Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Sandalwood Trade

Sandalwood was a trade item of considerable value in antiquity. Chau Ju-Kua (Zhao Rugua) stated concerning yellow (or "white") sandalwood (Santalum album) in the 12th century that "in burning it surpasses all other incenses."

In China and India, and generally among Buddhists and Hindus, sandalwood was prized as an aromatic, for carving, and as a medicine. The wood has been an important material for sacred sculpture among Buddhists and continues to be an important component of incense throughout East and South Asia.

Yellow Sandalwood

Santalum album was the primary sandalwood used in the ancient and medieval trade and was known as yellow or white sandalwood. The species is native from eastern Java to eastern Indonesia and was particularly abundant, in former times, in the islands of Timor and Sumba.

Timor appears to have been the main source of sandalwood prior to European colonization. Pigafetta exaggerated when he said "nowhere else is white sandalwood found" speaking about the island of Timor. De Orta stated that yellow sandalwood grew in Timor "where it is in greatest quantity and called chandam and is known by that name in all the lands around Malacca."

There is some confusion over whether Santalum album is native to South India. Early in the 20th century, C.E.C. Fisher, after studying the distribution and historical diffusion of the species, suggested that sandalwood was introduced into India during the pre-Christian era, and that it had to be reintroduced periodically. Fisher noted that yellow sandalwood in South India grew almost exclusively around villages or abandoned village sites. In other words, the sandalwood trees did not appear to grow in the wild.

Early Europeans like Duarte Barbosa, Cesar Fedrici, Ralph Fitch and Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, writing from the early to late 16th century, all agreed that Santalum album while in great demand in India, was generally shipped in from Timor. Barbosa, Fedrici and Rheede's Hortus Indicus Malabaricus all expressly suggest that yellow sandalwood did not grow in India.

Although yellow/white sandalwood is mentioned in both India and China in ancient times, the mention of Timor occurs only during the Sung Dynasty when it was called Ti-wu. Later in Ming times, Timor is known mostly as Ti-wen. This has brought up the question as to whether the ancient yellow sandalwood actually referred to some other wood like fragrant red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus). However, the general lack of any literary evidence suggesting a medieval replacement of the ancient product; the description of yellow sandalwood and its unique properties, and the hoary differentiation of different types of sandalwood support the common view that Santalum album was traded in antiquity.

Medieval trade routes

As mentioned previously, including in the last blog post, Sanfotsi (Sanfoqi) had established something of a monopoly in sandalwood during at least some period of the Sung Dynasty.

However, a number of countries are listed in Sung sources as entrepots, possibly secondary to Sanfotsi, including Fo-lo-an and Tan-tan, both apparently located somewhere on mainland Southeast Asia.

Timor itself according to Sung sources was a dependency of Toupo, so Sanfotsi seems to have mainly acted as an entrepot for countries beyond this region. In Yuan times, both Sanfotsi and Toupo apparently disappear. At that time, Mindanao may have taken over the trade as successor to Toupo if we accept such an identification for the Yuan Dynasty country known as Min-to-lang.

Mindanao, possibly the Maranao and Cotabato nations, Butuan and Sulu were perfectly positioned to trade with areas like Maluku for cloves, nutmeg and mace; and with Timor for sandalwood. In latter times, they appear to have been middlemen for these southern areas in the trade with the northern entrepot of Luzon. From Luzon, these products reached the rest of Asia. This also seems to be the case during the Sung Dynasty with Toupo transferring the southern aromatics to the Sanfotsi entrepot.

During Spanish times, Luzon continued to act as an important sandalwood trading post, but with Santalum album going extinct in Timor, Pacific sandalwood species, particularly from Fiji, came into play in the Manila marketplace.

Sandalwood, princesses and goddesses

Sandalwood has an interesting connection with two goddesses -- Kuan-yin and Tara -- the two deities thought by many scholars to have a common origin.

Both Kuan-yin and Tara are viewed as emanations, forms, or as the female aspects of the god (Bodhisattva) Avalokitesvara by Buddhists. Both goddesses are seen as protectors of seafarers against harm from the ocean. Both have strong Tantric links, and both are specifically connected with stories of their origin in Southeast Asia.

Tara, and to a lesser extent, Kuan-yin are often placed in the island of Potala in the "Southern Ocean." On this island is said to be a famed sandalwood forest. In Tibetan tradition, the goddess is particularly associated with this forest in the form "Tara of the Sandalwood Forest."

There was also a Sandalwood Forest located in or south of Shambhala in Tibetan Buddhist texts, so there may be some conflation or confusion between the locations of Potala and Shambhala.

In the medieval Sadhanamala and the 6th-7th century Astanga Samgraha, a Tantric adept known as Nagarjuna, possibly referring to the great Mahayana philosopher of the same name, is said to have brought Tara and the alchemical mineral mercury from across the sea into India. This Tara, or rather worship of Tara, is known as Mahacina-tara, "Tara from Mahacina."

While the location of Mahacina may have been confused and used differently at times, I have noted earlier in this blog that the evidence points to its primary and most common usage was to describe and area extending through and including Tibet and mainland Southeast Asia. One Tara myth found in Hindu Tantrism claims that the goddess arises from the Milky Ocean -- when that sea was churned by the Gods and Demons. This Milky Ocean was also viewed geographically as far to the east of India. In the Ramayana, when the Varanas search for Sita in the eastern regions they travel through the Milky Ocean and related areas like the Golden Isle.

Likewise, Kuan-yin in her early form is known as Kuan-yin-Nan-hai or "Kuan-yin of the South Seas," a reference to the region of Southeast Asia.

There is even a story that Kuan-yin originated from an actual Buddhist princess that lived in a kingdom south of China called Hsing Lin. The text containing this story dates to the mid-12th century and is derived from materials about 150 years older. The story, however, is said in the text to take place during the time of the 7th century BCE monk Tao-hsüan.

The southern kingdom, according to this account, was said to stretch from India in the West to Fo-ts'i (佛齊)in the East. It was at Fo-ts'i that the princess known as Miao Shan, and also as "South Seas Kuan-yin" and "Kuan-yin with the Horse Head" was born.

The land known as Fo-ts'i 佛齊 may be a shortened reference to what later is known as San-fo-ts'i or 三佛齊.

Sanfotsi, as noted, was an important country in the sandalwood trade. One of the empire's dependencies known as Fo-lo-an was also described as a sandalwood entrepot. Now the Miao Shan story states that the princess became a staunch Buddhist, but had a falling out with her father, the king. She was said to have taken refuge at a Buddhist monastery, which in the Chinese story is located in China.

However, there is some evidence that this location may have been in Fo-lo-an, thus explaining the connection with the Southern Seas (Nan-hai).

According to Chau Ju-Kua, the Sanfotsi princes made a journey to offer incense to a "Holy Buddha" in Fo-lo-an during the Full Moon of the 6th month. The Ming encyclopedia known as the San-tsai Tu-hui describes this "Buddha" instead as two copper goddesses whose birthday was celebrated again on the 15th day of the 6th moon. This same day of the 6th month was said by Chau Ju-kua to be a good day for return voyages to China from places like Fo-lo-an and Poni, i.e., the summer monsoonal winds blew ships toward the north. The goddesses are mentioned as protecting Fo-lo-an from threats, i.e., pirates, that come from the sea.

Now in some locations of China, Kuan-yin's festival was held on the 19th day of the 6th month, so quite close to the date mentioned by Chau Ju-kua and the San-tsai Tu-hui. Also, in some locations of Tibet, like Kham, during the summer retreat known as Yarney that begins on the 15th day of the 6th month, people worship and thank Tara by making the Four Mandala Offering. According to Nagarjuna, "in the sixth month one consorts with the divine women of the gods."

Tara images

The text of the San-tsai Tu-hui also contains two engravings that are said to resemble the form of "Kuan-yin with the Horse's Head." The images have three heads with the horse head placed on a triple crown. De Groot also noted that the goddess figures matched that of Mat-tsu-po, a form of Miao Shan.

Chau Ju-Kua mentions two Buddhas that came flying in to Fo-lo-an, one with four arms and one with six arms. The form of Kuan-yin addressed here is known in two principal forms, four-armed and six-armed, so we can say with some certainity that these goddesses of Fo-lo-an were representations of Kuan-yin/Tara.

Fo-lo-an is mentioned as belonging to the Western Ship Route along with Annam and Cambodia. This would seem to indicate the Upper Coast of Indochina, a noted source of cinnabar and mercury, but other notices may suggest a location further down the coast possibly in modern day Malaysia or Thailand.

If we take the story of the princess as historical, then it would appear that a Fo-ts'i, i.e., Sanfotsi princess went to Fo-lo-an to practice Buddhism in a monastery. The latter country was a sandalwood trading partner with Fo-ts'i. Latter on after the death of the princess, Sanfotsi princes continued to come to Fo-lo-an during the summer (6th moon) to offer incense to icons of the ancient, probably related princess.

Tibetans also have a story of a princess known as Yeshe Dawa who embraces Buddhism and later becomes the goddess Tara. In connection with the sandalwood trade, according to a Buddhist story that explains Tara's role as sea goddess, a ship from the Isle of Jewels, loaded with a cargo of jewels, and one from the Isle of White Sandalwood, loaded with white sandalwood, were saved by Tara after a Buddhist layperson on board one of the ships prayed to the goddess. Note that the goddesses of Fo-lo-an also had a protective function against sea threats.

Thus, it can be suggested that at one time during the sandalwood trade when San-fo-ts'i and Fo-lo-an enjoyed a close relationship, a princess estranged from her father, the king, left to practice Buddhism on Fo-lo-an, somewhere on mainland Southeast Asia. In the story, she reconciles with her father later on, thus, explaining possibly the pilgrimage of the Sanfotsi princes to Fo-lo-an to offer incense to the images of the goddess. From Fo-lo-an, i.e., Mahacina, the goddess travels East and West as Tara and Kuan-yin. Nagarjuna is said to be the one that carries this form of worship to India. This goddess becomes closely associated with the Sandalwood Forest, an allusion to the ancient sandalwood trade.

Paul Kekai Manansala


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