Saturday, February 18, 2006

Glossary: Mihraj

Medieval Islamic texts used the word Mihraj or similar forms like Mihrjan to describe the king of the Zabag empire in the East Indies. Mihraj may be a corruption of the Indian Maharaja "Great King."

Writers of the time described the Mihraj's influence as extending over vast territories from the Indies to East Africa. Some of these claims are substantiated by physical evidence such as the written records of the kingdoms of Champa and Cambodia, and land grants in South and East India. According to the texts, Zabag and its southern neighbor Wakwak competed for the highly lucrative East African trade.

Income from the mercantile trade made the Mihraj very wealthy at that time. In the One Thousand and One Nights and other Arabic literature the Mihraj along with the legendary Solomon are held as ideals of royal wealth. Sindbad visits the Mihraj on the "Isle of Mares" in one of most well-known of his voyages.

In the sea of Champa is the empire of Mihraj, the king of the islands, who rules over an empire without limit and has innumerable troops. Even the most rapid vessels could not complete in two years a tour round the isles which are under his possesssion. The territories of this king produce all sorts of spices and aromatics, and no other sovereign of the world gets as much wealth from the soil.

-- Mas'udi, AD 943

Despite the wealth of the Mihraj, his capital is described as a 'town' in Muslim literature. His palace is located on the water's edge in an estuary, and from his patio he daily threw gold bars into the water to propitiate the sea. At low tide, the pile of gold was exposed for all to see, and when the king died the gold was distributed to all the people of the land. The greatness of the king was judged by the amount of gold so accumulated. In the capital, fisher folk living in their boats or homes over the water were exempted from taxes. The Mihraj was the model of the Fisher King, the "Lord of the Net."

The rural setting of his kingdom is detailed by Abu Zaid who states that "patches of settlement succeed each other without interruption" and further mention an "uninterrupted and regular succession of villages."

A very trustworthy man affirms that when the cocks crow at daybreak, as in our country, they call out to each other throughout the whole extent of a hundred parasangs [~500 kilometers]...In effect, there are no uninhabited places in this country and no ruins. He who comes into the country when he is on a journey, if he is mounted he may go wherever he pleases; if he is tired or if his mount has difficulty in carrying on, then he may stop wherever he wishes.

-- Abu Zaid, 10th century

Policy of Attraction

During the heyday of Zabag between about 800 CE to 1300 CE, the Mihraj maintained an "open door" policy, as mentioned above by Abu Zaid. Merchants were encouraged to enter and stay in the country. Idrisi states that in particular the merchants of China favored trading in the islands of Zabag:

It is said that when the states of affairs of China became troubled by rebellions and when tyranny and confusion became excessive in India, the inhabitants of China transferred their trade to Zabag and the other islands dependent on it, entered into relations with it, and familiarized themselves with its inhabitants bcause of their justice, the goodness of their conduct, the pleasantness fo their customs, and their facility in business. It is because of this that this island is so heavily populated and so often frequented by strangers.

-- Idrisi, 12th century

Later during the Ming dynasty, the kingdom of Lusung, Zabag's successor, continued this policy and when the Spanish arrived in Luzon there existed merchant communities from China and Japan on land granted by the Lusung king. The large Chinese trading community of the Manila Bay was known as the Parian.

Lusung is situated in the southern seas not far from Chang-chou (in Fukien)...In the past, thousands of Fukienese merchants lived there for a long period without returning home, because the land was near and rich. They even had children and grandchildren.

-- Ming-shi (Dynastic annals of the Ming Dynasty)

Not long after reaching the pinnacle of its power, Zabag was threatened by its powerful neighbor to the South. In the late 10th century, an attack by Wakwak prompted the Mihraj to send an embassy to the Sung dynasty requesting assistance. Such a policy of attraction appears to have been a necessary strategy for the Mihraj, whose trading empire was also under attack in the far West.

Indeed both Wakwak and Zabag faced problems with their ancient East African spice routes due to the expansion of Islam. Wakwak for its part decided on massive military action. An expedition in the 10th century of fleet of one thousand ships was sent to the African Zanj coast and to Qanbalu, which by this time was nearly completely in Muslim hands. Arab merchants from Oman were taking over the trade.

Ibn Lakis has imparted to me some extraordinary pieces of information concerning them. It is thus that in 334 AH (945-6 CE) they came upon Qanbalu in a thousand ships and fought them with the utmost vigor, without however achieving their end, as Qanbalu is surrounded by a strong defensive wall around which stretches the water-filled estuary of the sea, so that Qanbalu is at the center of this estuary, like a fortified citadel."

-- Kitab aja'ib al-Hind of Buzurg ibn Shahriyar (955 CE)

The vast Wakwak fleet traveled for one year to attack Qanbalu, Sofala and other Zanj settlements that were then dominated by Muslim traders. Such a costly expedition demonstrates the gravity of the situation to the Wakwak rulers. Certainly the Mihraj must have felt the same way.

However, our thesis is that the Mihraj practiced a policy of attraction. His military might at the time was spent in protecting his home kingdom from Wakwak. He sent ambassadors to India and Tibet, made grants for temples there and some Zabag (Suvarnadvipa) kings are even said to have personally traveled to South Asia.

Further west in Europe, the overtures of the Mihraj may be seen in the letters and ambassadors of "Prester John." There was nothing unusual in the Mihraj patronizing at the same time Buddhism, Christianity (Nestorianism), Hinduism, Jainism, animism, etc. This was not an uncommon practice among the medieval kings of the Indies.

Later, Lusung continued this policy of attraction when the Portuguese arrived on the scene. By this time the ancient eastern routes in Africa had been lost, but Lusung still managed to monopolize the restricted trade with China. And it was still an important source of gold.

King of the Mountain

Chinese texts describing the king of Zabag (Sanfotsi) state that each ruler had images of themselves made in gold (anitos?). These images were consecrated to a "Buddha" called the "Hill of Gold and Silver" after the death of the ruler.

The Southeast Asian concept of the "King of the Mountain" likely derives originally from the mountain custodians of indigenous customary law. The custodian/guardian/king was also often placed as priest of a sacred plot, terrace or temple on the mountain.

The territory divided by the rivers flowing from the mountain were formed into districts under the ultimate influence of the king who ruled the entire banua. In the cosmic version of this kingship, the mountain becomes the axis mundi and the king a type of universal ruler. The territories under the king now include all those 'beneath the sky.'

In the Pinatubo model, the districts around the mountain are eight in number divided by eight major rivers, which including Pinatubo itself gives a total of nine districts. Using the "Mt. Meru" concept, the cosmic mountain also consists of levels, which we can equate with mountain terraces, often given as seven in number -- the 'seven heavens.'

Both the districts and levels can be viewed as if looking down from the sky in the symbolic form known as the mandala.

'Tantric' gold belt from pre-Hispanic gold collection of Philippine Central Bank. The triangles of the buckle represent the tiered mountain with six rows of dots/bindus decreasing by one as they ascend from the base of six dots. (Source: Laszlo Legeza's "Tantric elements in pre-Hispanic Philippine Gold Art," Arts of Asia, Jul-Aug 1988, p. 131)

Triangular gold pendant of the 'Sri Yantra' type also from the Central Bank, with dot-triangles arranged in three rows starting from a base of three triangles and decreasing by one with each ascending row. (Source: Laszlo Legeza's "Tantric elements in pre-Hispanic Philippine Gold Art," Arts of Asia, Jul-Aug 1988, p. 131)

The mandala was one of a series of animistic objects that symbolized or represented the cosmic mountain. These could be amulets, talimans, symbols, relics made of sacred materials from the mountain, even fire from the mountain itself. The objects were seen to have a life and even a mind and voice of their own. They are linked with the spiritual concept of the quest, both an inner and outer journey.

Medieval Philippine gold sash finial with mandala design, from Butuan on the island of Mindanao. (Source:

Gold waistcloth finial in "Mt. Meru" pattern from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. When viewed from above the ornament appears as a series of concentric circles. Finials of this type were illustrated in the 16th century Boxer Codex.(Source:

The world divided into eight "climes" from Yamakoti/Kangdez.

World divided into "trines" from Yamakoti/Kangdez.

Paul Kekai Manansala