S.S.M. Nanayakkara wrote: “The earliest authenticated reference to Sri Lankan links with China is made by the Roman historian and naturalist Pliny the elder who fell victim to the catastrophic eruption of the volcano Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Pliny chronicles an account of a Sri Lankan embassy to Rome in the reign of emperor Claudius Caesar (10 B.C. - 54 B.C.). He records that the leader of the embassy, who is identified by the Roman appellation 'Rachia' spoke of stalwart men of light complexion, blue slit eyes, coarse voices and lacking a common language who called for trade at the port of Mantota in the Mannar coast, then a flourishing trade entry point in the island. [Source: S.S.M. Nanayakkara]

In all likelihood there is no doubt that the strangers referred to by the leader of the embassy are Chinese who regularly called over at this port on their trade missions. The Chinese began exporting ceramics and silk to Sri Lanka as early as the Roman period or even earlier. By the beginning of the ninth century there was a brisk trade in these commodities - shards of Chinese ceramicware found scattered in many places along the coastline of the Jaffna peninsula possibly from ancient shipwrecks. Some years back a hoard of 6000 fragments of Chinese ceramic ware of undetermined age was discovered at the historic port of Allaipiddy in Jaffna. These findings are symbolic of the regular trade links between early China and Sri Lanka.

The ancient port of Mantota (Mannar District, Northern Province) is reputed to have been an important port of call between China and Rome. Among the ancient Sinhalese customs noted by the early Chinese were those of funeral rites, the peculiar head adornment of the men-folk and the dresses of the upper classes. They speak of women beating their breasts while lamenting over their dead, the long hair of the men-folk who roll it up on the back of their heads - a practice strange to a people who wore their's in pig-tails. The first embassy from Sri Lanka to China was in the year 428 A.D. when a statue of the Buddha in jade, painted in five colours, five feet in height was sent as a present to the Chinese emperor through an envoy by king Mahanamo in that year.

Literary Evidence of China-Sri Lanka Relations

Literary records in China have established that the earliest contact with Sri Lanka was a mission from China to Sri Lanka during the Han dynasty 206 B.C. - 220 A.D. It took place in the reign of Emperor P'ing 1-6 A.D. The collection of Chinese records about Ceylon documented by M. Sylvain Levy in the Journal Asiatique (1900 A.D.) 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 A.D. and 989 A.D. In 428 A.D. King Mahanama is recorded as having sent a model of the Sacred Tooth Relic Shrine to the Chinese Emperor. [Source: WG Cdr. Rajah M. Wickremesinhe, RTD. SLAF, President Sri Lanka Numismatic Society, Sunday Observer]

In 527 A.D. King Silakala sent an ambassador to the Chinese Emperor's Court. Whilst recognising that these two-way missions were of a purely religious nature, the establishment of political relations and securing closer trade contacts would no doubt have been other motives. History records within this time period that the celebrated Chinese pilgrim monk Faxian visited Sri Lanka in 411 - 12 A.D.

With the installation of the Tang dynasty in China 618 - 907 A.D. 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 A.D.

However during the Liao dynasty 907 - 1125 A.D., religious ties were re-established by a mission from Sri Lanka sent by King Mahinda V in 989 A.D. Two hundred years later in 1293 A.D., King Parakramabahu III is recorded as having sent a mission to China.

During the Ming dynasty 1368 - 1644 history records a most eventful visit of a Chinese to Sri Lanka, that of Admiral Cheng-Ho. It is recorded that in 1411 A.D. this Admiral took Veera Alakeshvara the king ruling around Kotte captive to China. Cheng-Ho continued naval expeditions to South-East Asia Up to 1432. Literary records indicate that there were exchanges of missions between Sri Lanka and China from 1416 - 1459 A.D. A trilingual inscription in Chinese, Persian and Tamil recorded as having been erected in Galle on his second visit presently lies in the National Museum in Colombo.

Trading evidence through finds of ceramics and coins confirm the literary evidence of contact with China from as early as the Tang dynasty 618 A.D. to the Sung dynasty 1264 A.D. Fragments of different varieties of Chinese bowls have been unearthed in the ancient Anuradhapura monastic sites, at Polonnaruwa and Mahatitha, as well as in surrounding areas.

Faxian in Sri Lanka

Between A.D. 399 and 414, the Chinese monk Faxian (Faxian, Fa Hien) undertook a trip via Central Asia to India to study Buddhism, locate sutras and relics and obtain copies of Buddhist books that were unavailable in China at the time. He traveled from Xian in central China to the west overland on the southern Silk Road into Central Asia and described monasteries, monks and pagodas there. He then crossed over Himalayan passes into India and ventured as far south as Sri Lanka before sailing back to China on a route that took him through present-day Indonesia. His entire journey took 15 years.

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “Faxian was one of the first and perhaps the oldest Chinese monk to travel to India. In 399, when he embarked on his trip from the ancient Chinese capital Chang’an (present- day Xi’an in Shaanxi province), Faxian was more than sixty years old. By the time he returned fourteen years later, the Chinese monk had trekked across the treacherous Taklamakan desert (in present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China), visited the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, traveled to Sri Lanka, and survived a precarious voyage along the sea route back to China. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 <>]

Faxian visited Anuradhapura in A.D. 413 in the reign of Mahanama. He said he was greatly moved to find silks here from his native China and to witness a Chinese merchant offer a silk fan to a Buddha image in Anuradhapura. By this time the island was known to the Chinese as 'Sihaladvip'. Contemporary Chinese records maintain that Persia bound vessels from China traded in gems, spices and ivory at the flourishing port of Mantota. Ivory was highly valued in China where expert Chinese craftsmen turned out exquisite carvings from it. Fa-Hien gives a fascinating description of the king's palace and the monastery near it. Five hundred monks resided in the monastery at the time of his visit. "The king's palace" he says "took eight years to build, it is about 250 cubits high, richly embellished in elegant inlaid work." On the eve of his departure he made an offering of a valuable white silk fan with its ivory handle exquisitely carved and inlaid in gold to the Abeyagiri monastery. Referring to Sri Pada, Faxian noted "the hollow of the sacred foot print on the mountain where He (the Buddha) left, contains water which does not dry up all the year round. Invalids recuperate on drinking of this water." Although Fa-Hien alludes to Sri Pada in his chronicles, there is no evidence that he ever visited the sacred mount. [Source: S.S.M. Nanayakkara]

Xuanzang and Sri Lanka

S. Dhammika, an Australian Buddhist, wrote: Between the years 629 and 645 A.D. the famous Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsiang) travelled through Central Asia and India to visit Buddhist sacred places, learn from Indian teachers and to collect copies of Buddhist scriptures. On his return to China his extraordinary journey made him famous and the Emperor himself asked him to write an account of his adventures. The result was a book called ‘A Record of the West Compiled During the Tang Dynasty’ (Ta Tang Si Yu Ki).The ancient Chinese called India ‘the West’ because they thought it lay in that direction from their country. Later Xuanzang’s disciple Hwui Li wrote a biography of his beloved teacher in which was included some supplementary information that Xuanzang had given him. Together these two books tell us a lot about the most famous Chinese monk of ancient times. To undertake such a long journey, alone, with neither money, knowledge of the language or even a clear idea of where India was, must have required immense courage and commitment. At the same time Xuanzang’s own words give the impression that he was something of a prig, certain of his own importance and very sectarian in oudook.

“More than once we see him oblivious to the fact that his pride and arguementiveness are irritating others. However, it is not biographical data that makes A Record of the West and the biography so interesting and important but the detailed information they gives about that lands that Xuanzang travelled through, in particular India. Xuanzang was not just a brave traveller and fine scholar, he was also a careful observer, curious about and interested in all he saw. His book tells the historian more about lndia - its legends and customs, art and architecture, the literature of Buddhism, the location of famous monasteries, how many monks resided in each and what school they adhered to, the politics, religion and every day life of the people - than any single document until modern times. And this information is not just extensive it is also quite accurate. For the most part, despite all his sectarian biases, Xuanzang simply recorded what he was told and what he himself saw. This of course is well known and few are books on ancient India that do not have at least one or two quotes from Xuanzang. It is less well known that the books contain a great deal of information about Sri Lanka as well. As a source of facts about ancient Sri Lanka Xuanzang’s travelogue and biography have probably been neglected because he did not actually visit the island. But making up for this, the Chinese pilgrim spoke to people who had been there and met many Sri Lankan monks staying in India.

“Xuanzang learned that Sri Lanka was known by several different names - Ratnadipa "because of the precious gems found there", Silangiri and the Sorrowless Kingdom, which may be related to Ravana’s Ashoka Garden as mentioned in the Ramayana. Another name, Simhala, was derived from the name of the legendary founder and first king of the island. Xuanzang was told two stories about the origins of the Sinhalese, each different from the other and both differing from the legend in the Mahavarnsa. The stories are too long to relate here but they suggest that the Mahavarnsa story was only one of several legends circulating in the 7th century. Xuanzang described the Sinhalese and their island home thus; "The soil is rich and fertile, the climate is hot, the ground regularly cultivated and flowers and fruit are produced in abundance. The population is numerous, their families possessions are rich in revenue. The statue of the men is small, they have dark complexions and they are fierce by nature. They love learning and esteem virtue. They greatly honour religious excellence and labour in the acquisition of religious merit." He adds further; " ...they have square chins and high foreheads, they are naturally fierce and impetuous and cruelly savage without hesitation". This unpleasant side of their natures was, he was told, due to being the descendants of the offspring of a a woman and a lion. But this had a positive side as well for it also made them brave and courageous at the same time.

“After a long stay at Nalanda Xuanzang continued his journey east and then south with the intention of going to Sri Lanka. He had decided on the usual route from north India, to embark on a ship at Tamrilipti and sail down the east coast of India, a trip of about fourteen days. However, a south India monk he met and who was presumably acquainted with the way, advised him otherwise. "Those who go to the Simhala country ought not go by sea route, during which they will have to encounter the danger of bad weather, yakkas and huge rolling waves. You ought rather go from the south east point of South India from which it is a three day voyage. For though going by foot you may have to scale mountains and pass through valleys yet you will be safe. Moreover you will thus be able to visit Orissa and other countries on the way". From this we learn that while the sea route from northern India to Sri Lanka might have been quicker some thought it so dangerous that they preferred to go overland. Certainly Xuanzang was convinced of this because he decided to take the monks advice. On his way south he passed through the coastal city of Charitra in Orissa, which he described as "a rendezvous of merchants". Apparently these merchants brought back with them tales and stories about Simhala, the legendary and wondrous island to the south and other exotic places. The red lights that could be seen in the evening sky of the coast of Charitra were explained in this way. "Every night when the sky is clear and without clouds can be seen at a great distance the glittering rays of the precious gem placed on the top of the Temple of the Tooth in Simhala. Its appearance is like that of a shining star in the midst of space". Obviously the fame of the Temple of the Tooth and its fabulous gem had spread far and wide.

Xuanzang’s Description of Sri Lanka

S. Dhammika wrote: “Even while still in north India Xuanzang heard a lot about Sri Lanka. When he was in Bodh Gaya he saw the famous Mahabodhi Vihara which had been built by King Megavana. His impressions of the Sri Lankan monks at Bodh Gaya was thus. "The monks of this monastery number more than a thousand...They carefully observe the Dhamma Vinaya and their conduct is pure and correct". The details he gives about the founding of this monastery are too well known to be repeated here. However, another Buddhist establishment that he visited and which had also been built by a Sri Lankan king is less well known. Concerrung this place he wrote, "To the south (of the Kapotilca Vihara near Rajagaha, i.e. modern Rajgir) is a solitary hill which is of great height and which is covered with forest and jungle. Beautiful flowers and springs of pure water cover its sides and flow through its hollows. On the hill are many viharas and shrines, sculptured with the highest art. In the exact middle of the main vihara is a statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Although it is of small size yet its spiritual appearance is of an affecting character. In its hand it holds a lotus flower and on its head is a figure is of the Buddha. There is always a number of persons here who abstain from food desiring to obtain a vision of the Bodhisattva. For seven days or fourteen days or even for a whole month they fast. Those who are properly affected see the Bodhisattva with its beautiful marks and adorned in majesty and glory."

“This is the story Xuanzang heard about this temple’s founding. "In olden days the king of the Simhala country, early in the morning, while looking in the mirror, saw not his own face but the image of a mountain in Jambudipa in the middle of a Tala wood and on its top a figure of Avalokitesvara. Deeply affected by the benevolent appearance of the figure he decided to search for it. Having come to this mountain and finding the figure he had seen in the mirror he built the vihara and endowed it with religious gifts. Then he built the other vihara and shrines also". While parts of this story are obviously legendary it seems likely that the building of this temple would not have been attributed to a foreign monarch had it not been so. Several other sources mention Sri Lankan kings constructing buildings in India (e.g. Nissankamalla) and we know that the Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was widely worshipped in the island at one time. Huien Tisang’s travelogue gives further confirmation to both these facts.

“He got some more information, not about Sri Lanka, but about the famous Sri Lankan - Aryadeva. After Nagarjuna himself his disciple Aryadeva was one of the greatest thinkers of the Madhyamika and perhaps one of the most brilliant and subtle thinkers ever. As with other personalities from ancient India almost nothing is known about Aryadeva. For example, there is a wide variety of opinions between both ancient and modern scholars about where he was born. Some sources say he was of the royal house of Sri Lanka while others contradict this. But Xuanzang very clearly says he was a Sri Lankan. "At a certain time there was a bodhisattva from the island of Simhala called Deva (i.e., Aryadeva) who profoundly understood the relationship of truth and the nature of all composite things. Moved by compassion at the ignorance of men he came to this country to guide and direct the people in the right way" As this was the story circulating in the 7th century, only five hundred years after Aryadeva’s death, it is most likely to be true. And if it is, it shows that while Indians like Mahinda, Buddhaghosa, Dhammapala and Ramachandra Bharati were able to have a profound influence on Sri Lankan Buddhism, Sri Lankans were able to have equally profound effects on Indian Buddhism.

When Xuanzang got to Kanchipuram (south west of Madras) a party of three hundred monks from Sri Lanka had just arrived in the city. He seems to have had plenty of time to get to know them because he had a long philosophical discussion with some and later travelled through the Tamil country with seventy others. Most of what Xuanzang recorded about Sri Lanka he would have learned from these monks and while some of it must be factual some must likewise reflect the biases and preoccupations of his informants. The names of one of the leaders of these monks, Abhayadanshtra, suggest that he and his fellows were from the Abhayagiri. If they were, Xuanzang would have been able to speak to them without need of an interpreter because he was proficient in Sanskrit and this language a was also widely used in the Abhayagiri. The monks told Xuanzang that they had decided to come to India on pilgrimage at that particular time because of trouble at home following the death of the king. He was told that "...the present king, a Chola, is strongly attached to the religion of the heretics and dose not honour the teachings of the Buddha; he is cruel and tyrannical and opposes all that is good". A little later he recorded, "During the last ten years or so the country has been in confusion and there has been no established ruler... " It was this information that made Xuanzang give up his idea of going to Sri Lanka. Although this trouble must have been happening between about 600 - 642 A.D. the Mahavamsa and other Sri Lankan chronicles make no mention of a Chola king around this time or even of a period of social or political turmoil. This suggests that for some periods, the Mahavamsa records only the barest details and neglects to mention others completely.

The Sri Lankan monks Xuanzang met in Kanchipuram were probably from Anuradhapura which would explain why they were able to give him such a detailed and vivid description of the temples in the capital, especially those in the royal compound. The most celebrated of these was of course the Temple of the Tooth. "By the side of the kings palace is the temple of the Buddha’s tooth which is decorated with every kind of gem and splendour of which dazzles the sight like the sun. For successive generations worship has been respectfully offered to this relic..." The temple was "... several hundreds of feet high, brilliant with jewels and ornamented with rare gems. Above the temple is placed an upright pole on which is fixed a great ruby. This gem constantly sheds a brilliant light which is constantly visible night and day and afar off appears like a bright star. Three times a day the king washes the Buddha’s tooth with perfumed water or sometimes with powered perfume". It is interesting to note that a few decades after Xuanzang returned to his homeland another Chinese pilgrim in India, I Tsiang, heard a most strange story about one of his fellow countrymen staying in Sri Lanka. It seems the Chinese monk was in Anuradhapura and had been invited to attend the washing ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth. So enthralled was he by the tooth that he decided to steal it. Unbeknown to him though the relic casket was attached to some kind of mechanical device so that when it was moved it set off an alarm and automatically sealed all the doors. The Chinese monk was caught and escaped punishment only because of his yellow robe. Next to the Temple of the Tooth was "a small temple which is also ornamented with every kind of precious stone. In it is a life sized golden statue of the Buddha cast by a former king of the country. He afterwards ornamented the statues head dress with a precious gem". Apparently the statue had a slightly bent head and a delightful legend was told to explain this. Once a robber decided to steal the gem in the head dress of the Buddha in the temple which he entered by digging a tunnel. Seeing the huge gem he reached up to take it but the statue miraculously increased in height so that he could not reach it. The robber said to himself; "Formerly when the Tathagata was a bodhisattva so great was his compassion that he vowed to give up everything, even his own life, for the sake of others. But now the statue which stands in his place begrudges to give up even one little gem. What was said of old about the Buddha seems to differ from what his statue now dose". Suddenly the statue bent over and the robber could reach the gem. He ran from the temple and took the gem to a merchant to sell but the merchant recognised the gem, informed the king and the robber was arrested. When asked by the king where he got the gem from the robber said that the Buddha had given it to him and he related what had happened. The sceptical king sent someone to the temple and sure enough the golden statue’s head was still bent over. Convinced that a miracle had occurred, the king brought the gem from the robber, who escaped punishment, and it was placed once again the statue’s head dress. Neither this temple or the delightful legend told about its golden statue survive in any Sri Lankan sources. Another building in the royal compound that Xuanzang was told about was the Mahapali Hall. "By the side of the kings palace there is built a large kitchen in which is daily measured out food for eight thousand monks. The meal time having come the monks arrive with their bowels to receive their allowance. Having eaten it they return, all of them to their monasteries. Ever since the Buddha’s teaching has reached this country the king had established this charity and his successors have continued it down to our times". When Fa Hien was in Anuradhapura in 412 A.D. he received alms in this very kitchen and left a description of it. The great stone trough ( bathoruwa) of the Mahasali from which the rice was served can still be seen in the citadel at Anuradhapura.

“The rest of the information that Xuanzang gives about Sri Lanka consists of brief and fragmentary facts and impressions. For example he mentions that there were a hundred monasteries in the island and about 10,000 monks. About the pearl industry he wrote, " A bay on the coast of the country is rich in gems and precious stones. The king himself goes there to perform religious services in which the spirits present him with rare and valuable objects. The inhabitants of the capital seek to share in the gain and also invoke the spirits for that purpose. They pay tax on the pearls they find according to their quality." This may be a reference to the religious ceremonies used to keep sharks away from pearl divers that Marco Polo noted. He also makes a brief reference to Sri Pada. "In the south-east corner of the country is Mount Lanka. Its high crags and valleys are occupied by spirits that come and go. It was here that the Tathagata formerly delivered the Lankavatara Sutra". Sri Pada is of course in the south west not the south east of the island, so either Xuanzang misheard his informants or lost his notes and later when writing his travelogue had to rely on his (in this case faulty) memory. The Lankavatara Sutra he refers to is the great Mahayana scripture now used and revered in the Zen school of Buddhism of Japan and was supposedly taught by the Buddha during one of his visits to Sri Lanka. Xuanzang knew that Mahinda had introduced Buddhism into Sri Lanka although, in accordance with Mahayana tradition, he called him the brother, not the son, of King Ashoka. He made an extremely interesting comment about a monastery that he noticed a few miles from the capital of Malakuta in south India. "Not far from the east of the city is an old sangharam of which the vestibule and court are covered with wild shrubs; the foundation wa11s only survive. This was built by Mahinda, the younger brother of King Ashoka". So it seems that the Buddhists of south India had there own traditions and legends about Mahinda and even monuments attributed to him. Sri Lankan legend has Mahinda flying from north India to Sri Lanka but obviously he must have come overland. In which case it is only logical to assume that he had done missionary work in south India before coming to Sri Lanka and Xuanzang’s travelogue seems to strengthen this conjecture.”

Medieval Trade Between Ancient China and Sri Lanka

S.S.M. Nanayakkara wrote: “ Michel Boyn, a Polish Jesuit who sojourned in China as a missionary in 1652 says, "There were formerly to be seen in the Persian gulf four hundred Chinese vessels laden with Zeilan (Sri Lankan) cinnamon, spices and other goods together with porcelain ware from China." This statement of Michel Boyn is corroborated by Texeira and Garcia contemporary Chroniclers who were with the Portuguese army of conquest in Sri Lanka.

James Emerson Tennent, the noted nineteenth century British administrator and chronicler who has had access to ancient Chinese scrolls, mentions that Chinese trade with the island was remarkably early and extensive, they coincided with the Anuradhapura epoch or even earlier. The early Chinese appear to have been more familiar with the Sinhalese on account of their being Buddhists. The Chinese were probably the first outsiders to penetrate the interior of the island. The famed fourteenth century Chinese celadon bowl discovered at Yapahuwa was for a time misinterpreted by researchers as a bowl relic of Gautama Buddha.

Numismatic Evidence of China-Sri Lanka Relations

The largest hoard of Chinese coins ever found in Sri Lanka almost a hundred years ago in Yapahuwa, had consisted of 1352 coins. 381 of these coins were made available for analysis by Francois Thierry of the Paris Museum in 1991. There had been 256 coins of the Northern Sung (976-1125 A.D.) and 114 of the Southern Sung(1127-1264 A.D.) dynasties. H. W. Codrington in 1925 had analysed Chinese coins found in the island hitherto and listed the finds as from Polonnaruwa, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Matale, Kalmunai, Talaimannar and Kurukkalmadam. Three of the coins analysed by him had been from the Tang dynasty and all the others from the Northern and Southern Sung dynasties. Individual collectors have over the past 30 years reported random finds of a few Chinese coins, from other locations too. [Source: WG Cdr. Rajah M. Wickremesinhe, RTD. SLAF, President Sri Lanka Numismatic Society] [Source: WG Cdr. Rajah M. Wickremesinhe, RTD. SLAF, President Sri Lanka Numismatic Society, Sunday Observer]

The most recent 'large find' of Chinese coins has been reported from a village on the Buttala-Passara road. The find reported, as found in a rock-crevice had comprised approximately 200 Chinese coins belonging to 13 Emperors from 998 A.D. - 1722 A.D. belonging to the Northern Sung, Ming and Ch'ing dynasties, and over 2000 Nagapatanam coins struck by the Dutch for use in Sri Lanka in 1675 A.D. It is of interest that among these coins were a large number from the Ming dynasty not found in such numbers previously.

The Ming coins belonged to three Emperors 1403 - 1644 A.D. and four Rebel/Supplementary rulers of the Ming from 1644 - 1678 A.D. Of the coins of the 3 Mjing Emperors of interest to Numismatists in Sri Lanka is the coin of Emperor Ch'eng Tsu 1403 - 24 A.D., which was the coin currently used during Admiral Cheng-Ho's voyages. The 'reign title' on this coin is Yung - Lo, weighing 3.67 grams and 2.1 centimeters in diameter. (See illustration).

The Nagapatanam copper coins were one 'cash' coins and had comprised 95 per cent of the hoard. Nagapatanam was a fort, situated on the South Eastern Coast of India, and was captured by the Dutch from the Portuguese in 1658. Codrington and Scholten certify that 50, 25, 15, 10, 5, 4, 3, 1 cash coins had been struck by the Dutch for use only in Sri Lanka. (See illustration). Among the Chinese coins in this 'find' had been about a dozen Dutch counter-marked coins.

The finder had observed that the 'V.O.C.' monogram counter-mark with a 'C' above was, as used by the Dutch to validate non-Dutch coins between 1655 - 1660. A coin of Emperor Hsi Tsung 1621 - 27 A.D. with the mint mark occurring on the reverse of the coin, weighing 3.76 grams and 2.1 centimeters in diameter is illustrated. That this coin has been found along with Nagapatanam coins struck in 1675 A.D. by the Dutch is significant, in analyzing the time period when the 'hoard' could have been deposited.

Zheng He in Sri Lanka

Zheng He (1371 to 1435, also known as Chêng Ho, Cheng Ho, Zheng Ho) was a Chinese navigator and eunuch whose achievements as an explorer rank with those of Columbus and Magellan but who has been largely forgotten because his travels had little impact on history. Zheng Ho (pronounced “jung huh”) embarked from China with a huge fleet of ships and journeyed as far west as Africa, through what the Chinese called the Western seas, in 1433, sixty years before Columbus sailed to America and Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa to get to Asia. Zheng also explored India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Arabia with about 75 times as many ships and men as Columbus took with him on his trans-Atlantic journey. [Source: Frank Viviano, National Geographic, July 2005]

According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: “From 1405 until 1433, the Chinese imperial eunuch Zheng He led seven ocean expeditions for the Ming emperor that are unmatched in world history. These missions were astonishing as much for their distance as for their size: during the first ones, Zheng He traveled all the way from China to Southeast Asia and then on to India, all the way to major trading sites on India's southwest coast. In his fourth voyage, he traveled to the Persian Gulf. But for the three last voyages, Zheng went even further, all the way to the east coast of Africa.

Zheng He stopped in Galle in Sri Lanka and traded for gemstones, which Sri Lanka was famous for in ancient and medieval times. Friendly relations between China and Sri Lanka turned sour for some period when Zheng He was told by the Chinese Emperor to obtain the Tooth and Bowl relics of the Buddha from Sri Lanka. Zheng He may have taken the sacred tooth of Buddha back to China.and is on record for seizing the Sri Lankan king — who refused to recognize the Chinese emperor — and his family and took them as captives to China. The Chinese emperor released the royal captives and allowed them to return to Sri Lanka.

Before he left for China, Zheng He left a record in a tri-lingual stone inscription. This stone slab was discovered by a British road engineer, H.F. Tomlin in 1911 embedded in a culvert in the Galle town. Located at Dodra Head, the southernmost point in Sri Lanka, the Zheng He stelae paid respect to Buddha, Siva and Allah in Chinese, Tamil and Persian. Measuring four feet nine inches in length, two feet six inches in breadth and five inches in thickness, the stelae is now in the Colombo National Museum. It's unique in that all the three faiths are revered in a single inscription. Where it was originally set up remains a mystery.

Zheng He’s third expedition (1409-1411) was involved in a land battle in Sri Lanka and presented generous gifts to Buddhist temples. The fleet's only major land battle took place where Hindu Tamils of northern Sri Lanka and two rival Buddhist kingdoms in the south were fighting one another. Zheng was drawn into the fray in Sri Lanka when his shore party was attacked by the forces of a rebel Buddhist leader. Acting quickly, Zheng lured the rebel troops into a hopeless attack on the fleet, leaving their capital open to an easy assault. The rebel Buddhist leader was easily defeated in 1411. Freed from the conflict with his Buddhist rival, the Sinhalese king Parakramabahu was able to defeat the Hindus in the north and solidify his rule over all of Sri Lanka.

Intermittent tribute was sent from Sri Lanka to China from 1346 to 1445. Descendants of Chinese tradesmen who settled in the island set up business in several coastal towns, particularly in Galle where a China district (Cheena Koratuwa) was established. Up until World War II Chinese peddlers selling silks, other textiles and fancy goods were a common sight in towns and suburbs in Sri Lanka.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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