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Enterprising Malayalees

Posted by Maddy Labels:

It is joked today that every corner of the world or even the moon has a Malayali tea shop to welcome you. You will find Nair messes or tea stalls all over India, you will even find a Nair hotel in Ginza Tokyo, you will find many of them in the Middle East, but by and far the other Malayalis you encounter around the world, many still maintaining their unique spoken accent, are employed in diverse trades or disciplines, it could be engineering, Nano technology, advanced rocket sciences like ramjet applications, cutting edge medicine or even as suave diplomats and peace keepers.

We keep the ever unhappy neighborhood Kerala store owner busy, by buying plantains, Puttu podi, Chinese yam, Pappadams etc and it is also because of this nomadic lot that companies which make Parachute Coconut oil or Chandrika soaps continue to flourish…

The first Malayali who took up a short job in Greece dates back perhaps to the days of Ptolemy (115BC). Half dead, he was washed up on the Red Sea shores after a shipwreck. He did not know any other language (Malayalam and a smattering of Arabic maybe) and the Cyzicuian, Eudoxus who found him, decided to teach him the Greek language in order to learn his secrets. He was the man from ‘The land of the Ophir’ After a full year of teaching Greek, the man explained about Muziris and the wonders of Malabar to the astonished Eudoxus, who had been eagerly trying to find the sea route to Malabar and break the stronghold that the Arabs had on the Malabar spice trade. The Malayali did eventually guide the Greek ship together with Eudoxus, not once but twice to Malabar. Later, Starbo wrote about the expedition, Ptolemy Eurgetes II profited from the wealth they brought back and thus started a lucrative trade, though much later after Hippalus (the Greek pilot of the Eudoxus ship) wrote about the monsoon winds.

That tells you a lot about the travel bug which bit the people from a world known even to the ancient…the people from Malabar. There are many such stories and when I read the following in Wikipedia, I decided to investigate

According to Ming dynasty Imperial Guard Recruitment Record, Nanking area town guard chief Shaban was a native of Calicut. He was recruited to join Zheng He’s expedition, and was promoted on his return. Another officer Shasozu from Nanking military division was also a native from Calicut, who joined Zheng He’s expedition and too was promoted.

Let me start with the relation Calicut had with ancient China. While it is a story by itself, trade flourished between the two countries and big Chinese ships (junks) were always found moored in the Calicut harbor during the 14th and 15th Centuries. In return for expensive gifts from the Zamorin, the Chinese king returned favor by deputing Zheng He with a shipload of gifts in 1407. Early journeys by this great Eunuch Chinese sailor Zheng He are well documented by Ma Huan. Calicut or Guli (Ku-li) went on to become a favorite destination for Zheng He who rose to an admiral’s position in the royal navy. After Zheng He’s fleet arrived in Guli and associated with the local people and officials, he was attracted to the simple and kind customs and people in Guli. Since then, every time Zheng He navigated west, he would stop by Guli. Zheng breathed his last at Calicut and was either buried there or his body was given a sea burial. His tomb in China has only some clothes and is mostly ceremonial. Zheng he is also known as Admiral Chengho.

Wang Tai Peng’s research establishes the following

Among the elite of the Zheng He crew, there were navigators both Chinese and foreigners. The Chinese navigators were simply called huo-chang. Foreigner navigators were called fan huochang or fanren huochang instead to be distinguished from the Chinese navigators. We don’t know how many of them were among them. But they were of considerable number for sure. Their mission was also to recruit those foreign navigators who were capable of ocean navigation by reading the sea-chart with compass points, cross-referencing stars and landmarks. In 1407, for example, foreign navigators were rewarded with monetary notes equivalent to 50 silver taels and a roll of embroidered silk each for their valuable contribution made to the success of the mission. While they were not entitled to official promotion, they got more material rewards in exchange.

Then there were the naturalized foreigners. There were quite a number of middle ranking naturalized-foreigner military officers under his command. Prominently among them was a military commander (zhihui) named Haji, who was a naturalized foreigner.

And a deputy battalion commander (fu qianfu) Shaban, originally named, as Sheban was a man of Calicut from India in origin. Because of his great admiration of China, Sheban came to live in China and joined the military. He served as a sergeant (zhengwu) of the Nanjing an embroidered-shirt guard. In 1430 he joined the seventh naval expedition of Zheng He mission. After his return, Xuande emperor promoted him to the rank of deputy battalion commander and conferred his name as Shaban in acknowledgement of his contribution to the mission. Sheban was a Chinese translation from the Arabic word which means August in the Islamic calendar. Arab people also commonly used it as personal name.

Silk Street – The Chinese of Calicut used to trade from the silk street. In bygone days, Silk Street was the hub of commercial enterprise in Malabar. Trading ships from far off lands, bearing the finest marble, carpets, and tiles docked at Calicut. The wealthy merchants of the areas in and around Silk Street bartered ships laden with silk calico, ivory, and spices for these foreign treasures. Even now, Silk Street is the popular hill-produce trading centre of Malabar.The Chinese are now gone, but the silk street remains. There was also a Chinese street in the past. The China street near Tagore Centenary Hall and Silk Street in Valiangadi bear testimony to the Chinese connections of yore, here was where Zheng he lived and even constructed a pavilion of sorts!!

But we do have today, a China Bazaar, behind the Corporation library where you can find deals such as a dozen batteries for Rs 10/- and the such …

MORE ABOUT ZHENG HE IN ANOTHER BLOG, It is a fascinating story!!

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