History of Indian influence on Southeast Asia

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Southeast Asia was under Indian influence starting around 300 BC until around the 15th century, when Hindu-Buddhist influence was absorbed by local politics. Kingdoms in the south east coast of the Indian Subcontinent had established trade, cultural and political relations with Southeast Asian kingdoms in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Malay Peninsula, Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Unlike the Hindu kingdoms within the Indian sub-continent, the Pallava kingdom of the southeastern coast of the peninsula did not have culture restrictions on crossing the sea. This led to more exchanges through the sea routes into Southeast Asia. Whereas Buddhism thrived and became the main religion in many countries of the Southeast Asia, it died off on the Indian subcontinent.

The peoples of maritime Southeast Asia — present day Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines — are thought to have migrated southwards from southern China sometime between 2500 and 1500 BC. The influence of the civilization of the subcontinent gradually became predominant among them, and among the peoples of the Southeast Asian mainland.

Southern Indian traders, adventurers, teachers and priests continued to be the dominating influence in Southeast Asia until about 1500 CE. Hinduism and Buddhism both spread to these states from India and for many centuries existed there with mutual toleration. Eventually the states of the mainland became mainly Buddhist.



The first of these Hinduised states to achieve widespread importance was the Kingdom of Funan founded in the 1st century CE in what is now Cambodia — according to legend, after the marriage of a Brahman into the family of the local chief. These local inhabitants were Khmer people. Funan flourished for some 500 years. It carried on a prosperous trade with India and China, and its engineers developed an extensive canal system. An elite practised statecraft, art and science, based on Indian culture. Vassal kingdoms spread to southern Vietnam in the east and to the Malay Peninsula in the west.[citation needed]

Chenla and Angkor[edit]

In late 6th century CE, dynastic struggles caused the collapse of the Funan empire. It was succeeded by another Hindu-Khmer state, Chen-la, which lasted until the 9th century. Then a Khmer king, Jayavarman II (about 800-850) established a capital at Angkor in central Cambodia. He founded a cult which identified the king with the Hindu God Shiva – one of the triad of Hindu gods, Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Shiva the god symbolising destruction and reproduction. The Angkor empire flourished from the 9th to the early 13th century. It reached the peak of its fame under Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century, when its conquests extended into Thailand in the west (where it had conquered the Mon kingdom of Dwaravati) and into Champa in the east. Its most celebrated memorial is the great temple of Angkor Wat, built early in the 12th century. This summarises the position on the South East Asian mainland until about the 12th century. Meanwhile, from about the 6th century, and until the 14th century, there was a series of great maritime empires based on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java. In early days these Indians came mostly from the ancient kingdom of Kalinga, on the south-eastern coast of India. Indians in Indonesia are still known as "Klings", derived from Kalinga.

Burma (Myanmar)[edit]

At the western end of the South East Asian mainland, Lower Burma was occupied by the Mon peoples who are thought to have come originally from western China. In Lower Burma they supplanted an earlier people: the Pyu, of whom little is known except that they practised Hinduism. The Mons strongly influenced by their contacts with Indian traders during the 3rd century B.C adopted Indian literature and art and the Buddhist religion. The Mins were the earliest known civilization in Southeast Asia. They consisted of several Mon kingdoms, spreading from Lower Burma into much of Thailand, where they founded the kingdom of Dvaravati. Their principal settlements in Burma were Thaton and Pegu. From about the 9th century onwards Tibeto-Burman tribes moved south from the hills east of Tibet into the Irrawaddy plain. They founded their capital at Pagan in Upper Burma in the 10th century. They eventually absorbed the Mons, their cities and adopted the Mon civilization and Buddhism. The Pagan kingdom united all Burma under one rule for 200 years - from the 11th to 13th centuries. The zenith of its power occurred during the reign of King Anawratha (1044–1077), who conquered the Mon kingdom of Thaton. King Anawratha built many of the temples for which Pagan is famous. It is estimated that some 13,000 temples once existed within the city, which some 5,000 still stand.


The 9th-century Shivaistic temple of Prambanan in Central Java near Yogyakarta, the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia

The Indonesian archipelago saw the rise of Hinduised empires of Sumatra and Java. In the islands of Southeast Asia the first organised state to achieve fame was the Hindu Malay kingdom of Srivijaya, with its capital at Palembang in southern Sumatra. Its commercial pre-eminence was based on command of the sea route from India to China between Sumatra and the Malay peninsula (later known as the Straits of Malacca). In the 6th – 7th centuries Srivijaya succeeded Funan as the leading state in Southeast Asia. Its ruler was the overlord of the Malay peninsula and western Java as well as Sumatra. Like most of the early kingdoms of Soutehast Asia, Srivijaya was Dravidian in culture and administration, and Buddhism became firmly entrenched there. The expansion of Srivijaya was resisted in eastern Java, where the powerful Buddhist Sailendra dynasty arose. (From the 7th century onwards there was great activity in temple building in eastern Java. The most impressive of the ruins is at Borobudur, considered to have been the largest Buddhist temple in the world.) Sailendra rule spread to southern Sumatra, and up to Malay peninsula to Cambodia (where it was replaced by the Angkor kingdom). In the 9th century, the Sailendras moved to Sumatra, and a union of Srivijaya and the Sailendras formed an empire which dominated much of Southeast Asia for the next five centuries. With the departure of the Sailendras a new kingdom appeared in eastern Java, which reverted from Buddhism to Hinduism. After 500 Years of supremacy Srivijaya was superseded by Majapahit. The various Indianised states and empires of this first 1500 years CE, though founded by Indian colonisation and maintaining diplomatic contacts with India, remained politically independent of the Indian kingdoms. The only exception to this was the temporary conquest of Malaya by the Chola kingdom of southern India in the 11th century.

In the 10th century, Mataram, challenged the supremacy of Srivijaya, resulting in the destruction of the Mataram capital by Srivijaya early in the 11th century. Restored by King Airlangga (c. 1020–1050), the kingdom split on his death; and the new state of Kediri, in eastern Java, became the centre of Javanese culture for the next two centuries, spreading its influence to the eastern part of island Southeast Asia. The spice trade was now becoming of increasing importance, as the demand by European countries for spices grew. Before they learned to keep sheep and cattle alive in the winter, they had to eat salted meat, made palatable by the addition of spices. One of the main sources was the Maluku Islands (or "Spice Islands") in Indonesia, and Kediri became a strong trading nation. In the 13th century, however, the Kediri dynasty was overthrown by a revolution, and Singhasari arose in east Java. The domains of this new state expanded under the rule of its warrior-king Kertanegara. He was killed by a prince of the previous Kediri dynasty, who then established the last great Hindu-Javanese kingdom, Majapahit. By the middle of the 14th century Majapahit controlled most of Java, Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, part of Borneo, the southern Celebes and the Moluccas. It also exerted considerable influence on the mainland.


The Malay peninsula was settled by prehistoric people 80,000 years ago. Another batch of peoples the deutro Malay migrated from southern China within 10,000 years ago. Upon arrival in the peninsular some of them mix with the Australoid. This gave the appearance of the Malays. It was suggested that the visiting ancient Dravidians named the peoples of Malaysia peninsular and Sumatera as "Malay ur" meant hills and city based on the geographical terrain of Peninsular Malay and Sumatera. Claudius Ptolemaeus (Greek: Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος; c. 90 – c. 168), known in English as Ptolemy, was a Greek geographer, astronomer, and astrologer who had written about Golden Chersonese, which indicates trade with the Indian Sub-Continent and China has existed since the 1st century AD. Archeologist have found relic and ruin in Bujang Valley settlement dating back at 110AD. The settlement is believed to be the oldest civilization in Southeast Asia influenced by ancient Indians. Today, Malaysians of direct Indian descent account for approximately 7 per cent of the total population of Malaysia (approximately. 2 million)[citation needed]


Thailand's relationship with India spans over a thousand years and understandably resulted in an adaptation of Hindu culture to suit the Thai environment. Evidence of strong religious, cultural and linguistic links abound.

The single most significant cultural contribution of India, for which Thailand is greatly indebted to India, is Buddhism. Propagated in Thailand in the 3rd century B.C. by Buddhist monks sent by King Asoka, it was adopted as the state religion of Thailand and has ruled the hearts and minds of Thais ever since. Presently 58,000,000 Thais, an overwhelming 94% of the total Thai populace adheres to Buddhism.

Map of South-east Asia c. 900 CE, showing the Khmer Empire in red and Haripunjaya in light green.

Historically, the cultural and economic interaction between the two countries can be traced to roughly around the 6th century B.C.. However, direct contact can be said to have begun only in the 3rd century B.C. when King Asoka sent Buddhist monks to propagate Buddhism in the Indo-Chinese peninsula. Besides Buddhism, Thailand has also adopted other typically Indian religious and cultural traditions. The ceremonies and rites especially as regards the Monarchy evidence a strong Hindu influence.

The Indians who moved into Thailand in the Sukhothai period (1275–1350) were either merchants who came to Siam or Thailand, for the purpose of trading or Brahmans who played an important role in the Siamese court as experts in astrology and in conducting ceremonies. The first group of Brahmans who entered Siam before the founding of Sukhothai as the first capital of Siam (1275–1350) popularized Hindu beliefs and traditions. During the Sukhothai period Brahman temples already existed. Brahmans conducted ceremonies in the court. The concepts of divine kingship and royal ceremonies are clear examples of the influence of Brahmanism.

The Coronation of the Thai monarch are practiced more or less in its original form even up to the present reign. The Thai idea that the king is a reincarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu was adopted from Indian tradition. (Though this belief no longer exists today, the tradition to call each Thai king of the present Chakri dynasty Rama (Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu) with an ordinal number, such as Rama I, Rama II etc. is still in practice.)

In the Ayutthaya period (1350–1767), more Tamil merchants entered the South of the country by boat as evidenced by the statues of Hindu gods excavated in the South.

After the year 1855, the Tamils who migrated to Thailand can be classified into three groups according to the religion they believed in, namely, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism


Thai literature and drama draws great inspiration from Indian arts and legend. The Hindu epic of Ramayana is as popular in Thailand as it is in India. Thailand has adapted the Ramayana to suit the Thai lifestyle in the past and has come up with its own version of the Ramayana, namely, the ‘Ramakien’.

Two of the most popular classical dances the ‘Khon’, performed by men wearing ferocious masks, and the ‘Lakhon’, performed by women who play both male and female roles draws inspiration primarily from the Ramakien. Percussion instruments and Pi Phat, a type of woodwind accompany the dance.[1]


In addition, there are shadow plays called nang-talung in Thai. This is a show in which shadows of pieces of cow or water buffalo hide cut to represent human figures with movable arms and legs are thrown on a screen for the entertainment of spectators. In South India, this kind of show is called Bommalattam.

Thai language too bears close affinity with Dravidian languages. An indication of the close linguistic affiliation between India and Thailand can be found in common Thai words like Ratha Mantri, Vidhya, Samuthra, Karuna, Prannee etc. which are almost identical to their Indian counterparts. Thai language basically consists of monosyllabic words that are individually complete in meaning. His Majesty King Ramkhamhaeng the Great created the Thai alphabet in 1283. He modeled it on the ancient Indian alphabets of Sanskrit and Pali through the medium of the old Khmer characters. Like most world languages, the Thai language is a complicated mixture derived from several sources. Many Thai words used today were derived from Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer, Malay, English and Chinese.[1]


Several Thai ceremonies have been adopted from Indian tradition. These include ceremonies related to ordination, marriage, merit making and cremation. Though the Lord Buddha is the prime inspiration of Thailand, Brahma and other Hindu deities are widely worshipped among the Thais, due in part to the popularity of the Hindu ceremonial rites, which are used especially for royal ceremonies.

(1) The Triyampawai Ceremony or the Giant Swing Ceremony. Originally a Brahmin ceremony performed to pay homage to the God Shiva, it was traditionally held front of War Suthat, while the King and Queen watched the ceremony from a gold silk pavilion. Though the ceremony was abolished during the reign of King Rama VII due to a severe economic fall, Brahman priests are still allocated money to make offerings to God Shiva.

(2) The Royal Ploughing Ceremony, which is officiated by H.M. the king at Sanam Luang in May every year with pomp. Originally a Brahmanic rite, it was adopted to mark the beginning of the farming season as also to bless all farmers with fertility for the year.

(3) The Royal Ceremony for preparing Celestial Rice or Khao thip which was said to be originally prepared by celestial beings in honor of God Indra. A portion of the celestial rice is offered to monks while the remainder was divided in varying quantities among the royal family, courtiers and household members. The making of the ambrosial dish has come to a natural end since custom demanded that virgins alone should perform the preparation and stirring of celestial rice.

(4) The Kathin Ceremony or the period during which Buddhist monks receive new robes, which generally falls in the months of October- November.

(5) Loy Krathong – the Festival of Lights which is celebrated on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month. The floating of lanterns, which began in the Sukhothai period, continued throughout the different stages of Thai history. The present day understanding is that the festival is celebrated as an act of worship to Chao Mae Kangka-the Goddess of the Waters for providing the water much needed throughout the year, and as a way of asking forgiveness if they have polluted it or used it carelessly.

(6) Songkran Festival: Songkran day marks Thai New Year day. "Songkran" signifies the sun's move into the first house of the zodiac.

(7) Visakha Puja Day which is considered as the greatest Buddhist holy day as it commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Lord Buddha.

Other famous ceremonial holy days include Magha Puja day, in February and Asalha Puja day in July which commemorates the day on which Lord Buddha delivered the First Sermon to his five disciples, namely, Konthanya, Vassapa, Bhattiya, Mahanama and Assashi at Esipatanamaruekathayawan forest and there explained his theory of the Four Noble Truths (Ariyasai).[1]

Other influences[edit]

Indian astrology still has a great impact on several important stages of Thai life. Thai people still seek advice from knowledgeable Buddhist monks or Brahman astrologers about the auspicious or inauspicious days for conducting or abstaining from ceremonies for moving house or getting married.

According to the Thai monk Venerable Buddhadsa Bhikku's writing, ‘India's Benevolence to Thailand’, the Thais also obtained the methods of making herbal medicines from the Indians. Some plants like Sarabhi of Guttiferae family, Kanika or hursinghar, phikun or mimusops and bunnak or the rose chestnut etc. were brought from India. He pointed out that Thai food too was influenced by India. He claimed that Thai people learned how to use spices in their food in various ways from Indians.[1]


At the eastern extremity of mainland Southeast Asia, northern Vietnam was originally occupied by Austro-Asiatic peoples. However, when regional power structures shifted tribes from Southern China began to settle in these lands. About 207 BC, a Chinese general, taking advantage of the temporary fragmentation of the Chinese Empire on the collapse of the Ch’in dynasty, created in northern Vietnam the kingdom of Annam. During the 1st century BC, Annam was incorporated in the Chinese Empire of the Han dynasty; and it remained a province of the empire until the fall of the T'ang dynasty early in the 10th century. It then regained its independence, often as a nominal Vassal of the Chinese Emperor. In south-central Vietnam the Chams, a people of Indonesian stock, established the Hinduised kingdom of Champa c. 400. Subject to periodic invasions by the Annamese and by the Khmers of Cambodia, Champa survived and prospered. In 1471, a Vietnamese army of approximately 300,000, invaded Champa under Emperor Lê Thánh Tông (黎聖宗). The invasion began as a consequence of Cham King's Trà Toàn attack on Vietnam in 1470. The Vietnamese committed genocide against the Cham slaughtering approximately 60,000. The Vietnamese destroyed, burnt and raided massive parts of Champa, seizing the entire kingdom. Thousands of Cham escaped to Cambodia, the remaining were forced to assimilate into Vietnamese culture. Today, only 80,000 Cham remain in Vietnam.

Vietnam, or then known as Annam ( ; pinyin: Ānnán), experienced little Hindu influence – usually via Champa. Unlike other Southeast Asian countries (except for Singapore and the Philippines), Vietnam was strongly influenced by the Culture of China.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Cœdès, George (1968). Walter F. Vella (ed.). The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. trans.Susan Brown Cowing. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-0368-1.
  • Lokesh, Chandra, & International Academy of Indian Culture. (2000). Society and culture of Southeast Asia: Continuities and changes. New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture and Aditya Prakashan.
  • R. C. Majumdar, Study of Sanskrit in South-East Asia
  • R. C. Majumdar, India and South-East Asia, I.S.P.Q.S. History and Archaeology Series Vol. 6, 1979, ISBN 81-7018-046-5.
  • R. C. Majumdar, Champa, Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East, Vol.I, Lahore, 1927. ISBN 0-8364-2802-1
  • R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa, Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East, Vol.II, Calcutta,
  • R. C. Majumdar, Kambuja Desa Or An Ancient Hindu Colony In Cambodia, Madras, 1944
  • R. C. Majumdar, Hindu Colonies in the Far East, Calcutta, 1944, ISBN 99910-0-001-1 Ancient Indian colonisation in South-East Asia.
  • R. C. Majumdar, History of the Hindu Colonization and Hindu Culture in South-East Asia
  • Daigorō Chihara (1996). Hindu-Buddhist Architecture in Southeast Asia. BRILL. ISBN 90-04-10512-3.
  • K.P. Rao, Early Trade and Contacts between South India and Southeast Asia (300 B.C.-A.D. 200), East and West

Vol. 51, No. 3/4 (December 2001), pp. 385-394


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