Galle and the Chinese

A tractor trundles along the fortress wall in the shadow of the clock tower at Galle. Built in 1883 under British rule, the tower was dedicated to Dr. PD Anthonisz, the first Sri Lankan to obtain the MRCP medical diploma.

The old gate with its British coat of arms. The Scots unicorn on the dexter is shackled because, according to the tourist pamphlet, "a free unicorn was considered a very dangerous beast." You getting this Alex Salmond? On the other side of the gate is the original VOC emblem.

“Bloody bastard,” hissed Kapilla. It was hardly surprising. He’d driven me 70 miles in his tuk-tuk from the southern tip of Sri Lanka’s east coast to Colombo’s Bandaranaike airport, it had taken the best part of five hours, he had the return journey to look forward to, and he’d just found out he had been scammed out of 1000 lkr.    

Not by me. I’d done my bit and paid for the Mirissa-Galle leg.    

Having delighted in the craziness of public transport for my week in Sri Lanka, I decided to splurge on the last day. Initially I was just going to take the short ride to Galle from Mirissa, the small beach town where – the day before – I’d spent my 35th birthday. But, with the train line from Galle to Colombo still not operational, my driver convinced me to go all in for an extra 5,000 lkr.    

The problem began when he decided he couldn’t be arsed to do the journey onward and passed the gig to the avuncular and eminently more trustworthy Kapilla.    

All Saints was consecrated in 1883.

Casparis de Jong footed the bill for the construction of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1759 to celebrate the birth of his daughter. Apparently he and the missus had been trying for a kid for a long time. The church is an example of a Kruis Kerk, or cruciform church, built on cross-shaped foundations. Another notable feature is the lack of a central post supporting the roof.

I’m glad I went to Galle. I’d read mixed reviews online and was worried it would be too much of a rush stopping there for only a few hours. A couple from Bolton convinced me that it was worthwhile, especially as the supposed 500 lkr charge for entering the walled old town did not seem to be in effect. It was hardly an arm and a leg, but a week of being fleeced for pretty much everything but air had started to grate.    

“You can afford to pay,” the sour-faced woman at the Central Cultural Fund bookshop told me when I grumbled about being charged for a flimsy leaflet describing the points of interest around the fort. (It was only 50 lkr but something that you’d struggle to give away in most places.)    

Behind me a man milled about the stacks of paperbacks, pretending to be a customer. Apart from this obvious fakery, his only function seemed to be to punctuate the harridan’s comments with solemn nods. “It goes to UNESCO, for the upkeep,” said the woman. The man nodded, solemnly.    

Grudgingly, I bought a book on Sri Lanka’s maritime history. I had wanted a more comprehensive treatment of the island but it was Sunday and almost everything was closed. Grimface Killah and her stooge were my lot.    

Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism sit comfortably side by side in Galle in particular and Sri Lanka in general. Taken prisoner by King Rajasinghe II in 1659, the British East India Company captain and wayfarer Robert Knox reported: "Not only was there complete freedom of worship, but Kandyan kings granted lands to Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims & Christians. The Christian religion, he (the king) does not in the least persecute, indeed he honours & esteems it."

The Maritime Archaeology Museum is housed in a former VOC warehouse.

I’d arrived in Galle before 11 a.m. and left my first driver waiting near the old gate, with its British coat of arms, while I went to do some digging. The streets inside the walls of the old Dutch fort really are charming. It was a gloriously sunny day as I walked down Church Street past the Dutch Reformed Church and caught the end of services at its Anglican neigbour, All Saints.    

Along with a couple of Slovakian couchsurfers, I was drawn to the verandah by the exotic drumbeat of a church spiritual quite unlike any I’d ever heard before. Draped in a purple sash, a small, barefooted priest came out to greet us, before excusing himself to take a call on his smartphone.    

Making for the blue at the end of the street, I stopped to watch young men stream out from classes at the Arabic College. I’d always wondered at the wisdom of tip-to-toe garments in climates like this, but their spotless white kurta looked cool and comfortable like fresh-air-dried bed sheets.    

I followed the young scholars past the mosque then looped back round along the southern wall of the peninsula, where hawkers worked the seafront, some resignedly seated a level down in the shade with wicker handicrafts laid out on mats, others toing and froing along the grass wall top, shaking white cotton children’s dresses.    

On the small piece of beach in this southeastern corner, overlooked by the lighthouse, day trippers from Colombo frolicked, their sopping stonewashed jeans stuck to their thighs like spray on latex. I came down from the promenade, and walked back past the old Dutch hospital, now undergoing renovation with help from the old colonial masters, and back to my starting point at the Maritime Museum.    

This delightful old lady was out for a stroll with her family when she caught me trying to snap her unawares. Rather than balk at my intrusions, she started hamming it up for the camera.

Holidaymakers enjoy a beautiful day in Galle

Realising I had more time than I’d banked on, I backtracked to my driver who proposed the switch. I was fine with that. He’d been paid and was free to bugger off. I gave Kapilla a thou for lunch and went to traverse the front of the ramparts.    

Up at the clock tower, I was praised for my bog-standard Mandarin by some tourists from Beijing and cursed by a snake charmer for refusing to give him US$20. Apparently a fee was customary for happening to walk by as he tootled away on his flute.    

During my week in Sri Lanka I had a superficial sniff around for extant Chinese connections. More than one local told me there were still some scattered communities around Trincomalee on the east coast but I didn’t have the time to get out there. Galle, as a friend predicted, was about as close as I would get.    

Pliny was writing about Chinese traders in Taprobane (the Greek name for Sri Lanka) in the first century AD. Han chronicles from the time of the short-lived Emperor Ping record the island as Sang-kia-lo, a transliteration of Singhala (Sanskrit, literally meaning “Kingdom of the Lion”).1    

Originally known as the Bastion Sao Antonio, the Star Bastion is one of the few remaining holdovers from the original Portuguese fort of 1588. The Dutch ganged up with Rajasinghe II to send their fellow Europeans packing from the south coast of the island in 1640.

A view of Galle International Stadium from the top of the northern wall of the fort. Built as a racecourse in 1874, it began to be used for cricket in 1927, though it wasn't until 1998 that it hosted its first test match.

 By the early fifth century, the Buddhist scholar Faxian (法顯) was kicking about, collecting scriptures in a land he claimed was “occupied by spirits and nagas.”    

Quite how he ascertained the presence of these spectres is anyone’s guess; for – despite claiming the island lacked inhabitants – Faxian reckons “merchants of various countries carried on a trade,” and that “when the trafficking was taking place, the spirits did not show themselves.”    

Instead “they simply set forth their precious commodities, with labels of the price attached to them; while the merchants made their purchases according to the price; and took the things away.”2    

As a pal pointed out, when I related this tale: It would have been quite handy to perpetuate this myth to Chinese traders. “That’s right, Captain Huang. Just leave the gold coins in that pot on the jetty there. The nagas will be along to pick ‘em up soon. Uh-oh, that sounds like them now. Better be off pronto. What’s that? Oh no, Captain Huang. No time to load up the goods. We’ll take good care of ‘em for you …”    

I can just see Faxian quivering with terror as his evening quayside stroll was disrupted by a Moorish stevedore inconsiderately whistling a demon-summoning ditty. It’s reassuring to see that ancient Chinese superstition and an unquestioning belief in malevolent spirits have given way to … But I digress.    

Shri Sudarmalaya Buddhist temple which was apparently built on the site of the old Portuguese Roman Catholic church in 1889. The temple is touted as an example of how Western architectural practices influenced local designs.

A peddlar wheels his coconut-laden bicycle past the New Oriental Hotel on Church Street.

A few years after Faxian’s visit, an order of Buddhist nuns travelled from Singhala to set up shop in China.3 Then, in the early 15th century, Ming Admiral Zheng He (possibly the famed Sinbad) made several trips to Sri Lanka, stopping at Galle at least once. His first visit to the island, in 1404, didn’t go well as he became embroiled in a scuffle with Vira Alakesvara, a local ruler, when he tried to have a tablet with a trilingual inscription erected as a sign of friendship in the name of the Yongle Emperor.  Alakesvara had cause to be wary of outsiders as he had used foreign mercenaries to snatch back the throne from a usurping relative 10 years earlier and his position was precarious.    

I don’t want to get into wrangling over China’s imperialism or purported lack of it  but I think it’s fair to say that – despite establishing a tribute that continued until 1459 – Zheng’s visits to Sri Lanka were relatively diplomatic by the standards of the day. 4    

That'll be 25 bucks, please.

View from the Fort Dew Guesthouse and Restaurant

But Alakesvara’s reception must have pissed the uni-bollocked admiral off as, having initially beaten a hasty retreat, he quickly returned to take the Singhalese king hostage, removing him to Nanjing for a year before permitting him to make an ignominious return.5 By then Alakesvara and his squabbling family were washed up as a dynastic force.    

On his second trip in 1411, Zheng was back with the tablet. Etched with a Chinese dedication to Buddha, one in Persian (some sources mistakenly say Arabic) to Allah  and even a few words in Tamil paying respect to Tenavarai Nayanar, apparently a local incarnation of Vishnu, it had all bases tactfully covered. 6  The fact that Zheng was Muslim and spoke Arabic may also have helped.    

On the advice of some chaps playing draughts on a street corner, I lunched at the Fort Dew Guesthouse and Restaurant before heading back to meet Kapilla. Along the way I got a good price on a couple of cricket shirts for my sons and bumped into the snake charmer again in a small eatery-cum-cornershop. I left my last bits of change on his table and my earlier bad form was forgiven with a betel-nut grin.    

Back where I started: side view of the Maritime Archaeology Museum.

Lane leading up to All Saints.

It wasn’t until we got to the airport that the first driver’s mendacity was uncovered. The toerag had claimed I hadn’t paid him anything and had got Kapilla to cover this supposed shortfall, then scarpered, while I was off wandering around town.    

There was nothing I could do. Actually, I was not willing to do anything. I had a flight to catch and wasn’t about to dash into the airport, find an ATM and then come back out again to compensate him for something that wasn’t my fault. I told him so. His quiet resignation convinced me he was telling the truth in a way that continued protestation never would have. “It’s OK. I’ll find him and kick his arse,” he said.    

I gave him my last samosa, then made my way down the shiny corridor, accompanied by a casiotone rendition of Silent Night.


  1. Corridors of Oceanic Heritage, Galle Maritime Archaeology Museum and Information Centre, Central Cultural Fund, 2010 pp. 19 & 28.
  2. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, by Fa-hsien, Chapter XXXVIII (available here ).
  3. Corridors of Oceanic Heritage. p.28.
  4. That said, I do have to wonder how much Xinhua slipped smiling Sri Lankan historian Dr. Lorna Dewaraja to come up with this guff : “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.” The last line sounds like they just made it up: “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.”
  5. The history here gets murky with several conflicting accounts, including the claim that it was actually a rival king who was kidnapped and that he or Zheng He made off with the sacred Buddha’s Tooth, now supposedly back in Kandy, though Taiwan has staked its own claim, bringing to mind this classic case of one upmanship.
  6. As detailed in the inscription, Zheng reportedly also lavished gifts on the Tamil god’s temple at Tenavaram, modern day Dondra or Devundara, including “‘1,000 pieces of gold; 5,000 pieces of silver.” Extracts from the Chinese inscription can be found here. Other sources name the Upulwan Devalaya as the recipient of these goodies but this must be a mistake, as that temple was not on the site until the British colonial era. To confuse the issue – or at least me – even more, Adam’s Peak has been cited as the location for the offerings. Slap-bang in the centre of the island, the mountain is considered Sri Lanka’s holiest spot and remains a favourire with pilgrims of all the country’s major religions. The odd-shaped rock formation near the top is held variously to be Buddha’s or Adam’s footprint (the latter by Muslims and Christians). The tablet itself was unearthed in Galle in 1911 and is now on display in Colombo National Museum.

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