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The Myth of Prester John

This myth of the Maha Bali is not only found in Indian Puranas (Old Stories)  but also in the Western stories as the myth of Prestor John.  Prestor John is a legendary medieval Christian priest and king thought to have reigned over a Christian kingdom in the Far East.  During the period of Crusades letters arrived in Rome from Prestor John.

The first written record of Prester John is found in 1158 CE in the Chronicles of Otto, Bishop of Freising.. The legend of the Three Holy Kings by Johannes of Hildesheim,  (Historia Trium Regum by Johannes of Hildesheim, Sylvia Clare Harris, 1931, pub. London 1954) written in 1378, tells of  St. Thomas as the Apostle of India and of the three rulers, Melciur, Balthazar and Gaspar,   They and the entire subjects were converted to the Way.   After the martyrdom of Thomas, the three kings had their subjects elect a patriarch under the title of  Mar Thoma to be their spiritual leader, and a temporal leader with the title of Prester John.  Patriarch Thomas and Prester John ruled over India. 

The letters, said to have been written by Prestor John explains, that Prester John ruled a huge Christian kingdom in the East, comprising the "three Indias." His letters told of his crime-free and vice-free peaceful kingdom, where "honey flows in our land and milk everywhere abounds." (Kimble, 130) Prester John also "wrote" that he was besieged by infidels and barbarians and he needed the help of Christian European armies. In 1177, Pope Alexander III sent his friend Master Philip to find Prester John; he never did.


The following letter was presented to Pope Alexander and Emperor Manuel Comnenus of Byzantium in 1165 AD  by an Ambassador of Prestor John.

"John the Presbyter, by the grace of God and the strength of our Lord Jesus Christ, king of kings and lord of lord, to his friend Manuel, Governor of the Byzantines, greetings, wishing good health and the continued enjoyment of that divine blessing…….

"Our magnificence dominates the Three Indias, and extends to Farthest India, where the body of St. Thomas the Apostle rests. It reaches through the desert toward the place on the rising of the sun, and continues through the valley of deserted Babylon close by the Tower of Babel. Seventy-two provinces obey us, a few of which are Christian provinces, and each has it own king. And all their kings are our tributaries.

"In our territories are found elephants, dromedaries, and camels, and almost every kind of beast that is under heaven. Honey flows in our land, and milk everywhere abounds. In one of our territories no poison can do harm and no noisy frog croaks, no scorpions are there, and no serpents creep through the grass. No venomous reptiles can exist there or use their deadly power…..

 "For gold, silver, precious stones, beasts of every kind, and the numbers of our people, we believe that we are unequaled under heaven. There are no poor among us, we receive all strangers and pilgrims, thieves and robbers are not found in our land, nor do we have adultery or avarice.

"When we ride forth to war, our troops are preceded by thirteen huge and lofty crosses made of gold and ornamented with precious stones, instead of banners, and each of these is followed by ten thousand mounted soldiers and one hundred thousand infantrymen, not counting those who have charge of the baggage and provisions…

"The palace in which our sublimity dwells is built after the pattern of that which the apostle Thomas erected for King Gundafor...The ceilings, pillars, and architecture are of shittimwood. The roof is of ebony, which cannot be inured by fire.  …

 "…In our hall there dines daily, at our right hand, twelve archbishops, and at our left, twenty bishops, and also the Patriarch of St. Thomas, the Protopapao of Samarkand, and the Archprotopapao of Susa, in which city the throne of our glory and our imperial palace are situated…

"…that the Creator over all things, having made us the most supreme and the most glorious over all immortals, does not give us a higher title than that of presbyter, 

The Realm of Prester John, Robert Silverberg, Doubleday & Co., NY 1972

In a detailed study on the subject, Prester John:: Fiction and History,  Meir Bar-Ilan comes to the conclusion that :

“Evidence emerging clearly from the text will immediately show that Prester John lived in India, or to be more precise, in Malabar (southern India)”.



Whether fiction, forgery
      or  a memory of history

the legend of Prestor John
      directs to Mahabali
      type of Kingdom in Kerala.


Whether fiction, forgery or a memory of history the legend directs to Mahabali type of Kingdom in Kerala.  We should remember that there existed a Christian Kingdom of VillarVattom near Cochin until the coming of the Portugese.

Quotes from

Prester John: Fiction and History

Meir Bar-Ilan

It is believed that the historical nucleus of the story is rooted in the coming of one 'John, the Patriarch of the Indians', who came to Rome in the pontificate of Calixtus II in 1122. From the middle of the 12th century onward it was accepted in Europe that Prester John, king and priest, was a ruler over territories in the East, though the area of his reign was not precisely defined. It is not an easy task to separate fiction and history in this legend, …..

I. Where Prester John Resided: India or Ethiopia

The former editors of the letters of Prester John, E. Ullendorff and C. F. Beckingham still wonder where Prester John lived. On page 10 they write:

The Hebrew letters give no indication of identifying Prester John with the ruler of Ethiopia.

Though it is true that Ethiopia is not mentioned in the letters, it will be seen later that this statement is misleading. The editors for their part are consistent: in pp. 32-33 they present a Latin text with its Hebrew translation (and an English text where the Latin is missing) as follows:

Praete janni invenitur ascendendo in Kalicut in arida... and this is true proof and well-known knowledge about the Jews who are found there near Prester John...

 …… Evidence emerging clearly from the text will immediately show that Prester John lived in India, or to be more precise, in Malabar (southern India).

Connecting Prester John with India is inevitable from the Hebrew text on the one hand, while data from the legend will support the Indian origin on the other.

First of all, India is mentioned several times in these letters (pp. 41, 89, 107, 119, and more).

Second, Kalicut which was one of the most important port-cities in Malabar in southern India (the place where Vasco da Gama was sent), is mentioned in one of the letters.

Third, these facts would definitely suffice but further evidence appears in the form of statement:

“ and in the large India is buried the body of St. Thomas the Apostle.

That is, the author knew that St. Thomas was buried in India, a belief held by the Christians of southern India.  Not only that, but the author of the letters knew (p. 133) about 'St. Thomas holiday', that is, apparently, St. Thomas memorial day held by the same Christians on July 3rd.

Fourth, the author of the letters mentioned that pepper grew in his land (pp. 55, 91, 131), vegetation typical to Malabar in southern India, and not to Ethiopia.

Fifth, there are some stories in the letters concerning warriors riding elephants (pp. 71, 101, 123). It is well known that unlike the African elephant only the Asian elephant could be trained. That is to say that the letters include information about India (with which the West is more familiar than it is with Burma or Siam where trained elephants live as well), and has nothing to do with Ethiopia.

Hence, after studying all the features independently and then together it is inevitable to reach the unquestionable conclusion that Prester John hailed from India. That is: the letters of Prester John tell a story about India, not Ethiopia, and it is unfortunate that legendary medieval opinions have survived and can still be found in modern scholarship.

…. the confusion between India and Ethiopia is ancient,  … This naive European confusion of two different countries (so far from each other), was enhanced by traders from eastern Africa (Somali and Ethiopia), who sold goods without revealing that they were middlemen only. For example, in Ancient Rome many thought that cinnamon was imported from eastern Africa, though it actually came from India.

Apparently, this confusion persisted as a result of the fact that both in India and Ethiopia, 'eastern' Christians lived in their own kingdom, surrounded by pagans. And, if this is not enough to confuse any medieval man whose geographical knowledge was limited anyhow, there is another fact that adds to the confusion: the letters of Prester John tell about black priests. For example: '...about the Jews... as we have heard all the time from the black priests who have come and are coming daily' (p. 33). Any layman might associate these black priests with Africa, without knowing that a major part of the population in southern India is black. Since Christians lived there, it would not be unreasonable to assume that black priests lived there as well (it should be kept in mind that the Jewish community in Cochin, on the coast of Malabar, was divided into 'white' and 'black' Jews).   

However, in the Middle Ages it was not known where Prester John lived, and adventurers went looking for him.  In the 13th century Marco Polo identified Prester John with the Khan of the Kereit, a tribe in Mongolia which was then Nestorian Christian. Others continued searching for him in China. In the 15th century the Portugese looked for Prester John all over Africa, when others were sure that the legendary king was living in Ethiopia. In the middle of the 16th century the King of Ethiopia was nicknamed 'Prester John' by the Europeans, and it should be noted that the description of the search for Prester John reads like a detective story.  Apparently, in the 17th century, after the Europeans had learned that there was no one by the name of Presterr John living in Ethiopia, the story was abandoned and considered a legend until the beginning of historical research in the 19th century.

Whatever the facts were, it is important to stress that according to the Hebrew letters of Prester John, there is no doubt that he lived in India. If it was not known until then, probably because experts in the subject concentrated on retracing the medieval search for Prester John, thus disregarding the geographical facts appearing in the letters, and failing to analyze the Hebrew letters with the necessary care.

…….Another example of evidence that connects Prester John in India to Italy is seen in the famous Hebrew book Igeret Orhot Olam, written by Abraham Farissol (1452-1528) a few years before his death:

In the library I found in chapter 58 of the second part of the book (F. Montalboddo, Paesi Novamente Retrovati) E Novo Mondo (etc., Milano 1508) that from Lisbon the capital of Portugal to Kalicut in Asia, the beginning of India there are 3800 parasangs... and in that chapter it is explicit that Praeti Jiani (=Prester John) is beyond Kalicut in the land far from the sea. And this is real evidence and famous knowledge concerning the Jews that dwell there near Praeti Jiani as we have already heard all our lives from black brothers that come every day and tell in clarity the presence of many Jews with them. Of these brothers there are in Rome a sect of some thirty of them dwelling in a new stage (monastery) established for them.

That is, in the 16th century a learned Rabbi from Ferrara identified the place of Prester John in the vicinity of Kalicut (Malabar, India), with the help of an Italian book. Whatever were Farissol's ideas concerning identification of the Jews under Prester John with the lost ten tribes, he was right in his conclusion that in the Kalicut area there were Jews, those who are known today as the Jews of Cochin.