Sunday, March 06, 2005

Recapping the Timeline VIII

The medieval Nusantao trading empires developed long-range cultural relationships particularly with India and Tibet.

When Islam arose, the conquering armies brought the trading clans into their first known serious crisis. The Muslims knew how to ride the monsoons and had adopted the triangular lateen sail replacing the older square version.

With the square sail it was impossible to tack or punt against the wind greatly increasing the difficulty of long-distance voyages.

The Muslim armies quickly captured many important ports in eastern Africa and southern Asia. The competition was stiffer along the northern Clove Route and this combined with a rising enemy to the South complicated things for Sanfotsi/Zabag. Thus, only a century or two after this empire had attained what may have been the peak of influence and power for the Dragon and Bird Clan, fortune shifted away.

The leaders, who may have come under the corrupting influences of the materialism their ancestors had warned against in legend, now looked for any means to reverse the tide. They reached out strongly to eastern portions of India and Tibet, regions which had yet avoided Muslim conquest.

They also made overtures to the Christian emperors of the West. In Africa, their southern adversaries, the Wakwak, may have tried themselves to halt Islamic influence. The huge 1,000 ship fleet though achieved only moderate success.

In the Kalacakra literature describing Shambhala and the letters and romances of Prester John, I believe we can see the efforts of the Dragon and Bird Clan to strengthen its position. In the first case, it wanted to stem the eastward march of Muslim influence. In the other, it wanted to bring new players into the region to compete directly with them in the trade.

China was also approached for the latter purpose, but showed little interest in direct conflict. The Chinese had enough difficulty defending their borders against initial Muslim threats. At one point, the great Mongol conqueror Timur Leng (Tamerlane) had threatened to invade the empire. For the emperor, it was enough to receive token gifts of "tribute" from the "southern barbarians."

To help matters along, the Dragon and Bird Clan provided geographical and other information necessary to access the region. In at least one case they directly requested assistance from the Chinese emperor. In other instances, they promised help even of a messianic type to strengthen the resolve of those resisting the Muslim juggernaut.

Some of the information and help, combined with ancient legends of fabled Eden, sparked new voyages of exploration.

All these efforts however were to no avail. One could surmise that the whole foundation by which the Dragon and Bird Clan had established itself had crumbled. This foundation was, I think, rooted in the people's belief in an ancient cause. The power of the clan continued to dwindle, but this probably did not surprise the sages and prophets among the people.

What was happening could be explained by the cyclic dualism of the clan's founders. The notion of the great cycle, the turning of ages, is preserved in many cultures. Among Austronesians, the starting or ending of a cycle is usually coded in a story of the descent of heavenly body, and a particular astronomical configuration. Many of these ideas, I believe, are linked and we will explore that subject starting with the next blog posting.

Paul Kekai Manansala