A Theban in the Malabar

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    When Alexander, the great king of Macedonia crossed the Indus and arrived in the subcontinent in the 4th century BCE, he met some Brahmins and even took one of them back with him on his return trip. Since then, Brahmin practices became a source of immense curiosity to the Greeks and the Romans.

    Palladius, the Bishop of Hellenopolis in ancient Greece, was thus tasked with creating an account of these Brahmins, and he did this by collating selected material from travellers’ accounts. The result was a booklet titled Palladius de Gentibus Indiae et Bragmanibus (Palladius On The Races of India And The Brahmans), which was prefaced with the story of a lawyer named ‘Thebes Scholasticus’, who had travelled to India sometime in the mid to late 4th century CE.

    A cursory study of this work gives the impression that it was a mishmash of myths and tall tales retold by disembarking sailors and traders. The first part of the book is the portion we will look at, based on primary research done by historians Garret and Weerakkody.

    Our unnamed protagonist, Theban Scholasticus, belonged to an elite group of Roman civil servants and lawyers in Thebes, in Egypt. He had probably heard tales from sailors who had returned from perilous voyages to the Malabar in India, and been enchanted by stories of how they braved fierce monsoon winds, encountered a land of immense wealth, and people who had ‘strange practices’. Perhaps his imagination was stoked just enough, for this bored lawyer decided to forsake his tedious desk job and venture out on a trip to the land of spices.

    The ancient city of Thebes, known to the ancient Egyptians as ‘Waset’, was located east of the Nile, about 650 km south of Cairo. During its subsequent Roman occupation in 30 BCE, Thebes became part of the Thebais province. Various Red Sea ports close by conducted trade with the Indian subcontinent, mainly through the trade emporia on the latter’s west coast.

    It was part of a trade network that linked the Mediterranean to India via East Africa, and it was how Roman trade was transacted with the Malabar, most notably Muziris, close to present-day Kochi in Kerala.

    An extract from a translation of Palladius’s account in Greek tells us the following about the Theban’s voyage. In the company of a “Presbyter”, he sailed along and touched in first at Adulis (on the Abyssinian coast in East Africa), and then at Axume (parts of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea)"where there was even a minor kinglet of the Indians in residence there. There he spent some time and gained a deep acquaintance with them and he wanted to go to the island of Taprobane also where the so-called Macrobioi live.

    Why Sri Lanka?

    One wonders why the Theban chose Taprobane (Sri Lanka), for even though it was well known, it was not on the trading map of that era. Perhaps he wanted to or had been asked to check out the prospects of trade with Ceylon. That decision, as we shall soon see, was to become a reason for his downfall.

    He (or Palladius) then describes the island of Taprobane, which had coconut trees and arecanut trees, while the inhabitants subsisted on rice, fruit and milk, and raised goats. The inhabitants wore skins around their middles, the island has no pigs and had five large rivers.

    Continuing with the Palladius extracts, He found some Indians going by ship from Axume for the purpose of trade, and he tried to get further east. He reached the neighborhood of the people called "Bisadae", the pepper gatherers. That people are very small and weak, they live in caves and the rock and are capable of making their way on precipices because of their acquaintance with the locality, and that is how they gather pepper from the bushes, for the bushes are also stunted as that Scholasticus said. The Bisadaes too are stunted little fellows with big hands, unshaven and lank-haired. The rest of the Ethiopians and Indians are black, upstanding fellows and bristly-haired.

    We can infer from this that the Theban sailed with Indians to reach a pepper-gathering locale where tribals deliver pepper grown in the highlands. From the fact that pepper was cultivated only on the western slopes of the Malabar portions of the Sahayadri or the Western Ghats, we can conclude that he was in the Malabar.

    Then, he said, “I was arrested by the local ruler and was tried for daring to enter their country. They did not accept my defence since they did not know the language of our country, nor did I understand the charges they brought against me, for I did not know their language either, but simply by the twisting of the eyes we communicated with each other in recognizable gestures. I came to recognize their accusing remarks from the bloodshot color of their eyes and the savage grinding of their teeth, and guessed the meaning of what they said from their movements. On the other hand, from my trembling and anguish and the paleness of my face, they clearly realized my pitiable state of mind through my physical trepidation.

    “So, I was arrested and was a slave among them for six years, handed over to work in the bake-house. The amount spent by their king was one modius of corn for his whole palace, and I don’t know where it came from. And so, in these six years I was able to interpret a great deal from their language and hence I have got to know the neighbouring tribes besides.

    “I was released from there in the following way: Another king made war on the one who kept me captive, and accused him before the great king who resides in the island of Taprobane, of taking prisoner an important Roman and keeping him in the basest servitude. The king sent a judge, and upon learning the truth of the matter, ordered him to be flayed alive, for doing injury to a Roman, for they respect and fear the Roman Empire very much, thinking that it could even invade their country because of its supreme courage and inventive skill.”

    Unanswered Questions

    With this, the Theban bows out from the Palladius text, leaving behind many intriguing questions. Where did the ship take the Theban? Who are the tribals? Who is the great king of Taprobane, and what relations did the Ceylon kings have with the Malabar or other nearby states? Who are the Besadae?

    The identity of the port of destination is not apparent, but we can conclude they arrived at a minor port in the Malabar, with the monsoon winds, since larger ports such as Muziris had a Roman presence. Perhaps he had strayed too deep inland to discover the secrets of pepper-growing and was picked up by a hill tribe. The Theban may have confused corn with root flour, and the modium measure which is approximately 15 kg, confirms he was talking about a small tribe subsisting on meat and root produce.

    Palladius or his scribe inserted a description of the Bisadae (not by the Theban) into the tale, without realizing that the Bisadae, located closer to today’s Assam, was too far for sailing vessels of that period. The connection of the Taprobane king to this is also mysterious, and is perhaps an opportune insertion by Palladius.

    There were many connections between Lanka and the South Indian kingdoms, but we do not know of any South Indian king resident in Lanka during that period. As the story goes, we can conclude that a local Malabar king sent his emissary to check a complaint, had the tribal leader punished and the prisoner released.

    Vested Interests?

    Scholars and historians have found many aspects in the booklet conflicting and the first part inconclusive, but they feel that Palladius was trying to promote Taprobane and potentially had a vested interest in the establishment of a profitable trade link with this locale, as opposed to the Malabar. It should also be noted that Rome had been losing a lot of money on the spice trade and had been looking for ways to have better control over the sources, and they had not been quite successful in forcing the Malabar traders to bow down. Palladius may have sweetened the report by alluding to a just overlord and above all, a Roman-friendly king in Taprobane.

    One could also conclude that this was a commercial reconnaissance venture which went wrong, seeing that the Theban first met with resistance from the Auxumites (since he was not taken in an Auxumite vessel) and later, hostility at Malabar upon arrival. After six years of captivity, the local tribal chief released him, fearing that it could affect good relations.

    Even though the tale, as well as its content, is quite meagre, there is ample scope for further investigation and scrutiny into this ancient travelogue, when studied together with other contemporary Greco-Roman accounts of that period.


    Ullattil Manmadhan (Maddy) is a history enthusiast who writes about the history of Malabar and Kerala on his blogs, Maddy’s Ramblings and Historic Alleys. A version of this article was posted on Maddy’s Ramblings in December 2018.

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