Rabindranath Tagore in Korea

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[The first part of this post is from S. Robert Ramsey.]

Ceremony for the unveiling of a bust of the poet on May 18, 2011 in downtown Seoul:

Seoul builds statues to its heroes, and for the most part, these statues represent figures from Korean history. But there is one glaring exception. In one of the most prominent locations in the city, on the edge of the theater and entertainment district, there stands a recently erected bust of a thickly bearded man who definitely wasn’t Korean: the Indian poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore.

Tagore became a special hero to Koreans in 1929. As the first Asian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Tagore had long been celebrated worldwide, but on this occasion, he was simply visiting Japan, a country he deeply admired. While there, though, Tagore also met with Korean students who introduced him to the uniqueness of their culture and implored him to visit their homeland as well. His interest piqued, Tagore applied for travel documents to do so, but his request was denied. Japanese authorities had instituted a harsh assimilationist policy in their Korean colony, and they did not permit outsiders, especially a visitor with such a high profile as Tagore, to travel there.

Frustrated, the great Bengali poet composed a simple verse, in English, that has ever after been known as “The Lamp of the East”:

In the golden age of Asia,
Korea was one of its lamp-bearers
And that lamp is waiting to be lighted once again
For the illumination in the East.

When Koreans learned of this simple poem, it renewed their pride in who they were. And to this day, they have not forgotten. Every educated South Korean today knows about “The Lamp of the East”; the poem is taught in schools; it is inscribed in both English and Korean translation on the base of Tagore’s bust in Seoul.

The Tagore Society of Korea, founded in 1981, thrives today as an affirmation of the affection Koreans still feel today toward the Bengali poet.


Note the word in the dedication before the poet's name. That's "Gurudev", Tagore's sobriquet.  Interesting that it comes out as "Gurudeb" in Korean.

Actually, there are no F or V sounds in Korean. In fact, there's no difference between P and F or B and V. Therefore, the P and F sounds are both pronounced as ㅍ[pieup] and B and V as ㅂ[bieup].


Here is apparently the earliest Korean version of the poem, the one that appeared in the April 2, 1929, article about it in the Dong-A Ilbo:

일찍이 아시아의 황금시기에

빛나던 등촉의 하나인 조선

그 등불 한번 다시 켜지는 날에

너는 동방의 밝은 빛이 되리라

Romanization and English rendering by Google Translate:

iljjig-i asiaui hwang-geumsigie

bichnadeon deungchog-ui hanain joseon

geu deungbul hanbeon dasi kyeojineun nal-e

neoneun dongbang-ui balg-eun bich-i doelila

Early in the golden age of Asia

Joseon, one of the shining lanterns

On the day the lamp is lit once again

You will be the bright light of the East

The Korean version of the poem on the base of Tagore's statue is this (from Naver):

일찍이 아시아의 황금시기에

빛나던 등불의 하나인 한국

그 등불 다시 켜지는 날에

너는 동방의 밝은 빛 되리라

Romanization and English rendering by Google Translate:

iljjig-i asiaui hwang-geumsigie

bichnadeon deungbul-ui hanain hangug

geu deungbul dasi kyeojineun nal-e

neoneun dongbang-ui balg-eun bich doelila

Once upon a time in Asia's golden age

Korea, one of the shining lamps,

On the day that the lamp is lit again

you will become a bright light in the East

There are some slight differences between the two Korean versions of the poem.  You'll probably notice that, for instance, (South) Koreans use "Hanguk" in this poem for "Korea" rather than the earlier "Joseon" (조선).

The Korean title of the poem is "Dong-yang-ui deungbul 동양의 등불 (東洋의燈불)".

Selected readings


  1. Thomas Rees said,

    December 14, 2021 @ 8:53 am

    Why haven’t they changed his name to “Thakur”? Or was Tagore too cosmopolitan for the Hindutvavadis to bother with?

  2. Rodger C said,

    December 14, 2021 @ 11:20 am

    Perhaps "Gurudeb" is simply Bengali?

  3. Gokul Madhavan said,

    December 14, 2021 @ 11:39 am

    @Thomas Rees:
    Rabindranath's last name has been spelled as ṭhākur (ठाकुर) in Hindi for as long as I know. Our school textbooks spelled it that way, and so does Hindi Wikipedia. Interestingly, though, the caption to his picture has ṭεgor (टैगोर).

    @Rodger C:
    Yes, that was my first thought as well.

  4. crturang said,

    December 15, 2021 @ 5:08 pm

    Yes, Bengali uses b in place of v. Many Bengalis I know who have had not a lot of exposure to other languages have trouble distinguishing between the two sounds.

    Satyajit Ray's name is also probably better spelt Rai or Roy to be closer to the Bengali pronunciation.

    This solves an old mystery of why my Korean fellow graduate students decades back would ask me about Tagore.

  5. Anthony said,

    December 15, 2021 @ 8:13 pm

    At left in the frame, that's not a reference to Proust? Darn!

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