In the early 15th century when Ming dynasty ruled China, The Yongle Emperor sponsored seven expeditions of unprecedented naval fleet to impress other nations across the Indian Ocean and control trade in the region. The great expedition, however, was commanded by Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who had proven his allegiance to the new emperor. On his expeditions, Admiral Zheng He supplied the vessels with various goods such as gold, silver, porcelain and silk to be dispensed along the way. In return he received some exotic presents such as a giraffe, zebras, ostriches, camels and ivory from the Swahili in East Africa.
Generally all the expeditions commanded by Zheng He were conducted peacefully since diplomacy was his preferred way to interact with other nations. However he occasionally used the military power to suppress pirates who had long plagued the Chinese and Southeast Asian waters. His successful effort to crush piracy in the region had positively raised his image among regional kingdoms.
Once upon a time when Zheng He’s fleet cruised around the northern coast of Java, some of the crews fell sick. Then the admiral commanded his fleet to anchor at a place which is now part of modern-day Semarang. At this particular place, apart from curing his crews by using herbs gathered in the area, he found a small cave inside a rock and did his prayer there. Purportedly, the admiral’s arrival to Java, among other things, had helped spread Islam to the local people.
In the early 18th century, long after Zheng He’s visit to Semarang, a temple was constructed at the site of the cave. The temple was then aptly named Gedung Batu (Stone Building) after the cave. Having been owned by several different people and withstood turbulent times during Japanese occupation, political upheavals and economic recession, the temple compound underwent a major renovation in the 2000s which coincides with the commemoration of 600 years of Zheng He’s visit to Semarang.
Currently, Gedung Batu is located within a larger compound called Sam Poo Kong which houses several temples, with Gedung Batu as the largest one. The entire compound’s architecture combines Chinese and Javanese traditional features painted in the auspicious bright red and ubiquitously adorned with statues from Chinese mythology.
Sitting next to the main temple, two smaller temples which were built years after the construction of Gedung Batu emanate distinctive fragrance of burned incense sticks. The one which flanks the main temple is called Juru Mudi temple after the tomb of Wang Jinghong, one of Zheng He’s trusted deputies in his expeditions across the oceans. Another temple in the compound is dedicated for the sacred anchor which used to be a part of Zheng He’s fleet, while the other smaller temple houses the weapons of Zheng He.
Venerated by both Muslims and Buddhists, Chinese and Javanese, Zheng He and Sam Poo Kong Temple have played a major role in the history of the people of Semarang. Today the entire compound is now one of the most visited places in this beloved hometown of mine.
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