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The Sha-mi-ti mystery

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Ming China & Calicut – Part 1

This study resulted from the reading of a very complicated document covering China and Calicut relations during the early Ming period. The excellent article by Roderich Ptak would have reached a complete and proper conclusion if he had access to more Malabar history books, but then again, Malabar history is neither well understood and recorded by indigenous people living then, nor are the relations with foreign traders well documented. There is a reason for that of course since trade was kept at arm’s length by the rulers and the local populace who went about their normal course of living, leaving the sailing and port handling to expatriate Arabs and other nationalities who were free to come and work as they wanted, provided they kept to themselves and paid the duties in time. And with that background, we go to Beijing, the new capital of imperial Ming China…

In 1403, Yung Lo (Yong Le – Zhu Di) had come to power in China, and was about to project the Ming capital into limelight, with the massive building efforts of a new city, a new palace and plan and organize the dispatch of a vast armada of ships under the admiralty of Zheng he (Cheng Hu). The new emperor, the representative of heavens received many emissaries from countries that it had relations with. The how’s and why’s will be discussed in another more detailed article, but let us look at an interesting entry into various Chinese manuscripts which thence pose a few questions. Quoting Ptak…

An envoy sent by the ruler of Calicut (now referred to, for the first time, as "Ku-li"), Sha-mi-ti (Samutiri), came to China in the wake of Yin Ch'ing's returning ships. This Calicut emissary was entertained twice by the Chinese, together with other envoys including the one from Hsi-yang, once on 21 October 1405 and once on 6 November 1405. Note here that we are actually talking about two emissaries from Calicut (His-Yang Kuli was also Calicut). While we do not learn anything about the subsequent departure of the Calicut envoy, it is important to realize that this is the first instance where a Calicut ruler is said to have been formally granted a Chinese title (on 3 October); perhaps Sha mi-ti had acceded to power some time in 1403 or 1404 and news of this only arrived in China with Yin Ch'ing, hence the Calicut envoy who accompanied Yin received all honours on behalf of his king.

However, the situation is complicated by the fact that envoys representing a place called Ch'e-li (here probably not identical with the Yunnan tribal office in MS, ch. 325) were received, as indicated, on 23 September 1405 together with ambassadors from Hsi-yang (representing perhaps Chola) and Java, and on 25 February 1403 (erh-yueh jen tzu), together with diplomats representing Korea and Siam. Since, quite obviously, Ch'e-li in both events is linked to other maritime countries it could be that we are dealing with an Indian Ocean country here and not with the Yunnan tribal office. There is little reason, however, to believe that "Ch'e-li" is a mistake for "So-li" or "Ch'e-li (a)" or for any of the other forms representing "Chulya" since no other text alludes to such a possibility. Moreover, Ch'e-li is listed together with Hsi-yang (which may have something to do with Hsi-yang So-li or So-li, as shown above) as two places in the entry of September 1405. Furthermore, Hsi-yang and La-ni (if these stand for two places) submitted tribute in 1403, i.e. in the same year in which the first Ch'e-li diplomats were received; in other words, if Ch'e-li and Hsi-yang (So-li) were to stand for the same place, there would have been two envoys from that place submitting tribute in one and the same year which is highly unlikely. A second possible interpretation of Ch'e-li is to consider this name as a variant form of Ku-li.

This is possible in the case of 1403 but not in the case of the 1405 envoy since it is clearly stated in MSL that in 1405 Yin Ch'ing brought with him to China an ambassador from Calicut (Ku-li). So, why would two envoys from the same place (under two different names) have arrived almost simultaneously in 1405? Now, before continuing with the discussion of this name problem a second question has to be considered. Several of the geographical descriptions of Calicut, starting with the HYTC and TMITC, which do not list Sha-mi-ti's mission of 1405 claim that another Calicut ruler, Ma-na Pi-chia-la-man (Mana Vikraman), sent tribute to China in 1403 through his emissary Ma Shu, while other works, for example SYCTL, SIKC or TWL, speak of two tribute missions, of the one of Ma Shu in 1403 and the one sent by Sha-mi-ti in 1405. The SIKC even lists a third envoy for the year 1404. While the latter cannot be verified through any other account, we have seriously to consider the "two envoy option" Perhaps the 1403 tribute mission sent by Ch e-li (as listed in MSL) is identical to the Ma Shu mission dispatched by Ma-na Pi-chia-la-man. If so, we may again infer that a change in government took place at Calicut after Ma Shu had left, most likely towards the end of 1402 or during the years 1403/4………………..

Does this imply that Calicut was called "Ch'e-li" by the Chinese before and "Ku-li" after Sha-mi-ti's accession? Once again, there are no definite solutions to the above questions. We may only conclude that, in all likelihood, two Calicut envoys arrived, one in 1403 under the old ruler, one in 1405 under the new one. The part played by Ch'e-li, Hsi-yang and La-ni or Hsi yang La-ni remains unclear……….

Cheng Ho took back to Calicut Sha-mi-ti's envoy who had arrived, as we saw, on 3 October and remained in China until 5 November 1405. When Cheng Ho returned from his first expedition on 2 October 1407 he was accompanied by several emissaries including a new ambassador from Calicut. This envoy is also mentioned in KC. In MSL he is referred to as Pi-che-ya-man-hei-ti. Moreover, the sovereign of Calicut is now no longer called ch'iu-chang (chieftain) but wang (king), according to the status granted to him in 1405.44 ranted to him in 1405.

To get a better understanding of all this text, one should be aware of what the Chinese called a tributary system. Why did Calicut and the other countries listed have to send envoys and pay tribute to China? We will try to get a fair understanding from reading Fairbank’s article.

Quoting Fairbank - First is the fact that the emperor is the son of heaven. He had to maintain harmony between heaven and earth.

"The kings of former times cultivated their own refinement and virtue in order to subdue persons at a distance, whereupon the barbarians (of the east and north) came to Court to have audience. . The first tenet of this theory-and this is an interpretation-was that the alien, however crass and stupid, could not but appreciate the superiority of Chinese civilization and would naturally seek to "come and be trans- formed" (lai-hua) and so participate in its benefits. The formalities of the tributary system constituted a mechanism by which formerly barbarous regions outside the empire were given their place in the all-embracing Sinocentric cosmos

First of all the tributary ruler who tendered his submission was incorporated into the charmed circle of the Chinese state by several forms. An imperial patent of appointment was bestowed upon him-a document which recognized his status as a tributary. More than this, the tributary system was a diplomatic medium, the vehicle for Chinese foreign relations. Whenever a new ruler ascended the throne of a tributary state, he was required by the regulations to send an envoy to obtain an imperial mandate from the Chinese court. By imperial command he was then appointed ruler of his country, and the imperial patent of appointment was given to his envoy; after receiving this document, the new ruler sent a tribute mission to offer thanks for the imperial favor. A recognized vassal might appeal in time of need for Chinese help

In summary one can see that the early days of the Ming dynasty saw envoys being deputed from two kingdoms around Calicut, both vying for Chinese approval, one being the Manavikarama envoy from Calicut and the other from the neighboring principality of Chaliyam. And thus we see Chaliyam on the global map for the first time.

Some would wonder how a place like Chaliyam could be connected to the Ming king. Others would be surprised to know that this small principality was an independent kingdom. Some others wonder how a Chaliyam ambassador could rub shoulders with other bigwigs in imperial Peking, and conclude that there was a time when all this was possible, mainly due to the trade links that existed. In today’s measures, the trade was not that significant, but it was enough to encourage private traders to start the process and for a large kingdom to take notice, if only to cater for their rich men’s fancy tastes for things like spices. This kind of imagination becomes difficult when you know that those tastes have become common place now.

Anyway as we can see, the Chaliyam raja was also connected with the Chinese trade. Cheng Ho comes around in 1405 and established the superiority of the Zamorin and his accession as the ruler of Malabar, and places him above the Chaliyam king. Many history books wrongly mention that Zheng came to establish the Manavikrama Zamorin’s accession to the throne; it was actually to present the papers and install the stone monument establishing the relationship as a fact.

Chaliyam’s (the nearby locales of Parappanad, Beypore, Tirur, Tanur are all known in history from ancient times and form part of this locale) history is certainly checkered after that, and the events in that region were to determine the futures of many a king, namely the Zamorin, the Portuguese, the Chinese, the Arabs and Moplahs. One can think a bit and easily figure out why the place was important. One was the acess to the river Bharatapuzha, trade connected to it and secondly the geography of the vicinity. As you will note the serene Puzha flows over the Nila valley and empties the waters from the mountains into the Arabian Sea at Ponnani, so it was an important sea port that connected though a major river to inland centers where material for trade arrived. This locale in early Malabar history was called Vettathnaad, Prakasha Rajya or land of light. Today the family that ruled these areas is extinct, and their story is not very easy o piece together, but we do know that at one time, one of the chieftains for the sake of survival even changed religion to side with the Portuguese. Rivalry with the neighboring Zamorin of Calicut determined the future of that place. Sad events continued, after life had settled down somewhat and the British had taken charge. Violent events connected with the Moplah revolts shook the sleepy villages of Vettath naad, Chaliyam and the offices of the powerful EIC.

Readers should note that there were two chieftains, one being the Tanur king or Vettath raja, the other being the vassal of the Zamorin called the (N) Parappanad raja. The Tanur kingdom was in those days very learned, and produced many famous people, mathematicians and artists. Tanur was thus a swaroopam. Somewhere during the 1350 period the wars between the upcoming Zamorin and the Vettah raja intensified and the dynasty were defeated by the Zamorin. The Ponnani port was very important for Arab trade and thus the strategic importance meant that the Zamorin had to have a long term relationship with the raja. Following this the Tirunavaya wars took place and in the uneasy truce that followed the Vettam raja was given a significant position in the ceremonious Mamankham where he stood to the right of the Zamorin and the Shahbandar koya of Calicut to his right.

Vettatnad (Vettam) or Tanur Swarupam comprised of parts of Ponnani and Tirur Taluks. It included within itself such places as Tanur, Trikkantiyur, Chaliyam, Triprangode etc. Chalium on the other hand was controlled by the Parappanad raja called Urinama. So note that the Parappanad swaroopma is different from the Tanur swaroopam, but then again entire area for foreigners was perhaps termed Chaliya.

What connection would the Chinese trade have with the principalities of Chaliyam or Tanore? To figure that out it must be noted that Ponnani was an important port where many of the trade ships berthed. The main exports specific to Chaliyam were the muslin shawls, Chalia (areca) nuts other than the usual trade goods & fine articles that came down the river. It rivaled Pantalayanai to the North of Calicut and eventually became the seat of the Yemeni Arabs as well as the Portuguese when they established a fort there. So how about the Chinese?

Ibn batuta had to say this in 1326 - I next came to the city of Shaliat, where the Shaliats are made, and hence they derive their name. This is a fine city. I remained at it some time, and there heard that the kakam (third sized vessels) had returned to China, and that my slave girl had died in it and I was very much distressed on her account. The infidels too had seized upon my property, and my followers had been dispersed among the Chinese and others.

A later observation by P Vincenzo is certainly curious. We passed Cinacotta", says P. Vincenzo, "at the mouth of the river Ciali, where the Portuguese formerly had a fortress" (liv. I, cap. xxxiii).. G De Orta certainly mentions a fort of the Chinese, whereas Vincernzo equates it to ‘little fort’. But the time lines covered in past and present tenses cross in translations and one cannot be sure, nevertheless, did the Chinese settle down in Chaliyam or were they mostly around Calicut?

Reading all these one can infer that there was a sizeable Chinese presence in the location, around the turn of the 15th century, even before Cheng Ho’s arrival in Calicut. It could have been so that they were mainly centered on Chaliyam and the mention of a Cinacotta probably signified a Chinese settlement around that location. Perhaps that was the very reason the Chaliyam raja had his envoys in China even before the Zamorin’s envoy reached Ming China.

Who could have been the emissary of Sha-mi-ti? Was Sha-mi-ti a translation for Samuthiri as Western historians conclude? Unlikely, for the word did not come into use until later in the 15th century, it was therefore just some confusion by the translators or could very well have been a name other than Samuthiri. But the mystery is still not solved, for suddenly the Paraksh Rajyam or Vettathnadu now delivers a ruler named Viraraya in ancient history notings. As people who study the Zamorins will agree, the Mana Vikaramas are understood, but nobody really knows how the Viraraya became a part of Zamorin titles. Nampoothiri concurs - He says that the Viraraya title seems to be acquired 15th AD, when Zamorins annexed Valluvanadu territory (or was it actually the Vettathnadu?).

Was there perhaps a time when the Virarayas of Vettath nadu were part of the Zamorin’s ruling coalition, i.e. not just standing to his right on important occasions, but also as part of the family? Did they drift apart in time to become enemies? But that drift is more difficult to analyze without more matter, and so we will try to do so another day.

Soon the Chinese were to leave Malabar shores entirely. I had covered it briefly in the past, but will get back to it in more detail soon. The Ming dynasty shifted its interests to internal problems and land border issues, forgetting their tributaries abroad. Probably the relationship between Calicut and China was broken already for other reasons as ‘Joseph the Indian’ mentions. The Portuguese came next and the Zamorin had to resort to asking the Egyptian and Turkish Sultans for help. The heavily armed Chinese armada of Zheng He was not available anymore and the tributary status was perhaps lost… but why? That will be another story for another day.

As for Chalium, the uneasy truce with the Zamorin continued till 1498 and the Portuguese appeared on the scene. Seeing an ally in them, the Vettath rajas sided with the Portuguese in the wars that followed, and allied with the royal families of Cochin and Travancore. By the 18th century the family became extinct, though the Zamorin was to send his family to Paonnani, just before his own death, when faced with danger from Hyder Ali.

The area around continued to be a prosperous trading center and became home for many a famous person including the Zainuddin Makkadum’s, the Maraikkars and so on, all figuring regularly in Malabar history. The weavers vanished in the turmoil’s that followed and the Shaliat manufacture was attributed to Kashmir. The Portuguese finally constructed a fort in 1532, fulfilling their their main aim. The fort was later (1571) demolished by the Zamorin and many big battles followed, resulting in the departure of the Portuguese from Malabar soil once and for all. It later became a terminus for the Madras railway in Malabar and slowly faded from notice. Today there are talks of creating a warship building center there. Perhaps the locales near Tyndis will become famous once again after years of obscurity.

1. Ibn Batuta states that Shaliats are made in Chaliyam, and it is possible that the fine cotton head scarf (Keffiyeh) worn by Arabs (muslin from cotton & silk weed) were manufactured by the Chaliyar weavers of Chaliyam in those days. However the modern day shawl is attributed to a Shaliat in Kashmir. As Chaliyars were always resident close to a river, this is likely. Batuta called the place Ash Shaliyat.
2. The Kilimanoor koil thampurans such as Marthanda varma are related to the Malabar Parappanad family. Vettathu Nadu annexes Chowara, one of the original list of 64 Namboothiri Gramams’ and Queen Gangadhara Lakshmi of Kochi adopted children from Vettathu Nadu for this reason.
3. The Vettath sampardayam in Ramanattam(which later became Kathakali) originated from Vettah nadu,.


Tributary Trade and China's Relations with the West – JK Fairbank
China & Calicut in the early ming period – Roderich Ptak
Samoothirinaad – NM Nampoothiri


  1. Thoufeek Zakriya

    I do agree your point
    "The excellent article by Roderich Ptak would have reached a complete and proper conclusion if he had access to more Malabar history books, but then again, Malabar history is neither well understood and recorded by indigenous people living then, nor are the relations with foreign traders well documented."
    Terrain knowledge does matter here, same like Malabar and Ma'bar which is a common error happening to the historians of west when writes about east. and Ptak's conclusion on the name Ch'eli is not exactly right but opens to the fact that the place is a maritime city in indian ocean. and really appreciate your effort.
    And we have to work more for these kinds of rediscoveries about our glorious past.

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Very informative.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Thoufeek..
    there is much more behind each of these stories, questions raise more questions...and the quest for answers goes on...

  1. Maddy

    thanks PNS..

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Thank you, Maddy for this exciting post.The entire hypothesis hinges on the identity of Cheli. Even if it is admitted that it was a neighbouring kingdom, it would be far-fetched to identify it with Vettathnad. We may need much more evidence to reach such a conclusion.
    There was a seminar in Beijing recently on 'Calicut and China' which I was privileged to attend. Chinese scholars emphasised that exchange of emissaries had been a normal practice even before the Ming dynasty. Wang Dayuan was deputed by the Yuan emperor. Ibn Batuta himself testifies to several Chinese in Calicut. The first Emperor of Mings, Hongwu had sent several envoys to Calicut, one of them Wen Liang came in 1370 and returned with Calicut emissaries. The next Emperor YongLe first sent Yin Qing in 1403 who returned with many emissaries (probably including the Cheli emissary). They travelled back with Zheng He during his first voyage.
    One argument favouring the Chaliyam hypothesis is the fact that Chaliyam was supposed to have been a Jewish enclave (due to the flourishing Calico industry). According to Chinese historians, the first Calicut residents in China were probably Jews in the 10th Century. There exist some Jewish records in Kaifeng (old Bianliang) testifying to this Calicut link. Muslims followed.

    The post gives a new dimension to the Calicut-China link and needs to be pursued.

  1. Maddy

    Thnaks CHF..
    To this, I have to add some but first a reminder of the chaliya community

    Then to clarify that the transliterated word from Chinese looks like this Ch'e-li. Now if you go back to the Ma Huan writing about Calicut he says, western ocean cloth, namely the Ch'e-li cloth in this country comes from the neighboring country of k'an-pa-i. Ibn Batuta infers this is Shaliyat. An early rendering of this word was assumed to be Koyampadi or Coimbatore, but with the Chaliyas settled around Chalium, the latter found more acceptance.