December 14, 2016

Indian Ocean: Cultural Capital for a Creative Economy

I was born in the North of Thailand.I was given a name, Vira, borrowed from a Sanskrit word. The word ‘Vira’ , as most of you know, means ‘the brave one’. The use of Indian-style names is indeed an important cultural practice among the Thai people and is one of the many significant Indian cultural contributions that has deeply diffused into Southeast Asia.

Not only  linguistic contributions,  India has also created and passed on their cultural assets  to Southeast Asian people such as philosophy, beliefs and religions especially Buddhism and Hinduism to people of Southeast Asia. These have become the basis of many Southeast Asian cultural expressions both tangible and intangible including Buddhist arts, Ramayana interpretation, cuisine, costumes, commerce as well as state or royal ceremonies. Thailand is a good example as it has embraced and adopted Indian culture over a millennium which can now be seen through many Thai traditions and rituals such as the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, the Royal Barge Procession, Loy Krathong Festival, Visakha Day. Moreover, the Indian civilisation heritage is traceable in Thai historic sites which have also become the world heritage.

Intercultural relations are naturally determined by the geographical location of the region. The location of Southeast Asia and Thailand,situated in between the world’s two great oceans, namely the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, is indeed key to the rich cultural and commercial interchanges since ancient time.  This location is also where the two seasonal monsoon winds known as the “trade winds” meet. The ancient mariners’ knowledge about these trade winds  enabled Southeast Asia to enjoy a very long and rich cultural and commercial relations with the lands across these two oceans and beyond.

In the past, the term “Indianisation” was used with reference to the Southeast Asian states. Evidently, the influence of civilization that spread from India and from the lands beyond India, into this sub-region,dating to the first or second century, left many tangible and durable marks in our sub-region.

The term ” indianisation” was first used by the French archaeologist and Southeast Asian expert, George Coedes, as seen  in his book published in 1944. This term was defined as’the expansion of an organised culture’ that was formed upon Indian conceptions of kingship, Hinduism and Buddhismas well as the Sanskrit language. A number of well-known kingdoms or empires in the early history of Southeast Asia, such as Funan, Chenla, Champa, Khmer, and Srivijava, was therefore called “Indianised Kingdoms” by western historians.

However, over the past decades, the use of this term has been revisited by many scholars. New investigations indicated that the “Indianisation process” in Southeast Asiawas not through force, imposition, or colonisation.  Rather, ‘Indian influences’ offered inspirations to the indigenous people s, and were thus selected and adapted to suit the local contexts of pre-existing and well-developed cultural basesin the sub-region.

Southeast Asian nations are not just the receivers of cultural heritage, but have also exchanged their accumulatively enriched and diverse culture back to the South Asian region. A couple of examples can be seen through the introduction of Lanka Nikaya Buddhism from Sri Lanka in Thailand and, later, the re-introduction of Thailand’s ‘Siam Nikaya order’ of Buddhism in Sri Lanka are the evidence of interchangeable cultural contribution within the region. Also, the Indian Ocean is no stranger to ancient Siamese merchants who exported the Celadon, or Thai porcelains across the ocean to India and as far as to Persia.

Many historic incidents that originated in South Asia have affected the society and culture of Southeast Asia until the present day such as King Ashoka’s Buddhist emissaries who travelled to Suvarnabhumi region during the 3rd century BC. Apart from the historically significant people, ordinary individuals from two sides of the Indian Ocean have continuously connected to one another through maritime trade, cultural and commercial exchange making these people the real contributors to our shared history.

At present, the world has opened the new era of the ‘Asian Century’ whereby Asia, once again, has a crucial role in socio-cultural dialogues. Thailand, as an ASEAN member country, strives to  move forward by engaging in the cooperation with countries and institutions outside the region for regional and global sustainable development. I am delighted that, next year, ASEAN will celebrate the 25th Anniversary of diplomatic relations with India, together with the continuing partnership for development. Also, the Mekong-Ganga cooperation in the cultural framework has flourished since its start in 2000. Added to the sub-regional cooperation, Thailand and India are moving towards the bilateral governmental Programme of Cultural Exchange in the next three years.

Not only preserving the past, Thailand has also moved forward by recapturing the ancient Indian cultural heritage and transforming it into cultural capital for creative economy.From ASEAN cultural exhibitions, ASEAN film festivals and many more,these cultural activities are presentation of ASEAN identities which have been creatively developed from Indian cultural heritage.

On the special occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the establishment of Thailand-India diplomatic relations in 2017, Thailand reaffirms her readiness and willingness to continue to strengthen and further enhance cultural relations with India. As part of the celebration,Thailand,in appreciation of India’s cooperation, is mounting a temporary exhibition of the precious artefacts on loan by India, which would be put on public display.  This exhibition will be an important testimony  to the fruitful cultural cooperation and exchange between our  two nations,  which will also greatly benefit our respective peoples.

Finally,  I would like to take this opportunity to thank the India Foundation and all the agencies involved for organizing this strategically important Conference. I strongly believe that the vision and the geocultural issues and challenges discussed during this Conference will lead to the expected goals of regional sustainable development and peace in the wider Indian Ocean Region in the long run.

(The article is the gist of the keynote address delivered by H.E. Mr.ViraRojpojchanarat, Minister of Culture of Thailand at the plenary Culture Session at Indian Ocean Conference on 2nd September 2016)


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