A couple of months ago I stumbled across a video highlighting the similarities between the languages of Korean and Tamil. Tamil falls into the Dravidian family, the same language family as my mother tongue Malayalam.
Now, having learned Korean for the last few years, I had already noticed many words and phrases common between my mother tongue and this new language I was picking up. Culturally, the two are similar in the use of hierarchical terms to show respect, such as calling someone older brother or sister. In fact, I’m often surprised when I show my mother a Korean recipe, and, after looking at it for a while, she exclaims, ‘We have this in Kerala’.
Turns out that Korea and India, in particular Tamil Nadu, where Tamil originates from, actually have somewhat of a hidden history of which fragments have emerged.
Kyung Soo Kim, a Korean envoy stationed in the city of Chennai in Tamil Nad, uturned his head, expecting to see his son running towards him. Instead, it was a Tamil child.
Dr Rathi Jafer, Director at the InKo Centre, points out that the link between Tamil Nadu and South Korea traces back a long way. Researchers have found around 500 words (possibly more) common to both Korean and Tamil, with the same meaning and connotation.
By default, some of these words are the same in Malayalam too. This includes ‘Eomma and Appa’, or Mum and Dad, as well as an assorted collection of words including ‘day’ — nal, later (Apparam, Appureo), and grass ‘pul’.
The sentence structures are also the same in Korean and Tamil. In English, the structure is SVO — for example (I am cutting the grass). In Tamil, Korean and other Indian languages it would be SOV (I am grass cutting).
Whilst these are just some of the linguistic similarities, culturally, the two places are strangely similar too. Kim shares how, in Korea, when a baby is born, green chillies are hung outside the house to keep out evil spirits, a practice also followed in Tamil Nadu. In terms of cuisine, South Indian rice cakes and rice puffs are foods that both cultures put on the table.
So where does this come from?
There are a few probable reasons as to why there is a cultural overlap.
In 1905 American missionary and journalist, Homer Hulbert was one of the first to suggest a genetic relationship between Korean and Dravidian. It is thought that in the first millennium BC, there was likely migration to the Korean peninsula from India.
Kwang Su Lee shows support for this theory in his article entitled Trade and Religious Contacts between India and Korea, published in 1993. He states that the Indo-Korean relationship began at the beginning of the Christian Era when Indian merchants came to Korea and brought Buddhism to its door. Dr. Jafer of the InKo Centre also narrates how Bodhidharma, the monk believed to be from South India, may have been the one to spread Buddhism to China and Korea.
But the most fascinating argument by far, is the story of an Indian princess who became a Korean Queen. Despite there being little to no mention of it in Indian literature, this story has passed down through generations in Korean history.
It’s narrated in the Samguk Yusa, also known informally as the Old Testament of Korea. It tells the story of a princess who travelled to Korea in order to marry a prince, as she was chosen through a divine revelation. So, in the first century, Suro Kim of the Kaya Kingdom married Princess Heo Hwang Ok, (her Korean name).
The story tells how the royal couple went on to rule the land and have 10 sons, and two daughters of which two children are named Heo after the mother and the rest named Kim. There are many people who believe they have descended from this family, including the former president of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung. The proof of this story is a 5m high tombstone of Heo Hwang Ok in Gyeongsang, in present-day South Korea.
As for the Queen’s origins, the Samguk Yusa reveals that she arrived from a place known as Ayuta, thought to be Ayodhya in UP India. (There is strong evidence for this as in 2000, the city of Gimhae in Gyeongsang, where the prince and princess got married, became sister cities with Ayodhya. There was even a monument erected in 2002 in Ayodhya, to honour the memory of Queen Heo, created with the financial aid of the South Korean govt, and which South Koreans flock to visit. )
Despite this substantial evidence, Narayanan Kannan, a Tamil scholar who has researched extensively about the links between Korean and Tamil, gives reason to believe that Heo Hwang Ok came from the Ayi or Pandya Kingdom, which consisted of empires in south India ruled by those of Dravidian lineage.
Indeed, the many connections between Tamil and Korean to this day stand as proof of what could have been a historical connection. It is even thought that Queen Heo requested her citizens to refer to their parents as Amma Appa.
As of yet there still isn’t a definitive answer regarding Korea’s history with Tamil Nadu. Due to a lack of concrete evidence about Heo Hwang Ok, she may not even have existed!
However, there has clearly been some kind of overlap in the two cultures, whether through religion, trade or marriage. Whatever the case, due to the commonalities which clearly hold today, I do believe that, with more research, stronger truths can be revealed to support the stance that South India and South Korea are a lot closer than we think.