Zheng He (Cheng Ho) in Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels:

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


  1. Anonymous

    I would be interested to know if the Chinese brought any rose plant with them. I am researching on the history of roses in India, and seen a note that Varthema was astounded to see red, yellow and white roses in Calicut markets. Where did these roses come from? Any help will be appreciated.
    Girija Viraraghavan
    Kodaikanal Tamil nadu

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Girija.

    I have not studied this actually but I can give you the following leads.

    In 1077, when a Chola trade mission went to China, they had rose essence for sale.Source - Jasmine and coconuts By Cathy Spagnoli, Paramasivam Samanna

    For Hindu's the Jasmine was always the sacred flower. I find mentions by Varthema interesting, but he was a little bit exuberant with his conclusions. In case it existed in Malabar, It came from the Greeks via Muziris or the Arabs of Egypt.

    Remember that Calicut was a central trading point where all kinds of things (even not of local origin like the spices of teh far east) were offered for sale. So I assume that roses from possibly the Vijayanagar kingdom were in demand and hence offered to the 'pardesi's who desired them.

  1. sooraj de arkee

    hello sir,
    please publish articles , history about sm street calicut

  1. Anonymous


    The latest Malayali envoy to China was Nirupama Rao nee Menon, just back as Foreign Secretary

  1. Parakawi

    In 1365 at the Nagarakrtagama made, the consol China came in Majapahit. They came with the consol from Indian, Karnataka, Goda and Syangka. In that years China colonized in under the Mongol Emperor. Mongol in Old Javanese called Tatar.

    Bravery the political Majapahit happens because Majapahit win in war with Mongol Emperor. Majapahit applying political one China but not China: Mongol. Political Majapahit won. In the 1368, China Emperor rise by name Ming Dynasty. That rising Dynasty because intervention Majapahit.

    And also that in 1365, Prapanca record the consuls giving honor to the king Majapahit. Several years later Ma Huan informs consul from China come to Majapahit.

    Sources: Email book ‘ Meluruskan Penyimpangan Sistematis Sejarah Majapahit’.

  1. himalayas

    hELLO SIR Maddy

    Might i could get a help from you.

    I wanted to know did the kerla calicut or souther part of our country adapted sports dance from the chinese, like Doese Katakali dance or any other sports like martial arts were adopted by southern india.

  1. himalayas

    w3ill wait to hear from you Sir