"As for Taprobane, it is said to be an island situated in the high sea within a seven days sail towards the south from the most southerly parts of India, the land of the Coniaci; that it extends in length about eight thousand stadia in the direction of Aethiopia, and that it also has elephants. Such are the statements of Eratosthenes; but my own description will be specially characterised by the addition of the statements of the other writers, wherever they add any accurate information."

- Strabo1

The Anglicized name of a legendary island in the Indian Ocean which may or may not be identifiable with Sri Lanka.

Taprobane is not quite so imaginary as Atlantis, or Huy Brazil, or California. Unfortunately, the guesses and elaborations of travelers and cartographers over the ages have muddied things.

Long before the era of Global Positioning Sattelites and multi-spectrum orthophotography, ancient cartographers frequently had to rely on word of mouth to describe far-away places. Sometimes, they would draw sea-monsters on maps to fill in the empty spaces. Other times, they would expand the size of a place they had heard of, and add their own detail2. Historians and moral philosophers later used it for their own devices, and turned it into a tropical paradise inhabited by a utopian society.

'Taprobane' is clearly an ancient name for Sri Lanka. The chronicle Mahavansa the tells of the Pali, the earliest people to set foot on Sri Lanka. According to this chronicle, King Vijaya and his seven hundred followers landed on Sri Lanka about 600 years BCE. They were so weary after their long row from India that they dragged themselves onto the muddy shore. As a result, their palms became copper-colored, and the landing place was named Tambapanna. This is rendered in Sanskrit as Tambrapanni.

The island entered European consciousness during the conquests of Alexander the Great. Alexander's admirals Nearchus and Onesicritus described 'Taprobana' in their reports to their king. Nearchus sailed around the southern tip of India, describing the smells of cinnamon that wafted from the fabulous island he passed along the way. Megasthenes, Seleucus's ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, fleshed the place out a bit more. Several Roman cartographers and historians wrestled with the size, shape, and position of Taprobana before Claudius Ptolemy described an immense "Taprobana" in his world geography, six times the size of the Indian subcontinent and straddling the Equator. After the fall of Rome, European geography entered a Dark Age more profound than that of most other disciplines, and Ptolemy was forgotten.

Renaissance scholars discovered Ptolemy again after studying the writings of the Muslim scholars who had preserved much of the classical knowledge that had been lost to the West. However, in the meantime, they had heard of an island named "Saylam" or "Ceylon" off the southeast coast of India. What did they do? They made maps with both Ceylon, near India, and Taprobane, along the equator. Christopher Columbus landed on an island he imagined was Taprobane, which isn't suprising given his gross underestimation of the size of the Earth, and named it Hispaniola.

"What could they have been thinking?", you may wonder. Indeed, this has been the primary subject of debate over Taprobane. Each succeeding generation has read vague descriptions of the island left by their predecessors, and wrangled over what their predecessors really meant. 18th and 19th century scholars began to think that Ptolemy confused Sri Lanka with Sumatra, or even the lower peninsula of India (which barely appears on maps you draw from his descriptions). In the end, it's impossible to assign a single place with all of the qualities that have been labeled with the name "Taprobane" over the ages.

Science Fiction readers will recognize the name "Taprobane" as the setting of Arthur C. Clarke's spellbinding novel The Fountains of Paradise. Given Clarke's long association with Sri Lanka, and the monastery-topped mountain so reminicent of Sri Lanka's Sigiriya Palace, it's easy to leap to the conclusion that he meant Sri Lanka. But of course, The Fountains of Paradise is another fantasy and even Clarke moved his Taprobane south to straddle the Equator.

1Strabo, Geography. Book XV: "On India", electronic transcription at Ancient History Sourcebook,

2I've actually seen an 18th-century map of the Pacific with Lilliput on it.

Ancient References to Sri Lanka

History (of Sri Lanka)

Ananda Abeydeera, "In Search of Taprobane: the Western discovery and mapping of Ceylon"

Clarke, Arthur C. The Fountiains of Paradise. Harcourt Brace, 1979, ASIN: 0-151-32773-4. 2001 edition, Warner Aspect, ISBN 0-446-67794-9.