Marco Polo’s Visit to Medieval Eelam

by Sachi Sri Kantha, April 9, 2021

Front Note in April 2021

Marco Polo’s return sea route (National Geographic, July 2001)

The following solicited essay was originally written in 2000, for publication in the 80th Birthday Felicitation volume of Eelam Tamil activist and barrister at law, Krishna Vaikunthavasan (1920-2005). Using the record left by Marco Polo’s of 13th century, I challenged the ‘Prof. K. Indrapala’s controversial hypothesis’ of his 1966 Ph.D. thesis (University of London) that permanent Eelam Tamil settlement in the northern Ceylon originated in the mid 13th century. Subsequently, it was posted in the Sangam site in 2002, with a preliminary note. I re-post it now, for the benefit of new generation of diaspora Tamils, and Marco Polo aficionados.

Prof. K. Indrapala

Meanwhile, Prof. Indrapala (b. 1938), published a 400 page book, ‘The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity’ in 2005. In it’s preface, he had partially (?) retracted his controversial hypothesis. To quote,

“Work on this thesis opened my eyes to the paucity of material relating to the early history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and to the great need for archeological work in the regions settled by the Tamils. The thesis was completed with the material that was available in the early 1960s. ‘As long as excavation work remains undone’, I pointed out, ‘much that is relevant to our study will be wanting…Even the inscriptions and literary works that we have used have proved to be inadequate in the reconstruction of a satisfactory history of the settlements and in the solution of many important problems’ (p.21). The thesis was presented as the first major attempt to bring together all the available evidence on the subject. The fact that it was in no way a complete study was admitted: ‘In view of these limitations and difficulties, while we may claim to have added something to our knowledge of the history of the Tamils of Ceylon, the account presented here is inevitably incomplete and not always definite. We have often been led to state our conclusions in hypothetical terms’ (p.23).

Needless to say, that dissertation is now completely out of date. My own perspectives and interpretations have changed since its completion…”

Why did I become interested in Marco Polo? In 1990, a short letter (only 187 words) of mine entitled,  ‘Oesophagial carcinoma in Sri Lanka’ about Marco Polo’s link to Ceylon was published in the Gut journal (1990 Feb; 31: 342). It was as follows:

“SIR,- With reference to the article by Sagar (Gut 1989; 30: 561-4), I wish to add that Sri Lanka was a transit point in the old silk route between China and Rome. Marco Polo also stopped over in Sri Lanka (then identified by him as Seilan) on his return from China.’)1, 2 On the diet of the natives of the northern region of Ceylon, seven centuries ago, Marco Polo wrote:

‘They have no grain other than rice. They have sesame, from which they make oil. They live on milk, flesh and rice and have wine made from trees’. The wine he referred to, is known as ‘kallu‘ in Tamil language, and is produced from the palymyrah palm Borassus flabellifer.’

Stephen and Uragoda3 have reported that cancer of the oesophagus is the commonest among the patients admitted to thoracic units in Ceylon, and Ceylon is one of the few countries with a high incidence of both oral and oesophageal carcinoma. In China,4 the male-female ratio of patients with oesophageal cancer is reported as 2:1. But in Sri Lanka, the incidence of oesophageal carcinoma is higher among women than men.’


l)ept of Physiology and Biochemistrv,
Medical College of Pennsylvania,
Philadelphia, PA 19129, USA

I Yule H. The book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, concerning the kingdoms and marvels of the east, New York: Airmont Publishing, 1969: 249-50.

2 Latham R. The travels of Marco Polo. Middlesex: Penguin, 1987: 258-9.

3 Stephen SJ, Uragoda CG. Some observations on oesophageal carcinoma in Ceylon, including its relationship to betel chewing. Br J Cancer 1970; 24: 11-15.

4 Khojasteh A, Kravbill WG. Cancer of the esophagus: the environmental connection. South Med.J. 1988; 81: 878-82.

Following the publication of this letter, I came to collect and study Marco Polo literature with interest; but have yet to publish a full-fledged paper or commentary on him in a peer-reviewed journal.  My solicited 2000 essay deserves further development and refinement. Having stated this, a few questions remain to be answered.

  • How many days or weeks, did Marco Polo spend in Eelam?
  • Which was the Northern port where his ship landed? Was it Paruthithurai (Point Pedro) or Kankesanthurai?

In 2001, the National Geographic magazine published a three part series on Marco Polo’s visit to China, scripted by Mike Edwards. Part III [July 2001 issue] that covered Marco’s return journey but ignored his Ceylon visit with a casual one sentence note in the text “Finally, after a five-month wait, favorable winds blew again, and the fleet set a westerly course, pausing at ‘Seilan’ – Ceylon, now Sri Lanka – before turning north to India.” Another sentence, as a legend for a photo, added, “Palm wine made a potent impression on Marco in Sri Lanka, where men still walk the treetops to collect sap for the alcoholic drink.” The photo showed a toddy-tapper walking between two coconut trees.

The third elusive question may be, was it palmyra toddy or coconut toddy which Marco might have tasted in Jaffna? This may be tentatively answered, if we settle the question on which month of the year, Marco’s ship landed at a Jaffna port?


A Preliminary Note in 2002:

Two years ago, this brief analytical study of mine on the credibility of the now notorious ‘Indrapala Hypothesis’ about the origin of Eelam Tamil settlement appeared in the Krishna Vaikunthavasan’s 80th Birthday Felicitation Volume [Vaikunthavasan Muthu Vizha Malar, London, April 29, 2000; pp.48-50]. After its publication, I received quite a few complimentary comments from the readers. They also strongly suggested that since the reach of the felicitation volume was restricted to a lower four figure range at most, my study should be republished in a medium which carry wider reach. Hence, I present this study to the Sangam website. I provide the complete text, as it appeared in the original publication.

Essay Proper


It is with humility that I express my sincere greetings to Mr.Krishna Vaikunthavasan for adding another ten worthy years, after reaching the biblical span of ‘three score and ten’. It is also somewhat unfortunate that only once I have had the chance to meet him in person, and that too for a fleeting moment at Madurai, during the 5th International Tamil Research Conference, held in January 1981. However, I have had the pleasure to communicate with him via letters occasionally during the past 15 years.

Among the Eelam Tamils, other than Adangaa Thamizhan Chellappah Suntheralingam, I cannot think of any other individuals like Vaikunthavasan Aiyah who expressed his rugged individualism in so many different areas for the Tamil cause, with some distinction than that of Suntheralingam. But one should not fall into the trap of comparing apples and oranges. Thus, I will limit my canvas to what I have been commissioned.

If I’m not mistaken, history records that Vaikunthavasan is probably the first Eelam Tamil to visit China in a quasi-official delegation, after the 1949 People Revolution commanded by Chairman Mao Ze Dong. To honour his long record of public service, in this essay, I wish to review a lesser-known and neglected aspect of 13th century history of Eelam, chronicled by a world renowned individual, who was a predecessor to Vaikunthavasan, in setting his foot in China. This guy is none other than Marco Polo, whose rugged individualism influenced many subsequent historical events in many nations.


Prof. Indrapala’s Thesis

One of the controversial theories regarding the early Tamil settlements in Ceylon was proposed by Prof.K. Indrapala in his Ph.D. dissertation, submitted to the University of London in 1966. His dissertation was entitled, ‘Dravidian Settlements in Ceylon and the Beginning of the Kingdom of Jaffna’. A published version of this thesis appeared in the Journal of Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon) in 1969. From his study of available epigraphic evidence, Indrapala had arrived at a controversial inference that permanent Eelam Tamil settlement in the northern Ceylon originated in the mid 13th century. I quote in full the last paragraph of his published paper.

“The settlements of the thirteenth century, therefore, mark the most important stage in the course of the early Tamil settlements in Ceylon. In the period prior to the middle of the 13th century, mercenary and mercantile communities played an important part in the establishment of Tamil settlements. It is only after the middle of the thirteenth century that we get evidence of Tamils migrating to the Island with the definite aim of settlement. With this stage, the northernmost  region and the eastern districts emerged as a predominantly Tamil area with all the attendant political problems.”

Well, for the past three decades, Indrapala’s thesis gained a notoriety of its own. Sinhalese politicians, journalists and pseudo-historians had flaunted this piece of academic embroidery to dispute the ancestral claims of Eelam Tamils. Indrapala is undoubtedly a scholar with good credentials. But, my question is, does this mean that he cannot be wrong?

Recently, I had the chance to read completely what Indrapala had written in 1969. He had begun the second paragraph of his paper by stating, “As in the case of all students of ancient history we are confronted in the first place with the problems of inadequate sources.” This is a true grievance, one should accept in good faith. But what will one think of a scholar, who bothers not to check on an authentic and original source as reputable as Marco Polo, before arriving at a half-baked inference?


Marco Polo’s Visit to Eelam

Marco Polo (1254-1324), the medieval chronicler of the Orient, had visited the northern Ceylon in the last decade of the 13th century, on his return from China. In his classic work, ‘Divestment dou Monde’ (Description of the World), he had commented about the inhabitants of Eelam. But Indrapala makes no mention about Marco Polo’s visit, in his controversial paper. I will let the Venetian master chronicler to describe what he saw in the last decade of the 13th century Eelam and its environs.

Says Marco, “On leaving the island of Andaman and sailing for 1,000 miles a little south of west, you come to the island of Seilan, which is undoubtedly the finest island of its size in all the world. Let me explain now. It has a circumference of some 2,400 miles (Note: actual figure now is 700 miles). And I assure you that it used to be bigger than this. For it was once as much as 3,500 miles as appears in the mariner’s charts of this sea. But the north wind blows so strongly in these parts that it has submerged a great part of this island under the sea. That is why it is no longer as big as it used to be. (An asterisk note by an early translator of the text says, ‘The northern side of the island is so low-lying that a voyager coming from this quarter does not see it till he is right on it.’)

Marco Polo continues, “Now I will tell you something about the island. It is ruled by a king called Sendemain (probably a corruption of the Tamil word ‘Sandamann’). The people are idolaters (referring to the Hindus, who are idol-worshippers). They pay no tribute to anyone (viz., They were a free nation). They have no grain other than rice. They have sesame, from which they make oil. They live on milk, flesh and rice and have wine made from trees (which is none other than kallu from palmyra palm). And they have brazil wood, the best in the world.”

The sentences of Marco Polo which disprove Indrapala’s hypothesis seems uncomplimentary to Eelam Tamils in the first reading. He has noted, “They people of Seilan are no soldiers, but poor cowardly creatures. And when they have need of soldiers they get Saracen troops from foreign parts.”

What one should note is, that Marco Polo’s original script was written in a popular mixture of medieval spoken Italic-French language. That was the language used by romance writers of that era. As such, nuances of some words and  phrases used by Marco Polo and Rustichello, the scribe of Marco’s text (see below, about this individual) would have become twisted when this medieval dialect of French was  translated into English for the first time in 1579, by J. Frampton, which in turn was based on a Spanish translation of a very corrupt Venetian version. Thus, one need not feel offended by the description of Marco Polo of medieval Eelam Tamils as ‘poor cowardly creatures’. On the contrary, his mention of medieval Tamils he saw in Eelam as ‘no soldiers’ should be interpreted as describing the social mileau in which they were living; viz., peaceful atmosphere and thus an absence of necessity for them to engage in armed conflict. Marco Polo’s mention about Saracens (Muslims) as mercenaries reiterates this point, and around that time Muslims were beginning to settle in northern Ceylon, and not Tamils as proposed by Indrapala.


Marco Polo versus Indrapala

Let me reiterate how Marco Polo’s real description differs from what Indrapala has visualized. First, while Indrapala of the 20th century holds the view that after the middle of the 13th century ‘we get evidence of Tamils migrating to the Island with the definite aim of settlement’. Marco Polo who visited Eelam at that time has not mentioned about any such migratory activity in the region. Secondly, whereas Indrapala came to a conclusion that, Eelam Tamils in the northern Ceylon prior to the mid 13th century consisted mostly of mercenary and mercantile elements, Marco Polo presents a completely different picture where, the population was not engaged in warfare, and that ‘they pay no tribute to anyone’.

This shows that the Tamil population in Eelam at that time, rather than being transient and migratory, had established civic stability. The only mercenary elements which Marco Polo has described in his travelogue were the Muslims. This in turn could only demonstrate that the time frame suggested by Indrapala for the early Tamil settlements in Ceylon is very much in error, and has to be ante-dated.


Prof. Kingsley de Silva’s treatment of Marco Polo

Not only Indrapala, but even other erudite Sri Lankan historians like Kingsley Silva have failed to study and interpret in detail, the importance of Marco Polo’s record of his visit to the ‘Seilan’ around the year AD 1290. De Silva in his text book, A History of Sri Lanka (1981) makes no reference to Marco Polo. In this book, de Silva has observed that “the compilation of a reasonably accurate chronological list of the rulers of Jaffna kingdom presents enormous difficulties” and begins the time frame of Jaffna dynasty from that of Pararajasekaram (1478-1519).

De Silva’s hesitation to identify the king whom Marco Polo clearly mentions as ‘Sendemain’ who pays “no tribute to anyone” is also worthy of taking note here. One can surmise from corroborative sources that Marco Polo’s visit to Ceylon would have taken place during the reign of Parakrama Bahu III, who ruled at Polonnaruwa between 1287 and 1293, according to de Silva.


Historical Events related to Marco Polo’s visit to Eelam

Richard Humble in his book Marco Polo (1974) has observed that Marco Polo would have visited Ceylon at least three times, the last one on his return journey which began probably around 1289. Marco Polo was not a lone traveler to Ceylon. He, his father (Nicolo Polo) and uncle (Maffeo Polo) were returning to Venice from China, after a 20 year stay. They were accompanying a 17-year old princess Kokachin, who was to wed Kubilai Khan’s great nephew, who was ruling Ilkhan of Persia (present Iran). Kubilai Khan sent the party in a fleet of 14 ships, 600 men and 100 ladies-in-waiting, which included another ‘daughter of the king Manzi’. It took this party three months to reach Malacca region, where the natives were hostile. In the ensuing conflict with the natives, a significant number of men in the party lost their lives.

Thus, when Marco Polo described the Eelam Tamils as ‘no soldiers, that should be taken as a compliment, since he did not encounter any hostility in the land of Eelam, contrary to what he experienced in the Malacca region. When the entire party reached the Persian Gulf around the year 1291, the record shows that 582 men and one lady-in-waiting had died, with only 12 men remaining in the party which left China. The exact date of the return of Marco Polo in Venice has not been identified properly. Some researchers think that 1292 could be the year, but others settle for the year 1295.


Role of War in the Genesis of Marco Polo’s Text

How Marco Polo’s travelogue came to be written has also an interesting story behind it. Wars everywhere cause many losses to lives, limbs and property. But, the world should thank the Battle of Curzola for giving birth to Marco Polo’s inimitable classic. Marco Polo, while serving as a ‘gentleman commander’ of a Venetian galley was captured by the enemy (Genoese) forces in a sea battle on 6 September 1298. While in Genoa prison, he was befriended by one of his cell mates, Rustichello of Pisa, a romance writer of some repute. During the prison term, Marco Polo dictated his travels to the Orient, for Rustichello to scribe. By the time, when both were released under the terms of a peace treaty signed on 25 May 1299, the partnership of the merchant adventurer and the professional romance writer had produced a world best seller (for almost seven centuries!), which is still useful to demolish the fancy hypotheses generated by the contemporary historians of Sri Lanka.


Cited Sources

K.M. De Silva: A History of Sri Lanka, C.Hurst & Co, London, 1981. 603 pp.

Mike Edwards. Marco Polo. Part III – Journey Home. National Geographic, July 2001, 200 (1): 26-45.

Indrapala: Early Tamil settlements in Ceylon. Journal of Ceylon Branch of Royal Asiatic Society, Gt. Britain & Ireland, 1969; 13 (new series): 43-63.

Indrapala: The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity – The Tamils in Sri Lanka c.300 BCE to c.1200 CE, MV Publications, Sydney, 2005, 400 pp. ISBN 0-646-42546-3.


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