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Zheng He: A Peaceful Mariner and Diplomat

"It is marvelous that Zheng He's fleet had fresh fish, fresh water and fresh vegetables all through its journey across the Indian Ocean 600 years ago," Sri Lankan historian Lorna Dewaraja smiled as she talked about the Chinese maritime explorer's voyage with Xinhua recently.

From 1405 to 1433, during Chinese Ming Dynasty, Zheng He traveled to more than 30 countries in Asia and Africa, traveling more than 100,000 kilometers.

At its peak, his fleet comprised more than 300 ships manned by about 27,000 sailors, a number unrivaled in the world at that time.

Zheng's voyage was 87 years earlier than Columbus' discovery of the Americas and 114 years earlier than Magellan's round-the-world voyage.

Graduated from the University of Ceylon and pursued her postgraduate research work in the University of London, Dr. Dewaraja is one of the several Sri Lankan scholars having deep study into Zheng He's visit to Sri Lanka.

From ancient times because of its central position in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has attracted traders, mariners, sea farers and adventurers from both the East and the West, said Dewaraja.

Further, the reputation of Sri Lanka as repository of orthodox Buddhism, the diversity of its products, the salubrious climate and the hospitality of the people have also contributed to its fame.

Based on her studies, Dewaraja concluded that Zheng He touched the island six times from 1405 to 1433.

"Zheng He landed in Sri Lanka for the first time during 1405 to 1407, but met with hostility from Vira Alakesvara, the de facto ruler and therefore sailed away," said Dewaraja.

After that, the Chinese fleet visited Sri Lanka for another six times, five of which were under the leadership of Zheng He.

The 75 years historian said one of the most important purposes of Zheng He's visit was to open a maritime Silk Road as the overland Silk Road across Central Asia was blocked at that time.

"When the sea route becomes important, Sri Lanka becomes important because you have to touch Sri Lanka before you go to many other places in the Indian Ocean," said Dewaraja.

According to Dewaraja, the most important event happened in the third expedition between 1409 and 1411 during which Zheng He set up an inscription in three languages, Chinese, Tamil and Persian in Sri Lanka.

The so-called Galle Trilingual Inscription was discovered in Sri Lanka's southern city of Galle in 1911 and is now preserved in the Colombo National Museum.

The Chinese letters which are the best preserved in the inscription records the offerings made by Zheng He and others to the Buddhist Temple on the Mountain of Sri Lanka.

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.

"It was clear that Zheng He, as a Muslim, offered valuable gifts to the Buddha, to Allah and the God of Tamil," said Dewaraja.

Dewaraja said the multi lingual, multi cultural inscription is an index to the extent of universal tolerance that the Ming Emperors practiced.

"It is said that the Chinese junks which set out for commercial purposes habitually carried Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist savants to provide advice and guidance," said Dewaraja.

Dewaraja described Zheng He's visit to Sri Lanka as "a great thing at that time" and it improved the good relationship already existed between the two countries for more than a thousand years.

"After Zheng He's visit, China and Sri Lanka had very good relations for about a century," said Dewaraja.

Dewaraja said in the 15th century countries in the region of diverse ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic groups were enjoying peaceful trade.

"This age old peaceful commercial intercourse was replaced in the 16th century by intolerance, violence and extermination of existing cultures with the arrival of the Europeans," said Dewaraja.

"The Chinese trade was very peaceful. But the Portuguese came with soldiers and guns and had very violent conflicts with people concerned. It's a very violent procedure," Dewaraja said.

(Xinhua News Agency July 12, 2005)

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