Indian Colonies And Culture In South-East Asia


To know and understand India one has to travel far in time and space, to forget for a while her present condition, with all its misery and narrowness and horror, and to have glimpses of what she was and what she did. ‘To know my country’, wrote Rabindranath Tagore, ‘one has to travel to that age, when she realized her soul and thus transcended her physical boundaries,when she revealed her being in a radiant magnanimity which illumined the eastern horizon, making her recognized as their own by those in alien shores who were awakened into a surprise of life; and not now when she has withdrawn herself into a narrow barrier of obscurity, into a miserly pride of exclusiveness, into a poverty of mind that dumbly revolves around itself in an unmeaning repetition of a past that has lost its light and has no message for the pilgrims of the future.

‘One has not only to go back in time but to travel, in mind if not in body, to various countries of Asia, where India spread out in many ways, leaving immortal testimony of her spirit, her power, and her love of beauty. How few of us know of these great achievements of our past, how few realize that if India was great in thought and philosophy, she was equally great inaction. The history that men and women from India made far from their homeland has still to be written. Most westerners still imagine that ancient history is largely concerned with the Mediterranean countries, and medieval and modern history is dominated by the quarrelsome little continent of Europe. And still they make plans for the future as if Europe only counted and the rest could be fitted in anywhere.

Sir Charles Eliot has written that

Scant justice is done to India’s position in the world by those European histories which recount the exploits of her invaders and leave the impression that her own people were a feeble dreamy folk, sundered from the rest of mankind by their seas and mountain frontiers. Sucha picture takes no account of the intellectual conquests of the Hindus. Even their political conquests were not contemptible,and are remarkable for the distance, if not the extent, of the territories occupied . . . But such military or commercial invasions are insignificant compared with the spread of Indian thought.

Eliot was probably unaware, when he wrote, of many recent discoveries in south-east Asia, which have revolutionized the conception of India’s and Asia’s past. The knowledge of those discoveries would have strengthened his argument and shown that Indian activities abroad, even apart from the spread of her thought, were very far from being insignificant. I remember when I first read, about fifteen years ago, some kind of a detailed account of the history of South-East Asia, how amazed I was and how excited I became. New panoramas opened out before me, new perspectives of history, new conceptions of India’s past, and I had to adjust all my thinking and previous notions to them. Champa, Cambodia and Angkor, Srivijaya and Majapahit suddenly rose out of the void, took living shape, vibrant with that instinctive feeling which makes the past touch the present.

Of Sailendra, the mighty man of war and conquest and other achievements, Dr. H. G. Quaritch Wales has written: ‘This great conqueror, whose achievements can only be compared with those of the greatest soldiers known to western history, and whose fame in his time sounded from Persia to China, in a decade or two built up a vast maritime empire which endured for five centuries, and made possible the marvellous flowering of Indian art and culture in Java and Cambodia. Yet in our encyclopaedias and histories… one will search in vain for a reference to this far-flung empire or to its noble founder…. The very fact of such an empire ever having existed is scarcely known, except by a handful of Oriental scholars.’ The military exploits of these early Indian colonists are important as throwing light on certain aspects of the Indian character and genius which have hitherto not been appreciated. But far more important is the rich civilization they built up in their colonies and settlements and which endured for over a thousand years.

During the past quarter of a century a great deal of light has been thrown on the history of this widespread area in south-east Asia, which is sometimes referred to as Greater India. There are many gaps still, many contradictions, and scholars continue to put forward their rival theories, but the general outline is clear enough, and sometimes there is an abundance of detail. There is no lack of material, for there are references in Indian books, and accounts of Arab travellers and, most important of all, Chinese historical accounts. There are also many old inscriptions, copper-plates, etc., and in Java and Bali there is a rich literature based on Indian sources, and often paraphrasing Indian epics and myths. Greek and Latin sources have also supplied some information. But, above all, there are the magnificent ruins of ancient monuments, especially at Angkor and Borobudur.

From the first century of the Christian era onwards wave after wave of Indian colonists spread east and south-east reaching Ceylon, Burma, Malaya, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Siam, Cambodia, and Indo-China. Some of them managed to reach Formosa, the Philippine Islands and Celebes. Even as far as Madagascar the current language is Indonesian with a mixture of Sanskrit words. It must have taken them several hundred years to spread out in this way, and possibly all of these places were not reached directly from India but from some intermediate settlement. There appear to have been four principal waves of colonization from the first century A.C. to about 900 A.C., and in between there must have been a stream of people going eastwards. But the most remarkable feature of these ventures was that they were evidently organized by the state. Widely scattered colonies were started almost simultaneously and almost always the settlements were situated on strategic points and on important trade routes. The names that were given to these settlements were old Indian names. Thus Cambodia, as it is known now, was called Kamboja, which was a well-known town in ancient India, in Gandhara or the Kabul valley. This itself indicates roughly the period of this colonization, for at that time Gandhara (Afghanistan) must have been an important part of Aryan India.

What led to these extraordinary expeditions across perilous seas and what was the tremendous urge behind them? They could not have been thought of or organized unless they had been preceded for many generations or centuries by individuals or small groups intent on trade. In the most ancient Sanskrit books there are vague references to these countries of the east. It is not always easy to identify the names given in them but sometimes there is no difficulty. Java is clearly from ‘Yavadvipa’ or the Island of Millet. Even today java means barley or millet in India. The other names given in the old books are also usually associated with minerals, metals, or some industrial or agricultural product. This nomenclature itself makes one think of trade.

Dr. R. C. Majumdar has pointed out that ‘If literature can be regarded as a fair reflex of the popular mind, trade and commerce must have been a supreme passion in India in the centuries immediately preceding and following the Christian era.’ All this indicates an expanding economy and a constant search for distant markets.

This trade gradually increased in the third and second centuries B.C. and then these adventurous traders and merchants may have been followed by missionaries, for this was just the period after Ashoka. The old stories in Sanskrit contain many accounts of perilous sea voyages and of shipwrecks. Both Greek and Arab

East’ (Calcutta, 1927), and his ‘Svarnadvipa’ (Calcutta, 1937). Also to the publications of the Greater India Society (Calcutta)

accounts show that there was regular maritime intercourse between India and the Far East at least as early as the first century A.C.The Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Islands lay on the direct trade route between China and India, Persia, Arabia, and the Mediterranean. Apart from their geographical importance these countries contained valuable minerals, metals, spices, and timber.Malaya was then, as now, famous for its tin mines. Probably the earliest voyages were along the east coast of India-Kalinga (Orissa),Bengal, Burma and then down the Malay Peninsula. Later the direct sea routes from east and south India were developed. It was along this sea route that many Chinese pilgrims came to India.Fa Hsien in the fifth century passed Java and complains that there were many heretics then, meaning people following the Brahminical faith and not Buddhism.

It is clear that shipbuilding was a well-developed and flourishing industry in ancient India. We have some details and particulars of the ships built-in those days. Many Indian ports are mentioned. South Indian (Andhra) coins of the second and third centuries A.C. bear the device of a two-masted ship. The Ajanta Frescoes depict the conquest of Ceylon and ships carrying elephants are shown.

The huge states and empires that developed from the original Indian settlements were essentially naval powers interested in trade and, therefore, in the control of the sea-routes. They came into conflict with each other on the seas, and at least once one of them challenged the Chola State of South India. But the Cholas were also strong on the seas and they sent a naval expedition which subdued for a while the Sailendra Empire.

There is an interesting Tamil inscription of 1088 A.C. which refers to a ‘Corporation of the Fifteen Hundred.’ This was apparently a union of traders who were described in it as ‘brave-men, born to wander over many countries ever since the beginning of the Krita age, penetrating the regions of the six continents by land and water routes, and dealing in various articles such as horses, elephants, precious stones, perfumes, and drugs,either wholesale or in retail.

This was the background of the early colonizing ventures of the Indian people. Trade and adventure and the urge for expansion drew them to these eastern lands which were comprehensively described in old Sanskrit books as the Svarnabhumi,the Land of Gold or as Svarnadvipa, the Island of Gold. The very name had a lure about it. The early colonists settled down,more followed and thus a peaceful penetration went on. There was a fusion of the Indians with the races they found there, and also the evolution of a mixed culture. It was only then, probably,that the political element came from India, some Kshatriya princes,cadets of the noble families, in search of adventure and dominion.

It is suggested, from a similarity of names, that many of these people who came were from the wide-spread Malva tribe in India—hence the Malay race which has played such an important part in the whole of Indonesia. A part of central India is still known as Malwa. The early colonists are supposed to have gone from Kalinga on the east coast (Orissa) but it was the Hindu Pallava Kingdom of the south that made an organized effort at colonization. The Sailendra dynasty, which became so famous in south-east Asia, is believed to have come from Orissa. At that time Orissa was a stronghold of Buddhism but the ruling dynasty was Brahminical.

All these Indian colonies were situated between two great countries and two great civilizations—India and China. Some of them, on the Asiatic mainland, actually touched the frontiers of the Chinese Empire, the others were on the direct trade route between China and India. Thus they were influenced by both these countries and a mixed Indo-Chinese civilization grew up but such was the nature of these two cultures that there was no conflict between the two and mixed patterns of different shapes and varying contents emerged. The countries of the mainland— Burma, Siam, Indo-China—were more influenced by China, the islands and the Malay Peninsula had more of the impress of India. As a rule the methods of government and the general philosophy of life came from China, religion and art from India. The mainland countries depended for their trade largely on China and there were frequent exchanges of ambassadors. But even in Cambodia and in the mighty remains of Angkor the only artistic influence that has been so far detected came from India. But Indian art was flexible and adaptable and in each country it flowered afresh and in many new ways, always retaining that basic impress which it derived from India. Sir John Marshall has referred to ‘the amazingly vital and flexible character of Indian art’ and he points out how both Indian and Greek art had the common capacity to ‘adapt themselves to suit the needs of every country, race, and religion with which they came into contact.

Indian art derives its basic character from certain ideals associated with the religious and philosophic outlook of India. As religion went from India to all these eastern lands, so also went this basic conception of art. Probably the early colonies were definitely Brahminical and Buddhism spread later. The two existed side by side as friends and mixed forms of popular worship grew up. This Buddhism was chiefly of the Mahayana type, easily adaptable, and both Brahminism and Buddhism, under the influence of local habits and traditions, had probably moved away from the purity of their original doctrines. In later years there were mighty conflicts between a Buddhist state and a

Brahminical state but these were essentially political and economic wars for control of trade and sea routes. The history of these Indian colonies covers a period of about thirteen hundred years or more, from the early beginnings in the first or second century A.C. to the end of the fifteenth century. The early centuries are vague and not much is known except that many small states existed. Gradually they consolidate themselves and by the fifth century great cities take shape. By the eighth century seafaring empires have arisen, partly centralized but also exercising a vague suzerainty over many lands. Sometimes these dependencies became independent and even presumed to attack the central power and this has led to some confusion in our understanding of those periods.

The greatest of these states was the Sailendra Empire, or the empire of Sri Vijaya, which became the dominant power both on sea and land in the whole of Malaysia by the eighth century. This was till recently supposed to have its origin and capital in Sumatra but later researches indicate that it began in the Malay Peninsula. At the height of its power it included Malaya, Ceylon, Sumatra, part of Java, Borneo, Celebes, the Philippines, and part of Formosa, and probably exercised suzerainty over Cambodia and Champa (Annam). It was a Buddhist Empire.

But long before the Sailendra dynasty had established and consolidated this empire, powerful states had grown up in Malaya, Cambodia, and Java. In the northern part of the Malay Peninsula, near the borders of Siam, extensive ruins, says R. J. Wilkinson, ‘point to the past existence of powerful states and a high standard of wealth and luxury.’ In Champa (Annam) there was the city of Pandurangam in the third century and in the fifth century Kamboja became a great city. A great ruler, Jayavarman, united the smaller states in the ninth century and built up the Cambodian Empire with its capital at Angkor. Cambodia was probably under the suzerainty of the Sailendras from time to time, but this must have been nominal, and it reasserted its independence in the ninth century. This Cambodian state lasted for nearly four hundred years under a succession of great rulers and great builders, Jayavarman, Yashovarman, Indravarman, Suryavarman. The capital became famous in Asia and was known as ‘Angkor the Magnificent,’ a city of a million inhabitants, larger and more splendid than the Rome of the Caesars. Near the city stood the vast temple of Angkor Vat. The empire of Cambodia flourished till the end of the thirteenth century, and the account of a Chinese envoy who visited it in 1297 describes the wealth and splendour of its capital. But suddenly it collapsed, so suddenly that some buildings were left unfinished. There were external attacks and internal troubles, but the major disaster seems to have been the silting up of the Mekong river, which converted the approaches to the city into marshlands and led to its abandonment.

Java also broke away from the Sailendra Empire in the ninth century, but even so the Sailendras continued as the leading power in Indonesia till the eleventh century, when they came into conflict with the Chola power of South India. The Cholas were victorious and held sway over large parts of Indonesia for over fifty years. On the withdrawal of the Cholas the Sailendras recovered and continued as an independent state for nearly three hundred years more. But it was no longer the dominant power in the eastern seas and in the thirteenth century began the disruption of its empire. Java grew at its expense as also did the Thais (Siam).In the second half of the fourteenth century Java completely conquered the Sailendra Empire of Srivijaya.

This Javan state which now rose into prominence had a long history behind it. It was a Brahminical state which had continued its attachment to the older faith in spite of the spread of Buddhism. It had resisted the political and economic sway of the Sailendra Empire of Srivijaya even when more than half of Java itself was occupied by the latter. It consisted of a community of sea-faring folk intent on trade and passionately fond of building great structures in stone. Originally it was called the Kingdom of Singhasari, but in 1292 a new city, Majapahit, was founded and from this grew the empire of Majapahit which succeeded Srivijaya as the dominant power in south-east Asia. Majapahit insulted some Chinese envoys sent by Kublai Khan and was punished for this by a Chinese expedition. Probably the Javanese learnt from the Chinese the use of gunpowder and this helped them finally to defeat the Sailendras.

Majapahit was a highly centralized, expanding empire. Its system of taxation is said to have been very well-organized and special attention was paid to trade and its colonies. There was a commerce department of government, a colonial department,and departments for public health, war, the interior, etc. There was also a supreme court of justice consisting of a number of judges. It is astonishing how well this imperialist state was organized. Its chief business was trade from India to China.One of its well-known rulers was the Queen Suhita.

The war between Majapahit and Srivijaya was a very cruel one and though it ended in the complete victory of the former,it sowed the seeds of fresh conflict. From the ruins of the Sailendra power, allied to other elements, notably Arabs and Muslim converts, rose the Malaya power in Sumatra and Malacca. The command of the eastern seas, which had so long been held by South India or the Indian colonies, now passed to the Arabs.Malacca rose into prominence as a great centre of trade and seat of political power, and Islam spread over the Malay Peninsula and the islands. It was this new power that finally put and end to
Majapahit towards the end of the fifteenth century. But within a few years, in 1511, the Portuguese, under Albuquerque, came and took possession of Malacca. Europe had reached the Far East through her newly developing sea power.

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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