Mongol Group c4

Marco Polo’s Description in The Book of India



Maabar and Yuan’s Interactions: Commodities, Agents and Envoys under the Great Khan




Marco Polo’s travelogue on the Book of India dedicated a great portion to the Greater province of India, Maabar. What attracted Marco Polo was the great treasures, merchants, as well as unique customs of this province, as Polo believed that it was “the best province” in his journey in India.[1] This essay starts from Marco Polo’s description and connects these evidence with the account of interactions between Maabar and the Yuan dynasty in Chinese sources. Using both Marco Polo’s account and Chinese sources as primary account, the juxtaposition demonstrates how trading and commercial activities of the maritime world fit into the Great Khan’s Mongol world. These connections were made possible through trading and political liaison promoted by Qubilai Khan. Mongol Yuan dynasty continued a tributary system and sent envoys constantly to Maabar that ensured such exchanges. Close Reading of Marco Polo’s account provides us with a glimpse of the background of how commodities such as the pearls, were produced, as well as precious animals sent to the Great Khan included in both primary sources. Marco Polo’s journey to Maabar, in this way, serves as precious materials for us to understand agents and commodities from the kingdom by placing Maabar at the central stage of his observation, compared to a tributary state in the periphery in the Chinese accounts. Although its regular contact with the Yuan dynasty was largely reduced after the demise of Great Khan, these accounts marked a significant chapter in linking India and the Mongol Yuan court during the 13th and 14th centuries.


Marco Polo’s Account Testified His Journey



Maabar’s crucial status in commercial activities was determined by its geographical location. The term “Maabar” is the Arabic name for the Coromandel coast of southeast India. Meaning “crossing point” or “traverse,” it refers to the role played by ports on this coast in linking the traffic of the Bay of Bengal to that of the Arabian Sea.[2] During the Mongol Yuan dynasty, it has become a place that ships were required to route through during their maritime travels from port cities in southern China to cities along the Arabian coastlines. This crucial status has created great conditions for the kingdom to thrive.

The descriptions of Maabar presented by Marco Polo in his chapter demonstrated that he must have been to this kingdom. His accounts on some details of their customs were incredibly detailed and appeared nowhere else in current available primary sources. In fact, contemporary scholarship on customs and social history of Maabar usually uses Marco Polo’s text as one of the foundational texts.[2] Specific discussion showed the accuracy of Polo’s narrative that he had not made them up. In Marco Polo’s account of Maabar, for example, he was astounded by the abundance of pearls that could not be found anywhere else in the world. These commodities Marco Polo mentioned resonated with those that were offered to the Great Khan in the Yuan Shi 元史 (History of Yuan Dynasty). For example, in the Yuan Shi, it was noted that envoys of Maabar offered pearls to the Great Khan.



The envoys dispatched by the kingdom of Maabar offered pearls, precious jewelries and cloth to the court.[3]


Polo added to the process of offering pearls by mentioning the processes in which pearls were collected. He specifically mentioned in detail how the pearls were collected,


“in this oyster are found pearls, big and little, of all kinds, for the pearls are found in their flesh. In this way pearls are fished, in such very grand quantities that it can’t be told, for know that the pearls that are found in this sea are spread throughout the world.”[4]


Polo’s journey to Maabar was beyond doubt for he identified the significance of these commodities and described their processes of production, probably not aware of how they served as crucial tributes to be offered at the court. Connecting Polo’s account and records in the Yuan Shi would therefore provide us with a more comprehensive understanding of these commodities.

Furthermore, Polo’s description of rare animals served as another proof for his journey to Maabar because of the presence of these rare animals in the Yuan Shi as well. In his chapter Polo briefly mentioned that in Maabar their animals were very different. They looked like horses, but they were not horses, and people in the kingdom fed these horses with cooked rice,


“And I tell you another thing worth telling: for know that they feed their horses cooked meat with rice and many other cooked things.”[5]


This strange animal in Maabar was probably also one of the precious animals that were offered as tribute to Qubilai Khan. In the Yuan Shi, the Biography of Qubilai Khan involved an account of the descriptions of these rare animals,



Maabar sent envoys and offered a magical beast to the emperor. The beast was huge and looked like a mule, its fur was in black and white.[6]


Although it is not certain whether two pieces of descriptions pointed towards the same species of animals, these details corroborated Polo’s journey to India. Connecting Marco Polo’s accounts and official histories in Chinese sources contribute to our understanding of some aspects of Maabar’s own products in history, while the Yuan Shi showed us their interactions with the Great Khan through these exchanges.


Travel Routes during the Yuan Dynasty



Tributary Relations and Agents from Both Sides


These missions that involved tribute offering from the envoys showed that Qubilai and Maabar maintained a tributary relation that were perhaps inherited from the Southern Song dynasty. The Yuan court sent envoys 7 times to Maabar, as records in the Yuan Shi showed. Correspondingly, Maabar sent envoys 13 times to the Yuan court. Qubilai Khan was aware of the mercantile connections to these southern Asian kingdoms and sent Sügetü 唆都 to subjugate them just after he conquered Southern Song. In the short biography of Maabar included in the Yuan Shi it says,



During the Zhiyuan years of Emperor Shizu of Yuan (Qubilai Khan), Sügetü, Assistant Director of the Left in the Department of State Affairs, sent messages to these kingdoms upon request sealed by the emperor, and the imperial decree demanding the subjugation of all the foreign countries. Not long after, Maabar and some others subjugated to the emperor, but kingdoms such as Malabar did not.[7]


Maabar was among the earliest to recognize the rule of Qubilai Khan and established relations with the Yuan court from the very start. As a result, their activities were mentioned in the court histories. It is worth noting that the envoys sent by Qubilai Khan to Maabar were among the most wealthy and famous ones in maritime expeditions at court, including Yang Tingbi and the Uighur explorer Yighmish. They were dispatched on behalf of the Great Khan. Their mission indicated appreciation for the Kingdom of Maabar by Qubilai Khan.

More importantly, the prince of Maabar seeked protection of Qubilai Khan at the Yuan court that also increased Maabar’s significance in the hearts of the emperor. Corresponding to the Chinese accounts of this prince, Abu’Ali, Marco Polo’s description of India included some traces of his origins. In the beginning of his description he states,


“Know that in this province there are 5 kings who are brothers: we will describe each separately. Know in all truth that this province is the noblest and wealthiest in the world; and I will tell you the truth about how. Now know that on one side of the province, one of the brothers, named Sender Bandi Devar, reigns.”[8]


Because of this account by Marco Polo, some scholars hold that Abu Ali was one of the five kings that was described by Marco Polo. His role was more recognized as an envoy to the Yuan court but settled down in Quanzhou, where he was offered a Korean wife by Qubilai Khan.[9] He became a famous figure connecting Maabar and Yuan court because of his epitaph that was included in a literary collection of Zhong’an ji 中庵集 by a contemporaneous scholar Liu Minzhong 劉敏中 (1243-1318), and was heavily discussed by later scholars. Regardless of the details of his lifetime, Abu Ali served as one example of constant diplomatic and commercial interactions between these two entities.



Source: Ma Juan 马娟. “Mabaer guo yu yuanchao zhi wanglai ji qi xiangguang wenti” 马八儿国与元朝之往来及其相关问题. Journal of Lanzhou University (Social Sciences) Vol.33 No.2/Mar. 2005, 21.

Mentions of Maabar in Yuan Shi




As it is demonstrated in the Yuan Shi, the interactions between Maabar and the Yuan court largely decreased after Qubilai Khan’s death. Some scholars have attributed the cause of the demise to the advances in maritime technology: as ships went on longer and farther journeys, they no longer needed to stay in a station such as Maabar. However, the influence of Qubilai Khan and his effects of sending envoys and supporting maritime missions to Maabar should be placed more emphasis. Although the kingdom gradually faded in Chinese accounts because of its lack of contact with the Yuan court, Marco Polo’s description in the Book of India included details of what he saw in the kingdoms that contributed to our understanding of different aspects of commodities that were presented. Although India was never part of the Mongol empire, it was still strongly influenced by Mongol rulership during the 13th and 14th centuries, manifested through trading and regular contact of some kingdoms with the Great Khan.




[1]In the beginning of the chapter, Polo opens with a general introduction that “This is the best India there is, and the mainland.” See Marco, Polo. The Description of the World. (Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing Company Incorporated, 2016), 157.

[2] Abdul, Husaini. The History of the Pandya Country. (Karaikudi, Madras: Selvi Pathippakam, 1962), 47.

[3]For contemporary discussion, see, for example, Abdul, Husaini. The History of the Pandya Country. (Karaikudi, Madras: Selvi Pathippakam, 1962).and Peter Jackson. “Marco Polo and His ‘Travels’.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 61(1), 1998, pp. 82-101.

[4]Song Lian 宋濂 (1310–1381) ed., “Hubilie kehan benji” 忽必烈可汗本紀 (“Biography of Qubilai Khan”) in Yuan Shi 元史 (Beijing: Zhong Hua Shuji 中華書局, 1976).

[5]Polo. The Description of the World, 158.

[6] Song Lian 宋濂 (1310–1381) ed., “Hubilie kehan benji” 忽必烈可汗本紀 (“Biography of Qubilai Khan”) in Yuan Shi 元史 (Beijing: Zhong Hua Shuji 中華書局, 1976).

[7] Polo. The Description of the World, 159.

[8] Song Lian 宋濂 (1310–1381) ed., “Waiyi zhuan” 外夷傳 (“Biography of Foreign Kingdoms”) in Yuan Shi 元史 (Beijing: Zhong Hua Shuji 中華書局, 1976).

[9] Polo. The Description of the World, 159.

[10] For discussion on this topic, see Chen Gaohua 陳高華, “Yindu Mabaer wangzi Bohali lai Hua xinkao” 印度馬八兒王子孛哈里來華新考Nankai xuebao 4 (1980), pp. 70-73. and Tansen, Sen. The Yuan Khanate and India: Cross-Cultural Diplomacy in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. Asia Major, vol. 19, no. 1/2, 2006, pp. 299-326.