The trilingual inscription of Admiral Zheng He [Cheng Ho]
The face of an obscure stone tablet is one of the few places in Sri Lanka where Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam can be found side by side. On it, inscriptions in Chinese, Tamil and Persian praise Buddha, Shiva and Allah in equal measure.
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.
inscription was found in 1911 by the Public Works Department, near the turn to
the Cripps Road in Galle. It had been used as a slab for a culvert, with its
face downwards. (JRAS (CB) No. 64, 1911, pp. 129-130). The first attempt at
its reading was published by E W Perera in the Spolia Zeylanica, Vol. 8, 1912.
It was thereafter published by S. Paranavitana, (later Prof.), in the Epigraphia Zeylanica Vol. III 1933, pp.331-341.
The translations given here are from the latter publication.
(Lines 1-6) " Hail! ..The great king of Cina, the supreme overlord of kings, the full-orbed moon in splendour, having heard of the fame of the Lord, presents [the following] as offerings, in the hands of the envoys Cimvo and Uvincuvin to the sacred presence of the Lord Tenavarai Nayanar in the kingdom of Ilanga.
(6-13) (And he also) causes this utterance to be heard. ‘All living beings who exist in this world are being protected, in happiness, by the compassion of the Lord. Men, whencesoever they come thither, have their obstacles [to happiness] removed through the divine grace of the Lord of Tenavarai. So, [the following] are presented as offerings to the Lord of Tenavarai; to wit, gold, silver, tulukki, silk, sandalwood and oil for anointing.
[13-22] The various offerings in detail, are:- one thousand kalancus of gold, five thousand kalancus of silver, fifty pieces of tulukki of different colours, four pairs of banners embroidered with gold thread and (adorned with crystal?) two pairs of the same red in colour, five copper vessels of antique copper for keeping incense, five black stands, ten copper vases for holding flowers, ten black stands, five wick-holders for standing brass lamps, five black stands, six pairs of lotus flowers made of wood and gilt, five gilt caskets for putting agil in, ten pairs of wax candles, two thousand five hundred katti of oil and ten pieces of sandalwood.
[22-24] These included in the list as enumerated are given as offerings to the sacred presence of the Lord Tenavarai Nayanar.
The second month of the seventh year of Yunlo."
[Paranavitana at p.334 : Tenavarai is the Tamil form of the Sinhalese Devinuvara; fn. 4, p.336: Ilanga: Lanka, i.e. Ceylon]
Chinese version. C. Translation by Mr. Edmund Backhouse of Pekin, as published in the Spolia Zeylanica, 1912.]
His Majesty, the Emperor of the Great Ming dynasty has despatched the eunuchs Ching-Ho, Wang Ching-Lien, and others to set forth his utterance before Buddha, the World Honoured one, as follows:
’Deeply do we reverence you, Merciful and Honoured One, whose bright perfection is wide-embracing, and whose way of virtue passes all understanding, whose law enters into all human relations, and the years of whose great Kalpa (period) are like the sand of the river in number, you whose controlling influence ennobles and converts, whose kindness quickens, and whose strength discerns, whose mysterious efficacy is beyond compare!
Whereas Ceylon’s mountainous isle 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 dispatched missions to announce our mandate to foreign nations, and during their journey over the ocean they have been favoured with the blessing of your beneficient 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 and candles with other gifts, in order to manifest the high honour of our worship. Do you, Lord Buddha, bestow on them, your regard!"
List of Alms bestowed at the shrine of the Buddhist temple in the Mountain of Ceylon as offerings.
1000 pieces of gold; 5000 pieces of silver; fifty rolls of embroidered silk in many colours; fifty rolls of silk taffeta in many colours; four pairs of jewelled banners, gold embroidered, and of variegated silk; two pairs of the same picked in red; one pair of the same in yellow; one pair in black; five antique brass incense burners; five pairs of antique brass flower vases picked in gold on lacquer, with gold stands; five pairs of yellow brass candle-sticks, picked in gold on lacquer, with gold stand; five yellow brass lamps picked in gold on lacquer, with gold stands; five incense vessels in vermilion red, lacquered gold picked on lacquer, with gold stands; six pairs of golden lotus flowers; 2500 catties of scented oil; ten pairs of wax candles; ten sticks of fragrant incense.
The date being the seventh year of Yung-Lo marked Chich’ou in the sixty years cycle, on Chia Hsu day of the sixty days cycle in the second moon being the first day of the month. A reverent oblation".
The Persian version [Translation by Mr. Ghulam Yazdani, MA, Director of the Archaeological Department of H E H the Nizam’s Dominions of Hyderabad.] [MB. Dots... indicate worn out and undecipherable letters]
[Lines] 1)... 2) The great king... by royal order... Ming 3).. has been sent to pay homage .. 4) .. to seek help and ... 5) ... 6) ... it is known ... 7) ... for ... 8) and these miracles ... 9) ... has been sent ... 10) ... is known ... to pay his respects 11) ...embroidered cloth, incense burners, flower baskets ... and lamp oil 12) ... for kind favours has sent these presents, so that 13) ... Light of Islam. 14) ... the presents are as detailed below. 15) Gold one thousand ’Misqal" ... Silver five thousand ’Misqal’... embroidered articles fifty in number. 16) ... fifty in number ... embroidered articles four ... altogether two pairs. 17) one pair yellow ... one pair ... incense burners of copper, five in number. 18) stand of copper, five in number ... five pairs ...red stands with gold work. 19) antique lamp stands five in number red stands worked in gold five in number - wooden with gold work five in number 20 ... lamp oil ... 21) ... date ... 22) ... seventh year .. first of the month.