Istanbul, 13 May 2015

The Hindu culture, derived from its practice in both the north and the south of the sub-continent, is deep rooted in South-East Asia. The seeds for this influence were sown during the period that is covered in this volume of the series on Indian history. Hindu roots to the societal development in the region can be seen even today in the nations that composed the erstwhile Sailendra Empire, as well as in Kamboj, Champa, Java, Bali, Burma and Siam. However, Bali is the only ancient Hindu ‘colony’ that continues to follow a slightly adapted form of the ancient Brahminical religion. During the four to five hundred years discussed in this volume, the progress of Hindu influence in the South-East Asian region was unabated.

Keddah in the Malay Peninsula (referred to as Kadaram in Tamil) was the seat of power of the Sailendra Empire that had annexed the earlier Sri-Vijay Empire in South-East Asia. This empire was greatly influenced by the Cholas and as indicated in the Chola chronicles, trade between the two kingdoms flourished with mention of great ships from Kadaram arriving in Chola territory with merchandise. The Cholas were primarily instrumental in spreading Indian influence into the Sailendra lands.

Sometime in the 9th century, the Cholas invaded the Sailendra Empire. Since there is mention of peaceful trade between the two great empires prior to and after this episode, the reason for this invasion is not clear and is somewhat of a surprise in historical terms. Several Chola inscriptions that are dated to between 1024 and 1043 provide details of the military expedition into Sailendra Empire. It is clear that the war was prolonged and the reason could be guessed. During this period the Cholas controlled the entire Eastern seaboard of India from the peninsular tip to the mouth of the great River Ganges and dominated the maritime trade. Therefore, it is possible that the war was the result of a contest for control and supremacy over trade routes and/or even the quantum of maritime trade. The emerging power of the Sailendra Empire could have questioned the Chola pre-eminence in the Bay of Bengal and further east on the Chinese trade routes that were distant form the Chola Empire.

In this expedition, the Sailendra kingdom was conquered by the Chola military forces (mentioned in detail in the earlier chapter on the Cholas). However, they were unable to control and rule the archipelagic empire for any credible period of time. There is an inherent difficulty in occupying and closely controlling distant lands where the people are more often than not opposed to the occupation. It is obvious that the Cholas faced a similar challenge in the case of the Sailendra Empire, especially considering that the lands lay beyond the seas with no contiguous land connection. The very tenuous and transitory control exercised by the Cholas is evidenced by the fact that there is mention in their chronicles of repeated conquests of Kadaram by a number of Chola kings. This obviously means that the Cholas were not in full control of the lands of the Kadaram-based Empire for any appreciable length of time and that the kings had to continually put down rebellions and uprisings. The last recorded claim of conquest is by Kulottunga Chola after which there are no pretences in the chronicles of an overseas element in the Chola Empire.

The acceptance of this diminished status also coincides with the gradually declining fortunes of the Cholas in Peninsular India. After nearly a century of what can only be described as fruitless efforts, the Cholas abandoned their claim and efforts at ruling the Malay and Sumatra Peninsula and bringing them into the fold as part of the greater Chola Empire. This acceptance also marked the end of the only enterprise by an Indian dynasty to create, control and rule an overseas empire. Even this single attempt, although initiated as a military invasion, over a period of time lapsed into becoming a cultural endeavour rather than a conquest by force. The great kingdoms that nested in the Indian subcontinent are perhaps the only ancient empires to not have attempted conquest of other empires outside of the religious and ethnic groupings that were common with neighbouring kingdoms. [This is a tradition that India, as a sovereign State continues to practice to this day. In contemporary terms, India has always attempted to influence through ‘soft power’ rather than employ force to align another nation with its own thinking.]

The Essential Influence of Religion

Saivite Hindu practice was the predominant religious influence to cascade out of India towards the east. However, by the 9th century, Tantric ideas had started to permeate the practice of Hinduism in some parts of India and most parts of South-East Asia. The progress of religious influence was two-pronged in South-East Asia, with Buddhism also making fundamental inroads, especially in Kamboj. In Kamboj king Suryavarman I was a great supporter of Buddhism and was posthumously named ‘Nirvanapada’, an obvious reference to his Buddhist allegiance. In the South-East Asian kingdoms it was common practice to give posthumous names to deceased kings, primarily to indicate their religious persuasion. Suryavarman is considered the first Buddhist king of Kamboj. His successors were pious practitioners of the religion.

However, by the time Buddhism had become entrenched in Kamboj, it had also acquired a darker side. A degraded version of Mahayana Buddhism called Tantrayana had emerged and had taken hold particularly in Java and Sumatra. This version combined Tantric practices with the purer version of Buddhism and was seen to increase its influence during the 11th and 12th century. The trend became predominant perhaps because the practice of Buddhist religion had by now become complex and beyond the understanding of the common man. This is a paradox, since the origin of the religion itself was based on the need to simplify religious practices and make them more understandable to the lay person.

The arrival of Tantrayana Buddhism meant that Tantric teachers became very influential in the Kamboj court. There is a theory that the Tantric influence spread to Kamboj from Bengal where in the later Pala period, Buddhism was initially considerably degraded prior to it falling from grace. This can be considered a highly possible process. The result of Tantric influence permeating both Buddhism and Hinduism was that it led to the coming together of both the religions in a sort of rapprochement that is still visible in South-East Asian nations. Siva, Vishnu and Buddha were recognised as the primary gods of the new amalgamated method of worship that combined both the good and bad qualities of the two religions. In modern Balinese theology, Buddha is considered the younger brother of Siva. [This is perhaps carrying the synchronisation of religious beliefs to the extreme, since Siva is considered the destroyer and Buddha was the epitome of kindness and compassion.] This could also be considered an indication of tolerance and more importantly the entrenchment of the belief that gods of different but similar religions were the same. This development provides a clear demonstration of the inherent tolerance and the concept of assimilation that has been the mainstay of Hinduism (and other religions spawned from it) over the centuries.

The degradation of Buddhism was also seen through the fact that it adopted the pomp and intricate ceremonies for which Hindu religion had become both famous and infamous. Buddhism lapsed into the worship of a plethora of gods and no longer followed the puritanical code that was propagated by Gautama the Buddha, which had formed the foundation of traditional Buddhism. Buddhism reached the nadir of its status, at least from the point of view of the teachings of the Enlightened One, with the priests universally becoming non-vegetarians, eating meat and even placing it as offering to the Buddha himself, now elevated to the status of a god. Significantly, there is no mention of Buddhist nuns in any of the works that provide information regarding this degradation of Buddhism.

The influence of Tantric ideas are also seen in the institution of royal ‘Gurus’ or religious teachers into a pre-eminent position within the Royal Court. They played an important role and being politically astute and learned people, wielded great influence over the king and kingdom. The teachers were normally designated ‘Pandita’ meaning learned one. The South-East Asian kings also imported priests from India to perform special ceremonies of importance. Obviously the Royal Priest was also of great importance with significant political influence. It is also possible that the role of the Guru and the Priest were rolled into the same person, who would then have been unequalled in influence, status, and power.

Even though the religions had arrived at a mutually accommodated position, the Saivites were not as prosperous as their Buddhist brothers, probably because of a lack of royal patronage. Chinese writings name them Pa-ssev-wei (Pasupatas) and provide details of their practice of worshipping a black stone (the Hindu Siva Linga). By the 13th century, Buddhism was growing at the cost of Saivism in South-East Asia, the timeframe also coinciding with the decline of Indian influence in the region. Within the span of another century, no other religion other than Buddhism would survive in Kamboj. Further, Hinayana Buddhism (also called Theravada Buddhism) became predominant in Burma, Siam, and Ceylon. In Burma and Ceylon, Pali which was the language of Buddhist sacred texts, evolved into a new classic language that spawned a plethora of new literature. This tradition has continued unbroken to current times. Therefore, even though Indian religious beliefs and practices were greatly altered over a period of time in the receiving countries, they also formed the basis for societal and cultural developments in the long term.

The Impact on Society

Kamboj has to be considered the most important and flourishing Indian ‘cultural colony’. It is also in Kamboj that the greatest influence of Indian society can be seen, with a relatively milder form of the Hindu caste system as practiced in India taking root fairly rapidly and forming the fundamental basis of society. The king and courtiers formed the aristocracy who lived in visible splendour. The size and structure of domestic houses were determined by the official status of the occupants, with common people being permitted to only own houses with thatched roofs. The king was expected to and did maintain a large harem, with five declared queens. The senior or principal queen sat next to the king for a daily viewing by the common people and also for all official functions.

Judicial System. There was a distinct similarity in the justice system with the empires of India and the South East Asian kingdoms of the time. In both cases, the king personally sat in judgement over the more serious cases. The punishments that were meted out were also similar with trial by ordeal being in vogue. Serious crimes were punished by burying the culprit live, a practice that seems to have been common.

The Spread of Education. At the height of the Indian influence in the South-East Asian region, education was free and all subjects were educated by the State. Knowledge was held in high respect and monks were in-charge of educating the masses as well as nurturing budding scholars to higher levels of endeavour. There were a number of Brahmin families, mainly imported from India, who maintained extremely high standards of scholarship for generations with the best traditions of education being passed on through the years. Astronomy was a very popular subject and sought after specialisation, with women also being initiated into its intricacies.

The Indo-Javanese Literature

The study of Indian literature was widely prevalent. In Java there already existed a deep rooted tradition of a powerful indigenous literature that combined with the equally sophisticated and entrenched Indian tradition to produce what has been called the Indo-Javanese literature. Javanese literature went through three distinct phases—Old Javanese literature the flourished for nearly 500 years (approximately between 1000 and 1500) and declined with the end of Hindu rule in Java; the Middle Javanese literature that is almost confined to the island of Bali and was introduced by the Javanese who migrated to the island; and the New Javanese literature that replaced the Old Javanese literary traditions.

During the period of discussion in this book—the era of cultural colonisation—Old Javanese literature was the predominant strain in vogue in South-East Asia. The central theme of the works was almost always derived from Indian literature, although the narrative often deviated from the original. Poetry was written strictly following Sanskrit rules and meter, with some poems quoting Sanskrit verses in their entirety. The oldest known work in the Indo-Javanese literature group is the Javanese version of the Sanskrit Amaramala, a lexicon in the lines of the more famous Amarakosa. This lexicon was written under the patronage of king Jitendra of the Sailendra dynasty.

The most famous work of this period is the Ramayana, considered to have been written around 1094 by a famous poet Yogisvara. It is not a translation of the Sanskrit version, but an independent work that tells the story of Rama till his victory over Ravana in Sri Lanka and reunion with Sita. There are some discernible divergences in the story-line from the original text by Valmiki. Next in importance is the prose translation of the Mahabharata, which is fairly condensed but closely follows the original narrative. It seems to have been started in the 11th century but there is no clear evidence of who the author(s) were or its completion date.

There is another genre of work called Kakawin, which were political in nature but based on epic and mythological themes. Examples of these works abound—Arjuna-Vivaha, written around the 11th century that details the story of Arjuna’s asceticism, his combat with Siva, and also his amorous relationships with a number of princesses; Krishnanyana and Sumanasankata both written in the 12th century, the first dealing with the abduction of Rukmini by Krishna and the second with the death of Queen Indumati of Aja when a heavenly garland fell on her body. The greatest work of this genre is considered to be the book Bharata-Yudha, also called Harivansha written by Mpu Sedah in 1157, which deals with the great war of Mahabharata. It is also noteworthy that the Kakawins were not exclusively devoted to the retelling of the epics with a political message. There were a number that were written dealing with philosophy and also some that concentrated on erotic themes.

Other than poetry, there was also a thriving tradition of works in prose based on the epics and the puranas. The famous Brahmananda-purana closely follows the Sanskrit original, while the Adi-purana and Bhuvana-purana cannot be traced to any one, single Sanskrit original. Both these books contain myths and legends derived from the Puranas. Another important part of Old Javanese literature is the works on religious doctrine and philosophical principles, as well as the secular works on history, linguistics, medicine and erotic subjects. The stories of Old Javanese literature were illustrated in sculptor in Java as well as in other Hindu ‘colonies’, clearly demonstrating the high level of influence of Indian literature. [Here I use the term ‘colony’ in a very considered manner. While there was no attempt by the Indian Empires to physically conquer the region, other than for the Chola expeditions, the cultural and religious colonisation cannot be denied. The reasons for this trend are many, the primary ones being the highly evolved and sophisticated state of Indian culture; and the greatly advanced religious concepts and practices that were superior to the base level practices of the region.]

Architectural Brilliance

Similar to the overarching influence on literature, Indian influence on art and architecture is also easily discernible throughout South-East Asia. The influence is mainly visible in the Kamboj Empire. Angkor-Vat, meaning ‘temple of the city’ (angkor – nagara or city; vat – temple), is the grandest of all the monuments.

‘Indeed it may be said with perfect truth, that no other equal space on earth can show anything comparable to Angkor monuments in massive grandeur.’

R C Majumdar

Chapter XXI, Colonial and Cultural Expansion

The History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume V, ‘The Struggle for Empire’, p. 769.

The Angkor-vat, built by Suryavarman II and dedicated originally to Vishnu, is justly regarded as the grandest monument in the entire Kamboj Empire.

The Angkor-Vat

The monument looks like an island in a lake since it is surrounded by a moat that is still full of water. The moat runs all-round the boundary walls of the temple and is 650 feet in breadth while measuring 2.5 miles in length. The moat is spanned by a stone causeway 36 feet wide that leads to a huge gateway reminiscent of the traditional ‘gopuram’ of the greater South Indian temples. This gateway is connected to the temple, which sits in the middle of an extensive courtyard, by a paved avenue that is raised seven feet above the ground and is 520 yards long.

The main temple consists of concentric courts that rise one above the other. At the centre rises a high shikhara 215 feet high, (again an adaptation of the ones found in South Indian temples) that dominate the entire structure. Each court has a gallery consisting of a long chamber open on the outer side and with a verandah on the inner side. The lowest gallery measures 265 yards from east to west and 224 yards from north to south. Staircases connect each court to the next higher one and the sanctum is placed in the centre, crowned by the shikhara. The majestic grandeur of the whole is unmistakable.

There are many other temples in the empire with the same pyramidal character, galleries and some of the other distinguishing features. The city of Angkor-Thom and the monuments that surround it has been compared favourably with the buildings of Rome during Nero’s rule. Although devastated by time and nature, the remnants of these buildings in the city dazzle the viewer with their brilliance even in their current state of near ruin. At its zenith, the kingdom of Kamboj was brilliant in the execution of its architectural style, clearly influenced by the buildings of South India.

Other countries also witnessed activities in art and architecture. Eastern Java saw the building of a number of temples in the 13th century by the Sailendra emperors. The three main ones are called Chandi Kidal, Chandi Singharsi, and Chandi Jago and marks a complete break from the traditional Javanese architecture, which was dominated by the conventional Central Java style. [The temples being named after the Chandi goddess also indicates the influence of the Pala rulers of Bengal, where the worship of the Mother Goddess was at this stage becoming increasingly predominant.] In the 11th century, the rise of the kingdom of Pagan in Burma also coincided with a great period of architectural activity. The city of Pagan, built along the River Irrawaddy to a depth of two kilometres from its banks, still contains the ruins of over 800 temples that date to the 11th century. The most important of these is the Ananda temple that is considered by some to be the epitome of Burmese architectural style. However, it is also equally clear that the style of the Ananda temple architecture is distinctly Indian in origin.

‘There can be no doubt that the architects who planned and built the Ananda were Indians. Everything in this temple from sikhara to basement, as well as the numerous stone sculptures found in its corridors and the terracotta plaques adoring its basement and terraces, bear the indubitable stamp of Indian genius and craftsmanship… In this sense, we may take it, therefore, that the Ananda, though built in the Burmese capital, is an Indian temple.’


 Quoted in R C Majumdar

Chapter XXI, Colonial and Cultural Expansion

The History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume V, ‘The Struggle for Empire’, p. 773.


The cultural influence brought to bear by the Southern Cholas and the Bengali dynasties of the Palas and Senas, blended with local traditions of South-East Asian kingdoms, to create a hybrid cultural composite in the region that lasted for nearly six hundred years and is still visible today. What is remarkable is the effortless manner in which the Hindu religion, culture and ethos were assimilated and became deeply entrenched to an extent that some traditions are practiced even today in the 21st century. The visibly broad-minded nature of Islam as practised in South-East Asia owes much of its tolerance to the marked Hindu influence that was prevalent before the arrival of Islam into the archipelago.

There are 21 copper plates preserved in the Leiden Museum, and therefore called the Leiden Grant, one of which records the construction of a Vihara in Nagapattana in South India by the Sailendra king Chudamani Varmadeva. This event has also been mentioned in the chapter that deals with the Chola dynasty. This construction is similar to the building completed by the Sailendra dynasty in Nalanda about 150 years earlier. These two constructions that have been historically proven are silent testimony to a unique and familiar relationship between the Sailendra kings and Indian Empires.

When the mother country—India—entered into a phase of cultural decline, gradually entering what can only described as a sort of cultural doldrums, which was combined with the waning of power of the larger Indian empires, the interaction with the outlying friendly kingdoms also started to become irregular and less intense. Indian influence on religion and education in South-East Asia gradually declined. This resulted in relatively primitive indigenous elements reasserting themselves in a number of spheres in the social aspects in the kingdoms. The change can be discerned through the noticeable, but gradual transformation of art and literature—Sanskrit being eventually replaced by indigenous local languages that were not as highly developed or sophisticated; and the indiscriminate introduction of local elements into art and architecture that degraded the aesthetics of both. The peripheral cultures that flourished through Indian influence and were nurtured by regular contact had to perish.

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the peripheral cultures that it had influenced and nurtured had to perish.


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 Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

One Response to “Indian History Part 41: CULTURAL COLONISATION”

  1. K S Subramanian Reply May 14, 2015 at 21:58

    A beautiful article every Indian can be proud .
    I would like to know about the ARYAN INVASION theory but some religion haters who wanted the brahminical disciplined life to prevail.
    Can you please advice your work on that theory for my reading
    with regards
    K S Subramanian

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