Fri, 17 Nov 2000

Semarang's temple, a tribute to Adm. Zheng He

By Tjahjono Rahardjo and Tyas Susanti

SEMARANG (JP): Gedung Batu Temple is the oldest and one of the two most important Chinese temples in Semarang. Yet, there is only a very brief mention of it in Semarang's official tourist guidebooks. Even worse, it is not included in the list of protected buildings.

The reason for this is because the New Order regime forbade any public display of all aspects of Chinese culture. It is ironic that the existence of Chinese temples were barely acknowledged, while at the same time huge sums of money were being spent to revive the Dutch colonial old town, alas without much success.

This does not mean that no one comes to Gedung Batu temple, known also as klenteng Sampo. On the contrary, despite its forced obscurity, it is often very crowded, especially on auspicious days according to the Javanese calendar, such as Friday Kliwon and Tuesday Kliwon.

Javanese days and Chinese temples might seem to be strange bedfellows but the fact is that besides ethnic Chinese (including those coming from as far away as Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan), many so-called native Indonesians are regular visitors to the temple.

The Klenteng Sampo was built to commemorate Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho, 1371-1435). Zheng He was a Muslim eunuch at the court of Yongle (Yung Lo), the third Ming emperor, who ruled between 1402-1424. To demonstrate China's power, Yongle ordered several great naval expeditions to Southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf and East Africa. Because of his administrative competence, diplomatic finesse and navigational skill, the trusted Zheng He was asked to lead these missions. On his first voyage in 1405 that took him to Vietnam, Siam, Java, Ceylon, and India, Zheng He commanded 60 seagoing ships, each carrying several hundred people.

This expedition, to be followed by six others in the next 28 years, was made nearly a century before Columbus' discovery of the New World. They explored areas that were still unknown to the West at that time.

Surprisingly, China did not colonize any single territory visited by Zheng He. Indeed, the main purpose of Zheng He's mission was to mend ties between China and its southern and western neighbors, which had been strained by the brutal imperialism of the Mongols who ruled China before the Ming dynasty overthrew them. True, after Zheng He's expeditions, Chinese settlements started to appear in many parts of Southeast Asia, but all this happened peacefully.

Zheng He's expeditions were highly successful. He succeeded in establishing trade ties and strategic alliances with Southeast Asian states. Rulers like Malacca's Parameswara, seeing that China could offset Siam's and Majapahit's dominance, voluntarily sought the Middle Kingdom's protection and agreed to pay homage to the Son of Heaven. Zheng He himself became a legend and shrines to honor him can be found in China, peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. One of them is Gedung Batu temple or Klenteng Sampo in Semarang.

The people of Semarang believe that Zheng He and his fleet landed on the 30th day of the sixth month of the lunar year but in which year that actually was is unclear. The event is commemorated every year with a big procession--complete with dragon and lion dances accompanied by deafening music--from Tay Kak Sie, Semarang's other main temple, to Gedung Batu.

During Soeharto's rule this procession was banned and only this year has it been resumed. Zheng He stopped in Semarang because his helmsman Wan Jin-Hong was taken ill. After some time, Zheng He decided to leave Semarang and continue his voyage to the west. He left behind a ship and 10 crew members to look after Wan Jin-Hong.

Turned into temple

When Wan Jin-Hong recovered, he decided to settle in Semarang. He started to cultivate the land and used the ship to trade along the coast. Meanwhile, his men married local women. The new settlement grew and prospered. As a Muslim, Wan Jin-Hong promulgated Islam to the people and to honor Admiral Zheng He, Wan Jin-Hong turned the cave where he first took refuge into a place of worship, probably a mosque. Wan Jin-Hong died at the age of 87 and has become reverently known as Kyai Juru Mudi.

In 1704 the cave collapsed; in 1724 the Chinese community rebuild it and turned it into a temple. Further improvements were made in 1937 and 1950. As a result of these improvements the temple developed into a complex of buildings surrounded by a Chinese garden. This garden, unfortunately, does not exist anymore.

The most important building in the complex is, of course, Zheng He's shrine. It is a large hall with the sacred cave behind it. Inside the cave there is now an altar where people come to have their fortunes told.

The second building is dedicated to Kyai Juru Mudi (Wan Jin- Hong). Like Zheng He's shrine, it consists of two parts: an antechamber, an inner sanctum containing Kyai Juru Mudi's grave and an Islamic praying niche next to it.

The third building in the complex is divided into three compartments. The first section houses the anchor believed to have come from Zheng He's ship. The second part is dedicated to Confucius, while the third part is a shrine for ancestor worship.

The next building is the Earth God shrine, which adjoins two other buildings containing Javanese style graves. No one really knows whose graves these are but this does not prevent people from seeking their blessings, a la Javanese, by strewing flowers and burning incense.

At a glance Gedung Batu may look like any other Chinese temple but a closer observation shows that it is rather unique. Within this single complex, elements of several faiths and cultures exist harmoniously side by side.

Islamic and animistic Javanese influences as well as Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian elements are discernible in the history, rituals and architecture of the temple.

What indeed could be a more fitting tribute for a broad-minded person like Admiral Zheng He? And perhaps by visiting it we can learn a lesson or two from Zheng He and the early founders of Gedung Batu on how to live peacefully with each other, despite our differences.

The writers are researchers with the Center for Urban Studies, Soegijapranata Catholic University Semarang.