A rare page with a map showing the legendary island of Taprobana. Is this island Sri Lanka, or Sumatra?
The Greek explorer and historian Megasthenes wrote that Taprobana was divided by a river and was abundant in pearls and gold. Taprobana was located somewhere in the Indian Ocean and is usually shown on historical maps as a large island south of India.
There have been many theories about the identity of the island. Some thought Taprobana could have been a phantom island, Madagascar, or the lower peninsula of India; however, most geographers believed that the island was either Sumatra or Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
In AD 150, Claudius Ptolemy wrote his treatise 'Geographia' which greatly influenced later geographers. The map below is based on Ptolemy’s description of the world. Taprobana is shown as a very large island south of Asia. In AD 77, the author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, wrote an encyclopaedic book titled Natural History.
Pliny wrote about the story of 'Annius Plocamus', a Roman tax collector who lived during the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54). Plocamus sent a freed slave to collect taxes in the Red Sea. His ship was blown off course and landed on Taprobana.
The freedman described forests of trees that grew in the seas that surrounded the island. The trees broke the rudders of ships. People who lived on the island hunted elephants, tigers, and turtles with shells large enough to house whole families. Pliny also wrote that Taprobana was inhabited by 'Sciapodes', men with one giant foot which they used to shade themselves while lying on their backs.
Many stories were written about Taprobana. The island was described in the 14th-century book The Travels of Sir John Mandeville as having mountains of pure gold which were guarded by giant man-eating ants. Ludovico di Varthema, an Italian traveler visited Taprobana in the early 16th century.
Vathema wrote “it exports elephants that are larger and nobler than those found elsewhere.” He also stated “the island of Taprobane is today called Sumatra.” Ancient Sri Lankan chronicles describe a kingdom named Tambapanni.
According to the chronicles Prince Vijaya landed on an island named Lanka after he was exiled from India. Prince Vijaya ruled the island from 543 BC to 505 BC and named it Tambapanni. It is theorized that the name Taprobana was a Greek or Roman alteration of Tambapanni. Based on the ancient Sinhalese chronicles and similarity of names, most historians today believe Taprobana was present-day Sri Lanka.
From a 1550's edition of Munster's 'Cosmographia', one of the most important works of the 16th century. Sebastien Munster is generally regarded as one of the important mapmakers of the 16th century. He was a linguist and mathematician, who initially taught Hebrew in Heidelberg.
He issued his first mapping of Germany in 1529, after which he issued a call for geographical information about Germany to scholars throughout the country. The response was better than hoped for, and included substantial foreign material which supplied him with up to date, if not necessarily accurate maps for the issuance of his 'Cosmographia'.