Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Etymology of "Sanfotsi" (三佛齊) (Article)

The location and identification of Sanfotsi (三佛齊) has been dealt with in articles like The Medieval Geography of Sanfotsi and Zabag, The Location of the Kingdom and The Mihraj.

Some studies have shown that the name Sanfotsi could have applied to different regions within probably the same thallasocracy during the same time period. Palembang as interpreted as Sanfotsi is based mainly on Ming texts which state that Sanfotsi is also known as Pa-lin-fong. However, earlier texts list Pa-lin-fong as a dependency of Sanfotsi, which was located much further east in the Sea of Champa. Possibly in Ming times, China recognized some political elements of old Sanfotsi as present in Pa-lin-fong.

The placename Sanfotsi appears in the scholarly literature in many different forms: San-fo-ts'i, San-bo-tsai, San-fo-ch'i, San-fo-qi, etc., due to different pronunciation especially with regard to dialect of the three characters involved.

The 三 character with the Middle Chinese pronunciation of sam, means "three" and could be a reference to a tripartite understanding of the core region of Sanfotsi as forming three islands. However, at the same time sam/san may be part of the Chinese rendering of a foreign placename.

I would suggest that Sanfotsi is an attempted Chinese rendering of the national and geographical name Sambali initially probably in the Middle Chinese form sam-bot-ʒiej. Possibly it could have been also originally a Southern Chinese form similar to Cantonese saam-bat-zi.

Sambali in this case is the same medieval kingdom known to Tibetan Buddhists as Shambhala and to medieval Hindus as Sambhala.

The word "sambali" may derive from the local word samba "to worship" and also sambal "confluence of rivers." Sambal can also refer to joining together of rivers by building canals. In this sense, sambal by extension can mean "to make a pact" or to arrange/witness a pact based on the sealing of pacts by exchange of blood i.e. the mingling of the blood streams.

Either in relation to the idea of worship or maybe to that of splitting of rivers at a confluence, sambali also means "sacrificer, executioner" in southern Philippine languages, and can refer to any ritual killing involving decapitation.

An 18th century Spanish Tagalog dictionary lists sabang as a synonym of sambal. The related form sapang in Kapampangan means "estuary," the area in a river where saltwater and freshwater meet.

"Sapang" as a placename these days occurs as part of a conjoined forms as in "Sapang Kawayan" in Masantol, Pampanga. However, "sabang" at one time was a stand-alone word, and probably also "sapang."

I have suggested previously it is from sapang/sabang that the Arabs derived Zabag and Zabaj, the names of the central kingdom located in an estuary where the Mihraj was based.

In local legends of Masantol, the old Rajah of Macabebe/Masantol hailed from Malauli, a barangay of modern Masantol on the section of the Pampanga River where salty brackish water meets freshwater i.e. a sapang/sabang.

Before the Pinatubo eruption, north of Malauli the Pampanga River was flanked on both sides by rice fields. However, at Malauli, planting rice is no longer possible because of the salty water and fish-ponds replace the rice fields south along the river until one reaches the Manila Bay.

The word "malauli" itself probably refers to a canal connected to the river alongside which homes in the community are built. At one time, this may have been the official entry point into the kingdom of Sambali, and it is noted as a sacred place in local lore.

Malauli and the related mauli both mean "downstream" in modern Kapampangan and the latter has the additional meaning of "river mouth" and "South." For the ancient Kapampangans, the east was signified by Mount Arayat, and the South probably by Malauli and preserved in modern "mauli." Malauli was the entrance into the old sacred homeland and also the official port of the kingdom. The palace of the Mihraj itself was located right on the edge of a tidal area according to Arabic sources, and Chau Ju-Kua states: "The people [of Sanfotsi] either live scattered about outside the city, or on the water on rafts of boards covered over with reeds, and these are exempt from taxation."

Malauli ang Sagrada, a barangay (village) of Masantol, Pampanga. The Pampanga River is in the upper right-hand corner. The East is at the top of the picture. Click here for whole Google map.

Sanfotsi and Sambatyon

The name of the Sambatyon River is usually said to be derived from an unattested form of the "Sabbaticus" River through a dissimilation of the double labial consonant "bb".

However, there could also be a connection here with Sambali, Shambhala and Sambhala.

Through confusion brought on by the different pronunciations of 三佛齊, a rendering such as "Sam-bo-tsai" could easily evolve into Sambatyon: Sam-bo-tsai > Sam-bai-tso (through metathesis) > Sam-ba-to > Sambatyon. The adding of the final -n was common in Jewish adoption of foreign words with final "o" as in Nero > Neron and Apollo > Apollyon.

Also the name "Sambatyon" appears around Sung Dynasty times at about the same time as "Sambotsai".

Concepts of lost tribes sequestered by a river are quite appropriate to the thinking of both the people of the Sambali region and to that of the ancient Hebrews (ibhri "across the river") . The Austronesian dual society based on relationships involving one's location on the left bank, right bank, upstream, downstream, etc. merges with ancient concepts of the "lost brother" who separated by a body of water. For a people living in the region of Sundaland floods and conditioned at an early age to marine exploration, the concept of the "lost brother" and "returning hero" is rather natural.

The river of sand and stones is a fiery one and can be compared to the flaming sword that guards Eden. Indeed, medieval traditions place the Lost Ten Tribes in or near the ancient Paradise.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Fox, James J. The Poetic Power of Place: Comparative Perspectives on Austronesian Ideas of Locality, ANE E Press, 1997,

Lipset, David. Mangrove man: dialogics of culture in the Sepik estuary, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 25-28. Also see Oppenheimer's Eden in the East on the "Two Brothers."