Canberra, 6 January 2014

For medieval Indian kingdoms the sea provided the opportunity for trade, especially in the peninsular kingdoms that were essentially sea-faring nations and straddled the trade route between West Asia and China. Through the ages it is seen as an unbroken tradition that trade invariably led to political and cultural influence, normally on a give-and-take basis, but at times in a unilateral and unidirectional manner if one of the trading partners happened to be much stronger in overall development—militarily, politically, economically and culturally—than the other. The kingdoms of India were in this stronger position; they were energetic and active nations, exhibiting a vitality that allowed them to spread their influence far and wide. Through their initial overtures to trade, they exported ideas, ideals, art, literature and even methods of governance.

When the history of the ancient world is discussed, there is a common tendency to describe and analyse the events that took place only in the countries gathered around the Mediterranean Sea, completely ignoring the fact that there was a thriving civilisation on the banks of the Indus and spreading east, far into the Indian sub-continent. Similarly accounts of medieval and modern history are dominated by the happenings in the small continent of Europe, once again ignoring the developments in other parts of the world, which could well have been more important to the overall progress of the human race as such. In fact, even today furious planning continues to ensure an emerging Euro-centric age, almost in a delusional manner! These developments—of the past and present—can only be attributed to Western arrogance, still prevalent although in subtler ways, that led to their propagating the entrenched idea that the rest of the world lived in barbaric conditions till the Europeans arrived and improved the lot of the ‘natives’. This European arrogance has done incalculable harm to the appreciation of ancient and medieval India’s achievements—political, military, and intellectual conquests; and perhaps most importantly, the spread of Indian thought and philosophy.

Early Indian forays outside its borders, which could be considered the earliest colonising moves, are little known in the broader narrative of world history. The Indian traders and colonisers who followed helped to build rich civilisations in the colonised areas, some of which endured for more than 1000 years. Indian colonisation, if the peaceful penetration of neighbouring nations can be attributed the full meaning of the term, was through trade, gradual settlement, followed by exchange of ideas and eventual cultural assimilation.

In the high plateau of eastern Iran, in the oases of Serindia, in the arid wastes of Tibet, Mongolia, and Manchuria, in the ancient civilised lands of China and Japan, in the lands of the primitive Mons and Khmers and other tribes in Indo-China, in the countries of the Malayo-Polynesians, in Indonesia and Malay, India left the indelible impress of her high culture, not only upon religion, but also upon art and literature, in a word, all the higher things of spirit.

Rene Grousset, Civilisations of the East, Vol II, p. 276.

The first emissaries of Indian thought and culture abroad were the religious teachers who travelled, or were send by royal decree, to propagate their religion, primarily Buddhism. These monks also doubled as cultural ambassadors of India in all the places that they reached. This expansion outwards was primarily carried through the two ancient trade routes: the famous silk-road to China through Central Asia, and the spice-route between the West and South East Asia that transited the Indian Peninsula. Towards West Asia, Asoka’s emissaries, preaching the code of Dharma, reached Alexandria in Egypt and his 13th Rock Edict mentions the name of Ptolemy Philadephos, the then king of the country. There is speculation amongst the scholars that the cloth used to wrap around the mummies in Egypt were imported from India, from a place called Punt, which is considered to be a colloquial Egyptian name that refers to the Pandyan country of South India. There is also evidence of traders from India having settled around the Mediterranean Sea. Emperor Asoka send missions of peace to five countries and their rulers in the West: Yavanaraja Antichos II Theos of Syria; Magas of Cyrene in North Africa; Ptolemy II Philadelphos of Egypt; Antigonus Gonatas of Macedonia; and Alexander of Epirus. It is inconceivable that these missions did not leave a vestige of influence on these countries and their culture.

Along the Central Asian trade route to China, there were a number of Indian settlements that became centres for the spread of religion, philosophy, and Indian culture. The colossal images of the Buddha in Bamian (blown up by Islamic zealots a decade ago and so lost to posterity); settlements in Samarkhand and Bokhara, where the Buddhist monk Sangabhadra (Seng Hun in Chinese) resided while translating religious texts to Chinese; and the ruins of stupas and temples in Kashgar, Yarkhand and Khotan are physical testimony of this movement of ideas and concepts. Documents found in the region, written in Brahmi and Sanskrit, attest to the conversion of Minar Dhitika the king of Thogar (Tho-dkar) a principality towards the north west of Kashmir to Buddhism. This ruler went on to build around 50 monasteries across his country, which spread not only the religion but also the fundamental Indian ethos in the region. The first Buddhist missionaries reached China in 65 A.D., although translated Buddhist religious texts had been available in China from around 2nd century B.C.

As early as 5th century B.C., colonists from West India had settled in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It is said that the sage Agastya, the author of the first Tamil grammar, had travelled as far as Ceylon. He is still venerated in the South East Asian nations where there still exists a cult of Agastya, although he does not receive the same veneration in the place of his origin and the cult, if it did exist at all in South India, has decisively died out. During Asoka Maurya’s reign, the Ceylonese king Tissa converted to the Buddhist religion, influenced no doubt by the Great Maurya, and subsequently Ceylon became, and continues to be, a bulwark of the religion. There is clear evidence that the Indian colonial movement was well-established by 1st century A.D., spreading to Burma, Malaya, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Siam, Cambodia, and Indo-China. The greatest influence of Indian culture was felt by the South East Asian countries, referred to in Indian literature as ‘Dvipantara’. Subsequently Indian influence also spread to Formosa, the Philippines and the Celebes. These were secondary movements, not directly originating from the Indian mainland, but from intermediate colonies or settlements and took several hundred years to become apparent. By around 4th century A.D. Sanskrit had been accepted as the official language in large parts of the region.

Between the 1st century and 900 A.D. there were four distinct waves of colonisation that were organised by the kingdoms of India. The modus operandi was the same all of them: initial commencement of trade and commerce by small groups; followed by missionaries propagating different religious faiths, which was a trend visible immediately after the rule of Asoka; and the establishment of scattered colonies at strategic points in the trade route, at times simultaneously. Some of these settlements were named after Indian cities, a custom that has universal usage wherein colonising nations tend to name newly founded settlements after some venerated or dear town or city in the home country. For example, Cambodia was named after Khamboj in Gandhara in western India, an important city of Aryan India. It would take years to establish minor settlements and only after that would a major expedition in search of distant markets to service an expanding economy be sent out.

Sanskrit literature is full of stories of sea voyages and the dangers that travellers faced in undertaking them. The early voyages to South East Asia originated from the east coast of India and was confined to following the coastline—from Kalinga (Orissa), through Bengal, Burma and down the Malay Peninsula. Direct crossing of the Bay of Bengal, from both East and South India, came at a much later date when sufficient experience in seafaring and navigation has been acquired. Fa Hsien, the Chinese traveller, mentions passing Java in 5th century A.D., while travelling in Indian vessels. These movements were facilitated by a highly developed ship building industry in the coastal Indian kingdoms. Andhra coins of 2nd and 3rd century A.D. depict two-masted ships and the Ajanta frescoes show ships carrying elephants as well as a pictorial depiction of the conquest of Ceylon. The South East Asian kingdoms, although coming under constant influence of India, were also maritime powers in their own right, at times vying for the control of the sea-routes of trade and coming into conflict with the Indian kingdoms, like the Cholas, in attempting to expand their spheres of influence eastwards.

These armadas (of the warring countries) presuppose high standard not only of navigation, in both sides of the 1200-mile wide waters between Coromandal and Sumatra. Certainly no European power of the day could have dreamt of oceanic adventure: only the Viking voyages are impressive; while the crusading fleets were in comparison mere forays. On the terraces of Borobudur the carved ships of Srivijaya still sail, immobile and endlessly over their seas of stone.

O.H.K. Spate, India and Pakistan (2nd edition), 1957, p. 155.

The movement of Indian people across to South East Asia and the creation of small settlements in that region invariably had the side effect of the traders marrying local women. Over time this fusion of Indian races, itself an eclectic mix, with the indigenous ones led to the evolution of a mixed culture. The results of such mingling of the races became a political element at a much later stage in the progression of this colonisation process. There is a suggestion that the Malay race is so named after the Kshatriyas of the Malva tribe who moved into the peninsula in sizeable numbers. The first organised effort at colonising the region is attributed to the Pallavas from South India. They are credited with enabling the rise of the Sri Vijaya Empire, also called the Sailendra Empire, which is considered to have been the greatest dynastic empire to have ruled South East Asia. The Sailendra dynasty was Brahmanical in their own religious inclinations, but ruled a predominantly Buddhist people. This situation was very similar to the rule in Kalinga at that time, with the king being a ‘Hindu’ ruling a Buddhist population. The Vedic belief that Dharma was all pervasive led to the concept of Universal Brotherhood, which made this sort of an arrangement completely acceptable. [Instances of such rule are common in Indian history and the thread of religious tolerance, both from the people towards their king and of the king towards his people, is visible through the entire historical narrative of India right till the time of its independence from British rule.]

The South East Asian region was influenced by both India and China and both these ancient civilisations colonised the region. The South East Asiatic mainland has common land borders with China and the Chinese influence is clearly and predominantly visible even today in Burma, Siam (Thailand), and Indo-China. Although there is perceptible Chinese influence in the islands of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula, these areas demonstrate cultural development based on greater Indian influence. However, the entire region was influenced by both China and India in some ways, a process that produced what can only be called an Indo-Chinese culture, with one or the other being predominant in different places and kingdoms. Here it is important to note that by the very nature of both these cultures there was no overt conflict, in the ancient and medieval times, to establish independent spheres of influence. [This is in sharp contrast to the contemporary situation where the ‘peaceful’ efforts of both these nations to exert influence in the region barely conceals the veiled threat of the use of national power—economic, diplomatic or even military—to achieve their ends.] It is seen that generally the South East Asian nations adopted the method of governance from China and were inclined to adapt Indian religion and art to suit their purposes. Indian art forms are essentially flexible and flourished in different styles in each of their adoptive countries, while continuing to retain their basic ‘Indianness’ throughout.

Starting from 1st century A.D., for the next 1300 years or so, Indian colonies existed in the South East Asian region. By around 5th century A.D. great cities had been built and dynasties established with direct Indian assistance, and in another 300 years these kingdoms or empires themselves had become independent sea-faring powers, strong enough to even attack the Indian kingdoms. Indian influence is also visible in the nature of kingship in the region where the notion of a god-king, Devaraya, was prevalent in Indo-China. This concept is a clear adoption of the traditions from Indian epics by the indigenous kings of South East Asia. It is paradoxical that around the same time that the idea of god-kings was becoming entrenched in Indo-China, the same was being questioned and rejected in India. Indian kings were becoming pious devotees of chosen gods, considering themselves only the first among worshippers without any pretences to divine connections.

As mentioned before, by far the greatest empire in South East Asia was the Sailendra Empire which dominated the entire region, both sea and land, by 8th century A.D. At this time the Sailendra Empire encompassed Malaya, Ceylon, Sumatra, parts of Java, Borneo, the Celebes, Formosa and the Philippines while also holding suzerainty over Cambodia and Annan. The empire was Buddhist in nature. In 11th century the Sailendra Empire came into conflict with the Cholas of South India and were defeated in battle. This defeat led to the Cholas controlling Indo-China for the next 50 years, although no direct rule was established. On the withdrawal of the Chola control, the Sailendra kingdom continued to exist for about 300 more years but was in terminal decline, with Java conquering the entire Empire by the second half of the 14th century. This decline was also visibly earlier, when Cambodia had becom distinctly independent in the 9th century.

Cambodia was ruled by illustrious kings, who were also great builders, for the next 400 years. They carried clearly Indian names such as Jayavarman, Yashovarman, Indravarman, and Suryavarman. The capital of the kingdom, Angkor ‘the magnificent’ had a million inhabitants and at its zenith was larger than the Rome of the Caesars. The temple outside the city, Angkor Vat, is considered a masterpiece of architectural excellence. The temple was built by Jayavarman VII, and its design is clearly inspired by Indian architectural developments. Angkor Vat was obviously given form through Khmer genius that adapted the Indian design and gave it a distinctive indigenous flavour. However, the fall of this magnificent kingdom and the capital becoming obscure was unusually rapid. This event is attributed to the silting of the Mekong River on which the city depended for its daily needs of water and food.

From around 14th century, direct Indian influence started to wane because of a combination of a number of disparate reasons—the Western colonising powers had already made their aggressive appearance in the region; China was becoming more assertive in their overtures towards the smaller kingdoms; Arab traders had started to increase the influence of the Islamic faith and religious conversions became more common; and the kingdoms of the region had started to internalise their thinking as an instinctive response in an effort to withstand these multiple assaults on their independence and identity. Simultaneously Indian power was in decline, once again because of incongruent internal issues, which made it difficult for the kingdoms of India to maintain the level of domestic peace and prosperity needed to assert cultural, religious, and political influence on neighbouring countries without coming into military conflict with them. The self-confident equanimity required to culturally dominate another race or ethnic people had vanished from India’s firmament.

Indian civilisation took firm root in most of South East Asia by about the 3rd century and was so widespread that the region was at times referred to as ‘Greater India’. There is no lack of material to prove this claim. There is a plethora of Indian books, Arab travellers’ accounts, Chinese historical books and narrative, old inscriptions and copper plates that have been clearly dated and authenticated, and the old monuments in the region such as the temples at Angkor and Borobudur, that provide corroboration. Other evidence also emerges: there is reliable information that points to the existence of centres of Sanskrit learning in Champa, Angkor, Srivijaya and Majapahit; the names of the rulers of the states and empires are purely Indian in origin; state ceremonies were modelled on the ones conducted in Indian courts; the official court language in most of the kingdoms was Sanskrit; the literature was full of the retelling of Indian legends, evidence still available in places like Indonesia; practice of Indian religions and embedded Indian culture was common, as is the case in Bali even today; the alphabet of the Cambodian language was derived from South India; and the civil and criminal law there is based on the Laws of Manu that formed the basis for Indian Law in earlier days.

Throughout the region there is a marked influence of Indian art and architecture, which has been modified, adapted and fused with local traditions, demonstrated in the palaces and temples that still stand. Indian art is of an amazingly vibrant and yet flexible character, a capacity that it shares with Greek art. It was therefore able to adapt to suit the needs of every country, race, and religion that it came into contact, exerting subtle but visible influence on the development of the host art form. While indigenous genius made it possible to create the magnificence of the Khmer and other cultures, without doubt their fundamental basis and foundation were embedded in the much better developed and mature Indian civilisation. While contemporary South East Asia is busy emulating the nationalistic concepts of a state in keeping with the European and American ethos, enduring old memories of Indian cultural influence continue to create a sense of inbuilt respect and friendship towards the ‘mother’ country.

From Persia to the Chinese Sea, from the icy regions of Siberia to the islands of Java and Borneo, from Oceania to Socotra, India has propagated her beliefs, her tales and her civilization. She has left indelible imprints on one-fourth of the human race in the course of a long succession of centuries. She has the right to reclaim in universal history the rank that ignorance has refused her for a long time and to hold her place amongst the great nations summarising and symbolising the spirit of Humanity

Sylvain Levi, Indologist in his book, Le Theatre Indien, 1890

Quoted in U.N. Ghosal, Progress of Greater Indian Research, 1917-1942.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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