The Sunday Times on the Web Plus
18th July, 1999

Front Page|
Editorial/Opinion| Business| Sports |
Mirror Magazine

Front Page
Mirror Magazine

Part One: Shipwrecked on the black mountain

Sindbad's adventures in Serendib

In this new three-part series Richard Boyle goes back in time evoking our childhood memories of the world of Sindbad the Sailor

Mention Sindbad the Sailor to most peo ple and you will find that, in their minds, images are conjured up from storybooks and films of a swashbuckling hero who undergoes fantastic adventures in strange Oriental lands. As far as I am concerned, the name evokes childhood memories of stirring scenes from Richard Wallace's rather camp 1947 Hollywood movie, simply titled Sinbad the Sailor. (The correct spelling of the name is "Sindbad", the form I have adopted except in titles and references where it is rendered without the vital "d".)

The star-studded cast of Sinbad the Sailor comprises Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the hero, Maureen O'Hara as the romantic distraction, and Anthony Quinn, inevitably, as the villain. The story bears little resemblance to the original adventures called The Seven Wonderful Voyages of Sindbad contained in the Arabian Nights. It concerns the quest for the treasure of Alexander the Great. Sindbad is compelled to team up with the dastardly villain - with predictable and tiresome results - because each possesses half of the clues as to the whereabouts of the treasure.

Another example of the genre I can recall from the same cinematic era is Nathan Juran's The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958). This movie has a decidedly non-stellar cast (who ever heard of Kerwin Mathews, Kathyrn Grant or Torin Thatcher?) as well as an indifferent script. However, Ray Harryhausen, the pioneer and master of the art of special effects, rescues it with some awesome monsters and a sword-toting skeleton.

Once again, the producers have decided to throw the original story out of the window in favour of a piece of hokum. This is a great shame, for while the geography of Sindbad's other travels is somewhat hazy, both his sixth and seventh voyages were, so the chronicler tells us, to the Island of Serendib. As a former film producer, I can assure readers that the events of both these voyages naturally combine to form the basis of an excellent storyline for a movie.

Strange as it may seem, this connection between Sindbad and Serendib has rarely been exploited in the dozens of Sindbad films and television series that have been produced over the years. I know of only one exception, a cartoon series, but even here the full story remains untold and Serendib is portrayed as a subterranean kingdom (for a probable reason that will become apparent later on).

Some declare that Sindbad means "traveller in Sindh", while others that it is derived from the Sanskrit Siddhapati, or "Lord of Sages". Although the etymology of the name is ambiguous, there is little doubt that Sindbad was a fictional character. The anonymous author of the tales has evidently based the descriptions of the lands explored by Sindbad on the reports of early merchant-seafarers. As a result, Sindbad's adventures in Serendib display knowledge of the geography, culture and commerce of the island. In short, they provide tantalising glimpses of its past.

Sindbad is one of many heroes featured in the great compendium of traditional Arabic story telling known as A Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights. In fact there are several characters in Arabic folklore named Sindbad, but the most famous was Sindbad the Sailor. While the origins of the Sindbad tales are obscure, they may go back over 1000 years. Sir James Emerson Tennent, writing in Ceylon (1859), contends that they are based on the description of the island given by the 9th century Arabian geographer, Massoudi, in his Meadows of Gold. What is known is that the tales had become part of the Arabian Nights manuscript by the 16th century.

Antoine Galland's translation of the Arabian Nights into French introduced the story of Sindbad's voyages to Europe in the 18th century. However, Sindbad reached a much wider readership in the following century with Sir Richard Francis Burton's translation into English.

Burton, who is best known for his exploration of Africa, in particular his search for the source of the River Nile, spent some years in Goa and the Sindh. (Incidentally, this period of his life has been documented by Christopher Ondaatje, brother of the Sri Lankan-born Booker Prize-winning novelist Michael Ondaatje, in Sindh Revisited: A Journey in the Footsteps of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton [1996]). Burton, the intrepid explorer, is also widely remembered for his translation of the Arabian Nights. A brilliant linguist, he secretly translated a number of Eastern erotic manuals as well.

Folklorists believe that the story of the Seven Wonderful Voyages of Sindbad became popular in Europe because of the exotic nature of the hero's adventures. In addition, Sindbad may well have exemplified the work ethic associated with the rise of capitalism in Europe. The story was also invaluable to scholars because of the information it provided about Arab seafaring and trade during the 8th and 9th centuries.

One historical element to the story is its setting during the reign of the famous caliph of Baghdad and patron of learning, Haroun al-Rashid (AD 786-809)-

Sole star of all that place and time;
And saw him, in his golden prime,
The good Haroun Alraschid.

As a result, it has often been assumed that the author lived in the same era. However, Tennent remarks, "although the author may have lived shortly after, it is scarcely possible that he could have been a contemporary of the great ruler of Baghdad."

Sindbad, who supposedly came from Sohar, in Oman, was a successful merchant-seafarer with a grand mansion in Baghdad. His father was a rich merchant who had died while he was a child. When he grew up and inherited his father's wealth he had acted unwisely and frittered away his fortune. Consumed by remorse, he had sold all his remaining possessions, bought goods and merchandise, and set out to regain his wealth as a trader. After undertaking seven epic voyages he had been able to retire to his mansion in Baghdad.

One day a porter rested in the shade of Sindbad's mansion and wondered aloud why the owner deserved such luxury. Sindbad overheard these remarks and invited the porter inside and answered him by relating his Seven Wonderful Voyages. With his narrative, Sindbad demonstrated to the porter that his wealth was earned by hard work over a long period. The porter apologised to Sindbad, who then shared some of his wealth with him.

The principal injustice perpetrated on the character of Sindbad by film producers and scriptwriters is his unvaried portrayal as a young, swashbuckling adventurer. Nothing could be further from the original conception, which has him as a resourceful, middle-aged merchant who sailed the seas to trade rather than to seek treasure or rescue damsels in distress. Yet this mundane aspect in no way diminishes his attraction as a character, for he constantly displays intelligence and ingenuity that is more endearing than mere physical deeds.

Although Sindbad's sixth and seventh voyages are the ones that concern Serendib, there are certain episodes in the other five that have been linked - sometimes tenuously - to the island. Take the first voyage, on which Sindbad was shipwrecked on an island governed by "El-Mihiraj." Sindbad ended up being appointed "Superintendent of the Sea-port and Registrar of every vessel that came to the coast". Among other things, he reported seeing a fish with a face like an owl's and hearing the beating of drums at night.

"We may take it that the coast where Sindbad was said to have been washed ashore was close to Kudremalai, that the Mihiraj was the Maharaja of Jaffna and that the sea-port to which he was attached was Kalah or Kovalam (Kayts)," Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam boldly states in Ancient Jaffna (1926). He continues by claiming that the residents of Kudremalai "still believe that strange noises are heard on certain nights" and that the "fish" referred to was in fact, the dugong, the marine mammal that frequents this coast.

The second voyage features the best-known story connected with Sindbad - that of the Valley of Diamonds. Sindbad found himself marooned on an island where he discovered an enormous egg belonging to the mythical bird known as the Rukh, or more commonly, the Roc. When the mother Roc returned to the nest, Sindbad tied himself to the bird's leg with his turban. At dawn the Roc soared skywards, carrying Sindbad to a distant valley. As the Roc alighted, Sindbad freed himself and watched as it seized and ate a gigantic snake.

Sindbad made his way to a ravine where the earth was littered with diamonds and crawling with snakes. Suddenly an animal carcass came tumbling down. Sindbad remembered hearing that merchants hurled carcasses into inaccessible places where gems were to be found. The idea was that some of the gems would adhere to the flesh. The carcasses were then picked up by carrion birds, who deposited them in their nests, from which the merchants would retrieve the gems. The resourceful Sindbad filled his pockets with the precious stones scattered around and tied himself to a carcass, which an eagle carried up the mountain. The tales from the Arabian Nights are largely based on ancient oral tradition and are therefore highly allegorical. For instance, the enmity of the Great Bird and the Gigantic Serpent symbolises the contrast between the solar force and the fluid energy of the terrestrial oceans. Indeed, in many cultures the sun is symbolised by a bird. In India, for instance, the name of the solar bird is Garuda, "the slayer of serpents". Unfortunately, such symbolism is weakened or lost altogether when myths devolve into folktales, as with the Arabian Nights.

During the 13th century there lived in Baghdad a writer called Al-Kazwini, who was dubbed "the Pliny of the East" due to the diversified nature of his work. He was convinced that the Valley of Diamonds was located "in the Valley of the Moon amongst the mountains of Serendib" (no doubt referring to the vale of Ratnapura). However, apart from the fact that diamonds don't occur on the island, it appears that beliefs regarding a valley from which gems were collected using carcasses and carrion birds became widespread in Asia.

There is a conjecture that such stories originate from a common Asian custom. When a new mine is opened, animals are often slaughtered as an offering to the spirits. The carcasses generally end up providing a feast for birds. It is conceivable, therefore, that outsiders who witnessed such sacrifices believed the ritual formed an integral part of gem retrieval. About his fifth voyage, Sindbad relates: "We sailed first to the islands where pepper grows, then to Komaree where the best aloes wood is found, and where men drink no wine by an unalterable law. Here I exchanged my nuts for pepper and good aloes wood and went fishing for pearls. My divers were so lucky that very soon I had an immense number, and those very large and perfect."

While Burton interpreted the place name Komaree as being Comorin in India, Rasanayagam believed that it was Komari, the ancient east-coast port located a few miles north of Pottuvil. The references to pepper, aloes and pearls led him to conclude that "the voyage was made round about the island and that places in it were also called islands. Aloes wood was in those days obtained from the eastern coast. Most of the aloes wood and cinnamon appear to have been exported to the Jaffna ports from Komari."

Rasanayagam writes that the scattered references to what he believed to be the Kingdom of Jaffna and to the port of Kalah contained in the first and fifth voyages, "clearly indicate the route taken by sailing vessels in those early days, and how the port of Kalah was used as an emporium for the commerce between the East and the West."

There can be no doubt that Sindbad's sixth voyage was to Serendib, as the island is mentioned by name. Sindbad travelled overland to India, where he embarked from an unnamed port. The voyage ended in disaster, when monsoon winds drove his ship towards the base of a mountain rising sheer from the sea. The ship was dashed to pieces, but the crew managed to scramble to safety. However, the mountain formed a natural barrier that prevented them from reaching the rest of the island. In some versions of the story, this mountain is described as a lodestone, or magnetic rock. Such a rock is described in detail in another tale from the Arabian Nights called Story of the Third Calendar:

"A sailor up the masthead reported that nothing was to be seen except for a huge mass of blackness that lay astern," relates the chronicler. "On hearing this the pilot grew white and declared that we had drifted far out of our course, and that the following day we should come near that mass of blackness, which is the famous Black Mountain. This mountain is composed of adamant, which attracts to itself all the iron and nails in a ship. As we are helplessly drawn nearer, the force of attraction will become so great that they will fall out and cling to the mountain, and the ship will sink to the bottom."

Many ancient writers, including Al-Kazwini, referred to a magnetic rock in the Indian Ocean and told of how ships with iron fastenings were attracted to it. Palladius, a Greek writing in the 5th century, claimed that the magnetic rock was in the islands adjacent to Serendib (the Maldives?). He added that vessels sailing for Serendib should be fastened with wooden pegs instead of iron bolts. Tennent was convinced that the legend was "an invention belonging to an earlier age" and was connected with the local and indeed regional method of boat construction in which the various components are either lashed together or secured with wooden pegs.

In the December 1887 issue of his journal, The Taprobanian, Hugh Nevill advanced the theory that Sindbad had been shipwrecked at Okanda, which is situated at the northeastern corner of Yala National Park. Significantly, it is the only place on the island's entire coastline that is hemmed in by a high hill, and so it largely conforms to Sindbad's description.

It was Nevill's contention that a ship sailing eastwards from South India or the Maldives in the southwest monsoon would be dashed ashore at Okanda if it lost its course and went so far northwards that it could not clear the southeast corner of the island. "The district was very important in the first few centuries before our era, but the coast itself could never have been much inhabited, owing to drought," he declares.

"The Sri Lanka Kayayuru or ancient geography of Ceylon, mentions the beach called Usikanda and the mountain above it. This beach I believe to be the rocky point now called by Tamils Okanda or Okkanda Malai. Sinhalese, however, speak of it as Ukkanda or Ukanda gala, and sometimes as Ussanda gala," begins Nevill's intriguing argument.

"It is a point on the coast at which sailors from time immemorial landed and sacrificed either to Skanda or to Buddha. The worshippers of the Ceylonese Mithra, Maha Kataragam Deva, and the Tamil votaries of Skanda, have here from early times held sacred a rock, full of natural holes, in which water is kept through the driest seasons. (If you are fortunate enough to own a one-inch map of the area you will find that a surprising number of watering holes and wells are indicated.) It is said that Skanda and Devi landed here, on their way to fight Suran, and their boats are said to have turned into stone. Following their example, sailors land and take in a fresh supply of water, and make offerings to Kataragam Deva."

"This is the first point made by sailors after braving or before tempting the dangers of the monsoons, for here the influence of the southwest monsoon ends, and that of the northeast begins. Thus a ship after rounding the point after crossing the rough water of the southern coast in the southwest monsoon would find itself in calm water, and vice versa. This has led the modern Tamils to adopt Okanda Malai as the correct name, and to derive it from Tamil okai, joy. This, however, was probably suggested by Tamil okkam, a height, and it is still called Okkanda malai.

"Buddhist sailors used to land either here or a few miles off near Saelawa (I assume Nevill means Helawe Eliya) and still occasionally do so, in order to make offerings at the ruined dagoba, crowning the high and bare peak now called Kudimbi gala (Kudimbegala). This is about two miles inland, and a cave below the peak bears an inscription in the old Asoka alphabet. I could not recover the real Sinhalese name of this sharp peak, which forms a notable landmark from the sea. I believe the sacred rock at which Skanda bathed and sacrificed, after drawing his boats ashore, took its name from this peak."

Usikanda translates as "the high hill". In Sinhala this word also means lodestone. "It seems quite probable," Nevill surmises, "that foreign merchants, accustomed by their trade to this name, confused it with that of the great place for votive offerings, the Usikanda peak." Could it be that the author of the Sindbad tales had heard of the legend of the magnetic mountain in the Indian Ocean, as well as travellers' tales of an imposing coastal prominence called after lodestone in Serendib, and assumed that they were one and the same?

- Part II next week

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Return to the Plus Contents

Plus Archive

Front Page| News/Comment| Editorial/Opinion| Business| Sports | Mirror Magazine

Hosted By LAcNet

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.