Galle lighthouse, ramparts and cockerel, by Muthu.
Last modified:
27 Aug 2003

The trilingual inscription of Admiral Zheng He

In 1911, a carved stone was discovered covering a culvert near Cripps Road in Galle. The finder, provincial engineer Mr H.F. Tomalin, had it removed to safety. Scholarly excitement was immediate, but the inscriptions were only deciphered with some difficulty.

The tablet was erected in 1411, to commemorate the second visit to Sri Lanka by the Chinese admiral Zheng He(1), who commanded seven great voyages through the South China Seas and the Indian ocean between 1405 and 1433.

On the first voyage, Zheng He reached Sri Lanka in 1406. The local ruler was unfriendly and the expedition hastily departed. The fleet sailed on to Calicut, the furthest port for the first expedition, where they were most impressed by the acumen and straight dealing of the traders.

The second expedition went as far as Siam. The third sailed from China in 1409, and carried with it the trilingual tablet which Zheng He planned to erect in Sri Lanka. The date equates to 15 February 1409, indicating that it was inscribed in Nanjing before the fleet set out. The Chinese portion gives praise to Buddha and records lavish offerings in his honour:

'His Majesty the Emperor of the Great Ming dynasty has despatched the eunuchs Zheng He, Wang Jinghong and others to set forth his utterances before Lord Buddha, the World-Honoured One:

Deeply do we revere you, merciful and honoured one, whose bright perfection is wide-embracing, and whose way of virtue passes all understanding, whose law pervades all human relations, and the years of whose great era are as numerous as the sands of the river; you whose controlling influence ennobles and converts, whose kindness quickens, and whose strength discerns, whose mysterious efficacy is beyond compare! The mountainous isle of Sri Lanka lies in the south of the ocean, and its Buddhist temples are sanctuaries of your gospel, where your miraculous responsive power imbues and enlightens.

Of late we have despatched missions to announce our mandates to foreign nations, and during their journey over the ocean they have been favoured with the blessing of your benificent protection. They escaped disaster or misfortune, and journeyed in safety to and fro.

In everlasting recognition of your supreme virtue, we therefore bestow offerings in recompense, and do now reverently present before Buddha, the Honoured One, oblations of gold and silver, gold embroidered jewelled banners of variegated silk, incense burners and flower vases, silks of many colours in lining and exterior, lamps, candles, and other gifts, in order to manifest the high honour of the Lord Buddha. May his light shine upon the donors.

List of alms bestowed as offerings at the shrine of the Buddhist temple in the mountain of Ceylon:

1,000 pieces of gold; 5,000 pieces of silver; 50 rolls of embroidered silk in many colours; 50 rolls of silk taffeta, in many colours; 4 pairs of jewelled banners, gold embroidered and of variegated silk, 2 pairs of the same picked in red, one pair of the same in yellow, one pair in black; 5 antique brass incense burners; 5 pairs of antique brass flower vases picked in gold on lacquer, with gold stands; 5 yellow brass lamps picked in gold on lacquer with gold stands; 5 incense vessels in vermilion red, gold picked on lacquer, with gold stands; 6 pairs of golden lotus flowers; 2,500 catties of scented oil; 10 pairs of wax candles; 10 sticks of fragrant incense.

[Date]. A reverent oblation.'(2)

The Tamil portion of the tablet offered similar praise to the god Tenavarai-Nayanar, perhaps a local form of Shiva, and the Arabic inscription gave praise to Allah. To each god the Chinese offered similar lavish tributes.

Such tactful even-handedness suggests that the Chinese were dealing with a cosmoplitan trading community. However, the aura of orderly diplomacy dissipated rapidly. The island comprised three warring states, and it was the chief Alakeswara who met Zheng He. Refusing to allow erection of the tablet, which he presumably considered a declaration of sovereignty, he beat the Chinese in a brief skirmish and drove them back to their ships. They sailed on to India, but returned to avenge the insult. What happened next is controversial, and the accounts are confused, but the Chinese abducted 'the king' (Alakeswara in the Chinese account, the legitimate king of Kotte according to the Sinhalese account). The captives were taken to the Ming capital at Nanjing, but released by the emperor and returned to Sri Lanka. There are stories of the Chinese taking the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha. Author Louise Levathes, trying to make sense of the conflicting accounts, guesses that the captive was the King of Kotte, who took the relic with him to China in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of the usurper Alakeswara, but in any event the Tooth too was soon back in Sri Lanka. The Yongle emperor claimed sovereignty over Sri Lanka and demanded regular tribute, and the Sinhalese went along with this for over forty years before refuting the obligation in 1459.

As well as the various religious influences in the country, the Chinese had noted its tremendous wealth of gemstones and pearls. They remarked on the curious impression in the country's highest mountain, a giant 'footprint' which Buddhists associate with the Buddha, Moslems with Adam, and Hindus with the god Shiva.

The interior of this mountain produces red rubies, blue sapphires, yellow Oriental topaz, and other gems; they have each and every precious stone. Whenever heavy rain occurs, the water rushes out of the earth and flows down amidst the sand, and the people search in the sand for the stones. There is a saying that the precious stones are the crystallised tears of Buddha.(3)

The trilingual inscription is in the National Museum in Colombo; a copy may be found in the Maritime Museum in Galle.

  1. Zheng He is the transliteration in pinyin; in the old Wade-Giles system the name was rendered as Cheng Ho.
  2. Translation: Spolia Zeylanica / Louise Levathes.
  3. From The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores by Ma Huan, who accompanied Cheng Ho on three of the later expeditions.

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