India’s influence on Southeast Asian Countries and their cultures is visible the minute you step foot there. From temples worshipping Buddha, Shiva and Vishnu to painting and carvings of Ramayana and Mahabharata in Sanskrit- India’s obvious presence in their culture begs the question: When and how did this connection start?

Indians were never people to rest peacefully in their homes. They have been moving out and about since ancient times to various parts of the world for trade and different activities. Indians never went to capture, conquer or surmount another territory but to build connections. The Indian influence since prehistoric times has been so strong that the people of other countries willingly chose some or the other Indian concepts without uprooting their own local culture. One such place on Earth which is highly influenced by Indian concept is Southeast Asia.

Cambodian   The First Sermon and Buddhas Parinibbana   Walters 20101237 Indias Southeast Asian Connection

A Cambodian painting of Buddha’s first sermon

The Age Old Bond

Indian contact with South East Asia is not new; it appears to be as old as 5th century BC. Jatakas, the Buddhist texts belonging to this era refer to Indians visiting Suvarnadvipa (island of gold) which is identified with Java. Such early contacts with South East Asia are confirmed by the recent archaeological finds of semi precious stones from the coastal sites of Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. These finds belong to as far as the first century BC. According to the Chinese traditions, the first kingdom in South East Asia was founded at Funnan (Cambodia) in the 4th century AD by a Brahman known as Kaundinya who had come from India and married the local princess. However, the contact flourished from 5th century AD when inscriptions in Sanskrit language started emerging in many places. It reached its peak during AD800-AD1300 when many kings and dynasties with Indian names emerged all over Southeast Asia.

The Influence

Southeast Asia is rich in sandalwood, cloves, cardamom as well as camphor. Indians mainly came to trade these items as it formed an important item of trade between the India and the West. With them came the priest, particularly the Brahmans and the Buddhist to meet the ritual requirements of the settlers. This created a situation which spread Indian social and cultural ideas in Southeast Asia. However, it must be noted that Indian contact did not uproot the local culture. It was rather a peaceful intermixing of Indian concepts with local cultural features. And soon, Sanskrit spread in the territories of the entire Southeast Asia; and you know what they say about language: to possess language is to possess culture.

The Keen Followers, the Powerful Kings

Shailendra Empire, the most important empire of Southeast Asia was a leading naval power in the 8th century AD on account of their geographical location by virtue of which, it controlled trade between China and India along with the West.  This got them in touch with Indian rulers and soon they became the followers of Buddhism.  The famous ancient temple of Barobudur in Java dedicated to Buddha was erected by none other than the King of the Shailendra dynasty.

Borobudur mural Indias Southeast Asian Connection

Not just Buddha, the worship of Hindu gods such as Shiva and Vishnu is also quite popular since the ancient times. Till today, various temples have been found at various places which depict distinct traces of Indian influence and inspiration. One of the most famous temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu is the Angkorvat temple built in the 12th century by Surya Varman II, the then king of Kambuja (now Cambodia). The temple is surrounded by a moat, filled with water comprising a number of Shiv Lings. Besides, it has a huge gopuram (gateway) and a number of galleries, the walls of which are decorated with sculptures based on themes drawn from Ramayana and Mahabharat.

Angkor Wat from the air Indias Southeast Asian Connection

Aerial view of Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

Indians never tried to rule anyone or force their religion on to others. However, being a divine way of life, their religion has always attracted others and influenced them to embrace it willingly. That is why, we see so many ancient Indian temples all around Southeast Asia which were not built by Indians but by the local kings itself.

By Deepti Verma

Also See:
The Dark Ages of Indian Civilization
Parsis – A Miniscule Part of Indian Culture

Image Source: By Charles J Sharp (Taken from helicopter flying over Angkor Wat) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons, By frank wouters from antwerpen, belgium (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, By Cambodian (?) Thai (?) (Walters Art Museum: Home page  Info about artwork) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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