Commemorating Zheng He, the greatest navigator to visit Sri Lanka from China

  Published : 12:00 am  February 4, 2012  |  2,198 views  |  No comments so far  |  Print This Post   |  E-mail to friend
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Following is the ‘Zheng He’ oration delivered by Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman Dr. Nalaka Godahewa last Tuesday at the Auditorium of the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management ( Hotel School) 78 Galle Road, Colombo 3


The tourism industry in Sri Lanka has reached a stage of unprecedented growth during the last two consecutive years following the end of the internal conflict in Sri Lanka. We have observed a 46% growth in 2010 and 31% growth 2011. The year 2012 also has got onto a fantastic start with tourists arrivals exceeding 100,000 per month in January itself.
While we are happy about these achievements, the focus of my speech today is not about tourism achievements of Sri Lanka, but about our relationship with another country which is fast becoming the world leader in tourism which is China.
In 2011, Chinese outbound tourism exceeded 65 m, which was about 14% growth compared to the previous year. Already China has become the main market for many popular tourism destinations in the world and world tourism organisation and the UNWTO has recommended the emerging tourism destinations across the globe to look at China as a key focus area.
The religious, cultural and historical relations between Sri Lanka and China date back to centuries. This relationship which was established during the period of ancient Silk Road period has strengthened by several folds at present.
Relationship with China
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Sri Lanka was one country that recognised it at the initial stages. The official relationship between the two countries started in January 1950. The first bilateral agreement between the two countries which was the Rubber-Rice Pact was entered into in 1952.
After the formation of the People’s Government of the late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956, ties between the two countries took a new turn. Diplomatic relations were established in February 1957.
The former Chinese Premier Chu En Lai came to Sri Lanka in 1957. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike who made a visit to China in 1961 and entered the history books as the first Sri Lankan Head of State to visit China. Subsequently relations between China and Sri Lanka were strengthened during the times of various governments.
In 2007, the relationship between the two countries reached 50 years. These relations were further strengthened with the visits made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to China in 2007 and 2008.
At present China is Sri Lanka’s leading trading partner. Similarly, Chinese assistance is being provided for many major development projects in Sri Lanka. The Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall given to Sri Lanka as token of friendship; the Hambantota Harbour, Norochcholai Coal Power Plant, Colombo-Katunayake Expressway and the Performance Arts Theatre in Colombo are some of the projects China has established in Sri Lanka.
For thousands of years Sri Lanka was well known to all trading nations in the ancient world including China due to our fantastic geographical location as a maritime hub connecting the East to the West.
One of the earliest authenticated references to the Sri Lankan link with China could be found in the records of the Roman historian Pliny in 52 BC. He refers to a description provided by a Sri Lankan Ambassador to Rome about “men of light complexion, blue slit eyes, coarse voices and strange language who frequently visit the Port of Mantota,” which was a flourishing trading port in the island at that time. In all likelihood this Ambassador from Sri Lanka was referring to the Chinese traders who regularly called over at Mantota Port for their trade missions.
Chinese records about Ceylon
The collection of Chinese records about Ceylon documented by M. Sylvain Levy in the Journal Asiatique (1900 AD) provides verifiable data with our records in the Mahawamsa. Prof. W. I. Siriweera and Mahinda Werake documented 13 missions that had been sent to China by the Kings of Anuradhapura between 131 AD and 989 AD. In 428 AD King Mahanama is recorded as having sent a model of the Sacred Tooth Relic Shrine to the Chinese Emperor.
With the installation of the Tang dynasty in China 618-907 AD closer ties were established with Sri Lanka. Several Chinese monks visited the island in search of the Dhamma, in addition to the many Sri Lankan Buddhist monks who travelled to China.
It is observed that after the 8th century two-way missions between China and Sri Lanka decreased, the cause being the greatest persecution of Buddhism in China that occurred from 841-45 AD.
With the installation of the Tang dynasty in China 618-907 AD closer ties were established with Sri Lanka. Several Chinese monks visited the island in search of the Dhamma, in addition to the many Sri Lankan Buddhist monks who travelled to China.
There are many documented evidence of even diplomatic missions between the two countries from the 8th century onwards. Most of these missions have taken place in the 13th and 14th centuries and it is said that King Parakramabahu the 6th (1412-1467) alone dispatched six missions to China, one of the highest by a single King.
Famous travellers to Sri Lanka from China
History refers to a number of famous travellers to Sri Lanka from China. One of the earliest amongst them was the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa Hien who travelled along the Silk Road to India and from there by boat to Sri Lanka between 399 and 412 searching for Buddhist scripts.
Until his journey there had been no translation into Chinese of the entire Vinaya Pitakaya, or “the rules of the discipline,” of the Buddhist canon. Fa Xian’s goal was to obtain an entire version of the work to translate into Chinese.
He spent two years in Sri Lanka studying the Buddhist doctrine and then boarded a merchant ship to travel back to China, taking back a large volume of Buddhist scriptures that he later translated from Sanskrit into Chinese.
In his travelogue ‘An account of Buddhist Countries,’ he refers to the Abhayagiri Monastery which had developed into one of the main centres of education in the region and was home for more than 5,000 bhikkus from different parts of the world.
In his chronicles, he records that he was greatly moved to find a silk fan offered by a previous Chinese visitor to a Buddha image in Anuradhapura as he was away from home for 12 long years at that time.
The great Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan dispatched an expedition in 1284 from China to Sri Lanka searching for the tooth of Lord Buddha, one of the most holy relics of Buddhism. Aboard one of his ships was Marco Polo, an official representative of Kublai Kkhan.
Marco Polo was a European serving the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan as a personnel emissary. He had travelled to many parts of the world on diplomatic missions. Marco Polo who is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential travellers of the ancient world, proclaimed Sri Lanka to be the finest island of its size in the entire world.
Greatest navigator to visit Sri Lanka from China
The greatest navigator to visit Sri Lanka from China perhaps was Admiral Zheng He, who visited the country first time in 1405. Zheng He was believed to have been the first sailor to establish a direct sea route between the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans as an alternate to the famous Silk Road by land. His voyages predated Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America by 87 years and were 114 years before Ferdinand de Magellan’s round-the-world voyage.
Zheng He came to Sri Lanka 100 years before the Portuguese who arrived in 1505. Zheng He came to Sri Lanka 233 years before the Dutch who arrived in 1638. Zheng He came to Sri Lanka 397 years before the British who arrived in 1802.
He came in a fleet of 317 ships with 27,800 sailors, the largest naval fleet world had ever seen. Despite some initial resistance, he didn’t try to colonise the country. Instead he became a true friend of Sri Lanka and visited the country six times during 1405 to 1433.
Born in 1371, Zheng He was Mongolian by race and lived in current Yunnan province in China which was an asylum for exiled members of former Mongol rulers. His family followed the religion Islam. He grew up speaking Arabic and Chinese. Elder males in family told tales of travel since they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
When he was an 11-year-old boy he was captured by the Imperial Chinese army during a war in which the rest of his family was killed. As was custom, surviving young males were castrated, making Zheng He a eunuch. He was then brought to capital and made a servant to Zhu Di, the fourth son of the Emperor. There he became a loyal and trusted servant of the crown prince and received an excellent education.
When Zhu Di became the 3rd Ming Emperor, Zheng He was made Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Naval Fleet. He undertook seven great voyages under the Emperor’s instructions. He died in 1433 in Calcutta in India during his seventh voyage.
Seeking knowledge and friendship
On each voyage, Zheng He was acting as the envoy and commercial representative of the Ming court. No matter what country he visited, he called on the ruler of the land, presenting to him valuable gifts in token of China’s sincere desire to develop friendly relations and inviting the host sovereign to send emissaries to China.
Zheng He travelled in a huge fleet of ships called Treasure ships, usually more than 300 ships at a time with more than 28,000 people on board. He made seven voyages between 1405 and 1433. His ships were much bigger than the ships Europeans used centuries later. They were strong and capable of handling difficult seas. Chinese had mastered the maritime technology at that time.
The ancient Chinese travelled the world seeking knowledge and friendship amongst nations. Though Zheng He’s voyages, he reached almost all parts of the world even covering Antarctica and Arctic. They rarely fought wars as they were quite diplomatic in the way dealt with foreign rulers.
During their travel they surveyed the sea routes and mapped continents they explored. Centuries later, Europeans started exploring the world. Some argue that they had access to the copies of these maps prepared by Chinese.
Zheng He explored the world almost 100 years before the Europeans. His first visit was in 1405. Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach America in 1498. Vasco Da Gama was the first European to come to India in 1497. Magellan’s fleets were the first Europeans to travel around the world in 1522.
Unfortunately when Zheng He returned to China after his last voyage the new Emperor decided to discontinue all foreign relations and cancelled all naval expeditions. He also ordered to destroy all evidence of previous naval expeditions.
For almost 500 years thereafter, Chinese rulers practiced an isolation policy and didn’t encourage interaction with the rest of the world. That’s why until recently the world didn’t know about this great explorer of the 14th century.
During his second visit to Sri Lanka in 1411 Zheng He visited the ‘Upulwan Devalaya’ in Devundara and donated the following: ‘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; 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 yellow brass lamps picked in gold on lacquer with gold stands; five incense vessels in vermilion red, gold picked on lacquer, with gold stands; six pairs of golden lotus flowers; 2,500 catties of scented oil; 10 pairs of wax candles; 10 sticks of fragrant incense.’
Stone inscription in Galle
During this visit Zheng He also erected a stone inscription in Galle which was engraved in three languages then commonly used by travellers at that time; Chinese, Tamil and Persian. Admiral Zheng He brought the trilingual tablet which he planned to erect in Sri Lanka from China. It was inscribed in Nanjing before the fleet set out. The inscription was erected in 1411 when he visited Sri Lanka.
In 1911, a carved stone was discovered covering a culvert near Cripps Road in Galle. The finder, provincial engineer H.F. Tomalin, had it removed to safety. Scholarly excitement was immediate, but the inscriptions were only deciphered with some difficulty.
The Chinese letters, which are the best preserved in the inscription, records the offerings made by Zheng He and others to a Buddhist temple on the mountains of Sri Lanka (which could possibly be Adam’s Peak).The Persian is largely defaced, but what is readable makes it clear that this too lists offerings to the light of Islam. The Tamil inscription follows the same pattern and the beneficiary is Tenavarai Nayanar, a Tamil God.
The trilingual inscription is now in the National Museum in Colombo. A replica could be found in the Maritime Museum in Galle. We are now in 2011, exactly 700 years after it was erected and 100 years after it was found.
We are hoping to build a Zheng He Memorial Chamber inside the Maritime Museum in Galle in near future. Given that Galle is only one hour away from Colombo now due to the Sothern Highway, it is expected to become a key tourist attraction.

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