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Ancient India in South East Asia

Abhishek Singh Amar

  By the early centuries of the Christian era, many parts of Southeast Asia and India were part of the world-trading network. Though this period was marked by the domination of Indian Ocean by roman trade, it also witnessed the establishment of trade relations between India and Southeast Asia. It has been argued that this relationship further resulted in the colonization of south east Asia, but the argument has been firmly countered in the wake of recent research, which emphasize on the mutual influence, rather than partial view of one-sided influence. In this paper, an attempt has been made to study the process of state-formation vis-à-vis the interplay of trade to examine the role-played by indigenous factors and the influence of ‘indic’ elements. It also presents an analysis of relations behind the increased economic activities (trade also) between India and Southeast Asia from 5-6th century onwards and the resultant socio-political, economic and cultural impact of this relationship on both regions.

The sources for this early relationship between India and Southeast Asia and the scanty and ambiguous in nature. South east Asia has been portrayed and referred as the ‘golden island’ or "Golden Peninsula" or Yavadipa or Suvarnadipa in the Indian literature from the first centuries AD Apart from Ramayana, the Buddhist Jataka fables also mention about south east Asia. Chinese records provide a satisfactory, yet still incomplete view of the burgeoning Southeast Asian commerce. In the last few decades, archaeological excavations at various sites in southeast Asia has resulted in the yielding of various remains, which presents an entirely different and new picture of the region. The availability of epigraphic sources and inscriptions at various places has been of great use in reconstructing the history of this region. The various categories of inscriptions are Sanskrit, Tamil and indigenous language inscriptions.

Cultural Dependency?

As far as state-formation is concerned, the maritime region has been well served partly due to paucity of intractability of the data, and partly to the fact that most of the scholars dealing with early history of maritime regions are struggling to produce adequate description of the states of the later first millenium AD . The reflections of the Indian ideas, beliefs and religious culture upon the monumental, artistic and literary remains of the early historic states of south east Asia made the scholar argue for the colonisation/Indianisation of the region. Coedes argued that the contact with the Brahmana-Buddhist culture of India resulted in the formation of the states that were culturally dependent on India. Mabbett argued for the borrowing of ideology and leadership apart from the agricultural technology that made possible the establishment of the first states in the region.

This proposition began to be questioned when scholars raised the problem of the identity of the Indian incomers and the circumstances under which they arrived and interacted with the local population. Van Heur argued that the local populace was active participants in the process, though he argued that necessary political and social skills for state-building were acquired from India as these essential ingredients were assumed to be missing in local societies. He argued that the local rulers, having learned of Indian culture through interaction with Indians on the maritime route, recognized the advantages of certain elements of Indian civilization and drew from the Indian tradition for their own benefit.

O. W. Wolters stressed the idea of a mutual sharing process in the evolution of Indianised statecraft in Southeast Asia. The initial contact with the knowledge of Indian cultural tradition came through the south East Asian sailors. The local-rulers, recognizing the fact that Indian culture provided certain opportunities for administrative and technological advantages vis-à-vis their rivals, followed up on these contacts. Thus the initiative was south east Asian, not Indian, and it was a slow process of cultural synthesis rather than Indianisation made possible by the imposition of Hinduism by the influx of the Brahmanas. He continues that southeast Asian region was characterized by the tribal societies, ruled by chiefs and thus, there was no indigenous sense of kingdom and its supra-territorial demands of loyalty among the south east Asians themselves. The rulers/chiefs rather than developing state institutions initiated religious cults to command over the native population.

Der Casparis argued against this proposition of Indianisation and its continuity from early centuries of the Christian era to the later times as first contact was made in the peripheral areas which lacked continuity to central areas (east Kalimantan & 8th century Mataram). He substituted the proposition by a complicated network of relations, both between various parts of each of the two great regions and between the two regions themselves. Apart from south India, Northeastern India (Bengal, Bizarre and Orrin) also played an important part and at time, predominated in some regions. Same is the case with Southeast Asia.

Kulke proposed ‘convergence hypothesis’ to highlight the relative lateness of state-formation in the eastern and southern portions of Indian subcontinent with which south east Asia had the most contact. He points out that the convergence is well demonstrated in the beginning of temple construction in Java within decades of its inception in south India.

Paul Wheatly argued that the early southeast Asian society was marked by chiefdom, among whom the instrumental exchanges characteristic of a reciprocative mode of integration dominated. Entrepreneurial advances associated with developing commerce created social imbalances as ‘redistributive exchange’ system emerged-(Funan’s case). He holds that several southeast Asian societies developed into ‘mobilisative sectors’ economics, which developed organizational mechanisms for the acquisition, control and disposal of resources in pursuit of collective goals (generally political) and impersonalism took hold. This led to the development of state-institutions and transformation of chiefs into rulers. The process is detailed but what leads to such changes has not been discussed by Wheatly, as there exist changing views concerning the nature of early exchange. The important point on his suggestions concerning the potential destabilizing effects of partial borrowings of economic and political institutions from other cultures, which may be expected to provoke continuing change with the recipient cultures until a new equilibrium can be established.

Trade & State Formation

The importance of trade in political developments and the possibility of archaeological recovery of the phase of transition from lower to higher levels of political integration through study of evidence from changing trade patterns have begun to be exposed in maritime south east Asia. Archaeological sources have supported the argument that long-distance sea trade itself played a key role in stimulating political development which eventually led to the formation of state. J.W. Christie divides the maritime Southeast Asia into three distinct groupings. The first grouping covers the end of the pre-historic period in the maritime region (5th century BC to 5th century AD), the archaeological remains of which includes megalithic burial sites, inhumation, hoards, boat fragments and settlement sites. The second grouping comprises several set of early inscriptions on stone found in the region, a few other archaeological remains and some other vague references in Chinese records, dating 5th and 6th centuries AD The third grouping dates 7th to 8th centuries AD , and comprises further collections of inscriptions, some rather more reliable Chinese and a number of monumental structures and structural remains assumed to have been produced during this period. Now, it is pertinent to discuss the process of state-formation in few parts of Southeast Asia, as it will help locating the role of indigenous factors/developments.

The two foci of early state-formation in the maritime Southeast Asia were the Malacca Straits and the southern sea of the Java shore. These were also the centers of wealth accumulation and trading activities and shared a number of basic political concepts. Political developments occurred in the region owing to the response given by the coastal communities to the same external economic stimuli. The increasing wealth in these two sub-regions was increasingly concentrated in the hands of politically powerful elite who exercised some control over prestige-goods economies. Moreover, the contacts with other regions brought advanced metallurgical techniques and enhanced resource-base of the region to trade. This expansion of economic base of a number of trading communities, possibly in conjunction with increased exposure to more developed political cultures, led to the formation of a series, first of chiefdoms, and then, of nascent states, on the relevant coasts of peninsula and the western islands. Same was the case with Funan, which rose on the account of developed trade and port facilities owing to strategic location and supported by an agrarian base. K.R. Hall argues that Funan may be considered as the first south east Asian ‘state’ as it was an economic center, with an economic base that supported a more sophisticated level of political integration, and acted as the locus of contact between various regional and local marketing networks. Thus the pre-existing indigenous cultural and ethnic diversity were synthesized with external ideology to create a new systematic higher order cultural base. This is documented in the growing use of Sanskrit in Funan (Sanskrit inscription of 3rd century AD), use of Indian vocabulary and technical knowledge.

Thus trade appears to have been key to economic growth control of trade appears to have provided the key to political development. Moreover, trade in this region was information maximizing as it carried a substantial baggage of information and ideas alongwith material commodities. This suggests that the carriers of most of this trade were members of maritime Southeast Asian communities rather than outsiders. Here, an important point to be noted is that none of the communities on the east coast of the Indian sub-continent or on the mainland of southeast Asia, involved in trade at this time, belonged to sophisticated or powerful state and all these communities were in the process of transforming themselves politically. Thus interaction at this time was on a fairly equal basis. Thus it is evident that in the early period before 200 BC, the above was the case whereas till 300 AD the other argument of outside stimuli would have been the case. The economic stimulation came from India and China, whereas the political and cultural stimulation of the region was primarily from Indian sub-continent, probably carried along Buddhist commercial network. The period between 300-600 AD witnessed several fully formed states in this maritime region. Clear differences began to develop during this period between coastal trading states of the Malice straits and the increasingly mixed economy. The coastal trading states extended the use of Buddhism as a commercial networking religion, pulling ports of north and west Borneo into their cultural orbit. The elite groups in the states of the Java sea and their dependencies began to add elements of Hinduism-with its royal and agrarian overtones-to the already existing Buddhist cum ‘Megalithic’ cultural mix of the ports, as they began to attach farming population of the interior to their coastal centers. Lastly by the 7th-9th century AD, when states in both the sub-regions began to produce literature in the indigenous language, it is apparent that the old, small states were being increasingly absorbed into larger, more complex political entities.

Trade with India

After discussing the process of state-formation in the Southeast Asian region, owing more to indigenous factors with the restricted use of Indian elements, it is significant to discuss the trade between the two regions that brought about this interaction and consequent influences. K.R. Hall has presented four reasons behind growth of this trade. Firstly, historians have theorized that gold became difficult to acquire during this time due to internal disturbances in the central Asian steppe region and slowing down of flow of Roman gold coins. As a consequence Indian merchants ventured into Southeast Asia looking for the mythical wealth of the "Islands of Gold". Secondly, it was due to revolution in boat construction and navigation techniques, which increased the sizes of the ships and sailing efficiency. Thirdly, the adequate ideological support provided by Buddhism played a great role as evident in the distribution of outstanding Dipankara statues of Buddha throughout southeast Asia. And last reason was the Chinese interest. Much of the interaction between Indian and maritime southeast Asian economies were driven by interest in the trade of the South China Sea and the eastern seas of Indonesia. Thus the Southeast Asian trade was entirely dependent upon the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

In the first three centuries of the Christian era, the trading relation with India is established by the distribution of Roman-Indian Rouletted pottery at few coasts including north coasts of Java and Bali and the coast of central Vietnam. In the period between 300-600 AD, Buddhism, pilgrimage grew which reflects commercial links with India and China.

The Southeast Asian trade is well documented after 7th century AD onwards. The 7th and 8th century AD witnessed expansion in volume of Asian sea trade involving maritime southeast, due to Chinese interest and parallel rise in the demand from the prosperous centers on the east coast of India. The regions which benefited the most were Javanese State of Ho-ling and Malacca straits port hierarchy of Srivijaya, which also created a bi-polar pattern of trade networking in the archipelago. This was followed by a decline of trade in the late 8th and the 9th centuries owing to the disintegration of the Pallava states in south India. This argument is reinforced not only by epigraphic data from the peninsula and northeast India, but also by archaeological evidence that a postage route across Isthmus of Kra was in use for some decades in that century.

The period between early tenth and the early thirteenth centuries was marked by an economic boom, benefiting maritime Southeast Asia the most and it affected sea trade in both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The dominant economic force in the eastern sector of the Indian Ocean was the grouping of several south Indian merchant associations or Banigrama, which operated under the aegis of the expanding Chola Empire. Trade in southern and eastern India began to benefit from political consolidation under the Cholas. The maritime trade boom of this period included greater commercial activity, volumes of trade, range of commodities and the number of regular participants were far greater and the region directly involved was far more extensive. The effects on the Indonesian archipelago included increasing carrier of larger volume, lower value cargoes between islands as well as a number of technological and agricultural innovations, particularly in Java and Bali, stimulated by a combination of overseas market opportunities and domestic market pressures.

The Chola raids on many southeast Asian ports including Srivijaya itself seems to be more because of the economic interest, rather than mere expansion of territory. Moreover, the effects of these raids appear, for the most part, to have been minimal and transitory and soon Srivijaya grew wealthy. The decline of Srivijaya trade after 1028 AD has been countered by Christie as one points to a diplomatic decision by Chinese court to restrict the burgeoning number of trade missions to port areas. In the context of Kedah conquest, the archaeological remains, though indicate the presence of Indian pottery; argue that the port population was largely of local extraction (religious remains) and thus counters the conquest theory.

In southern India, a series of merchant associations developed powerful networks and vertical monopolies, from tied manufacturers to private armies. These are of particular interest in relation to trade with Sumatra and the Malaya peninsula, and to Javanese ands Balinese responses to the growth in trade during the same period. During this period (10th to 13th century AD), there occurred a shift in focus of merchant associations from the west coasts towards the east, stimulated by increasing trade with the east, was accompanied by a broadening of the range of commodities traded (Iron, cotton, textile). The effects on India were developments in the weaving and dying industries as introduction of the Draw Loom and of the spinning wheel and revival of coin-minting.

The Indian trade interest in the eastern coast of the Indian Ocean is well reflected in the Tamil language inscriptions and south Indian religious remains found on the eastern fringe of the Indian Ocean, from Burma down to Sumatra. Many of these are bilingual inscriptions which either bear donations or gifts made to religious centers (Monastery and Vishnu and Siva temples) or gives description of trade and the articles involved in trade. These inscriptions refer to South Indian merchant associations- Maningramam, actively involved in transit trade bypassing the Malacca strait; and Nanadesi branch of the Ayyarole. Most of the 13th century Tamil inscriptions do not mention merchant associations, perhaps reflecting the sharp decline of this economic power during this period as evident also from the epigraphic records within southern India.

Tamil inscriptions and religious and other remains suggested establishment of the South Indian enclaves to the west of the Malacca straits. These conclaves were confined to regions accessible directly from the Indian Ocean dure to the firm hold of Srivijaya over the groupings, involving very mixed personnel and structures of southeast Asian along with South Asian, as suggested by evidences from Java and Bali, such as formation of the Banigrama. It was followed by the appearance of a local version of the Banigrama in the major north-coast parts of both the islands like at Julah which was a predominantly local merchant association, along with some foreigners. They were indigenous organizations collected to the local economic system as tax farmers licensed by the rulers. This trend was short-lived. The abandonment of the term may reflect both the retreat of organized south Indian groups to the western edge of the archipelago and the fact that in Javanese and Balinese states the relations which tax-farming merchants maintained with the political leadership were essentially personal, patron-client links. Individual foreign traders from south India were present in maritime Southeast Asian ports as merchants and tax-farmers, both were before and after the appearance of Banigrama inscriptions.

The items of trade included crops like rice,areca nuts, pepper, mysobalans , iron, cotton (raw and textile) , thread, wax, honey, sandalwood, aloeswood, silk, rose water, yak’s tail, camphor oil, civet, horses, elephants, medicinal herbs, metals(gold,silver), semi-precious stones, pearls etc. There occurred noticeable changes in the patterns of domestic consumption and production owing to large volumes of foreign imports and their varied distribution. As far as ports are concerned, although the Malacca straits port-hierarchy of Srivijaya played an important role inn manufacturing largely indigenous hold over the sea-trade links eastwards from the India-Ocean, partly by forcing powerful south Indian merchant associations to trade on local terms, it was the state of Mataram in Java played the key role in moulding maritime southeast Asia’s shared economic culture.

Ritual as a Legitimising Tool

In context of influence of Indic elements, it was used as a means of elevating the status of indigenous rulers both in the eyes of their own people and with the visiting Indian merchants whose presence was essential to continue prosperity.

The Indian rituals and celestial deities provided the sacro-religious legitimacy to local rulers. The Brahmanas played an important part by performing rituals and concocting genealogies for the local rulers, thus providing legitimacy. By 10th century AD many texts like few parvans of Mahabharata were translated into local languages like Javanese prose. Most of Sanskrit language inscriptions were largely religious in context. The continuing impact of cultural borrowings from India was, however reflected in these reflections by the heavy use of Sanskrit conceptual vocabulary, the integration of some Indian weights and measures into the local system and the adoption of Sanskrit or Sanskritised names. The presence of two Buddha statues at Kotachina (Sumatra) points to the influence of Chola sculpture and thus the foreign trade (imported material to build statues). In Kadiri period in east Java, predominance of Vaishnavism is reflected in court poetry of old Javanese literature. Other examples are the great temple of Angkorvat in Cambodia. Translations of many texts took place like Raghuvamsa. Apart from Buddhist sculpture, an Indian affinity is reflected in the particular from of Tantricism in east Java. Islam in these regions also came from Indian subcontinent, not from Arabic world.


It may be argued that the Southeast Asian states borrowed extensively from the broader Indian religious traditions in manner that suggests a self-conscious balancing of ideas thought to be useful for the maintenance of power in economies at once agrarian and mercantile. Indian export trade provoked shifts in the habits of consumption that in turn stimulated innovations in the local production. The religious and cultural impact was restricted to the rulers and the elite sections of the society and did not make many inroads into the local level. Thus the economic competition and mutual influence rather than forceful confrontation characterized the relations between Southeast Asia and India, which counters the Indianisation/colonization theory.

  • Abraham,M, 1988, Two Medieval Merchant Guilds of South India, New delhi, Ch 5-p227-281.
  • Christie, J.W., 1995, State formation In early Maritime Southeast Asia, BTLV
  • Christie, J.W., 1999, The Banigrama in the Indian Ocean and the Java sea during the early Asian trade boom, Communarute’s maritimes de l’ocean indien, Brepols
  • De Casparis, J.G., 1983, India and Maritime Southeast Asia: A lasting Relationship, Third Sri Lanka Endowment Fund Lecture.
  • Hall, K.R., 1985, Maritime Trade and State development in early Southeast Asia, Honolulu.
  • Walters, O.W., 1967, Early Indonesian Commerce, Ithaca.