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Friday, Oct 18, 2019

Ancient links between Tamil traders and a Chinese port city

The staggered discovery threw up proof that Tamil sea traders had made Quanzhou an important port-of-call, approximately a thousand years ago.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2019 20:19 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times, Beijing
Hundreds of sculptures and carvings were excavated in the city and surrounding areas in the middle of the last century.
Hundreds of sculptures and carvings were excavated in the city and surrounding areas in the middle of the last century.(File photo)
         

Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian province is possibly the only city in this country with existing evidence that ancient trade links existed between coastal China and southern India.

Hundreds of sculptures and carvings were excavated in the city and surrounding areas in the middle of the last century.

The staggered discovery threw up proof that Tamil sea traders had made Quanzhou an important port-of-call, approximately a thousand years ago.

The famous Kaiyuan temple – a major tourist destination – in Quanzhou also has carvings that historians say were influenced by Hindu/Buddhist styles.

Many of these artifacts are now kept at the Quanzhou Maritime Museum – also called the Museum of Overseas Communication History – which also houses relics including old ships, which sunk near the coast and inscriptions of Christian and Islamic origin.

An introduction to the museum says that “…Hindu stone carvings exhibited in it include more than 100 square stones, including stone sarcophagi, stone pillars, vertical statues, column foundations, pedestals and other building infrastructure components.”

Among the exhibits are Vishnu and Lakshmi idols; the stone pillar of the Hindu temple is currently standing on the back porch of the famous Buddhist temple Kaiyuan Temple, says the introduction.

“The Hindu Vishnu stone statues are preserved in the Quanzhou Sea Museum, depicting the god of protection, Vishnu, one of the three Hindu gods. It is a prototype of Vishnu and is a common form in a Hindu temple,” it adds.

The research into the origins of the relics continues but there seems to be a consensus that the Hindu art-influenced artifacts originated in the southern part of India.

“In the late thirteenth century, a Tamil-speaking community in southern China’s coastal city of Quanzhou built a temple devoted to the Hindu god Siva. The temple is no longer intact, but over 300 carvings are still within the city, on display in the collection of the local museum, and rebuilt into the walls of the city’s main Buddhist temple,” writes art historian and curator, Risha Lee.

“The known carvings are distinguishable by their South Indian style, with its closest parallels in thirteenth-century temples constructed in the Kaveri Delta region in Tamil Nadu, and are dispersed across five primary sites in Quanzhou and its surroundings,” Lee wrote in her dissertation – later published as a book -- for Columbia University.

For an approximate date when the temple would have been built, Lee deciphered the inscriptions written both in Chinese and Tamil on a stone block.

“What little we know of the community of Siva worshippers in Quanzhou comes directly from the carvings themselves; apart from the material remains of a Siva temple, history has not documented or referenced its creators,” she wrote, adding: “The strongest evidence for its construction date is a bilingual inscription found in Quanzhou, written in both Chinese and Tamil on a block of diabase stone, which records the consecration of a Siva temple in 1281.”

President Xi Jinping worked in Fujian for several years in various capacities, and finally, as the governor for two years between 2000 and 2002 – he also visited the maritime museum in Quanzhou more than once.

First Published: Oct 09, 2019 20:19 IST

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