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In and around Quanzhou, a bustling industrial city, there are shrines that hist

orians believe may have been part of a network of more than a dozen Hindu temple
s and shrines
For the residents of Chedian, a few thousand-year-old village of muddy by-lanes
and old stone courtyard houses, she is just another form of Guanyin, the female
Bodhisattva who is venerated in many parts of China.
A panel of inscriptions of the God Narasimha adorns the entrance to the main shr
ine of the temple, believed to have been installed by Tamil traders who lived in
Quanzhou in the 13th century. Photo: Ananth KrishnanA panel of inscriptions of
the God Narasimha adorns the entrance to the main shrine of the temple, believed
to have been installed by Tamil traders who lived in Quanzhou in the 13th centu
ry. Photo: Ananth Krishnan
Li San Long, a resident of Chedian village, offers prayers at the village shrine
, which houses a deity that is believed to be one of the goddesses that the Tami
lcommunity in Quanzhou worshipped in the 13th century. (Right) A stone elephant
inscription on display at the Quanzhou Maritime Museum. Photo: Ananth Krishnan
Li San Long, a resident of Chedian village, offers prayers at the village shrine
, which houses a deity that is believed to be one of the goddesses that the Tami
l community in Quanzhou worshipped in the 13th century. (Right) A stone elephant
inscription on display at the Quanzhou Maritime Museum. Photo: Ananth Krishnan

But the goddess


y light incense
nd elsewhere in
nly, flanked by
feet.

that the residents of this village pray to every morning, as the


sticks and chant prayers, is quite unlike any deity one might fi
China. Sitting cross-legged, the four-armed goddess smiles benig
two attendants, with an apparently vanquished demon lying at her

Local scholars are still unsure about her identity, but what they do know is tha
t this shrine s unique roots lie not in China, but in far away south India. The de
ity, they say, was either brought to Quanzhou
a thriving port city that was at t
he centre of the region s maritime commerce a few centuries ago
by Tamil traders w
ho worked here some 800 years ago, or perhaps more likely, crafted by local scul
ptors at their behest.
This is possibly the only temple in China where we are still praying to a Hindu G
od, says Li San Long, a Chedian resident, with a smile.
Even though most of the villagers still think she is Guanyin! Mr. Li said the vill
age temple collapsed some 500 years ago, but villagers dug through the rubble, s
aved the deity and rebuilt the temple, believing that the goddess brought them g
ood fortune a belief that some, at least, still adhere to.
The Chedian shrine is just one of what historians believe may have been a networ
k of more than a dozen Hindu temples or shrines, including two grand big temples
, built in Quanzhou and surrounding villages by a community of Tamil traders who
lived here during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties.
At the time, this port city was among the busiest in the world and was a thrivin
g centre of regional maritime commerce.
The history of Quanzhou s temples and Tamil links was largely forgotten until the
1930s, when dozens of stones showing perfectly rendered images of the god Narasi
mha the man-lion avatar of Vishnu
were unearthed by a Quanzhou archaeologist cal
led Wu Wenliang. Elephant statues and images narrating mythological stories rela

ted to Vishnu and Shiva were also found, bearing a style and pattern that was al
most identical to what was evident in the temples of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Prade
sh from a similar period.
Wu s discoveries received little attention at the time as his country was slowly e
merging from the turmoil of the Japanese occupation, the Second World War and th
e civil war. It took more than a decade after the Communists came to power in 19
49 for the stones and statues to even be placed in a museum, known today as the
Quanzhou Maritime Museum.
It is difficult to say how many temples there were, and how many were destroyed o
r fell to ruin, the museum s vice curator Wang Liming told The Hindu. But we have fo
und them spread across so many different sites that we are very possibly talking
about many temples that were built across Quanzhou.
Today, most of the sculptures and statues are on display in the museum, which al
so showcases a map that leaves little doubt about the remarkable spread of the d
iscoveries. The sites stretch across more than a dozen locations located all ove
r the city and in the surrounding county. The most recent discoveries were made
in the 1980s, and it is possible, says Ms. Wang, that there are old sites yet to
be discovered.
The Maritime Museum has now opened a special exhibit showcasing Quanzhou s south I
ndian links. Ms. Wang says there is a renewed interest and financial backing
fro
m the local government to do more to showcase what she describes as the city s 1000
-year-old history with south India, which has been largely forgotten, not only in
China but also in India.
There is still a lot we don t know about this period, she says, so if we can get any
help from Indian scholars, we would really welcome it as this is something we ne
ed to study together. Most of the stones come from the 13th century Yuan Dynasty
, which developed close trade links with the kingdoms of southern India. We beli
eve that the designs were brought by the traders, but the work was probably done
by Chinese workers.
Ms. Wang says the earliest record of an Indian residing in Quanzhou dates back t
o the 6th century. An inscription found on the Yanfu temple from the Song Dynast
y describes how the monk Gunaratna, known in China as Liang Putong, translated s
utras from Sanskrit. Trade particularly flourished in the 13th century Yuan Dyna
sty. In 1271, a visiting Italian merchant recorded that the Indian traders were r
ecognised easily.
These rich Indian men and women mainly live on vegetables, milk and rice, he wrote
, unlike the Chinese who eat meat and fish. The most striking legacy of this perio
d of history is still on public display in a hidden corner of the 7th century Ka
iyuan Buddhist Temple, which is today Quanzhou s biggest temple and is located in
the centre of the old town. A popular attraction for Chinese Buddhists, the temp
le receives a few thousand visitors every day. In a corner behind the temple, th
ere are at least half a dozen pillars displaying an extraordinary variety of ins
criptions from Hindu mythology. A panel of inscriptions depicting the god Narasi
mha also adorns the steps leading up to the main shrine, which houses a Buddha s
tatue. Huang Yishan, a temple caretaker whose family has, for generations, owned
the land on which the temple was built, says the inscriptions are perhaps the m
ost unique part of the temple, although he laments that most of his compatriots
are unaware of this chapter of history. On a recent afternoon, as a stream of vi
sitors walked up the steps to offer incense sticks as they prayed to Buddha, non
e spared a glance at the panel of inscriptions. Other indicators from Quanzhou s r
ich but forgotten past lie scattered through what is now a modern and bustling i
ndustrial city, albeit a town that today lies in the shadow of the provincial ca
pital Xiamen and the more prosperous port city of Guangzhou to the far south.

A few kilometres from the Kaiyuan temple stands a striking several metre-high Sh
iva lingam in the centre of the popular Bamboo Stone Park. To the city s residents
, however, the lingam is merely known as a rather unusually shaped bamboo stone, a
nother symbol of history that still stays hidden in plain sight.