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The shrine in Chidian village of Fujian province, southeastern China

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Fujian: a province in China

India Today

Ananth Krishnan

February 27, 2015

A shrine in a remote village preserves the memory of the Indian community that thrived in medieval southeastern China

On the first day of every lunar month, a few dozen villagers gather in front of a small temple in the centre of Chidian, a run-down village tucked away in the urban sprawl of Jinjiang industrial town, the "world's shoe factory", in southeastern China.

Here at the shrine, called the Xingji Pavilion, the residents pray and burn incense-not an unusual sight in the Buddhist and Taoist villages of eastern China. The Chidian shrine, however, is unlike any other in China-the golden deity it houses is neither Buddhist nor Taoist, but Hindu. The four-armed goddess has unmistakably Indian features, strikingly resembling deities in the Vishnu and Shiva temples of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. She sits upright, flanked by two companions, and standing over a fallen demon.

"It was only 10 or 15 years ago that we discovered this goddess was something different," says Chen Jingtu, a schoolteacher in Chidian. "The village had always thought this shrine was a local version of Guanyin (a popular Bodhisattva), but local scholars told us this goddess is from India."

How does a south Indian goddess find herself in a remote corner of Fujian? Local historians believe traders from south India made Quanzhou and its surrounding areas their home during the reign of the Song (960-1279 AD) and Yuan (1279-1368 AD) dynasties when Quanzhou was the busiest port in the world. Chidian is upstream from the Quanzhou port along the Jinjiang, or Jin river, which gives its name to the nearby industrial town. Some of this history has been preserved in Quanzhou's Kaiyuan temple, one of China's most famous, which has at its entrance a panel of inscriptions depicting Narasimha, the man-lion avatar of Vishnu. None of the other shrines have been found intact, only leaving behind panels, statues and Tamil inscriptions.

Chidian, however, is a remarkable living museum-perhaps, local historians say, the only such surviving shrine. While its story is known only to residents and a few local historians, what is even more remarkable is that its treasures have never been documented entirely. On a recent visit, india today found what are possibly invaluable Hindu stone statues still adorning old homes. These have never been studied before.

Lying in a corner of the Li family shrine, an ancient courtyard home that pays tribute to Chidian's most famous resident, a wealthy sugar baron named Li Wu (1386-1457 AD), is what appears to be a beautifully rendered Nandi bull, the mount of lord Shiva. This Nandi lies out of sight, propped up against the walls of the home. Covered in dust are stone panels that appear to show images of Hindu gods and goddesses, possibly dating back more than 800 years. These are valuable testaments to a part of India's own cultural history. Today, they lie forgotten in a village home in a corner of China.

Wang Liming has been, for the greater part of a decade, waging a lone battle to bring this chapter of history to light. The soft-spoken vice-director of the Quanzhou Maritime Museum says there is much that is still not known about Chidian's Xingji Pavilion. The maritime museum has collected and preserved many of the findings from Quanzhou and surrounding areas. The discoveries comprise an extraordinary trove. There is a stone engraving showing an elephant garlanding a Shiva lingam-an image one finds in south Indian temples-and beautifully rendered Vishnu statues. Most of the exhibits on display in the museum are replicas but there are some perfectly preserved originals as well, such as stone temple pillars that one would expect to find in Madurai, not Fujian.

Not much is known about Quanz-hou's Indian community but the mus-eum offers some fascinating insights: the traders were likely wealthy as is evident from the fact that they built grand temples. In 1271, an Italian merchant, on a stopover in Quanzhou, wrote that Indian residents of the city were "recognised easily".

Chidian's villagers have on their own preserved what could have easily gone to ruin but now stands as possibly the last surviving Hindu shrine of its kind in China. It has not been an easy effort. The village has seen better times. The wave of urbanisation that has transformed Fujian, a prosperous coastal province in China's southeast, has skipped the narrow bylanes of Chidian. It is a poor suburb sandwiched between the prosperous port city of Quanzhou and Jinjiang, a manufacturing town littered with shoe factories. The village, like many in south China, is home to only the elderly and young children; most women and men are employed in nearby cities.

A small museum set up at the village's local Communist Party headquarters speaks of its once glorious past. It chronicles the life of Li Wu, who is, six centuries on, still the most famous person to come out of Chidian. After historians told villagers about it, the Hindu deity has become its second-most famous resident. Li Sanlong, who like many other Chidian residents sports the Li surname-they are all descendants of Li Wu-says the villagers are proud of their role in protecting the deity. "The belief was that this was a statue of Guanyin that brought good luck and fortune," Li says. "Though we now know this is a goddess from India, this belief hasn't changed."

Wang Liming says some of Chidian's finds, such as the Nandi, haven't yet been studied. "We would like to do some in-depth research, but we are facing problems," she says. "For example, in decoding the messages (in Tamil)." Her painstaking efforts, however, got a new lease of life after Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the "Maritime Silk Road" initiative last year. The initiative envisages connecting China, with Quanzhou as the base, to Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean region nations through sea lanes. This plan has brought in fresh funds into Quanzhou, and renewed interest in Wang's maritime museum.

Quanzhou wasn't home to only the Hindu temples; there were Christian and Islamic shrines as well. But it is the Hindu past of the city that is the biggest mystery. "We are more clear about the Christian and Islamic statues than we are about the Hindu statues," Wang says. "There are many questions. We want to build a team with Indian scholars to try and answer them. Are these statues from one big temple? Or were there several temples? Who made them? Was it local artisans or were they brought from India? What do they represent?" There is much that isn't known about the Quanzhou shrines, which is perhaps the biggest mystery of all considering the wealth of information that still survives-even if forgotten-in a small village in a corner of China.

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