In 1927, one of the greatest architects of modern India, Rabindranath Tagore undertook an intellectual pilgrimage to south-east Asia. The prolific writer expressed his intent, ‘We have embarked on this pilgrimage to see the signs of the history of India’s entry into the universal.’
Almost a century ago from today, Tagore had realised the necessity to rekindle India’s historical cultural exchanges with the Swarnabhumi or the Golden land of lore. Analogously, when Government of India announced its Act East Policy in 2014, the underscoring principle was decided ‘Connectivity, Culture, and Commerce,’ placing cross-cultural interactions at the forefront of India’s foreign policy agenda. Invoking the same commitment, Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, in the Shangri La Dialogue 2018, spoke of the forbearing cultural ties between our nations and our long history of shared civilisational ethos—of pluralism, co-existence, openness and dialogue.
As we traverse through history, we realise PM Modi was not off the mark. Our part of the world was largely contiguous and borderless in the pre-colonial era. Courtesy our unfragmented geography and common values of peaceful assimilation of diversity, we became inheritors of a shared legacy in linguistics, literature, performing arts and fine arts, textiles, architecture, and even our religious customs, imprints of which are discernible till date.
A felicitous example of our symbiotic exchanges is the proliferation and adoption of the great Indian epic—Ramayana—across the geography of south-east Asia. Contextualised and localised by artists, Ramayana came to be known as Yama Zatdaw in Myanmar, RamKer in Cambodia, Ramakien in Thailand, and Hikayat Seri Rama in Malaysia, all of which became major influences on the culture, art, and the collective psyche of the respective people.
Interestingly, well into the 21st century, these influences continue to manifest in traditional practices across the region. For instance, the Thai king is still referred to as Rama, where he is considered a reincarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. Wayang or traditional puppet theatres of south-east Asia are still famous for depicting scenes from Indian epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana.
These exchanges, however, have always been coactive or two-way. As Indian emperors sent out Buddhist monks and state emissaries to Southeast Asia to propagate Buddhism, monks from the region travelled to India to gain admission to Indian monasteries in the ancient Indian cities of Nalanda, Bodhgaya and Sarnath (Varanasi). The flow of monks to Indian monasteries remains unbridled even today. Other aspects of Indian culture have been affected too. For instance, the matrilineal society of Khasis in Meghalaya, India, echoes the traditional matriarchal society of Sumatra (Minangkabau), Indonesia where women are head of the family and inheritance is through the daughters’ lineage.
We must acknowledge that an extensive trade network within the Southeast Asian region had been the catalyst for these cultural exchanges. Tamralipti, an ancient Indian city in the Bay of Bengal, was a busy centre of maritime trade as far back as the 1st century. Coins from the Gupta dynasty of the 4th-6th century have been discovered as far as the Malay Peninsula. The expanse of the Chola Kingdom under Rajendra Chola I of the 11th century, known for boosting maritime trade in the region, had spread till the modern day state of Kedah in Malaysia. Even the spread of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia can be traced to traders originating from the Indian state of Gujarat, or merchants from Arab nations who found their way to South East Asia through India.
In addition to augmenting the spread of religion, thriving trade led to an emergence of novel architectural styles which had both Indian influences and unique regional characteristics. In central Thailand, evidence of Indian influence is found through Dvaravati form of representing the Buddha which is derived from the Indian Amaravati and Gupta styles. In Cham, in southern Vietnam, there is evidence of extensive influence of Indian architecture through many ancient Shiva temples. The Prambanan, a UNESCO world heritage site in Yogyakarta, Indonesia was built in the Hindu architectural style in the 9th century as a tribute to God Shiva. Built in the same century is the Borobudur Mahayana Buddhist Temple in Central Java, the world’s largest Buddhist temple and Indonesia's single most visited tourist attraction which demonstrates a heavy influence of Gupta art. The 12th century Angkor Wat in Cambodia, built in the local Khmer style architecture, originally known as Vrah Visnuloka remains the largest Hindu temple in the world.
Additionally, the domino effect of the spread of Indic religions was the tremendous influence on South Asian languages. Sanskrit and Pali (originated in India) became official languages in the court of Thai kings as early as in 7th century and remained so till the 13th century. The ancient kingdom of Srivijaya, on the islands of Sumatra, which became the nucleus for trade and spread of Buddhism in Malay Peninsula and Indonesia, borrowed its name from Sanskrit. Mon-Khmer the large language family of mainland south-east Asia bear a heavy influence of both Sanskrit and Pali and inscriptions on stones in both these languages continue to be discovered till date, as far as in Indonesia and Vietnam. In addition to Sanskrit and Pali clusters of Tamil inscriptions have also been found on the eastern fringes of the Indian Ocean from Burma to Sumatra.
The city of Bagan in Central Myanmar, a centre for religious and secular studies, specialising in Pali scholarship as well as prosody, phonology, grammar, astrology, alchemy, medicine, and legal studies is known to have attracted monks and students from as far as India, Sri Lanka and the Khmer Empire in Cambodia. Such intermingling of ideas could have been possible only because of the cosmopolitan nature of our society in ancient times.
Today, in a world of sealed borders and trade wars, a world of religious terrorism and ethnic conflicts, history bestows on us a magnificent torch of plurality and inclusiveness to uphold. Deriving inspiration from Tagore again, we hope ‘this torch that India and ASEAN will carry together on their path to progress will converge to illuminate the common ray of knowledge for the entire world.’
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Lieberman, Victor B. (2003). Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, volume 1, Integration on the Mainland. Cambridge University Press.
Prabhune, Tushar. “Gujarat Helped Establish Islam in SE Asia - Times of India.” The Times of India, Business, 27 Dec. 2011, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/ampnbspGujarat-helped-establish-Islam-in-SE-Asia/articleshow/11262585.cms.
Sanyal, Sanjeev. The Ocean of Churn. Eka, 2018.
Saran, Shyam. Cultural and Civilisational Links between India and Southeast Asia: Historical and Contemporary Dimensions. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
i Saran, Shyam. Cultural and Civilisational Links between India and Southeast Asia: Historical and Contemporary Dimensions. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
ii Sanyal, Sanjeev. The Ocean of Churn. Eka, 2018.
iii Prabhune, Tushar. “Gujarat Helped Establish Islam in SE Asia - Times of India.” The Times of India, Business, 27 Dec. 2011, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/ampnbspGujarat-helped-establish-Islam-in-SE-Asia/articleshow/11262585.cms.
iv Saran, Shyam. Cultural and Civilisational Links between India and Southeast Asia: Historical and Contemporary Dimensions. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
v Lieberman, Victor B. (2003). Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, volume 1, Integration on the Mainland. Cambridge University Press.