From Sarandib, via Lanka, to Ceylon: Exile and Memory in the Colonial Age

13 May 2022


Written by Jekonia Tarigan

In the social sciences, specifically related to Asia, there has long been a distinction between South Asian Studies and Southeast Asian Studies. However, there is a link between the two, the small, Indian Ocean Island known through history as Sarandib, Lanka, and Ceylon. This island was a site of banishment throughout the 18th century for members of royal families, convicts, servants, and others sent there from across the Indonesian archipelago. Descendants of these exiles who remained on the island continued to speak and write in Malay, the archipelago's lingua franca, and to adhere to a collective Muslim identity for several centuries and into the present. Ronit Ricci’s research examines if and how earlier religious and literary traditions of banishment tied to the island, those of Adam's fall from paradise to Sarandib and Sinta's abduction to Lanka, played a role in the lives of the early exiles and their descendants. [i] Ricci presented her findings in Wednesday Forum, a weekly discussion forum hosted by the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) on April 26, 2022. Ricci is a lecturer in the departments of Asian Studies and Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since 2013, she has been developing Indonesian Studies at the Hebrew University, the only Israeli university to offer this field of study. Her research interests include manuscript cultures of Javanese and Malay, translation studies, and Islamic literature from South and Southeast Asia.

Ricci emphasizes that, for the most part, the exiles sent to Ceylon were from Indonesia, people like Amangkurat III who was exiled in 1708 and Pangeran Arya Mangkunegara who was exiled in the 1730s. Various other members of the house of Mataram in Central Java, but then also people like Syekh Yusuf al-Makassari from Makassar and princes and kings from Tidore and Ternate, South Sulawesi, and elsewhere were banished to Ceylon. This exile or banishment to Ceylon was part of a much larger picture of colonialism under the Dutch. At that time, people from Java, like Prince Diponegoro, were often exiled to Batavia, Makassar, Ambon, or Manado. However, banishment could be carried out to a more distant place by the Dutch colonialists.  to people who were considered far more dangerous, so that Ceylon or even Capetown in Africa, became places that were considered far enough to eliminate the influence of people who were considered threats.

Ceylon was especially important because of a certain imagination, in part because the word Ceylon was turned into a verb. A modern example of this is the Google search engine and “to google” becoming synonymous with conducting an internet search. Banishment came to be known as “being ceyloned.” Through her research, Ricci found that although the majority of the exiles were Muslim, there were also Christian and Balinese Hindus among the exiles. Interestingly, today Islam is one of the main elements that defines a community that still exists in Ceylon. Approximately 50.000 people are part of this community and they still speak a form of Malay to this day, but it’s often mixed between Malay and Arabic or Malay and Tamil. Ricci explained that the point of departure for her research was her interest in the question of exile in the 18th century and specifically exile to Ceylon and the relationship to two significant religious traditions of banishment/exile that are tied to this particular island.

Thinking about exile in the 18th century and its connection with Ceylon, Ricci found that it is very important to religious traditions. In the Islamic tradition, there is the fall of Adam or Nabi Adam to the island when he was banished from paradise. The Hindu tradition includes the story of the Ramayana in which Sita or Sinta is banished to the island of Lanka. Hence, Ricci asks whether these ancient traditions that linked banishment with the island in any way shaped the Malay experience of exile during a very different historical period and did these stories contribute to the ways in which the memory of exile was constructed. Ricci believes that those earlier banishments played a role in how exiles and their descendants experienced their own plight in the 18th century.

Furthermore, in her presentation Ricci shared that her approach in doing her research was via text and stories. The Muslim and Hindu traditions could easily be found to overlap, because the two religious strands also met and combined. From the Muslim tradition, it is believed that the first human and the first prophet was Adam. Ricci explained that the tradition hods that he was banished from paradise to a mountain top on the island, known in Arabic as Jazeera Sarandib, This was a banishment that was a prototype for all future banishments, because he was exiled from a perfect realm to this world. The source of this tradition is not entirely clear because it does not appear in the Quran, but it is known from the writings of early historians and geographers of Persia and Arabia from the 10th century onwards, and it circulated widely and became popular also in South and Southeast Asia.

The mountain known as Jebel al-Rahun or in Indonesian known as Gunung Sarandib, was known as the place where Adam first landed on earth. It is also mentioned by Ibn Battuta in his famous 14th century travelogue. Battuta landed in Puttalam in eastern Sri Lanka and told the king that the only reason he wished to come to Ceylon was to see the footprint of Nabi Adam. The king gave him permission and Battuta wrote in his travelogue that there were special leaves on the mountain that had the name of God engraved on them. Battuta also wrote about how he climbed to the top and there was a custom of staying there for three days and praying. This site then become a well-known pilgrimage site. In the Muslim tradition, the mountain is depicted as touching Paradise, so that when Adam first fell and landed on the mountaintop, he was standing on the summit, and he could still hear the angels singing as his head was still in the heavens. The entire area is described in the Arabic sources as beautiful and blooming, filled with good sense, because fruits and seeds dropped down along with Adam so that the seeds of the trees of Paradise fell with him. It is a kind of liminal place situated between the heavenly and earthly realms.

Moreover, Ricci explained that the mountain is also a pivotal pilgrimage site for other religions. Currently, the mountain is used primarily as a Buddhist pilgrimage site. This is a very common phenomenon in South Asia where pilgrimage sites or holy sites are used by more than one religion. Buddhists call the site Sripada, or the footprint of Buddha, who is believed to have visited Sri Lanka three times during his lifetime. Hinduism in Sri Lanka calls the site Siva Olipatha, because it is believed that at the same site there is the footprint of Shiva.

The Kisas al-Anbiya (undated), in which there are tales of the prophets of Islam, from Adam to Prophet Muhammad, are widely read not only in Arabic but in Malay and in various Indonesian languages. The text records that Adam not only falls to Sarandib but the island's role is expanded. There, Adam is commanded to return to Eve so that their first fundamental human experiences, both having children and of the death story of Habeel and Cain, occur on the island. Long after, Ibrahim is commanded to bring rocks from the mountain Sarandib for the building of Kaaba in Mecca. Here is there is an important dialogue between the center, Mecca, and the periphery of Sarandib, between the site of Adam's fall and the heart of the Muslim world. Another story that also echoes with this one is about the relationship of faraway places to Mecca, for example, Imogiri and how Sultan Agung said to his people that he brought back a handful of earth from various holy cities and little by little that earth grew into a hill or a mountain in which the king of Java could be buried. Again, it is the mingling of different types of earth so that the king of Java can actually be buried in the holy land of Mecca in some form.

Another text from the national archives in Colombo (Sri Lanka) proves the familiarity of the story of Adam’s fall to Sarandib in the home culture of the exiles. The text is a letter from a Javanese exile by the name of Surapati to his family back home in Java when he was in Ceylon in 1724. He wrote,

'Oh dear mother, wherever you may be, on whoever’s side you are together with our family, be careful and take care of yourself and also your grandchildren. Trust in God with all patience. Now that I am no longer by your side, I live here in a town called Colombo on the coast of the Mountain Sarandin, the place where Adam fled when he had angered God and stayed there separated from our mother Eva for some time, but was again through the mercy of the highest God, after declaring his sins and praying for forgiveness called upon and accepted in mercy and restored to his wife which we must all takes as an example and hope that after fervent prayer we may again be brought together in eternity, which we all will beg of God and hope our pleas will be heard.

Surapati took Adam's plight explicitly as a model for his own. Like Adam, he had angered God and was therefore banished from his homeland and painfully separated from his family. He referred to Eve as mother, that is, mother of humanity, while writing to his own mother in Java and expressed the hope that after praying for forgiveness as Adam did, that they will also one day reunite. The letter not only conveys the pain and loneliness, but also the hope, comfort, and inspiration that Adam's story provided.

A second tradition that ties banishment to this particular island is Hinduism, especially related to the story of Ramayana. Rama is considered to be an incarnation of Vishnu. This story is generally accepted as a devotional text even in Indonesia. The story is primarily considered a story of kinship and social relationships. Rama and his wife were banished to the forest. Shortly thereafter, Rawana, the demon king of Lanka or Alanka kidnapped Sinta. Sinta then finds herself in Lanka alone, far from her husband, and held captive for a long period prior to being released. Therefore, the name Lanka or Alanka is closely tied to the idea of banishment.

Finally, Ricci argues that in both traditions, Islam and Hindu, Adam and Rawana were banished on a mountaintop whether the context and the story are different. There are documents known as Hikayat Seri Rama' from colonial Ceylon (1856) in which Sinta told Hanuman who wanted to free her that Hanuman should climb the mountain, find the black stone that marks Adam’s first touch with the earth and Hanuman should kiss for stone in order that his energy would be renewed to leap back to Rama. Another story is about the underwater coral bridge, known as Adam's Bridge and Rama’s Bridge (Ram Setu). This bridge was used by Adam to find Eve and was also used by Rama to find Sinta. Here, the one story is wrapped in another story. According to Ricci, Sinta’s banishment to Lanka includes important details of Adam's biography. Sinta knows that he fell from Paradise onto a particular mountaintop, and Sinta recognized the sanctity of the place in the stone. The black square stone is likely a reference to the Kaaba related to the story of Ibrahim taking rocks from the mountain in Sarandib. The Kaaba itself is located at the site of Adam's fall. So here, the two traditions of banishment come together. For the exiles and their descendants this literature is important, and these texts are a part of their oral tradition that is read or recited aloud to their descendants.

Recorded Discussion:

[i] Ronit Ricci, Banishment and Belonging: Exile and Diaspora in Sarandib, Lanka and Ceylon (Cambridge University Press, 2019). p. 1