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The Korean 'sister' of Ayodhya

The Korean 'sister' of Ayodhya

Author: Amit Bhattacharya
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 12, 2002

Away from the media-hogging Ram temple controversy, the holy town of Ayodhya has quietly been nurturing a legend of a different kind. Like the legend of Ram, this too can be traced to ancient times. But unlike the temple discord, it sends out a message of unity and brotherhood.

On the banks of the Saryu river in the historic temple town, a curious memorial is currently being erected. It commemorates the birthplace of Huh Hwang-ok, daughter of an Ayodhya king, who is said to have later become Queen of the ancient Kaya kingdom of Korea. The legend of an Indian princess who sailed to Korea and married the King, is the stuff fairy tales are made of. The upshot of the tale is that the Korean city of Kimhae (as the Kaya city-state later came to be known as) has declared Ayodhya as its sister city.

Says Mr Bimlendra Mohan Mishra, scion of Ayodhya's ruling family, "the Korean connection came as a major surprise to us. I expect the memorial to Queen Huh, now being built here in Ayodhya, to become a major pilgrim centre for Koreans." It all started in 1997, when a South Korean delegation headed by Prof B M Kim, a descendent of King Suro, visited the Ayodhya and informed Mr Mishra about the connection. The Ayodhya 'Raja' has since been invited to Korea and ties between the two cities have strengthened, with a Rs 200-crore Korean grant on the anvil for Ayodhya.

The legend of the Indian princess is narrated in Samguk Yusa, a Korean text written by a monk, Iryon (1206 AD-1289 AD). It is set in the Kaya kingdom in the first century CE. It says that the area, in the south central Korean peninsula, was first ruled by nine elders, but there was no king. One day, a voice spoke from heaven at a place called Kuji (means 'delicious turtle' in Korean). A few hundred people gathered there, along with three elders. The voice instructed them to go to the top of the mountain, dig up some earth, dance and sing a song, now known as Kujiga. They did as instructed and a plum-coloured cord descended from heaven.

At the end of the cord was a gold chest and when they opened it, they discovered six golden orbs. The elders brought the chest home and the next day they opened it to discover that the orbs had transformed into a baby boy.

The boy grew quickly (a sure sign of a hero) and reached a height of nine feet. When the moon waxed to its fullest that month, the boy - who was now called Kim Suro (Kim means gold) - came to the throne of the land that was named Kaya. After two years he built his own palace and ruled from there. When the nine elders encouraged the king to take a bride he refused, saying that heaven had sent him to be king and heaven would take care of his marriage as well.

Cut to India, where Huh Hwang-ok was a princess in 'Ayuta' (Ayodhya?). In Iryon's text, the princess says that she was 16 years old when she reached Kaya, that her family name was Huh and her name, Hwang-ok (yellow jade in Korean).

The princess narrates the circumstances leading to her marriage to King Suro thus: "In May this year, my father and mother said, 'We had a dream last night, in which we saw a God who said, I have sent down Suro to be king of Kaya. Suro is a holy man, and is not yet married. So send your daughter to become his queen'. Then he ascended to heaven. My daughter, bid farewell to your parents and go'."

Other accounts of the text, however, say that it was Hwang-ok who got the dream.

Anyway, Huh is said to have arrived in Kaya, along with her brother Po-ok, on a ship with a red sail and red flag, bearing treasure and gifts. When she was presented to the king, she told him of the dream and the king knew immediately that this was heaven's chosen bride for him.

They were married in 49 CE and the queen was greatly loved by all her subjects. She is said to have lived to the grand old age of 156! The couple had 10 sons and two daughters. Two of the sons were named Huh after their mother's family name and the rest were called Kims, after King Kim Suro.

The Kaya kingdom's influence is still felt in modern-day South Korea. Kimhae Kims and Kimhae Huhs trace their origins to this ancient kingdom and Korea's current President Kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Jong Pil Kim are Kimhae Kims. Therein lies the Indian Queen's importance in Korea eyes - she is revered as the progenitor of two powerful clans which have survived to this day.

Queen Huh's tomb still stands in the Gyeongsang (South) province of Korea. The tomb has a 5-metre high earthen mound. It was repaired in 1641, the 19th year of the reign of King Injo (1623-1649) of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).

Also bearing testimony to the Queen's Indian roots is the Pisa Stone Pagoda in the same province. The stones, with exotic engravings and red patterns are believed to have originated from India, brought by Princess Huh in her ship. The pagoda is also called Chimpungtap (Wind Calming Pagoda) because it is reputed to have a mysterious power to calm the stormy sea. Another myth surrounding Huh's voyage is that, along with the many treasures she carried in the ship, was a single plant of tea. Which is how tea came into Korea.

Queen Huh's importance in Korean holy pantheon can be gauged from the fact that the theme of the opening ceremony of the Busan Asian Games (to be held on September 29, this year) is "Beautiful Union," which celebrates the union between King Kim Suro and Huh Hwang-ok through a reenactment. This "Historical Union" is meant to symbolise the unity and hopes of the 3.6 billion Asian people.

There is, of course, another celebrated Indian export to Korea: Buddhism.

Indian monks travelling to Korea to spread the Buddha's gospel and Korean monks making the assiduous pilgrimage to Buddha's birthplace were active agents in cultural collaboration. Foremost among these was Hyecho whose "Record of a Journey to the Five Indian Kingdoms" is an invaluable historical document. The Korean vocabulary absorbed many Sanskrit words and concepts like Narak, Bhikuni, Stupa, Brahma, Indra and Nidana.

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