Zheng He (Cheng Ho) in Calicut

A towering seven footer Mongol Hui Muslim, who entered the Ming King’s (Yongle emperor Zhu Di – the third Ming king) service, Zheng He, is immortal for his astounding navigational quests. When the Ming army captured
the Yunan province, the 11 year old Ma Sanpao was one of the many castrated and put into the palace servant team. For his service in helping the new emperor win the throne (helping with the coup where the palace was burned) after three years of vicious warfare, Zheng He was promoted in 1404 to the position of Director of Eunuch Affairs and given the surname Zheng (Zhu Di renamed Ma Ho as Cheng Ho because the eunuch's horse was killed in battle outside of a place called Zhenglunba – Cheng Ho became Zheng He to The West)

Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions. Emperor Zhu Di designed them to establish a Chinese presence and impress the foreign people in the Indian Ocean basin. 

Much is written about his seven voyages and his exploits reached the world’s public media with Gavin Menzis announcement after the 1421 project that concluded Zheng He discovered America. Great historians debated and ridiculed the Menzis suggestion. The discussion goes on.

Zheng He, newly promoted as Admiral oversaw the production of the ships and headed these voyages. I hope you can watch the truly wonderful PBS documentary “1421 – the year Zheng He reached America”, I did, just fascinating.

It was the time when the Zamorin of Calicut was powerful and well known, a time when the pepper trade was in the hands of the Moors of Calicut. The Zamorin apparently ordered craftsmen to draw fifty ounces of gold into hair-like fine threads, and weaved them into ribbon to make a gold girdle embedded with pearls and precious stones of all sort of colors (basically a nice Kasavu Mundu or PONNADA I presume), and sent his envoy Naina (Narayana) to present the gold girdle to the Ming emperor as tribute. The Ming Zhu Di returned the favor by deputing Zheng He with a shipload of presents.

Zheng He was appointed as the admiral in control of the huge fleet and armed forces that undertook these expeditions. Zheng He's first voyage consisted of a fleet of 317 ships holding almost 28,000 armed troops. Many of these ships were mammoth nine-mast’ed "treasure ships" which were by far the largest marine craft the world had ever seen. If the accounts can be taken as factual, Zheng He's treasure ships were capable of accommodating more than 500 passengers (Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta have stated 500-1,000 passengers & private cabins in these junks), as well as a massive amount of cargo.

Now imagine this 7’ tall chap dressed in majestic silk robes coming off the majestic Chinese junk berthed at Calicut’s historic harbor in 1405…I have taken the liberty to slightly reword the National Geographic article for effect (the person who sees it in the NG article is in Srilanka)

Viewed from the Calicut Shores, the first sighting of the Ming fleet is a massive shadow on the horizon. As the shadow rises, it breaks into a cloud of tautly ribbed sail, aflame in the tropical sun. With relentless determination, the cloud draws ever closer, and in its fiery embrace an enormous city appears. A floating city, like nothing the world has ever seen before. No warning could have prepared officials, moors, or the thunderstruck peasants who stood near the beach for the scene that unfolds in front of them. Stretched across miles of the Indian Ocean in terrifying majesty is the armada of Zheng He, admiral of the imperial Ming navy.

In Zheng He's time, China and India together accounted for more than half of the world's gross national product, as they had for most of human history. Even as recently as 1820, China accounted for 29 percent of the global economy and India another 16 percent, according to the calculations of Angus Maddison, a leading British economic historian.

When the Chinese sailors reached Calicut, India, their giant ships certainly created a stir. The Chinese were entertained with music and songs. Zheng He’s four latter expeditions were recorded by a Chinese scribe named Ma Huan, who was attached as a translator to the fourth armada, which sailed in 1413 with 63 ships and 28,560 men. The book is titled The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shore (Ying-yai Sheng-tan).Fei Xin another writer/translator who accompanied Cheng Ho. Ma Huan wrote that the Indians' musical instruments (Veena) were "made of gourds with strings of copper wire, and the sound and rhythm were pleasant to the ears."

What did the Chinese do at Calicut? They picked up spices of course, but only on the Journey eastwards back to China. They did stop over in Calicut on each of the 7 voyages, recuperated, replenished their stores and continued on frequently to the west. For the westerly trade, they bartered in Calicut with gold coins, spices from SE Asia and mainly rice that they had picked up at Orissa, to purchase Silver for the trip to Zanzibar. Ian Blanchard gives the reasons in detail in his book on Mining. Curiously in Zanzibar, they bartered the Silver for Rhodesian native gold and more spices!!

After the Ming - Yongle Emperor died in 1424, China endured a series of brutal power struggles; a successor emperor died under suspicious circumstances and ultimately the scholars emerged triumphant. They ended the voyages of Zheng He's successors, halted construction of new ships and imposed curbs on private shipping. Soon after Zheng He's death, the Ming Dynasty officials burned most of his charts and writings. By 1500, the Government ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships and made it a capital offense to build a boat with more than two masts. Basically officials took control and decided that the outside world had nothing to offer them. Upon returning to China, Zheng dead at age 62, Zheng's crew found that the expeditions, rather than being celebrated as heroic, were slandered by the Confucian court officials as indulgent adventures that wasted the country's resources. Zheng He's trip logs were "lost" by officials seeking to suppress further overseas travels.

Some say he brought in Chinese fishing net technology to Cochin, some say Kublai Khan did….He introduced Chinese culture in what is today’s SE Asia and many believe they have the Zheng He lineage in Indonesia & Malacca. India was known to produce very fine quality steel and produce skilled metallurgists. It appears Indian miners & artisans traveled back with the treasure fleets of Zheng He. See my earlier blog about some of people who accompanied him.

Zheng He’s giraffe – It is said that it came either from Somalia or Bengal/Orissa. While logic says Somalia, PBS in their article mentions Bengal. The Chinese persuaded their hosts to part with the giraffe as a gift to the emperor and to procure another like it from Africa. A splinter group under Yang Min went to Bengal during the 4th voyage, and returned to China with the new king of Bengal, who presented to the emperor a giraffe which he had received from the ruler of Malindi (in Kenya). The giraffe was thought to be a mythical qilin, and auspicious. The giraffe arrived at the court in Nanjing in 1415. Check this link for details of how the Giraffe got to China.
Stone in N African Verde islands –Left by Zheng He with Malayalam inscriptions.
Gavin’s presumption - Found a large, free-standing stone near the coast at Janela.. The author then faxed a copy of his picture to The Bank of India, and they advised it was Malayalam. Does this make any sense at all; the Chinese would erect a stele on Cape Verde and carve the inscription in Malayalam? Who would read it? What would it say?

Or was it left by sailors from Kerala who halted at Janela, Cape Verde, and they carved the stele in their own language.

Here is a link with the pictures of the stone. I did not see any Malayalam on it!

The routes of Zheng He's voyages and A stunning computer animation of the Treasure Junks

Cheng Ho died at Calicut and was either buried there or at sea. His shoes and a braid of his hair, at his request, were thought to have been brought back to Nanjing and buried near Buddhist caves outside the city according to Fei Xin. To day Zheng He is revered in China, there are museums and you can see his tomb as well.


Starting with the first Zamorin envoy to China Mr. Narayanan in 1405, many of the future diplomats in China even in the near past have been Malayalis ( KPS Menon (Sr & Jr) , KM Panikkar, Shiv Sankar Menon, KR Narayanan, Vijay Nambiar, to name a few).
Coincidence or by purpose, I am not sure. In any case it was relations with China that got Eminent Malayali VK Krishna Menon into lots of trouble.

The Chinese explorer Zheng He (Cheng Ho) arrived to get the Buddha's tooth relic but left without it in 1406. Zheng He came back five years later, abducted Vira Alakasvera, and took him to China. By the time the captives were brought back, Parakramabahu VI (r. 1411-65) had taken power; he sent envoys to China with tributes five times. In 1960, Chou en Lai returned the Buddha tooth to Sri Lanka.

At first eunuchs were in large supply because captured enemies - Since the eunuchs were often the only males in close daily contact with the emperor and top government officials, they gained vast political power and were able to sway the policies of the day. The Confucian bureaucrats who ran the government were in constant struggle with the eunuchs for supremacy. Over time, the eunuchs took part in imperial power plays at the highest levels, sometimes even effecting a change of emperor or running the show from behind the throne. Their power waxed and waned throughout the different dynasties, running strong in the Tang, weaker in the Song, and again quite strong in the Yuan (Mongol) and Ming dynasties

Pics – various sites acknowledged, Thanks



So interesting. The description of the fleet as it approaches the shores of Calicut is awe-inspiring

When we refer to the deep frying pan at home as 'cheenachatti' - could it possibly mean the wok - the Chinese pan used for frying, and which it so closely resembles? The name suggests that. Did China bring it to India - like the fishing net?

Pradeep Nair said...

This explains the interest of Keralites in China. That point about Malayalees as envoys to China was good. I only wish people who swear by China in Kerala also move along with China rather than remain trapped in a time warp.

Nikhil Narayanan said...

Thanks for this wonderful post.
I was going thru the enterprising Malayees post of yours and realised you have been working on the giraffe story for long.

Research is not as easy as it seems, thanks for putting in the effort to share.


Anil Nair said...


I am jealous of you :)
Not kidding.. great writing...


Maddy said...

Thanks a lot...
Raji - you are on the right track. Cheena chatti is a localised version of the chinese wok and like cheenavala, the attribution has been rightly made. In kerala we used a kal chati before the cheenachatti and brass kitchenware.

thanks anil and thanks nikhil...

Pradeep - i am not so sure that the intellectual china ever developed openly after the ming rule. during that time and before that they were open and accepted outside ideas. after cheng ho's return and the collapse of the mings, the walls, gates and harbors were closed and remain so to date. I have never understood what some malayalees found worthy of emulation...arabikatha was a classic srinivasan movie exposing that myth..

Ashvin said...

Maddy, we still use kal chattis at home - in Kalpathy during the Kalpathy therulsavam vendors used to come selling kal charris before, not sure whether they still do.

Among the sea faring communities of Calicut, long after the last Chinese fleet left, it was a mark of honour to be termed 'cheenipetchagan' or something similar sounding, which apparently meant 'son of the Chinese' - denoting a great sailor....

Maddy said...

I wonder if many know about kal chatis - i had written about them before http://maddy06.blogspot.com/2007/05/sawdust-in-hearth.html

regarding the second para from ur comment i have a blog coming up in historic alleys on that subject,

mazhar mahmood said...

May be he is the one who had got buried inside "Cheenaadath Makhaam Mosque " in Pavangad, Calicut.

Maddy said...

thanks mazhar,
let me check some background, to see if there is something here

Rahul Warrier said...

Interesting read about Zheng He...I am curious to know if anyone knows about the story where he had some influence in altering the lineage of the Samoothiri kings, would be nice if someone can throw some light into it and who that king was...


Maddy said...

Never heard of that! How does that story go?
Almost certain that it has no base

Rahul Warrier said...

Well the first source I read about it was some random article I read somewhere on the web, it was more like a story of fiction so I didnt pay much attention to it...but recently happened to see this video of a talk by Sanjeev Sanyal where he also mentioned that...so I am curious to know more about this king as a matter of curiosity about some old roots... Link to the Sanjeev Sanyal talk below, the part i mentioned is around 55:50...



Maddy said...

I checked it out
Sanjay mentions the Srilankan kings story which is documented. However he uses the word 'may' when talking about the Zamorin and the Chinese relations. I think it will be a good idea if you check out more detailed articles of mine relating to the Calicut Chinese trade in my Historic Alleys site.http://historicalleys.blogspot.com/search/label/Malabar%20-%20Chinese%20trade

drsabu said...

The Cheenadath maqam and mosque near Puthiyangadi along Kannur-Calicut road is supposed to have the grave of Zheng He.The caretaker of the mosque claims that two other Chinese are also interred in the mosque graveyard.

Trisibisi said...

Can you just describe 7 voyages without a big story plz? Thank u

Unknown said...

this is great where are your sources

Maddy said...

Pls check my other blog on the subject for details

Madhumita said...

Sabu 👍👍