Historical contacts between India and South China
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Written records of contacts between India and China date back to at least 2nd century B.C. Such contacts at the level of people through commerce got a fillip with the advent of Buddhism into China from India in the first century A.D. under imperial patronage. A Chinese monk, Fa Xian (Fa-Hsien, AD 399-414), visited India in AD 402, stayed for 10 years, and after his return translated many Sanskrit, Buddhist texts into Chinese. His record of journeys Fo Guo Ji (Record of Buddhist Kingdoms) is an important historical source. Kumarajiva, a scholar in Vedas as well as Buddhist Sutras, was born of Chinese mother and Indian father. His translations of Sanskrit sutras into Chinese are valued even today. Xuan Zang (Hiuen Tsang) visited India during Harsha Vardhana's reign in the 7th Century AD, in search of Buddhist scriptures. His journey became part of traditional Chinese lore when narrated in a later period book called "A Journey to the West".

It is said that during the same period when the first two Indian Buddhist missionaries Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaraksa came to Luoyang, some other Buddhist missionaries also came to south China and were received by Prince Liu Ying of Chu. However, their details are not known. It is said that among those missionaries who came to South China from India, included Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan Buddhism. Bodhidharma (Da’mo in Chinese) is thought to have been born in Kanchipuram, near Chennai in India and was the third son of a Pallava king. At the age of seven he purportedly began making observations of precocious wisdom (e.g. “The mind is a jewel”). His teacher, Prajnatara, changed the boy’s name from Bodhitara to Bodhidharma. Following his father’s death, Bodhidharma served Prajnatara for many years spreading Buddhism. Upon Prajnatara’s death, Bodhidharma left his monastery in India to follow his master’s last wish that he go to China and spread the teaching.

The earliest historical reference to Bodhidharma is the Luoyang Jia Lan Ji, (“The History of the Monasteries of Luoyang”) written by Yang Xuanzhi in 547 A.D. Yang claims to have personally visited the Yong Ning Temple and to have met there an old Persian “Barbarian” (foreigner) named Sramana Bodhidharma, who stated that he was 150 years old. The Buddhist scholar Guifeng Zongni (780-841) quoted an old Buddhist Koan (riddle) that asks, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Dao Zuan’s “Xu Gao Seng Zhuan” (Biographies of Eminent Tang Monks), written in 645 A.D, gives the earliest record of Bodhidharma’s life. The second most important biography is Dao Yuan’s “Jing De Zhuan Deng Lu” (The Records of Transmission of the Lamp), compiled in 1004 A.D. Mainstream Buddhist tradition holds that Bodhidharma arrived in China in 520 A.D, although there are historical indications that he may have arrived in 470 or even earlier.

Hualin Temple located in the Liwan District of Guangzhou shares the closest link to Bodhidharma in the Southern part of China. Known as Xilai Si (temple) until year 1655, the place of worship commemorates the arrival of Bodhidharma to Guangzhou from India around 520 AD. When he landed in the ancient city of what is now known as Guangzhou, Bodhidharma was met by the Governor of Guangzhou, Xiao Ang and a military official Shao Yang, who had heard in advance about his arrival. Bodhidharma also found to his pleasure quite a few Indians there who had initially come as traders and had then settled down among the locals. Guangzhou at that time was the largest trading port in the south east of China. After landing in Guangzhou, Bodhidharma stayed at the present day Hualin Temple and started to preach his version of Mahayana Buddhism. Propagating the concept of “no dependence on the written word but the transmission (of knowledge) from mind to mind”, he also revered the Lankavatara Sutra. He stayed at the Hualin Temple preaching there for three years and during this period also offered teachings at the Guangxie Temple, which is located a few miles from the Hualin Temple.

The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall narrates a conversation that took place between Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu of Liang dynasty who was a fervent patron of Buddhism. Excerpts of the conversation are placed below:

Emperor Wu: “How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?

Bodhidharma: “None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit.”

Emperor Wu: “So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?”

Bodhidharma: “There is no noble truth, there is only emptiness.”

Emperor Wu: “Then, who is standing before me?”

Bodhidharma: “I know not, Your Majesty.”

By asking whether his actions were good, Emperor Wu was searching for compliments and affirmation from Bodhidharma. With Bodhidharma’s response enraging Emperor Wu the former was asked to leave his palace and never to return. Bodhidharma simply smiled, turned and left. After Bodhidharma headed north, the place where he stayed was converted into a temple by followers in 527 AD. Originally called Xilai Si (Temple of the visitor from the west), the temple was expanded and renamed Hualin Temple in the year 1654. The Bodhidharma Hall in Hualin Temple, which was reconstructed in the 1990s, stands as tribute to the great monk. Inside the Hall stands a huge metal statue of Bodhidharma - about 75 feet high, which is claimed to be the largest statue of this icon in the world. The hall looks northward and there is a wooden couplet on the stone pillars in front of the hall which tells about the great contribution made by Bodhidharma in introducing the Buddhism to China. On the white stone base in center of the northern wall there is a statue of Bodhidharma. On the eastern and western wall there hang two curved pictures which describe his legend. Just inside the present entrance to the Hualin Temple, on the right is a smaller temple in which there is a small statue of Bodhidharma-about four feet tall, the history of which is not known. Even today, Hualin temple is regarded as the most revered places of worship by the followers of Buddhism in China and it is frequented by a large number of visitors every day.

Another important Buddhist monk to have come to South China and propagated Buddhism was Dhyana Bhadra who is popularly known in China as Zhi Kong (1289-1363). He studied Buddhism in what is known as Sri Lanka today and used the sea route to reach Guangzhou in China.  According to some documents, Dhyana Bhadra reached Guangzhou in 1309; from there he went to Beijing in 1322 through Xi’an.  He stayed in China for about 40 years, mostly living in temples and propagating Buddhism.  He visited many other provinces of China including southern and south eastern provinces like Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou etc. propagating Buddhism and culture. He also played a major role in propagating Buddhism among minority nationalities in South West China and expanded his religious influence among Chinese scholars.

Maritime Silk Route and Quanzhou

Besides Buddhism, the maritime silk route with important ports in South China like Guangzhou and Quanzhou (in Fujian Province) have played a major role in cultural exchanges between India and South China in the ancient times. The Ancient Marine Silk Route, with Quanzhou city in Fujian as its starting point, became a popular mode of communication in ancient China. The Marine Silk Route became one of the important options for the trading community of those times. The helpful wind conditions during summer and winter seasons in Quanzhou were one of the reasons that it became a starting point of China’s ancient Marine Silk Route. In the 3rd century BC, Guangzhou was the main port of marine Silk Route.  However, Quanzhou replaced Guangzhou as the main port during Song and Yuan dynasty.  The Marine Silk Route towards west extended to India, Persian Sea and various countries of South and South-East Asia whereas its western route passed through Korean peninsula and Japan.

Chinese ships carrying silk and gold used South Marine Route to reach Kanchipuram in India after passing through Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and other countries.  Chinese traders also exchanged the special products of these countries with their silk and gold.  On return journey, these Chinese traders use to take a different route going through Sri Lanka and Singapore and trading their products. 

It is said that during those times, many traders from South India used to come to China, especially in Quanzhou and Guangzhou. With trading, the traders also brought with them Indian traditional art and culture. Many even settled in Quanzhou for long period of time from 10th to 14th century AD during the Song and Yuan dynasties. During their stay, they not only built temples and popularize Indian culture; they also influenced the local art and architecture. Historians say that the earliest record of an Indian residing in Quanzhou dates back to the 6th century AD. An inscription found on the Yanfu temple from the Song Dynasty describes how the monk Gunaratna, known in China as Liang Putong, translated sutras from Sanskrit.

Even today, Chedian shrine in Quanzhou stands as a testimony of ancient cultural links. The shrine which houses, Guanyin, the female Bodhisattva is believed have either brought from India by Tamil traders who worked here some 800 years ago, or crafted by local sculptors at their behest. It is quite unlike any deity one might find elsewhere in China. It is said the village temple collapsed some 500 years ago, but villagers dug through the rubble, saved the deity and rebuilt the temple. 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 there.

The history of Quanzhou’s temples and Tamil links was largely forgotten until the 1930s, when dozens of stones showing images of the god Narasimha — the man-lion avatar of Hindu god 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. The sites of discoveries stretch across more than a dozen locations all over the city and in the surrounding county. The most recent discoveries were made in the 1980s, and it is possible that there are old sites yet to be discovered. The Maritime Museum has now opened a special exhibit showcasing Quanzhou’s south Indian links.

Another important influence of India on temple architecture of Quanzhou is Kaiyuan Temple which is a largest Buddhist temple in Fujian province. It was originally built in 685 or 686 during the Tang Dynasty but supposed to have been rebuilt by the Tamil Hindu community in the city in the late 13th century who dedicated it to Lord Shiva. Behind its main hall "Mahavira Hall”, there are some columns decorated by some Hindu carvings. A few kilometres from the Kaiyuan temple stands a striking several metre-high Shiva lingam in the centre of the popular Bamboo Stone Park.

There are also references of some other Buddhist monasteries in Quanzhou. The 12th century work, the Zhufanzhi, describes the reception accorded to the 10th century priest called Lo-Hu-na who supposed to have built a Buddhist shrine called Baolinyuan in Quanzhou. However, in the present day, more details about the shrine is not available.

South Silk Route

Besides the Maritime silk route, there was also one important route linking India and China. The South Silk Route, also known as Tea Horse Route (Chamadao in Chinese), came into operation about 2000 years ago and is considered to have played an important role in development of economic and cultural relations between India and South and South west China since ancient times. The route connected Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan to India. This trade route eventually came to be renowned for the two main commodities for which the route was named: tea and horses, though there were other important commodities such as sugar and salt – but curiously, not silk – that were traded along these routes. This route opened a new road for China to reach South Asia, West Asia and even Europe.

Chengdu in Sichuan, was the starting point of this South Silk Route and it used to pass through Ya’an, Lushan, Xichan, to reach Yunnan from where it further extended to Shaotong, Quqin, Dali, Baoshan, Zhuanchang and entered Myanmar through Dehong reaching  India. With starting point as Chengdu, the South Silk Route was further divided into three directions viz. eastern, central and western routes.  The Western route passed through Shuangliu, Xinjin, Ya’an, Hanyuan, Yuexi, Xide, Xichan, Dezhou in Sichuan and then Dayao, Dali and other places in Yunnan.  The Central route passed through Nanchang, Leshan, Yibing in Sichuan and entered Yunnan through Daguan, Shaotong, Quying, Kunming, Chixion and Dali.  The Eastern route travelled to north-west Guizhou, Guangxi, Guangdong and Nanhai. 

The South Silk Route also became a major communication hub for south-west and south China through which communication to Asian subcontinent, Central Asia and western Asia was carried out. This route has been playing an important role in promoting Sino-Indian economic and trade relations for more than two thousand years. The South Silk Route has not only been a commercial route but it has also played a significant role in promoting cultural exchanges between India and China. 

Even though there was absence of trade in silk, the comparison to the famous Silk Road appears reasonable as the overland trade routes of Southwest China were a major factor in the economic as well as the cultural development of the region, in much the same way that the Silk Road was an engine for economic and cultural change in the lands it traversed. It is said that if this route was not frequented and thus was not popular between India and China, Buddhism would not have spread in China as early as it did. The route continues to be a sacred road for many people primarily due to its relation with propagation of Buddhism. The different religions along the road can be found even today and most of them are variants of Buddhism brought from India. It includes the white, yellow and red sects of Tibetan Buddhism; the Bon religion of pre-Buddhism in Tibet; the Dongba religion of the Naxi people which combines Bon, Buddhism and its own animism; Han Buddhism and Taoism, as well as the Hinayana belief of the Dai people, and the Benzhu (local gods and goddess) worship of the Bai people. Hence, this route has helped in a large extent for the promotion of Buddhism not only in this area but also to China and from there to the rest of east and south east Asia. Pilgrims still travel annually to Lhasa to pay their respect to the deities of Buddhism, often prostrating their bodies along its length. The road these pilgrims follow is the Tea Horse Road. In the past, young monks often shared the road with the caravans when traveling to Lhasa to carry on their studies and to advance their careers.

This South Silk Route is also famous for passing though Mingshan County in Sichuan Provincea in China  which is considered to be the first place to have grown tea by humans. Shen Nong Bencao, a classic piece of Chinese medical literature dating back to the Qin (221-206 BC) and Western Han (206 BC-AD 24) dynasties, notes that "tea with a bitter taste ...grows by the roadside in mountain valleys in Yizhou (today's Sichuan) and would not wither in winter”. It is said that Wu Lizhen, a native of Mingshan County, grew seven tea trees on top of Mingshan Mountain around 53 BC and that lead to tea planting in human history.

For past more than 2000 years, the South Silk Route has played the same role as north-west Silk route and Sea Silk Route have played in political, economic and cultural exchanges between China, India and even Europe.  The route is not merely a corridor joining the people of India and China but it is also a strong motive force to propagate Buddhism and cultural exchanges between the two countries.

Talking about South Silk route, Peter Goullart, a famous traveler, explorer and author said “Few people have realized how vast and unprecedented this sudden expansion of caravan traffic between India and China was, or how important. It was a unique and spectacular phenomenon. No complete story has yet been written about it, but it will always live in my memory as one of the great adventures of mankind”.


P.N.G.Subramanian, India-China Cultural Relations: Historical Perspective (August 11, 2007)

Wendell E. Wilson, Biography, Bodhidharma, from Essays on the Martial Arts 

Yang Fuquan, The Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road: the Silk Road of South China

Anantha Krishnan, Behind China’s Hindu temples, a forgotten history; The Hindu (Jul 19, 2013)

Tang Yijie, Cultural Interaction and Two-way Choice: Indian Buddhism and Western Philosophy into China (in Chinese)

Ma Yong, Southeast Asia and Maritime Silk Road (in Chinese)

Qi Chen, Guangzhou: the Birthplace of Maritime Silk Road (in Chinese)

Zhang Huameng, Monk Xuanzang: the Outstanding Ambassador of Sino-Indian Cultural Exchange, (in Chinese)

He Shengda, The Historical and Cultural Research on Buddhism: Indian Monk Zhikong in China --- Traces, Ideas and Influences, (in Chinese)

Lan Jianxue, China-India Cultural Exchanges: Significance, Characteristics and Problems (in Chinese)

Wang Jianshe, The Significant Role Quanzhou Plays in China’s Cultural Exchanges with the Outside World, (in Chinese)

Chen Shihuai, The Religion and Culture of Fujian, (in Chinese)

Lin Zixiong, The Silk Road on the Sea and the Eastern and Western Cultural Exchange, (in Chinese)

Song Zhihui and Ma Chunyan, South Silk Road (in Chinese) 

Madhavi Thampi, Indians in China (1800-1949)