About Us Historical contacts between India and South China

Historical Contacts between India and South China

Written records of contacts between India and China date back to the 2nd century B.C. Such contacts at the level of people got a fillip with the advent of Buddhism into China from India in the first century A.D.

A Chinese monk, Fa Xian (Fa-Hsien, AD 399-414), visited India in AD 402, stayed for 10 years, and on 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’s (born of a Chinese mother and an Indian father) translations of Sanskrit sutras into Chinese are valued even today. Xuan Zang (Hiuen Tsang) visited India during King Harsha Vardhana's reign in the 7th Century AD, in search of Buddhist scriptures. His journey became part of traditional Chinese lore 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 visited 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.  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 travels to China to spread Buddhist 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The earliest historical reference to Bodhidharma is the Luoyang Jia Lan Ji, (“The History of the Monasteries of Luoyang”) written by Yang Xuanzhi in 547 A.D. Yang claims to have personally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 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 southern China. It 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 quite a few Indians settled in Guangzhou. They had initially come as traders and had subsequently settled down among the locals. Guangzhou at that time was the largest trading port in south east 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 where he preached 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 and left.

After Bodhidharma headed north, the place where he stayed in Guangzhou 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 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 one of the most revered places of worship by the followers of Buddhism in China and it is frequented by many visitors every day.

Another important Buddhist monk to have visited South China and propagated Buddhism was Dhyana Bhadra who is popularly known in China as Zhi Kong (1289-1363). 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.

Maritime Trade

Maritime trade with important ports like Guangzhou and Quanzhou (in Fujian Province) has played a major role in developing cultural exchanges between India and South China. In the 3rd century BC, Guangzhou served as an important port.  Quanzhou subsequently replaced Guangzhou as an important port during the Song and Yuan periods.

Many traders from South India used to come to China, especially to Quanzhou and Guangzhou. The traders also brought with them Indian traditions, art and culture. Many even settled down in Quanzhou for long periods of time from the 10th to the 14th century AD during the Song and Yuan dynasties. During their stay, they not only built temples and popularized Indian culture; they also influenced the local art and architecture.

Historians are of the view that the earliest record of an Indian residing in Quanzhou dates to the 6th century AD. An inscription found at the Yanfu temple from the Song Dynasty describes how the monk Gunaratna, known in China as Liang Putong, translated sutras from Sanskrit.

Even today, the Chedian shrine in Quanzhou stands as a testimony of ancient cultural links. The shrine which houses, Guanyin, the female Bodhisattva is believed have been 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 that 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.

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. Several sculptures and statues which were discovered are on display in the Quanzhou Maritime Museum which has now a special section showcasing Quanzhou’s links with South India.

Another important influence of India on temple architecture of Quanzhou is the Kaiyuan Temple which is the largest Buddhist temple in Fujian province. It was originally built in AD 685/686 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 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 is supposed to have built a Buddhist shrine called Baolinyuan in Quanzhou.

Tea Horse Route

The 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 China. 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 commodities including sugar and salt – but curiously, not silk – that were traded along the route.

Chengdu in Sichuan, was the starting point of this Tea Horse 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 Chengdu as the starting point, the Tea Horse Route was further divided into three directions viz. eastern, central and western routes. The route continues to be sacred for many people primarily due to its connection with spread of Buddhism.


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)