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“The Knowledge Library”

Knowledge for All, without Barriers…

An Initiative by: Kausik Chakraborty.
05/06/2023 3:13 PM

“The Knowledge Library”

Knowledge for All, without Barriers……….
An Initiative by: Kausik Chakraborty.

The Knowledge Library

India’s Impact on Southeast Asia

Causes and Consequences

The transmission of Indian culture of distant parts of Central Asia, China, Japan, and especially Southeast Asia is certainly one of the greatest achievements of Indian history or even of the history of mankind. None of the other great civilizations – not even the Hellenic – had been able to achieve a similar success without military conquest. In this brief survey of India’s history, there is no room for an adequate discussion of the development of the ‘Indianised’ states of Southeast Asia which can boast of such magnificent temple cities as Pagan (Burma; constructed from 1044 to 1287 AD,) Angkor (Combodia; constructed from 889 to c. 1300 AD), and the Borobudur (Java, early ninth century AD). Though they were influenced by Indian culture, they are nevertheless part and parcel of the history of those respective countries. Here we will limit our observations to some fundamental problems oncerning the transmission of Indian culture to the vast region of Sotheast Asia.

Who Spread Indian Culture in Southeast Asia ?

Historians have formulated several theories regarding the transmission of Indian culture of Southeast Asia :
(1) the ‘Kshatriya’ theory;
(2) the ‘Vaishya’ theory;
(3) the ‘Brahmin’ theory.

The Kshatriya theory states that Indian warriors colonized Southeast Asia; this proposition has now been rejected by most scholars although it was very prominent some time ago.

The Vaishya theory attributes the spread of Indian cultura to traders; it is certainly much more plausible than the Kshatriya theory, but does not seem to explain the large number of Sanskrit loan words in Southeast Asian languages.

The Brahmin hypothesis credits Brahmins with the transmission of Indian culture; this would account for the prevalence of these loanawards; but may have to be amplified by some reference to the Buddhists as well as to be amplified by some reference to the Buddhsits as well as to the traders. We shall return to these theories, but first we shall try to understand the rise and fall of the Kshatriya theory.

It owed its origin to the Indian freedom movement. Indian historians, smarting under the stigma of their own colonical sujection, tried to compensate for this by showing that al leat in ancient times Indians had been strong enough to establish colonise of their own. In 1926 the Greater India society was established in Calcutta and in subsequent years the renewed Indian historia R.C. Majumdar published his series of studies, Ancient Indian colonise in the Far East. This school held that Indian kings and warriors had established such colonise and the Sanksrit names of South east Asian rulers seemed to provide ample supporting evidence. At least this hypothesis stimulated further research, though it also alienated those intellectuals of Southeast Asia who rejected the idea of having once been colonized by a ‘Greater India’. As research progressed it was found that there was vary little proof of any direct Indian political influence in those states of Southeast Asia. Furthermore, it was demonstrated that Southeast Asian rulers had adopted Sanskrit names the mselves – thus such names could not be adduced as evidence for the presence of Indian kings.

The Vaishya theory, in contrast, emphasized a much more important element of the Indian connection with Southeast Asia. Trade had indeed been the driving force behind all these early contacts. Inscriptions also showed that guids of Indian merchants had established outposts in many parts of Southeast Asia. Some of their inscriptions were written in languages such as Tamil. However, if such merchants had been the chief agents of the transmission of Indian culture, then all their languages should have made an impact on those of Southeast Asia. But this was not so : Sanskrit and, to some extent, languages. The traders certainly provided an important transmission belt for all kinds of cultural influences. Nevertheless, they did not play the crucial role which some scholars have attributed to them. One of the most important arguments against the Vaishya theory is that some of the earliest traces of Indianised states in Southeast Asia are not found in the coastalareas usually frequented by the traders, but in mountainous, interior areas.

The Brahmin theory is in keeping with what we have shown with regard to the almost contemporary spread of Hindu culture in Southern and Central India. There Brahmins and Buddhist and Jain monks played the major role in transmitting cultural values and symbols, and in disseminating the style of Hundu kingship. In addition to being religious specialists, the Brahmins also knew the Sanskrit codes regarding law (dharmasastra), the art of government (arthasastra), and art and architecture (silpasastra). They could taus serve as development planners’ in many different fields and were accordingly welcome to Southeast Asian rulers who may have just emerged from what we earlier described as first-and second phase of state formation.

The Dynamics of Cultural Borrowings

What was the role of the people of Southeast Asia in this process of cultural borrowing ?
Were they merely passive recipients of a culture bestowed upon them by them by the Indians ?
Did they actively participate in this transfer ?

The passive thesis was originally emphasized by Indian advocates of the ‘Greater India’ idea, as well by as European scholars who belonged to the elite of the colonial powers then dominant in Southeast Asia. The concept of an earlier ‘Indianisation’ of Southeast Asia seemed to provide a close parallel with the later ‘Europeanisation’ under colonial to provide a close parallel with the later “Europeanisation” under colonial rule. The first transchant criticism of this point of view came from the young Dutch scholar JC van Leur.

Van Leur highlighted the great skill and courage of Indonesian seafarers and emphasized the fact that Indonesian rulers them selves had invited Indian Brahmins and had thus taken a very active role in the process of cultural borrowing. Van Leur’s book an Indonesian trade and society was published posthumously, in 1955. In the meantime, further research has vindicated his point of view.

The Indian influence is no longer regarded as the prime cause of cultural development; rather, it was a consequence of a development, which was already in progress in Southeast Asia. Early Indonesian inscriptions show that there was a considerable development of agriculture, before Indian influence made itself felt. However, indigenous tribal organization was egalitarian and prevented the emergence of higer forms of political organization. The introduction of such forms required at least a rudimentary form of administration and a kind of legimation of these now governmental forms which would make them, in the initial stages, acceptale to the people. It was at this point that chieftains and clan heads required Brahmin assitance. Althoug trade might have helped to spread the necessary information the inititative came forr those indigenous rulers. The invited Brahmins were isolated from the ruler. People and kept in touch only with their patrons. In this way the royal styles emerged in South-East Asia just as it had done in India.

A good example of this kind of development is provided by thed earliest Sanksrit inscription found of Indonasia (it was recorded in Eastern Borneo around 400 A.D.) Several inscription on large Megaltihs mention a ruler whose name, Kundunga shows not the slightest trace of Sanskrit influence. His son assumed a Sanskrit name, Ashavavarman, and founded a dynasty (vansa). His grand son Mulavarman, the author of the incription, celebrated great sacrifices and gave valuable presents to the Brahmins. Of the latter it is explicitly state that they had come here – most likely from India. After being consecrated by the Brahmins, Mulavarman subjected the nighbouring rulers and made them tribute givers (kara–da) Thus these inscription present in a nutshell the history of the rise of an early Indonesian dynasty. It seems that the dynasty had been founded by a son of clan chiefly independently of the Brahmins, who on their arrival consecrate the ruler of the third generation. With this kind of moral support and the new administrative know-how the ruler could subject his neighbours and otain tribute from them.

The process paralleled that which we have observe in south and Central India. In its initial stages, however, it was not necessarily due to Indian influence at all. Around the middle of the first millennium AD several of such small states seem to have arisen in this way in South-East Asia. They have left only a few inscription and some ruins of temples, most of them were obviously very short lived. There must have been a great deal of competition, with many petty rajas vying with each other and all wishing to be recognized as maharajas entitled to all the Indian paraphernalia of Kingship. Indian influenced increased in this way and in the second half of the first millennium AD a hectic activity of temple erection could be observed on Java and in Combadiam, wher the first larger realms hac dome into existence.

Though it is now generally accepted that southeast Asian rulers played on active role in this process of state formation, we cannot entirely rule out the occasional direct contrbutin of Indian adventures who proceeded to the East. The most important example of this kind is that of the early history of Fuman at the mouth of the Mekong. Chinese sources report the tale of a Brahmin, Kaundinya, who was inspired bya divine dream to go to the Funan. There he vanquished the local Naga princess by means of his holy bow and married her, thus founding the first dynasty of Funan in the late first century AD. We have heard of a similar legend in a connection with the rise of the Pallava dynasty and this way indicate that Kundinya came from south India where the Kundinyas were known as a famous Brahmin lineage. A Chineage source of the fourth century AD describes an Indian usurper of th throne of Funan. His name is given as Chu Chan-t’ an’ ‘Chu’ always indicates a person of Indian origin and Chan-t-an could have been a transliteration of the title ‘Chandana’ which can be traced to the Indo-Scythians of northern India.

Presumably a member of the dynasty went to southeast Asia after having been defeated by Samnudragupta. In the beginning of the fifth century AD another Kaudinya arrived in Funan and of his it is said in the Chinses annals :

He was originally a Brahmin from India. There a supernatural voice told him: ‘You must go to Funan, Kaundinya rejoiced in his heart. In the south he arrived at “P” an-p’ an. The people of Funan appeared to him. The whole kingdom rose up with joy, went before him and chose him king. He changed all the laws to confirm to the system of India.

This report on the second Kaundinya is the most explicit refernce to an Indian ruler who introduced his laws in southeast Asia. In the same period we notice a general wave of Indian influence in southeast Asia, for which the earliest Sanskrit inscription of Indonasia – discussed above – also provide striking evidence. We must however, note that even in the case of early Funan there was no military intervention. Kaundinya had obviously stayed for some time at P’an-P’an at the Isthmus of Siam, then under the control of Funan and he ewas later invited by the notables of the court of Funan to ascent the throne at a time of political unrest.


So far we have discussed the contiributino of Brahmin to the early transmission of Indian culture to southeast Asia. Buddhist monks, however, were at least as important in this respect. Two characteristic features of Buddhism enabled it to make a specific impact on southeast Asia, First Buddhist were imbued with a atrong missionary zeal, and second, they ignored the caste system and did not emphasize the idea of ritual purity. By his teaching as well as by the orginzation of his monastic order (Sangha) Gautama Buddha had given rise to this missionary zeal, which had then been fostered by Ashoka’s dispatch of Buddhist missionaries to Western Asia, Greece, Central Asia, Sri lanka and Burma.

Buddhism’s freedom from ritual restrictions and the spirit of the unity of all adherents enabled Buddhist monsk to establish contacts with people abroad, as well as to welcome them in India when they came to visit the sacred places of Buddhism, Chinese sources record 162 visits to India of Chinese of Buddhist monsk for the period from the 5th to the eigth century AD. Many more may have trvelled without having left a trace in such official records. This was an amazing international scholarly exchange programme for that day and age.

In the early centuries AD the center of Buddhist scholarship was the University of Taxila (near the present city of Islamabad),but in the fifth century AD when the University of Nalanda was founded not far from Bodh Gaya, Bihar the center of Buddhist scholarship shifted to eastern India. This university always had a large contingent of students from southeast Asia. There they spent many years close the holy places of Buddhism, copying and translating texts before returing home. Nalanda was a cenre of Mahayana Buddhism, which became of increasing importance of Southeast Asia. We mentioned above that King Balaputa of Shrivijaya established a monastery for students of his realm at Nalanda around 860 AD which was then endowed with land grants by King Devepala of Bengal. But the Sumatran empire of Shrivijaya had acquired a good reputation in tis own right among Buddhist scholars and from the late seventh century AD attracted resident Chinese and Indian monks. The Chinese monk I-tsing stopped over at Shrivijaya capital (present day Palembang) for six months in 671 AD in order to learn Sanskrit Grammer. He then proceeded to India, where he spent 14 years, and on his retun journey he stayed another four years at Palembang so that he could translate the many texts which he had collected. In this period he went to China for a few months in 689 AD to recruit assistance for his great translation project (completed only 695 AD). On his return to China he explicitly recommended that other chiense Buddhists proceeding to India break journey in Shrivijaya, where a thousand monks lived by the same rulers as those prevailing in India. In subsequent years many Chinese Buddhists conscientitously followed this advice.

Prominent Indian Buddhists Scholars similarly made a point to visit Shrivijaya. Towards the end of Seventh century AD Dharmapala of Nalanda is supposed to have visited Suvarnadvipa (Java and Sumattra). In the beginning of the eighth century AD the south Indian monk Vajrabodhi spent five months in Shrivijaya on his way to China. He and his disciple Amoghvajra, whom he met in Java, are credited with having indroduced Buddhist Tantrism to China. Atisha, who later became know as the great reformer of Tibeta Buddhism, is said to have studied for twelve years in Survarnadvipa in the early eleventh century AD. The high standard of Buddhist learning which prevailed in Indonasia for many centuries was one of the important precodition for that great work of art, the Borobudur, whose many reliefs are a pictorial compendium the Buddhist lore, a tribute both to the craftsman ship of Indonasia artists and to the knowledge of Indonasia Buddhist Scholars.


Indian historians have conducted a heated debate for many decades about the relative marits of different regions with regard to the spread of Indian influenced in southeast Asia. Now a days there seems to be a consensus that, at least as far as the early centuries AD are concerned, South India and specially Tamil Nadu-deserves the gerates credit for this achievement. In subsequent periods, however, several regional shifts as well as parallel influences emanaging from various centers can be noticed. The influence of Tamil Nadu was very strong as far as the earliest inscriptions in Southeast Asia are concerned, showing as they do the influence ofteh script prevalent in the Pallava kingdom. The oldest Buddhist sculputure in Southeast Asia- the famous Buddha of Celebes – shows the marks of the Buddhist sculptures of Amarvati (Coastal Andhra) of the third to the fifth centuries AD. Early Hindu sculptures of Western Java and of the Isthmus of Siam seem to have been guided by the Pallava style of the seventh and eighth centuries AD. Early southeast Asian temple architecture similarly shows the influence of the Pallavas and Chola styles, especially on Java and in Kampuchea.

The influence of the North Indian Gupta style also made itself felt from the fifth century AD onwards. The center of this school was Sarnath, near Baranasi (Banaras), where Buddha preached his first sermon. Sarnath produced the classical Buddha image which influenced the art of Burma and Thailand, as well as that of Funan at the mouth of the Mekong. The art of the Shailendra dynastry of Java in the eighth and ninth centuries AD – of which the Borobudur is the most famous monument – was obviously influenced by what is termed the Late Gupta style of western central Java of about (c.800 AD) explicitly refers to the canstant flow of the people from Gurjardesha (Gujarat and adjacent regions) due to which this temple had been built. Indeed, the temple’s sculptures show a striking similarity with those of the late Buddhist caves of Ajanta and Ellora.

In later centuries Southeast Asia was more and more influenced by the scholars of the University of Nalanda and the style of the Pala dynasty, the last of the great Indian dynasties which bestowed royal patronage on Buddhism. The influence of Mahayana Buddhism prevailing in Bihar and Bengal under the Palas was so strong at the court of the Shailendras of Java that a Buddhist monk from ‘Gaudi’ (Bengal) with the typical Bengali name of Kumara Ghose, became rajguru of the Shailendra king and in this capacity consecrated a statue of Manjushri in the royal temple of the Shailenras in 782 AD. Bengal eastern Bihar and Orissa were at that time centers of cultural influence. These regions were in constant contact with Southeast Asia, whose painters and sculptors reflected the style of Eastern Indian in their works. Typical of this aesthetic was the special arrangement of figures surrounding the central figure. This types of arrangement can be found both in Indonasia sculptures and in the temple paintanings of Pagan (Burma) during this period.

In the same era south Indian influence emerged once more under the chola dynasty. Maritime trade was of major importance to the choals, who thereby also increased their cultural influences. The occasional military interventions of the Cholas did not detract from the peaceful cultural intercourse. At the northern coast of Sumatra the old port of Dilli, near Medan, had great Buddha sculptures evincing a local variation of the Chola style, indeed a magnificent status of the Hindu God Ganesha, in the pure Chola style, have recently been found at the same place, Close to the famous temple of Padang Lawas, central Sumatra, small but very impressive chola-style bronze sculptures of a four armed Lokanath and of Tara have been found. These sculptures are now in the museum of Jakarta. They are dated at 1039 AD, and a brief inscription containing Old Malay words in addition to Sanskrit words- but Tamil words-proves that the figures were not imported from India but were produced locally.

Nevertheless, Chola relations with southeast Asia were by no means a one-way street. It is presumed that the imperial cult of the Choals, centred on their enormous temples, was directly influenced by the grantd style of Angkor. The great tank at Gangaikondacholapuram was perhaps conceived by the Chola ruerl in the same spirit as that which moved the Combodian rulers who ordered the construction of the famous Barays (tanks) of Angkor, which are considered to be a special Indication of royal merit.

In the late thirteenth century Ad Pagan (Burma) was once more exposed to a strong current of difect Indian influence emanating from Bengal at that time conquered by Islamic rulers Nalanda had been destroyed by the end of the twelth century and large groups of monks in search of a new hoem flocked to Pagan and also to the Buddhist centers of Tibet. The beautiful paintings in the temples of Minnanthu in the eastern part of the city of Pagan may have due to them.

Islamic conquest cut off the holy places of Buddhism. A millennium of intensive contacts between India and southeast Asia have come to an end. But there was anther factor which must be mentioned in this contact. In 1190 AD Chapata, a Buddhist monk from Pagan, returned to that city after having spent ten years in Sri Lanka. In Burma he founded a branch of the Theravada school of Buddhism, established on the strict rules of the mahavihara monastery of the Sri Lanka. This led to a schism in the Burmese Buddhist order which had been established at Pagan by Shin Arahan about 150 years earlier. Shin Arahan was a follower of the South Indian school of Buddhism, which had its center at Kanchipuram. Chapata’s reform prevailed and by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD. Burma, Thailand and Combodia had adopted Theravada Buddhism of the Sri Lanka school. In Combodia this shift from Mahayana to Theravada Buddhism seesm to have been part of a socio-cultural revolution. Under the last great Knig of Angkor, Jayavarman VII (1181-1218) royan Mahayana Buddhism had become associated in the eyes of the people with the enormous buden which the king imposed upon them in order to build the enormous Buddhist temples of Angkor Thom (e.g. the gigantic Beyon).

Even in Indonesia, however, where Tantrist Buddhism with an ad-mixture of Shaivism prevailed at the courts of rulers all the way from Sumatra down to Bali, direct Indian influence rapidly receded in the thirteenth century. This was only partly due to the intervantion of Islam in India, its other cause being an upsurge of Javanese art which confined the influence of Indian art to the statues of defied. Kings erected after the death of the ruler. The outer walls of the temples were covered with Javanese reliefs which evince a great similarity to the Javanese shadowplay (Wayang kulit). The chandi Jago (thirteenth century AD) and the temples of Panantaran (fourthenth century AD) show this new Jvanese style very well. It has remained the dominant style of Bali art upto the present time. A similar trend towards the assertion of indigenous styles can also be found in the Theravads Buddhist countries. The content of the scence depicted is still derived from Hindnu mythology of Buddhist legends but the presentation clearly incorporates the respective national style.

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