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Tamil Temples In Quanzhou; By Siddhant Nair

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

Article 15/2020


The economic and social history of India and China is long-standing. Given their disagreements, there are foreign ramifications of close bilateral ties amongst India and China. Centred on its cultural heritage, India and China have developed a close friendship. The social heritage is mainly due to Tamil Nadu and China’s efforts and exchanges because Tamil Nadu was a crucial player in the establishment of culture with China. That is what Modi understands and why he selected Mamallapuram as the venue for the second summit between India and China.

Trade was an essential aspect of building a close connection between India and China, as China was a massive market for India’s cotton textiles and spices. Trade was established and conducted by emissaries and merchants, who would often end up settling in the area, thus blending the culture of two different places. Temples are a gateway to understanding whether there was a blending of culture in the first place. As people settled in areas, they needed temples built for worship. Moreover, rulers in the area-built temples to keep foreign traders happy. Moreover, the methods of building temples were often blended, as artforms were used in sculptors and statues.

There are temples in and around Quanzhou, a busy urban centre, which scholars think might be part of a chain of over a dozen Hindu temples and shrines. The Goddess to which the people of this community pray, is very distinct from any deities of China. Local scholars are not clear yet about their origin, but they recognize that the only roots of this temple are in southern India, not China. The four-armed deity is seated cross-legged and smiling politely with a demon residing at her knees. She backed by two soldiers. The deity was introduced to Quanzhou — a flourishing port town in the middle of Tamil merchants’ shipping routes in the area. It could have been created by local craftsmen about 800 years ago.

(Pic Courtesy: Sanskrit Magazine | The forgotten history of Quanzhou Hindu Temples in China, 2013)

The Chedian shrine is one of the many shrines that historians have founded in Quanzhou. It was built by a group of Tamil merchants, residing here during the Song dynasties (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) and built two magnificent temples and two smaller places of worship. The houses of prayer are established in the provinces around Quanzhou. This port city was also at the period one of the world’s busiest and a flourishing hub of international maritime exchange. (Krishnan, 2013)

The background of the shrines and Tamil connectednesses in Quanzhou was long overlooked. Quanzhou archaeologist named Wu Wenliang in the 1930s found decades of stones displaying perfectly depicted pictures of the deity Narasimha – the Vishnu man-lion avatar. Sculptures of elephants and photographs recounting mythological tales of Vishnu and Shiva, with styles and patterns almost comparable to those of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh from a similar era, were also identified.

(Pic Courtesy: The Hindu)

Owing to the chaos caused by the Japanese invasion, World War II, and the civil war his nation gradually erupted, Wu ‘s findings gained little publicity. After the Communists were in control in 1949, over a decade later, the stones and sculptures were put in a museum known officially as the Maritime Museum of Quanzhou.

The number of temples, and the amount of demolished or damaged, is impossible to determine. They have been found it distribute through several locations, that there could be about many temples built in Quanzhou. A bulk of statues and figures that are displayed in the museums, and there is also a diagram showing the extensive distribution of the finds. The areas include about a dozen locations in the city and the area that surrounds it. Ms. Wang claims it is likely that there can be ancient locations that still need to be uncovered. The latest findings were reported in the 1980’s. (Krishnan, 2013).

Now Quanzhou’s southern India ties have been displayed on a unique display at the maritime museum. The local authority is renewing involvement and financial support to show the “1000 years old past of the town with southern India”. This history has been mainly overlooked, not just in China, but also in India. The stone was primarily derived from the Yuan Dynasty, which established close business connections with southern India. Possibly the merchants have brought the sketches, but hopefully, the Chinese staff has done the job.

Ms. Wang records that a resident of a Quanzhou Indian dates from the sixth century. The monk Gunaratne, identified in China as Liang Putong, translates sutras from Sanskrit from the Yanfu temple from the Song Dynasty. Trade prospered especially in the Yuan Dynasty of the 13th century. A travelling Italian merchant in 1271 documented that the merchants of India “were instantly recognizable.”

The Kaiyuan Buddhist Temple in Quanzhou’s most prominent temple and is open to the public and is in the centre of the old city. It is home to the most remarkable heritage of this historical period. While named the “Hindu-Buddhist temple,” the primary figure in the essential room is the Vairocana Buddha, owing to the introduction of Tamil-Hindu elements. It has been renamed to the Mahavira Hall, now. It was completed during the Tang Dynasty around 685 AD.

The monastery in Huang Shougong’s Mulberry garden claimed that it was a monk ‘s vision to ask his land and make a temple.  He provided his garden and transformed it into a shrine named “Lotus Temple.” It was renamed “Kaiyuan Temple” in 738 AD during the Tang dynasty. (Yan, 2012)

Having been founded by the Tamil Ainnurruvar Valanjiyar merchant group in Quanzhou in 1283 and devoted to Hindu deity Shiva. The works are distributed around five significant locations in Quanzhou and its surroundings. It was designed in the southern Indian architecture. It shared strong parallels with temples from the 13th century designed in the Tamil Nadu during the Chola Kingdom’s reign. Virtually all of the pieces were crafted from greenish-grey granite, commonly used in local construction in surrounding hills. (Kesavapany, Kulke & Sakhuja, 2009) The Temple of Kaiyuan was declared a national temple in 1983.

The Chola Emperor Rajaraja sent diplomats to China for trade ties 1,000 years ago. The Shiva temple in China and the use of Chinese umbrellas centuries ago illumine old connections among Tamil Nadu and the Dragon Land. Raja Raja Chola, the Great sent envoys to the Chinese by 1014 under the leadership of the dynasty of Song (960 AD –1279 AD) to establish trade relations. Many other references remain, including a Chinese link of the 14th century endorsing China’s Chola King party a thousand years ago. (Trust, 2019)

The temple welcomes several thousand visitors each day and is a famous landmark for Chinese Buddhists. At least half one dozen pillars show an extraordinary variety of Hindu mythological inscriptions in one corner behind the temple. The steps to the main temple that houses a Buddha statue are also decorated by a plate of carvings illustrating God Narasimha. The inscription is possibly the single most unique aspect of the temple, says Huang Yishan. He is a temple guarantor whose ancestors for centuries had owned the property upon which the temple was founded. He deplores the fact that most of his countrymen do not recognize this aspect of the past. Many afternoons, when a river of tourists marched up the steps to send burning sticks to the Buddha, no one glimpsed the board. Other markers of Quanzhou’s rich history reside in what has become a new and active manufacturing area. The district has recently come in the shadows of the province Xiamen and Guangzhou’s more affluent port city to the far south. (Krishnan, 2013)

This relation was by no means one way. Chinese merchants, traders, and emissaries would often travel to South India to trade goods and build ties with the kingdoms present. According to a novel written in the late second century AD, the Shilappadikaram, silk from China, would often reach the South Indian shore. Their presence and influence in the trade were so much so that the then ruler of the Pallava kingdom, Narasimhavarmam II, ordered for the construction of a shrine that these Chinese merchants could use. One can only speculate where it is, as there remain zero traces of it, neither in Kanchipuram that was the capital of Pallava kingdom or the seaport, Mamallapuram. There are very few visual traces, through the form of sculptures and statues, of Chinese presence during the 8th century. Some of the sculptures present show members of a Chinese delegation meeting the ruler. The fact that these figures were even depicted in sculptures goes to show that their presence had a significant influence in the region.

Since the early establishment of the ports in South China, Indian merchants maintained a presence in the region. Indian products were seen as very high in the area, especially in the courts. Due to the importance placed on their products, the presence and the influence that Indian merchants had in the region, three monasteries were built and maintained in the area. These monasteries were Hindu and were built alongside mosques and Buddhist places of worship. (Schottenhammer, 2001)

(Pic Courtesy: Editorial, 2019)

In 1956, a bi-lingual, Tamil-Chinese inscription was found in Quanzhou, which dated back to 1200s. This only proved that there was a Tamil-speaking/Tamil origins community. The inscription itself has more Tamil lines than Chinese. However, the Tamil letters are very badly formed, giving the impression that the engraving was done by someone who was a Tamil-speaker. The inscription was made to install in a temple that was dedicated to Shiva, according to the text. (Schottenhammer, 2001)

(The author Siddhant Nair is a Research Intern at C3S. He is pursuing his BA in Liberal Arts from Flame University, Pune. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of C3S.) 



Editorial, T. M. (2019). Retrieved from

Hindu Relics collected from various Quanzhou Temples are kept in From Quanzhou Maritime Museum. (2013). Retrieved from

Kesavapany, K., Kulke, H., & Sakhuja, V. (2009). Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa (p. Chapter 15). Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Krishnan, A. (2013). Behind China’s Hindu temples, a forgotten history. Retrieved 17 May 2020, from

Patranobis, S. (2019). Ancient links between Tamil traders and a Chinese port city. Retrieved 17 May 2020, from

Schottenhammer, A. (2001). The emporium of the world. Leiden: Brill.

Trust, P. (2019). Chola king’s delegation to China; TN’s ancient links to the. Retrieved 17 May 2020, from

Yan, Z. (2012). Famous Temples in China. Anhui: Huangshan Publishing House.

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