QUANZHOU, CHINA, July 2013 (The Hindu): 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. But the Goddess that the residents of this village pray to every morning, as they light incense sticks and chant prayers, is quite unlike any Eeity one might find elsewhere in China. Sitting cross-legged, the four-armed Goddess smiles benignly, flanked by two attendants, with an apparently vanquished demon lying at her feet.
Local scholars are still unsure about her identity, but what they do know is that this shrine’s unique roots lie not in China, but in far away south India. The deity, they say, was either brought to Quanzhou — a thriving port city that was at the centre of the region’s maritime commerce a few centuries ago — by Tamil traders who worked here some 800 years ago, or perhaps more likely, crafted by local sculptors at their behest.
“This is possibly the only temple in China where we are still praying to a Hindu God,” 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 village temple collapsed some 500 years ago, but villagers dug through the rubble, saved the deity and rebuilt the temple, believing that the goddess brought them good fortune — a belief that some, at least, still adhere to.
The Chedian shrine is just one of what historians believe may have been a network 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 thriving 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 Narasimha — the man-lion avatar of Vishnu — were unearthed by a Quanzhou archaeologist called Wu Wenliang. Elephant statues and images narrating mythological stories related to Vishnu and Shiva were also found, bearing a style and pattern that was almost identical to what was evident in the temples of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh from a similar period.
Today, most of the sculptures and statues are on display in the Quanzhou Maritime Museum, which also showcases a map that leaves little doubt about the remarkable spread of the discoveries. The sites stretch across more than a dozen locations located all over 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.