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Korea’s intriguing Tamil connect

Apparently there exist more than 500 words in Tamil and Korean, words that not only sound similar but hold similar meanings, too.

Published: 25th July 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th December 2021 04:08 PM   |  A+A-

A commemorative stamp the Postal Department of India issued in 2019 featuring Queen Suriratna

A commemorative stamp the Postal Department of India issued in 2019 featuring Queen Suriratna

It doesn’t take long for the hardcore K-drama fan/certified Koreaboo (that would be people obsessed with Korean culture) from India to sit up and take notice of several familiar sounding words that fall from the lips of a Kim, Park, Choi or Song on-screen. 

Out in South Korea (and the North too, for all we know) fathers are referred to as ‘appa’. Mothers are ‘omma’. Elder sisters are ‘eonni’, ‘anni’ in Tamil. ‘Pul’ is grass in both Tamil and Korean; ‘kundi’ is butt in Tamil, ‘gungdi’ is just that in Korean. ‘Nal’ is day in Tamil and Korean; ‘nan’ is me in both languages; come in is ‘ulle vaa’ in Tamil, ‘iliwa’ in Korean. 

Apparently there exist more than 500 words in Tamil and Korean, words that not only sound similar but hold similar meanings, too. Comparative linguist Kang Gil-un has identified 1,300 Dravidian Tamil cognates in Korean and suggests that Korean is probably related to the Nivkh language spoken by the Nivkh people in Outer Manchuria, and influenced by Tamil. 

Those who cotton onto the Tamil connect are at first puzzled, then delighted, then avidly curious. And the last category invariably starts to delve into the whys and wherefores of this cultural and linguistic similarity between a state in the south of India and a country some 5,000 km away. 

Which is when they come on an intriguing tale first recorded in the Samguk Yusa, an ancient Korean chronicle, about how an Indian princess came over to Korea from a distant land called Ayuta some 2,000 years ago, to marry King Kim Suro and become Queen Suriratna or Heo Hwang-ok, the first queen of the Geumgwan Gaya kingdom. The royal couple had 12 children and more than six million Koreans today are believed to be their descendants.  

Ayuta might sound similar to Ayodhya but the theory put forward is that it actually is Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, which was known as Ayuta in olden times. However, a memorial to Heo Hwang-ok was inaugurated by a Korean delegation in Ayodhya in 2001, and many South Koreans travel to that temple city to pay homage to Queen Heo Hwang-ok. Which pretty much puts the Kanyakumari connection on the back burner.  

Intriguingly enough, this princess legend is not too well-known in India. What’s more, Korean historians do not credit it with holding any authenticity, for all that it is a charming fable. The bottom line, though, is that be it trade, the Buddhism track or Queen Heo Hwang-ok, the Korean-Tamil connect brings much happiness to the many thousand Tamil ‘eonnis’ and ‘ommas’ who have been happily devouring K-content for over two decades now.  

Sheila Kumar, Author

kumar.sheila@gmail.com

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