A Testament to an Odyssey, A Monument to a Failure

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...

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