Hindu Gods in Zaiton

In the Middle Ages, when Quanzhou was known internationally as Zaiton, many Indian merchants traveled across the ocean and settled in the Chinese city. They witnessed the glorious days of this port city along the Maritime Silk Road.
by Wang Liming
A Hindu stone carving preserved by Quanzhou Maritime Museum.

In China, many people are familiar with the story of the eminent Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602- 664) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) who embarked on a 16-year journey to India in his quest for the knowledge of Buddhism. Ancient India deeply influenced Chinese Buddhism. However, 80 percent of Indians today believe in Hinduism, rather than Buddhism. Hinduism came into being nearly 1,000 years earlier than Buddhism. It influenced Buddhism at first and later merged with the new Brahmanism, a branch of Buddhism.

Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world. With complex doctrines, it embraces multiple beliefs and denominations, and features complicated folk customs, lifestyles and cultural phenomena. While most Chinese people are not familiar with Hinduism, one ancient city on the southeastern coast of China preserves the remains of Hindu temples well. The city is Quanzhou.

Today, anyone who talks about the relationship between ancient Hinduism and China cannot do without mentioning the city of Quanzhou. From the 10th to the 14th century, Quanzhou, then known as Zaiton, was a famous port city throughout the whole world. One of the most typical port cities along the Maritime Silk Road at that time, the bustling Quanzhou was a major Eastern port described by many medieval travelers and was home to a number of religions. Its past prosperity left the city a great number of precious cultural relics. Among them, the carving art of Hinduism presents people opportunities to understand Hindu scriptures and myths, and exhibits the friendly exchanges between Quanzhou and India’s Tamil Nadu which started more than 1,000 years ago. In this way, Chennai’s friendship with Quanzhou along the Maritime Silk Road becomes more detailed and specific.

As the capital city of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is located along the southeastern coast of India and served as an important transit hub for business and trade around the Indian Ocean in ancient times. Seafaring Chinese merchants from the east and Arab merchants from the west stayed in Chennai during their trading voyages. They repaired their ships, took transfer ships, and purchased commodities during their stays. During China’s Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, Chennai was consecutively under the administration of the Chola and Pandyan dynasties. Chinese geographer Zhao Rushi of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) mentioned the Chola Dynasty in his geography book Records of Foreign Countries. Chinese navigator Wang Dayuan of the Yuan Dynasty talked about the Kingdom of Pandyan in his travel notes A Brief Account of Island Barbarians. In history, both kingdoms had close trade contacts with Quanzhou.

According to historical documents, as early as 558 during the Southern Dynasties (420-589), eminent Indian monk Gunarata visited Quanzhou. Gunarata came to today’s Fengzhou Township of Nan’an, Quanzhou City where he planned to take a big ship at Liang’an Port to go home. However, at the earnest request of Quanzhou prefecture chief and local Buddhist followers, Gunarata stayed and began to translate The Diamond Sutra in the Jianzao Temple (today’s Yanfu Temple). It was not until 562 that he set sail for his southbound journey home from Liang’an Port.

The relationship between Quanzhou and southern India developed from commerce and trade. During the period from the end of the Tang Dynasty to the Five Dynasties (907-960), Quanzhou became an important port along the Maritime Silk Road. Merchants from both Quanzhou and Tamil Nadu maintained frequent contacts, and both sides were eager for each other’s commodities. Silk, porcelain and metal products from China, and pepper, spices and cotton products from India were popular goods in each other’s markets. Many Quanzhou merchants traveled to India to engage in trade, and a great number of Tamil merchants came across the ocean and settled in Quanzhou to do business.

Medieval foreign travelers vividly described the frequent trade exchanges between China and India in their books. Renowned Italian traveler and explorer Marco Polo saw in Quanzhou that “all Indian ships carrying spices and other valuable goods arrived at this port... The amount of imported jewels and pearls is incredible.” He also noted that Indians rushed to Quanzhou for tattoos. Ibn Battuta, a Berber Muslim scholar and traveler, found 13 Chinese merchant ships docked at the western coast of India. Each merchant ship carried more than 1,000 crew members, boasted huge keels and shell plates, and employed watertight bulkhead technology. He indicated that such large ships could only be built in China’s Guangzhou and Quanzhou ports.

The communication between Quanzhou and southern India reached its peak in the Yuan Dynasty. Shouldering missions given by the royal court, envoy Yang Tingbi and famous navigator Iqmis of the Yuan Dynasty had sailed from Quanzhou to Pandyan a number of times. The Yuan Dynasty and the Kingdom of Pandyan had sent envoys to each other on many occasions. The close political ties had provided an important guarantee for the maritime trade between Quanzhou and Tamil merchants. The commercial relationship between the two places had expanded rapidly in just a few decades, and the cultural exchanges became increasingly frequent and active with the development of trade and commerce.

A traditional Chinese painting by artist Li Shuoqing depicting the bustling Quanzhou port in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

With Quanzhou’s growing popularity globally, people with different religious beliefs from all over the world came to the city. While Christianity, Islam, and Judaism arrived one after another, Hinduism also came with Indian merchants. Followers built magnificent Hindu temples and sacrificial altars in the metropolis. In December 1956, a stele with Tamil inscriptions was unearthed from the residential area of Wubao Street, Quanzhou. The inscriptions revealed that after an Indian merchant obtained his business license in the city in 1281, he built a local temple dedicated to Lord Shiva to pray for Quanzhou.

Today, this very temple, which was described as “extremely magnificent” in the local historical annals, has long been destroyed. Although it is impossible to see its original appearance, a large number of exquisite stone carvings have been unearthed in Nanjiaochang, where the temple was probably located. Hindu architectural components have also been found at many locations in the city.

Some of the stone relics were relocated to the Kaiyuan Buddhist Temple and the Heavenly Empress Palace which was built to worship the goddess watching over sailors at sea. These stone relics became a must-see in their new homes. All the stone carvings unearthed, around 300 pieces in total, are building components of Hindu temples and altars from the Yuan Dynasty in Quanzhou. They include stone shrines, stone pillars, vertical god statues, chapiters, plinths, and foundations. The stone carving patterns are generally complicated and mysterious, and take the main deities of Hinduism and related myths and legends as their themes. The carvings also combine traditional Chinese decorative patterns to form a unique style with strong artistic appeal.

Wu Wenliang (1903-1969), known as the founder of Quanzhou’s religious stone carving research, had a lot to say. “Most of these stone carvings are finely carved in a delicate manner,” he revealed. “The stories carved on the stones are all related to the two great Indian epics – Mahabharata and Ramayana, which were written 3,000 years ago.”

Based on the unearthed stone deities, most Hindu stone carvings in Quanzhou depict the stories of Hindu deities Vishnu and Shiva. In Hinduism, three main gods are worshiped: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the protector, and Shiva the destroyer and regenerator.

In the Middle Ages, Brahma’s importance declined, while the number of followers of Vishnu and Shiva reached a peak. Thus, the two major sects of Hinduism, Vaishnavism and Shaivism, were formed. Many believe that either sect could find followers among the Hindus residing in Quanzhou back at that time. On the stone carvings, Vishnu appeared in his original form, incarnations or the wife of Vishnu. He appeared mostly as Krishna, his most familiar incarnation with Indians, on the carvings. Images of Shiva on the carvings included Shiva Linga, Lord of the Dance, and the wife of Shiva. On many occasions, he appeared in the form of the most widely- worshipped Shiva Linga. Contents and expressive forms of these stone carvings are very similar to those in Tamil Nadu.

Decorative patterns on the stone carvings are mainly snakes and lotus petals with Tamil style, which are combined with traditional Chinese auspicious patterns. Although these architectural components are only a small part of the original buildings, they contain rich information and are important references to study Hindu temples in Quanzhou as well as the economic and cultural exchanges between Quanzhou and Tamil Nadu during the Yuan Dynasty.

These stone carvings carry great cultural significance. Behind them are touching human stories. Looking at these stone carvings, people find that more questions need to be answered: Did these carvings come from the same temple, or from different temples? Was it skilled local artisans and workers or experienced foreign craftsmen in Quanzhou who created the statues of Indian gods with Eastern charm? What kind of communities did Indians build in Quanzhou? How long had they lived in Quanzhou? These puzzles have yet to be solved.

The stone carvings have showcased the frequent historical exchanges between China and India, and opened a door for people to understand communication between the two different cultures. Today, the stone carvings are also the envoys that have brought China and India, two great ancient civilizations, closer to each other. They serve as cultural bonds that enhance mutual understanding and communication between the two peoples.

The author is a researcher with Quanzhou Maritime Museum.