Trilingual Inscription Stone pillar erected by Chinese Admiral Zheng-He in Galle

by Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

Media recently reported that the plaque erected to commemorate the opening of new electronic library at Attorney General (AG) Department which was carried wordings in Sinhala , English and Chinese languages, not in Tamil and later removed it to replace with corrected version .

This incident has prompted me to write about a historical recordings of a stone pillar erected by Chinese Admiral Zheng-He at Galle harbour on 15th February 1409.

This pillar was erected during one of his grand voyages to Sri Lanka, India and to African continent , more than 500 years ago. Admiral Zhang He had his voyages before the European powers came to our side of World (Portuguese Explorer Vasco De Gama came to Sri Lanka in 1505). Chinese Admiral Zheng-He came to Sri Lanka almost a century before Vasco De Gama. This stone pillar text concerns offerings he made to Lord Buddha, Allah and Hindu God Vishnu to make peaceful World for him (Chinese) to do trade and business in Sri Lanka.

Now this historical pillar is preserved in the Colombo National Museum. What he offered to our Buddhist temples, Mosques and Hindu temples is fascinating to read and whole list was inscribed on this stone pillar in three languages.

Interestingly, even though the stone pillar was erected in Galle harbour ( or in Beruwala ancient harbour) by Chinese Admiral Zheng , the three languages inscribed on it were Tamil, Persian and Chinese. Sinhala language was strangely omitted.

Zhang-He was a Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat, fleet admiral , and court eunuch China's early Ming Dynasty. He was originally born as Ma He or Ma Sanbao in a Muslim family and later adopted the surname Zheng conferred by the Yongle Emperor. Born to c. 1371 in Kunyang, near Kunming, Yunnan province, China. He did seven historical voyages to do trade and gather knowledge from outsides World . Admiral died in 1433, at the age of 62 years, during his last voyage near Calicut [now Kozhikode], India). His remains were dropped to Davy’s Jones locker ( buried at sea) off Corramandal coast of India.

Admiral Zheng-He

Zheng-He was a long-time advisor and ally of Zhu Di, later to become the Yongle Emperor [reign 1402-1424]. The future admiral had been one of many boys gathered in Yunnan and castrated to serve as eunuchs by the Ming general Fu Youde (1327-1394) in his pacification of that province during the Ming Dynasty’s war against remnants of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. Ma He was assigned to serve the retinue of Zhu Di, and over time showed his usefulness, especially in battle where the tall, broad-shouldered eunuch was a powerful and imposing figure. Ma He demonstrated his loyalty in 1402 when Zhu Di went to war with his nephew the Jianwen Emperor [r. 1398-1402] over control of the Ming throne. On becoming the Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di gave his eunuch ally a new surname, Zheng.

He was assigned to built a fleet and explore the outside World . Emperor was keen in developing sea trade with outside World at that time.

Admiral Zheng-He’s fleet was unbelievably large. He had ships (sailing ships) more than 120 meters in length ( longer than present day Sri Lanka Navy’s flag ship) and with five decks. Unconfirmed stories say these ships crew grew fresh vegetables on top deck and had a piggery in bottom bilge deck where pigs were fed with leftover food of the crew during passage. These ships were floating fortresses/ towns.

Admiral Zhang He had more than 100 of this size ships and same number of smaller size ships and his fleet consists of 217 ships and 28,000 sailors/marines. In comparison , Columbus in 1492 had only three ships and 90 sailors. Colombus’s flag ship “Santa Maria” was only 30 meters in length .

Those 100-odd big ships of Chinese Admiral Zhang He (treasure ships) had carried precious cargo like silk cloths, gold/ silver coins, porcelain Vases and plates to trade with outside World.

Stone pillar

When Admiral Zhang-He first visited Sri Lanka in 1405 at Beruwala harbour, which was a thriving harbour for Arab traders at that time, he paid an visit to Kotte Kingdom and climbed Sri Pada to pay his respects. His first visit only limited to India and Sri Lanka. In his second voyage in 1411, he had a conflict with Kotte kingdom and our King Alakeshwara tried to attack his ships. Admiral launched an counter attack with his expeditionary forces and captured King Alakeshwara and his followers. Then he was replaced with King Parakramabahu VI in Kotte Kingdom and ordered gratifications to Chinese Emperor. Then he sailed with captured Sinhalese prisoners, including King Alakeshwara to China.

The ancient records says, when Admiral Zhang-He presented captured King Alakeshwara and his followers to Yongle Emperor ( third Emperor of Ming dynasty) , the Emperor has advised Admiral that “ we are on these voyages to improve our trade and businesses, not to wage war. Please take them back to Sri Lanka in your next voyage” and ordered. Admiral took them back to Sri Lanka in his next voyage. They were looked after well during their stay in China.

The same sentiments you heard from present day Chinese leaders in their new belt and road (BRI) initiative - “We are for trade and investment: not to wage War”. After his 6th Voyage to outside World Admiral Zhang He was of the view that, “ There is nothing China can learnt from outside World”. True enough China was very much advanced compared to outside World at that time.

This report by Admiral and change ruling Dynasty of China made her to scrap her fleet after Admiral Zhang He’s last voyage ( in which he died at sea) and that money was channeled to built Great Wall to stop Mongolian invaders. The forbidden city also was built during this period and capital of China also shifted from city of Nanjing to Beijing. This great Chinese Admiral Zheng-He spent 28 years of his adult life on voyages.

In 1911, S.H. Thomlin, a British engineer working in Galle along the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, found a stone tablet lying in a culvert. The old stela was a strange document, inscribed in three languages – Persian, Chinese and Tamil – praising and giving thanks to Allah, the Lord Buddha, and the Hindu god Tenavarai-Nayanar. (God Vishnu). Lost for centuries, this trilingual inscription was a relic from a long-ago visit to Sri Lanka by the great Chinese admiral Zheng-He (1371-1433). Later this pillar was shifted to Colombo National Museum.

Zheng He‘s Ship alongside Columbus’s “Santa Maria”

I am a seafarer, not an historian. Can some one enlighten me on why Sinhala language was not used in this pillar ?

Why it was used as a culvert until British engineer found it. ?

Were Sinhalese were upset and angry then as there is no inscription in Sinhala ( as we see today Tamil politicians were angry as no inscription in Tamil in plaque erected at Attorney General Department ?). Let us have more discussions on this interesting subject.

I am failing in my duty if I do not mentioned my research assistant, my son Ravi junior for some of these historical details. Thanks junior ! Keep researching. I will definitely consider a pay rise to you next month, dear son.

(The writer retired from Sri Lanka Navy, and served as  Chief of Defence Staff in Sri Lanka )