Stories that await a storyteller

A Muslim and a non-Han, Zheng He was not worthy of extolling. Today, his voyages are a symbol of Chinese daring, and used to establish China as a legitimate stakeholder in the Indian Ocean.

This past week, I spent a day with Jonathan Finnigan, a Singapore-based British filmmaker who is in India to make a documentary on the Kolkata Knight Riders and through it examine this country itself. Finnigan is famous for a series of three films he made on China for National Geographic.

One of these was on Marco Polo, the second on the tradition of technology and invention in China and how this suddenly died out at the cusp of the modern age. The most famous of Finnigan’s documentaries was released in 2005. Titled Treasure Fleet: The Epic Voyage of Zheng He, it explored the life and seven voyages of the 15th-century admiral who has become something of a cult figure in today’s China.
Zheng He is an unlikely Chinese hero. He was not a Han, but a Muslim with Mongol origins. He lived in Yunnan province, on the outskirts of the Ming Empire. When he was a young boy, his village was attacked by the Ming army and the adult males were killed. The younger ones, Zheng He among them, were castrated and enslaved. Zheng He came to serve and become the confidant of Zhu Di, a son of the incumbent emperor.
When Zhu Di became emperor himself, he was unusual in that he was the rare Chinese or Ming ruler of his time who was interested in exploring the outside world. He sent Zheng He into the Indian Ocean. The admiral travelled from east Africa to east Asia, from Mogadishu to the Maldives. It was this fascinating man who Finnigan commemorated in his documentary, shot in 13 countries, including Sri Lanka and India. India was particularly important to Zheng He as Calicut was where he had his “second home… and his Indian Ocean base”.
Finnigan’s research told him that Zheng He probably died on the sixth voyage, and the seventh voyage was carried out by his crew but retained the Zheng He branding. China’s Muslim admiral, the filmmaker concludes, got a burial at sea “somewhere between India and the Arab coast”. There is a legend that Zheng He went down the eastern coast of Africa before turning west. As such, some scholars believe he may have made it to America 100 years before Columbus. Finnigan, however, found no evidence of this. It remains one of the what-ifs of history.
The Chinese response to the film was interesting. For centuries, Zheng He had been a marginal figure. A Muslim and a non-Han, he was not worthy of extolling. Today, his voyages are regarded as a symbol of Chinese daring, and used to establish China as a legitimate stakeholder in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese government had nothing to do with Finnigan’s film, but it quickly embraced the film and saw an obvious soft-power potential.
Treasure Fleet was not inexpensive. It cost $1.5 million and that was close to a decade ago. Is there money available for similarly made and rigorously researched films on Indian history? Chatting with Finnigan, I mentioned Kanishka, the Kushan emperor, born into a tribe in Xinjiang, western China, and like Zheng He was at the periphery of Han and mainstream Chinese consciousness. Unfortunately, this first- and second-century emperor is marginal to Indian consciousness as well.
With an empire that stretched from western China to northern India, covering Afghanistan, Pakistan and slices of other Central Asian countries, Kanishka deserves a documentary as much as Zheng He does. In India, his kingdom extended as far down as Mathura, which was one of his regional capitals. Geographically, it was the largest Buddhist empire in history, dwarfing even Ashoka’s Mauryan realm. In a sense, the Mughals, who came 1,500 years after the Kushans, sought to approximate Kanishka’s expanse, but could never quite do so. They did not manage their dream empire that stretched from Samarkand (Uzbekistan) to the Gangetic plains.
Yet, each of these empires is worthy of a serious documentary, or several serious documentaries. The fact that India and Indians don’t attempt it, despite the surge in the media business in our country, reflects a failure of imagination. At some stage, this needs to be rectified.
The Mauryas, Kushans and Mughals were largely land-based empires. They have shaped the current Indian strategic compass and the predominantly northern sensibility of India being a continental power. This places India — or northern India — at the base of Eurasia and of Central Asia. Yet, there is another way of considering India: of seeing southern India (as well as the Northeast) as the starting point of Southeast Asia. It is here that we get Zheng He’s Indian equivalent in the Chola empire, a great Tamil phenomenon that peaked in the 12th and 13th centuries but is scarcely remembered largely because it didn’t rule from Delhi, and we have made our historiography so Delhi or north-centric.
The Cholas were a seafaring people. They undertook expeditions to Sri Lanka and the Maldives and right up to Sumatra in Indonesia. It is believed the Chola king led a naval attack on Sumatra after merchant ships were threatened, an early example of state power backing private enterprise in foreign regions. Chola ships, traders and ambassadors travelled across the Indian Ocean and even to China and, it is believed, to the Abbasids, who ran one of Islam’s most illustrious empires from Baghdad.
As in the case of Zheng He in China, the Cholas are a reminder that Indian strategic thought wasn’t always diffident and confined to familiar boundaries. It explored far-off lands, undertook voyages into the unknown and used trade as a tool of engagement and mutual enrichment. The flag followed trade and a degree of military force projection became inevitable as trading ships ventured far from the homeland.
That is why an evocative documentary on, say, the Cholas would be just such a boon. It would have Emperor Rajendra Chola telling his legatees, today’s Indians, precisely what Adm. Zheng He would tell today’s Chinese — that it is fine, as Star Trek urged its crew, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.

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