Koreans eager to visit Ram Mandir, drawn by legend of Ayodhya princess who crossed the seas

Among the thousands of devotees thronging the newly inaugurated Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, there could be quite a few pilgrims from South Korea. This unusual connection has its roots in millennia-old history.

Queen Heo Hwang-ok stamp issued by India in 2019. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia

According to Korean legend, a teenage princess from Ayodhya crossed the ocean in a boat some 2,000 years ago, sailed 4,500 kilometres to Korea and married King Kim Suro, who founded the Gaya Kingdom in the north Asian country. The princess, Suriratna, then became Queen Heo Hwang-ok.

Princess Suriratna stamp issued by India in 2019. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia

The fable is hardly known in India, nor is the fact that some 6 million people in South Korea, who consider themselves descendants of Suriratna, think of Ayodhya as their maternal home.

It was, therefore, natural that many of them eagerly watched the Ayodhya Ram Mandir consecration online from their homes on January 22, 2024.

And now, they cannot wait to visit Ayodhya to see the grand new temple complex — and the new idol of Ram Lalla (the deity as a child) — up close.

Many members of the Karak clan (from the Korean kingdom of Gaya, aka Kaya) visit Ayodhya every year to pay tribute at the memorial to Queen Heo Hwang-ok at the Queen Heo Memorial Park, set up on the banks of the Sarayu river in Ayodhya in 2001.

The park was established through a partnership between the Uttar Pradesh government and Gimhae city in South Korea.

“Ayodhya is very special to us, as we see it as our grandmother’s home,” said Kim Chil-su, secretary general of the Central Karak Clan Society. He was among those who attended the January 22 Pran Pratishtha ceremony of the new idol of Ram Lalla at the temple, a few kilometres from the Queen Heo Memorial Park.

Spread over an area of 2,000 square metre, the park features a meditation hall, pavilions dedicated to the queen and king, pathways, a fountain, murals, and audio-video facilities. The pavilions are built in a typical Korean style, with tiled sloping roof.

Queen Heo Hwang-ok is revered as the progenitor mother of the Gimhae Heo families of the Karak clan, according to an ancient Korean history text, titled Samguk Yusa. It states that the queen came to Korea in AD 48 from “Ayuta”.

We visit Ayodhya every year to pay tribute at the memorial and, this time, we plan to go to the new Ram temple, too. We watched the ceremony online and what a feeling it was. I haven’t been to the old makeshift shrine, but have read about the [land] dispute.

Yu-Jin Lee, who plans to travel with 22 others to Ayodhya in February, speaking to Press Trust of India over the phone from South Korea

South Korean embassy’s message to India on Ram Mandir opening

In a post on X, the South Korean embassy had congratulated India for the consecration ceremony on January 22.

“The place holds a great symbolic importance for Korea-India relations based on the matrimonial link between Queen Sriratna (Heo Hwang-ok) from Ayodhya and King Kim Suro from Gaya (Korea) in 48 AD,” it said.

Expansion of Korean memorial in Ayodhya

In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former South Korean President Moon Jae-in signed an MoU for expansion of the memorial to Queen Heo Hwang-ok.

Then South Korean First Lady Kim Jung-sook attended the inauguration of the beautification work in 2018.

In 2019, commemorative INR 25 and INR 5 postage stamps for the queen were also issued by India.

Indian diplomat N Parthasarathi, who served as ambassador to South Korea, wrote a novel based on Suriratna’s life. Titled The Legend of Ayodhya Princess in Korea, the book was translated in the Korean language as Bi Dan Hwang Hoo, or Silk Princess, and published in Seoul.

Later, the National Book Trust of India published a children’s book based on the novel.