Today, for most Indians, the connection to Korea is defined by its most iconic companies – Samsung, Hyundai, LG Electronics among others. But India’s historic ties to Korea go back more than a two thousand years, to a time when Korea was a collection of tribal city-states. Incredibly, 6 million Koreans, or almost 10% of the Korean population, trace their ancestry to an Indian Princess from Ayodhya, who is said to have travelled to Korea in search of her groom.
– One day a ship arrived carrying the beautiful Princess Suriratna of ‘Ayuta’
The story of Princess Suriratna, also called Queen Heo is connected with the early beginnings of the Korean state. According to a Korean legend, six eggs descended from heaven, wrapped in a red cloth. From these eggs emerged six kings, who founded the six early kingdoms of Korea. One such king was King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya in southeastern Korea, one of the early tribal city-states that emerged in Korea between 42 CE and 562 CE. A wise and powerful king, King Suro is said to have transformed Gaya into a powerful state. But the councillors advised the king to get married, he is supposed to have said ‘ I was sent down from heaven to rule this land, and so my spouse will descend from heaven at a divine command’.
The legend goes that then one day, a ship arrived carrying the beautiful Princess Suriratna of ‘Ayuta’. Apparently, ‘the heavenly lord’ had come in her parents' dreams and she asked them to send the princess to Korea to find her husband. King Suro married her in the year 48 CE, giving her the name Queen Heo. They had 10 children, the ancestors of the millions of their present-day descendants. The tombs of King Suro and Queen Heo are located in the city of Gimhae, in South Korea and are a major tourist attraction.
However, historically it is very difficult to verify where history ends and legend begins. The earliest reference to this legend is in ‘Samguk Yusa’ or ‘The memorabilia of the three kingdoms’, a collection of legends, folktales and historical accounts related to the early kingdoms of Korea, compiled around 1280 CE. There is no consensus among historians on the location of ‘Ayuta’. While in the popular imagination, it is associated with Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, there is no Indian account of the legend. Also, Ayodhya in ancient times was known as ‘Saketa’. Another theory suggests, that it could have been the Ayutthaya kingdom in Thailand. But this Thai city was not founded until 1350 CE, much after the Samguk Yusa was composed. As a result, the mystery of Queen Heo actual hometown is yet to be revealed. But while there is no historic proof, millions of Koreans believe that it is indeed Ayodhya.
Interestingly, parallel stories of ‘semi divine’ princes travelling from India and establishing dynasties is a recurrent theme across South East Asia. The Tibetans believed that their early kings where descendants of Prince Rupati, a Kaurava general who fled to Tibet after the Kurukshetra war. In Cambodia, there is the legend of Kamboja, who married a local princess and founded the Khemer kingdom. While in Singapore, you have the legend of King Shulan of Kalinga, who married a local Malay princess. It is their son Sang Nila Utama establish Singapore.
The earliest known Indian visitors to Korea were Buddhist monks and missionaries. The official date of introduction of Buddhism to Korea is 372 CE, when a Buddhist priest brought Buddha’s images and scriptures. From then, Korea received a steady stream of Indian Buddhist monks and missionaries. There is a very well know legend of King ‘Ayuk’ of India, who is said to have sent iron and gold to build Buddha images in Korea. Some claim that King ‘Ayuk’ is none other than Mauryan emperor Ashoka.
A number of Koreans too travelled to India to study Buddhist scriptures. The earliest among them was a monk named Kyomik, who travelled to India in 526 CE to study Sanskrit and Buddhism at the Vihara at Sankisa (near Agra), and returned to Korea to establish the Vinaya School of Buddhism in Korea. A Korean text Da-Tang-Xi-Yuji, written in 646 CE, gives an account of 56 Korean monks who travelled to India to study at Nalanda University.
The most well known Korean to travel to India was the monk Hyecho (704-787 CE). He is said to have entered India through the Andaman and Nicobar islands and then travelled across Nalanda, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar, and also Kashmir valley and Taxila, before returning to Korea via Central Asia. He left an account of his travels known as ‘Wang ocheonchukguk jeon’ which means, ‘Memoir of the pilgrimage to the five kingdoms of India’. In this, he wrote extensively about the land, the people as well as the decline of Buddhism in India. The last known reference of Indian monks in Korea is in the 13th century, after which the historic India-Korea ties were lost.
It was only after India’s independence in 1947, thanks to the efforts of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that Indo-Korean ties were revived. In 2001, a memorial to Queen Heo was inaugurated in Ayodhya.
Today, it is the technology professionals rather than monks and missionaries, who are taking the Indo-Korean relations forward.