Monday, December 12, 2005

Glossary: Sapa

Words related to sapa and saba occur widely throughout insular Southeast Asia as placenames were they are derived from a root having meanings such as "estuary, river-mouth, creek, brook, canal, place where fish enter."

The words sapa and saba may be the origin of the Arabic Zabag. Michael Jan de Goeje and Gabriel Ferrand, followed by Paul Wheatley, Roger Blench, Waruno Mahdi and others, believe that Zabag was derived from an earlier Sabag.

Sabag, in turn, was an Arabization of the word Savaka the Tamil name for the people of Zabag. The suffix "-ka" here would be a common one in Sanskrit and Prakrit used to describe a people from a certain locality, thus Yona-ka means "people or person from Yona (Greece)."

Savaka would then mean "people from Sapa/Saba" or "the people who dwell in estuaries or at river-mouths."

De Goeje and Ferrand suggested that a group mentioned in early Islamic texts known as the Sayabidja or Sayabiga, were pre-Islamic settlers in the Sind and Persian Gulf from Zabag. Sayabiga was stated to be the plural form of Saibagi which in one text is said to be pronounced sometimes as Sabag.

The Sayabiga were described as leaders of "marines" in warships, soldiers, prison and treasury guards and mercenaries. They were noted as faithful to those they served.

Apparently they had come from southern India and settled in the Sind where they became closely associated with another group known as the Zutt or Zott. Others were found at various locations along the Persian Gulf coast during the time of Caliph Abu Bakr.

Eventually the Zutt and Sayabiga, both apparently known as buffalo herders, are found at various locations serving mostly in military or police capacity including Bahrain and Basra. Both groups were devout Shi'as.

Sayabiga and the Assassins

Earlier in this blog, it was noted that Nusantao influence in Europe during medieval times may have flowed significantly through the Templars. The Templar connection in the Middle East might have been through the group famously known as the Assassins, a "fanatical" Shi'ite sect holed up in the mountains of Syria.

The Caliph Muawiya settled groups of Zutt and Sayabiga in Antioch after he had deposed the Shah of Iran. These folk acted mainly as buffalo herders and were again forced to move when the Greeks conquered the area.

Some were said to have ended up in Syria. The Zutt of Syria became the Dom Gypsies.

The possible link between the Zutt and Sayabiga with the Assassins has been suggested by Ivanow who noticed the infusion of "Tantric" elements into certain sects of Islam:

"We find numerous parallels in such widely differing ethnic, linguistic and social groups as the sects of Ali-Ilahi of Kurdistan, Nusayris of Syria, and Tantric cults, more particularly those of the worshippers of Shakti in India, in addition to avowedly mobile and wandering darwish organizations. It looks as if there is, after all, a mysterious connection between all these. The Tantric cults are believed to be the remnants of the ancient, pre-Aryan religion of India, gradually submerged, modified and partly re-modeled by orthodox Hinduism, the religion of the invaders."

Ivanow suggested that this influence might be connected with the migrations from the Sind discussed above although he mentions only the Zutt. "Persian darwishes show remarkably strong ties with similar organisations in India, chiefly in Sind, and it is quite possible that certain ideas could have been imported through such channels. It appears, however, that such importations would have been made at an early date."

When the Assassin holdouts in Syria were destroyed by the Mongols, the vast majority of the group went to India where they placed themselves eventually in the service of the Aga Khan.

If some Sayabiga found their way into the Assassin group it could easily explain the Templar link with Zabag. Although admittedly there is no way to know whether these Shi'ite Sayabiga maintained any ties or loyalty to their old homeland.

However, such a relationship would not be any stranger than that which existed between the Templars and the Assassins. The former were consistently accused of conspiring with the latter even though both groups represented what are generally considered as the most fanatic defenders of their respective religions.

Even the Templar founder Hugh de Payens was accused of responsibility in forging the pact between Baldwin II of Jerusalem and the Assassins. When Christian fortunes waned in the Holy Land many in Europe cast a suspicious eye on the Templars.

The historian M. Von Hammer has even suggested that the Templars modeled themselves after the Assassin order. He cites similar organization, dress, and practices. Godfrey Higgins later noted that both groups had certain gnostic and tantric beliefs in common. Both seemed to have deistic and pantheistic leanings.

The two groups had similar colors which had great significance to the heraldry-conscious medieval Europeans. They both wore white garments, the Assassins with a red girdle and the Templars with a red cross. Both orders were divided into three classes: the Assassins into the Fedavee, Dais and Refeek, and the Templars into the knights, chaplains and servers. The Templar master and priors would conform to the Assassin sheik and Dais al-Kebir.

Most controversial was the so-called "tribute" payed by the Assassins to the Templars. Although the latter claimed to have forced the hand of the Assassins in this matter, the question of the payment never failed to raise suspicion.

Whatever the ultimate reason for the destruction of the Templars in France, no doubt their curious relationship with the Assassins had helped in the final decision against them.

If we take it then that the Sayabiga and Zutt were among the members of the Assassins and responsible for Tantric elements in their doctrine, the passing of Nusantao knowledge would have survived mainly in Portugul. It was here that the Templar order was able to persist through nothing more than a subtle name change.

Like the heathen Flegtanis of Toledo who acted as informant of Kyot and, through the latter, Wolfram von Eschenbach, the Sayabiga acted as informants of the Templars.

The Templars of Portugal, or Knights of Christ as they became known after the holocaust in France, constituted the driving force behind the country's advances in maritime navigation.

The Sayabiga hypothesis thus lies on the similarity of the name with Savaka and Zabag, their marine and mercenary nature which closely resembles the behavior of the Luções centuries later in Southeast Asia, their settlements along coastal areas, and their Tantric linkages (Suvarnadvipa/Zabag). The relationship between the Sayabiga and the Assassins and the latter's links with the Templars are fuzzy but this explanation would solve the riddle of Templar and Assassin tantric/Indic influence.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Barber, Malcolm. The Trial of the Templars, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

William and Robert Chambers, "Secret societies of the Middle Ages," Chambers Papers for the People, Edinburgh: William and Robert Chambers, 1850.

de Goeje, Michael Jan. Memoires d'histoire et de geographie orientales, No. 3, Leiden, 1903.

Ferrand, Gabriel. E.J. Brill's First Encyclopedia of Islam s.v. "Sayabidja" (p. 200-1), The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1927, 1993.

Ivanow, W. "Satpanth," Collectanea Vol. 1. 1948, Published for the Ismaili Society by E. I. BRILL, Onde Rijn, 33a, Leiden, Holland.

Wasserman, James. The Templars and the Assassins, Muze Inc., 2005.

For Sayabiga, see also: Wheatley, Paul The Places Where Men Pray Together: Cities in Islamic Lands, Seventh Through the Tenth Centuries, The University of Chicago Press, 2001, p. 44; Blench, Robert and Matthew Spriggs. Archaeology and Language III: Artefacts, Language and Texts, London: Routledge, 1999, p. 271.