Sunday, 13 December 2015

An Armenian Source on Medieval Sumatra/Srivijaya

        There aren't many Eastern Christian sources on ancient Indo-Malaysia/Nusantara, but there's no reason to neglect them nor to believe that they're less valuable than Marco Polo. In a short article written in 1998 and published in the Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde (a journal familiar to all Indonesianists), Vladimir Braginsky, one of the world's foremost experts on classical Malay literature, highlighted two such eastern Christian sources, one in Armenian ('Description of cities, Indian and Persian') and one in Old Russian ('A Journey Beyond the Three Seas' (Хождение за три моря) by the relatively famous fifteenth-century Russian explorer Afanasiy Nikitin). I want to take a look first at the Armenian text - I'll leave Nikitin for another post. I'm not going to do much more than summarise part of the article this time, so if you have JSTOR access I'd recommend reading the whole piece there.
A brick-built candi at the Bujang Valley in Kedah, Malaysia - one of the sites mentioned in the Armenian text (as 'Kala'). h/t Anandajoti.
       Braginsky tells us that the text of the anonymously-authored Description of Cities had been neglected by scholars of Indonesia until Braginsky himself noticed that part of it clearly referred to Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. The text of the Description dates to the twelfth century, somewhere between 1101 and 1161 - notably prior to Marco Polo's travels or explicit mentions in medieval European texts - although the oldest manuscripts are from the thirteenth. This means that the Description describes a time when Srivijaya/Malayu was still a major power in the Malay world.

     After talking about Sarntip, clearly derived from Sarandib, the Arabic name for Sri Lanka, the writer tells us about Srivijaya. Here's the piece Braginsky uses (translation by R. Abramyan, about whom I know nothing):
    The region called Reminzar, or Land of Gold, because gold is found there in large quantities - as much gold is mined there as is humanly possible - lies there. The names [of the cities] of the Land of Gold are:
    Lamrin, the principal city and island. Large quantities of silk[worms], much timber, called
pkam, and other excellent goods are shipped from there.
    From here, the traveller comes to Panchur, which is an island city of great wealth. The noble camphor is obtained there.
    Near Lamrin lies [another] island, named Krut, where cheap cardamom is grown and exported.
     Krudai, the great city. Near it lies a remarkable and prosperous island named Samavi. Below that lies another island, called Pure. Excellent goods of every description, apt to meet every man's needs, are found in that isle.
     Below that is located the island of Yepanes. Large quantities of camphor are produced on that island.
     And below [the latter island] lies the isle of Plaioi - the crown of the country [namely the capital of the Land of Gold? - V.B.]. In the isle of Plaioi lives [literally: 'sits'] the king of the [tribe of the] Zapech. When his father or mother dies, he makes life-sized gold idols to replace his parents [to represent them]. They are pagans, and not of the Indian faith. They are called Zapech, and they live on carrion, devouring all they find. They eat both their own dead and [those of] foreigners, if they can get them: they consider them their prey. And when they wage war on other tribes and score a victory, they eat all those who have fallen in battle - both their own [fighters] and their foes'. However, they do not touch merchants and travellers, as they live by trade.
      Rambi is an island, and below it is another island, with a city named Panchi. Yet another island lies next to that. Much tin is shipped from the latter island. Various excellent goods are found there, goods fit for kings. Near that isle are [the islands of] Yala, Kala, and Kakule.
     Here are the cities and islands, the regions and the tribes of the Land of Gold [listed] for you, which are inhabited by a people who speak the Zapech language.

        The first point to make about this text is that most of the placenames have obvious correlates in other languages or among extant toponyms. Braginsky looks especially for Arabic parallels, which is certainly a good idea, but something like 'Land of Gold' - oskegetin in the original Armenian - is used to refer to the Malay Peninsula/Sumatra/all of Southeast Asia in lots of west Eurasian languages: Sanskrit Suvarṇabhūmi, Greek Χρυσή Χερσόνησος, Latin Chersonesus Aurea, and Persian زمین-ا- زر (zamin-(e)-zar). The latter is probably the source of the Reminzar in the Armenian text.

     Other toponyms might already seem familiar from the European, Arabic, and Indonesian texts: 
  • Zapech is an Armenianized form of Zabaj, the Arabic name for Java/Sumatra/Indonesia as a whole (Braginsky notes that devoicing of consonants in loanwords, not only finally, is common in Armenian, hence the -ch). Here it's used to refer to the place and the language of the people who live there, which was presumably Malay.
  • Lamrin must be Lamori/Lamuri, which Braginsky sees as coming from the Arabic name.
  • Panchur is undoubtedly Arabic Fansur - Barus in northwestern Sumatra. Marco Polo visited it, and also mentioned camphor from there.
  • Krut is identified as Lho' Kruet in Aceh, northern Sumatra. Krudai Braginsky believes to be Daya, near Lho' Kruet.
  • Pure is certainly a transcription of the Sanskrit pura/i, 'city', but precisely which city is meant isn't known. It could be, according to Braginsky, 'either Indrapuri on the right bank of the Krueng Aceh, in the XXII Mukim... or the small town of Indrapura, north of the Asahan River, in the Batak area of Simalungun, in the vicinity of which there existed an Indianized state that in the 14th century was called Tanah Jawa' (Braginsky 1998:371).
  • Yepanes is 'probably the old state of Panai'. The land appears in Canto 13 of the Desawarnana (the one dealing with Malay states) as 'Pane'. Braginsky says it was also described by the Portuguese explorer Mendes Pinto as 'Penaiu' - a Batak state.
  • Plaioi is a bit of an odd one, but it's probably identifiable with Palembang in Sumatra, capital of Srivijaya. I don't know how that works phonetically or phonologically, but there you go.
  • Rambi is probably Jambi, now a province of Indonesia, although it sounds a lot like the Arabic name for Sumatra (which you may remember is al-Ramni). Jambi was the centre of the post-Srivijayan (successor?) state of Malayu and an important region in the development of Srivijaya.
  • Panchi - Braginsky says that this one must be Bangka, a large-ish island off the east coast of Sumatra. The names don't sound too similar, but that's probably because the name was transmitted to Armenian speakers via Arabic, in which language Malay /ŋ/ (as in Bangka) tended to become Arabic /nd͡ʒ/. Again, this devoiced in Armenian.
  • Yala is the modern town of Yala in what is now southern Thailand, and Kakule is apparently somewhere 'on the Tenasserim coast in Burma' (Braginsky 1998:372).
  • I assumed Kala was Kedah in Malaysia when I first read the piece, and I think that makes most sense of it. Kedah was visited by nearly everyone who crossed the Indian Ocean because it is directly east of Sri Lanka - just sail due east and you'll hit it. It was known as Kalah in Arabic. Braginsky brings up a couple of competing claims, but frankly I think the identification of Kala = Kalah = Kedah ought to be as uncontroversial as it gets.
      Overall, this strikes me as quite an important text. The Armenian presence in the Indian Ocean has been rather neglected - in fact I'd say that aside from System Of A Down and the Kardashians, the Armenian presence in human history has been rather neglected - despite the fact that Armenians were probably involved in it at quite an early stage: Armenia has always had an intimate connection with Persia, and Persian sailors were vital links in the Indian Ocean chain. The British Arabist George Hourani claimed that a large part of Arabic (and Malay) sailing vocabulary was loaned from Persian, including bandar ('port'), dīdbān ('look-out', 'watchman'), and nākhuda ('shipmaster', from Persian nau khoda), so we really shouldn't be surprised if Armenians were also involved during the medieval period (especially the twelfth century, during which Armenia was part of the Seljuq empire) (Hourani 1951:65).
A makara at Muara Jambi, Sumatra - one of the sites (probably) mentioned in the text. h/t Gunawan.
      This work was written before Marco Polo and the western European sources with which most people are familiar, and it mentions similar things, which implies either that some stories about the Malay world were being shared by traders as far back as the twelfth century or that the practices of Malays were so remarkable and noticeable that everyone who visited the area remarked upon them. I'm going to return to this text when I discuss cannibalism and headhunting in non-Indonesian sources, and you'll see the parallels between what Polo and Odoric and what this anonymous Armenian says.

      There's an exhibition on at the moment at the newly-reopened Weston Library in Oxford about Armenia, and it's really good. It's free, of course, and it's not really big, so check it out if you happen to be in town.


Braginsky, V. I. 1998. Two Eastern Christian sources on medieval Nusantara. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde. 154(3):367-396.

Hourani, G. F. 1951. Arab seafaring. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


  1. Name SonnyMak
    Location: Malaysia

    Thank you for your enlightening article.
    I agree with your opinion that kala was Kedah. the fact that Kakule, Yala and Kala are mentioned in the same sentenced denote the proximity of these places to each other. And yes the fastes route to hit the Malay Peninsula is from Sri langka go direcly East until they sight Gunung Jerai in Kedah the only high poit in the flat alluvial plains of the north.

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