In Kerala’s Kozhikode, hunt for a Chinese legend

600 years after his death, there is an attempt in Kerala to find clues about the death of Chinese naval explorer Zheng He

Updated: March 11, 2016 1:16 pm

More than 600 years after a seven-foot tall Chinese naval explorer touched the shores of Calicut (now Kozhikode), a bustling international port city in northern Kerala, an attempt to find his relics and perhaps his final burial place is in order in the state.

Last month, two professors, working in different countries, arrived in Kerala with the aim of finding more information about Zheng He, a fleet admiral of China’s early Ming dynasty and one of the world’s earliest navigators, much ahead of the likes of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. According to credible historical accounts, Zheng He, who had led seven naval expeditions in the Indian Ocean, was buried at sea off the coast of Calicut after he died of illness in the course of a voyage.

zheng he, calicut, kozhikode, zheng he china, chinese naval explorer, zheng he death, zheng he kerala, zheng he calicut, vasco da gama, kerala news Professor Shaojin Chai (second from left) and Prof Haiyun Ma (second from right) at a mosque in Kozhikode in Kerala (Image courtesy of Shaojin Chai)

“We came to Kerala on January 7-9 to find information about relics and stories of Zheng He and his crew in Calicut. It was an official trip of Zhenghe International Peace Foundation,” said Shaojin Chai, a senior research fellow at the Ministry of Culture in UAE.

While history books are replete with the exploits of Columbus and Gama, not much is known about Zheng He, whose fleet was considered to be ten times bigger than his contemporaries. In fact, National Geographic magazine described the naval armada of Zheng He off the coast of Sri Lanka as a ‘massive shadow on the horizon’, that moved like a ‘floating city’ and stretched across miles and miles of the ocean.

Zheng He, who is venerated almost like a God in several parts of China and has temples dedicated to him in Malaysia and Indonesia, was born in China’s Yunnan province in 1371. Born into a Muslim family, Zheng He was ritually castrated at the age of ten at the hands of an invading Ming army. But his life as a eunuch turned out for the better after he was sent to serve in the household of Zhu Di, who would later go on to become the Yongle Emperor. History says Zheng He was able to gain the trust of the emperor in a short period of time and convinced him to let him embark on naval trips that would extend China’s trade potential to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the far-away Middle East.

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Zheng He’s first voyage, according to several accounts, began in the year 1405, sailing from China through Indonesia and Malaysia to finally end at Calicut via Cochin. His fleet was estimated to be more than 20,000 men travelling in more than 60 treasure ships – numbers described astonishing in most accounts. His subsequent trips took him as far as Iran and eastern Africa to the shores of Mogadishu.

For the Chinese explorer, Calicut, then a prosperous trading port that dealt extensively in eastern spices under the rule of the Zamorin, was an ideal base to conduct trade across the Indian Ocean and the Middle East.

“Chinese historian Ma Huan, Zheng He’s translator, described Calicut as very friendly, harmonious and a dynamic place where trading was fair and the Hindu king consulted with Muslim ministers to conduct state affairs,” said Professor Chai, who was accompanied to Kerala by Haiyun Ma, a professor at Frostburg State University, Maryland, US.

During their short visit, both professors visited a few mosques which had Chinese connections and inspected tombstones, but could not unearth any reliable clues that could point to Zheng He’s period.

However, CK Ramachandran, convenor of the Calicut Heritage Forum, dismissed claims that the Chinese naval commander had been buried under land.

“According to early Chinese traditions, a eunuch, after death, cannot go to heaven with a deformed body. That’s why he was ceremonially buried at sea,” said Ramachandran, who has meticulously collated several historian accounts of the Chinese in Kerala.

“I did visit Nanjing in China where a tomb has been erected in Zheng He’s memory. But it is more of a memorial. It is empty,” he added.

zheng he, calicut, kozhikode, zheng he china, chinese naval explorer, zheng he death, zheng he kerala, zheng he calicut, vasco da gama, kerala news The tomb erected in the memory of Zheng He in Nanjing, China. The memorial is empty, many historians say (Photo: Wikimedia/Peter Pang)

Nevertheless, undeterred, Professors Chai and Ma are planning to organise a conference next year in Kerala which would throw light on Zheng He’s exploits for which they have spoken to state government officials as well.

“Zheng He was considered one of the greatest statesmen and explorers in Chinese history and was our national pride for promoting peace and trade with other countries (sic),” said Prof Chai.