Posted on December 25th, 2022


The ‘Tamil inscription’ in the Trilingual slab found in Galle, given by China,  has been greeted with great joy by the Tamil Separatist Movement, saying that it shows the  importance of the  Tamil  language  in International relations and International trade. Unfortunately the inscription is not in Tamil.

This Trilingual slab was discovered in 1911, by provincial engineer H.F. Tomalin, who was told of a carved stone covering a culvert near Cripps Road in Galle. This slab   had been erected in 1411 in Galle, to commemorate the visit to Sri Lanka by the Chinese admiral Zheng   He, during one of China’s celebrated ship voyages of the 15th century.

 From 1405 to 1433 Chinese admiral Cheng Ho directed seven ocean expeditions for the Ming emperor Zhu Di. They are considered to be unmatched in world history. The first expedition was to Champa (central Vietnam), Siam (Thailand), Java to   Cochin and the kingdom of Calicut (Kerala). The second expedition (1407-1409) took 68 ships to the court of Calicut to attend the inauguration of a new king.

The third voyage (1409-1411) with 48 large ships and 30,000 troops, visited many of the same places as on the first voyage but also went to Malacca .The fourth voyage (1413-15) in addition to visiting many of the earlier sites, Zheng He went onto Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. The fifth voyage (1417-1419) went to Aden, and then on to the east coast of Africa, stopping at the city states of Mogadishu and Brawa (in today’s Somalia), and Malindi (in present day Kenya).

The sixth expedition (1421-1422) of 41 ships sailed to many of the previously visited Southeast Asian and Indian courts and stops in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the coast of Africa, the fleet was then sent on to pursue several separate itineraries, with some ships going perhaps as far south as Sofala in present day Mozambique.

The seventh and final voyage (1431-33) had more than one hundred large ships and over 27,000 men, and it visited all the important ports in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean as well as Aden and Hormuz. One auxiliary voyage traveled up the Red Sea to Jidda, only a few hundred miles from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

On these visits Cheng Ho has meddled in the internal politics of the host country. On his first voyage, he put down a pirate uprising in Sumatra, bringing the pirate chief, an overseas Chinese, back to Nanjing for punishment. On his third visit he had clashed with the ruler of Sri Lanka and taken some leading persons of the ruling group to China.

The Chinese fleet visited Sri Lanka on the first voyage and probably on all subsequent voyages too, as Sri Lanka was a useful port of call. On the third voyage, Zheng He brought a trilingual tablet to be erected in Sri Lanka. The tabletwas prepared in Nanking, dated to15th February 1409. It was set up in Galle in 1411.

The Galle slab inscription is just one of a series of trilingual slabs prepared in China, and deposited in various foreign ports visited by the Chinese fleet. Cheng Ho had placed slab inscriptions at selected places on his route.  Similar tablets have been found at Kerala, Cape Verde and Congo and probably elsewhere.

The Galle slab said that we (i.e. China) have dispatched missions to announce our mandates to foreign nations”. It spoke of the Buddhist temples in the mountainous isle of Sri Lanka, and listed the   generous gifts the group had made to a Buddhist temple in the mountain of Ceylon, presumably Sri Pada.

The other two inscriptions in the Trilingual slab made similar statements. One gave praise to Allah and the   other praised the god Tenavarai-Nayanar.  To each god the Chinese offered similar lavish tributes.

The trilingual slab had inscriptions in three different languages, obviously. The local researchers easily identified two of the three scripts as Chinese and Persian. Paranavitana thought the third script was Tamil.

However, Tamil historians in Sri Lanka had great difficulty in reading this so-called Tamil inscription.  ‘This inscription is of a unique kind. There is no similar record in the whole range of Tamil inscriptions,’ they said. The language and orthography show characteristics which are not found in any other Tamil inscription.   The word ‘Manittar’ found in the inscription is not found in Tamil, they added. [1] That is not surprising. The   inscription is not in Tamil. It is in Malayalam, the language of Kerala.

Gavin Menzies  in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World”, stated that slab inscriptions were  found in Cochin and Calicut in Kerala,  at Ribiera de Janela, in Cape Verde and Matadi Falls in Congo. Janela inscription was weatherworn and could not be deciphered, but was identified as Malayalam. Matadi Fallsinscription was also in Malayalam. Presumably the two slabs in Kerala were in Malayalam which makes a total of six slab inscriptions using Malayalam. Menzies views on the China voyages have been disputed but as far as I know, the language identification of Malayalam in the stele (slabs) has not been contested. (Menziesp 120, 134-136) .

The use of Malayalam can be easily explained.  The  voyages of Cheng Ho included regular  visits to Kerala. Kerala was on the international east-west trade route. There was also a diplomatic link between China and Kerala.  The first and second voyages ended at Kerala.  The second  voyage was to attend a coronation there . The sixth expedition saw three units of the fleet go   to Kerala and   separate at Kerala. The  Chinese fleet probably touched Kerala on the other three visits too.  

However, Tamil Separatist Movement has  joyfully embraced the  false notion  that the Malayali inscriptions are  Tamil  They have gone to town over it. They triumphantly  point out that there is no Sinhala inscription on the slab.

Nirmala Chandrahasan says, we have seen from the Galle Inscription that China gave the Tamil language pride of place in Sri Lanka at a certain point of time, and I may mention similar inscriptions have also been left by them in other south Asian countries.  We learn that the Tamil community in Sri Lanka was a powerful and respected one, hence the inscriptions in Mandarin along with Tamil and Persian.

Nirmala continues, at that time Tamil was a language of commerce and trade in the Indian Ocean region and the Tamil Kingdoms of South India were powerful entities.  The Chinese of that era were aware of the Tamil language and culture both because of the maritime traditions of the Tamils during the era of the great Chola Empire but also because Tamil Buddhist monks from Kancheepuram had brought Buddhism to China.

It is not possible to accept these observations.  Buddhism would have gone to China in the time of Gautama Buddha directly from North India via the land route. Kancheepuram is in south India. There is no direct route from Kancheepuram  to China,  and it is highly unlikely that Buddhism  was introduced to China by Tamil Buddhists.

In the time of Cheng Ho there was no sovereign Tamil kingdom. The Tamil kingdom had lost its independence before the Chinese voyages had even  started. Tamil kingdom was conquered by the Vijayanagara kingdom of Karnataka In 1378 and  unlike Sri Lanka, it never regained independence.

The Tamil kingdom  was  not on the international east west trade route either .That trade route went along the north west and  south west of the Indian peninsula. Tamilnadu is on the south east, away from the international  trade route. It is most unlikely therefore that Tamil would have been the language of commerce and Tamils would have led the international trade.

The Tamil kingdom was not on the main sea route either. Cheng Ho did not go to Tamilnadu. The notion that in China they were carving inscriptions in Tamil is laughable.

[1] Tamil inscriptions in the Colombo National Museum  p 53, 56

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