China's Great Armada in Sri Lanka

...In 1411 Zheng He [head of an immense Ming Dynasty Chinese armada - a naval expeditionary force] had intervened in an earlier war on the island, pitting Hindu Tamils from the north against two mutually hostile Sinhales Buddhist realms in the center and south. Zheng was forced to act when one of the Buddhist rulers, a rebel cheiftain, attacked a Ming shore party. In a stroke of military genius, the main body of Sri Lankan troops was lured into a fruitless assault on the fleet, leaving their capital open to easy conquest.

The episode marked the only significant overseas land battle ever fought by a Chinese imperial army. It so strengthened the legitimate Sinhalese king, Parakramabahu VI, that he went on to defeat the Tamils and govern Sri Lanka for 55 years, before the kingdom collapsed into warring divisions once more...

In 1911 a British engineer out for a stroll near the harbor city of Galle chanced upon a strange granite slab with inscriptions in Chinese, Tamil and Persian. It proved to be a commemorative stela [monument stone] raised by Zheng in 1410 at Dondra Head.

The stela's three inscriptions were addressed, respectively, to Buddha, Siva, and Allah, offering thanks for their compassion and moral virtue, and seeking their protective blessing for the voyages' aims. The chief Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim shrines of Sri Lanka, the stela recorded, were to be presented with equal offerings of gold, silver, silk, and other precious gifts...

National Geographic, July 2005


Posted June 15, 2005