsi, the heir was chosen among the son who was best able to bear the tall and heavy golden crown with 'hundreds of jewels.'21 The letter of Prester John states "our crown is the greatest in the world, for it is richer than silver and gold and precious stones and pearls."
· The name Gser-Ling "Golden Country is associated with Shambhala. Suvarnadvipa means literally "the Golden Islands," and Shambhala is also said at times to be an island. Gold was apparently abundant in both places. The palace of the Shambhala king was made partly of gold. The empire of Zabag was described as an El Dorado.
· Both regions were known for their tamed elephants.
· Subterranean zones were found in each kingdom (see list above).
1Chronicle of Albericus Trium Fontium. 1241.
2 J. Brampton. Criticas Historico-Chronologica, in Baronius, Annales Ecclesiastici, iv, 650. Chron. Joh. Bromption ap R. Twyaden, Hist. Angl. Scriptores X, London, 1652.
3 The Chola empire encompassed most of South India and extended as far as present-day Orissa on the east and Goa on the west. See Ma, Tuan-lin, Ethnographie des peuples étrangers à la Chine : ouvrage composé au XIIIe siècle de notre ère / par Ma-Touan-Lin ; traduit pour la première fois du Chinois avec un commentaire perpétuel par le marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denys. Paris, 1876-83.
4 K. Aiyangar and R. Sewell, Historical Inscriptions of Southern India. Madras, 1932, pp. 57-58; Epigraphia Indica 22, no. 34.
5 Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy 1956-57: 15. nos. 161 and 164.
6 Annual Report of Indian Epigraphy 1956-57: 15, no. 166.
7 Nilakanta Sastri, The Colas. pp. 271-72; Epigraphia Indica 22: no. 35.
8 John Gray, “The Wadebuli and the Wadiba,” Tanzania Notes and Records, XXXVI, 1968, 22-41; W.H. Ingrams. Zanzibar, Its History and Its Peoples, 2nd ed. London, 1967, 125; Godfrey Dale. The Peoples of Zanzibar. New York, 1920, 13 and 25.
10 Pedro A. Paterno, El Cristianismo en la antigua civilization tagalog; contestacion al M.R.P. Fr. R. Martinez Virgil de la Orden de predicadored obispo de Oviedo. Madrid, 1892.
11 Sir Henry Yule. Cathay and the way thither, being a collection of medieval notices of China, translated and edited by Sir Henry Yule. Lichenstein, 1967.
12 Friedrich Zarncke. Der Priester Johannes. Leipzig, 1883.
13 See the Letter of Prester John and the voyages of Sindbad in the Thousand and One Nights, also Buzurg ibn Shahriyar. The book of the wonders of India : mainland, sea, and islands, edited and translated by G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville. London, 1981.
16 In his letter, Prester John describes "silk" spun by salamanders that live in fire. The clothing from this cloth is fire-proof and are cleaned with fire. The Chinese had similar tales regarding fire-proof clothing and the salamander, see Berthold Laufer, "Asbestos and Salamander." T'oung Pao magazine, 1915, pp. 299-373. Fire-proof clothing is mentioned coming from the "Fire Mountain" near the home of the king of Zabag and in other areas of insular Southeast Asia.
17 The bird was called Ruk by the Muslims and was located in both Zabag and Wakwak.
18 Prester John's letter and: Chau Ju-Kua. Chau Ju-Kua: his work on the Chinese and Arab trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, entitled Chu-fan-chï, tr. from the Chinese and annotated by Friedrich Hirth and W. W. Rockhill. St. Petersburg, 1911, 61.
19 This tradition is mentioned in the One Thousand and One Nights and also by Buzurg Shahriyar, Wasif-Sah and Ibn Khordabzbeh.
20 John R Newman."A Brief History of the Kalachakra" in The Wheel of Time. The Kalachakra in Context. Madison, 1985.