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A Testament to an Odyssey, A Monument to a Failure

2 minute read

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. According to the tributes, alms to each deity — 1,000 pieces of gold, 5,000 of silver, rolls of embroidered silk and taffeta, gold vases and scented oil — were offered in scrupulously identical lots. The offerings and the stela, erected by Zheng He on his third trip to the island, were failed bids at diplomacy. When his efforts were frustrated by the fractious locals, too busy fighting each other to pay adequate obeisance to the admiral, he invaded and captured one of their warrior leaders. Today religious and ethnic conflict rage on: an 18-year civil war has claimed more than 60,000 lives. But it is the date on the tablet — February 15, 1409 — that truly speaks of how deep Sri Lanka’s bloody divisions run.

When a British engineer uncovered the stone in 1911 in the southern port of Galle, the 12-cm-thick slab, which was being used as a drain cover, caused a wave of excitement in the archeological world. Here was solid proof of Zheng He’s odysseys. Today, the shoulder-high stone lies all but forgotten in a corner of the National Museum in Colombo. In Galle, a replica of the tablet — the town’s sole record of Zheng He’s passing — sits in the National Maritime Museum alongside pieces of the wrecked ships of later Dutch and Portuguese visitors. Although he may be forgotten, Zheng He would recognize much in Galle’s narrow alleys where gem hustlers still ply their trade as they did almost 600 years ago. According to the admiral’s chronicler Ma Huan, inland mountain streams flushed gems to the surface after heavy rains, a bounty of “red rubies, blue sapphires, yellow oriental topaz and other gems,” he wrote. “There is a saying that the precious stones are the crystallized tears of Buddha.”

Buddha may still be weeping for this troubled land: certainly foreigners don’t stay long in Galle anymore. The colonial mansions, the storehouses, the fort walls that jut south into the Indian Ocean echo more with the ghosts of visitors past. And like Zheng He, all trace of them, and of the hopes and ambitions they brought with them, is growing faint.

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