If there is anything certain about place names, it is that they change. Nowhere is this truer than in Southeast Asia. First it was Burma, now it’s Myanmar. No more Malaya, we call it Malaysia now. Siam? Thailand, thank you very much.
Even the name of the region has changed. The massive peninsula jutting southeast from the Himalayas and its associated archipelagos only got the name “Southeast Asia” during the Second World War. For older students of geography, Indochina might be a more familiar term.
Following the war, decolonization fever spread through the tropics and Indochine, the French name for its colonies in what is now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, became anathema. Now, referring to the region as “Indochina” might get you some nasty glares at conferences. But despite its colonial connotations, “Indochina” is indeed an accurate term to describe the region.
The local cultures in the region are diverse, distinct and vibrantly unique, but the legacy of the Indian and Chinese traders and soldiers that have criss-crossed the area for millennia is undeniable. In this post specifically, I will focus on the Indian traders who imbued the fore bearers of millions of today’s Southeast Asians with the hallmarks of their cultures: written language, cuisine, dance, architecture, religion. Over the past two millennia, these all have combined to create a complete package of high culture that has seeped into today’s popular culture. What’s more, it is the classical culture of southern India that has been most influential. This winding tale of cultural diffusion takes us back more than seventeen-hundred years to the Pallava dynasty.
The Pallava was a line of rulers located in southern India from the 3rd to 9th centuries C.E. They originated as pastoralists on the Deccan plateau and by the 4th century established their capital at Kanci (Kanchipuram in today’s Tamil Nadu state) in the subcontinent’s southeast. After taking power, the Pallava adapted to the local Tamil culture. Throughout their dynasty, they were great patrons of music, art and literature and supported Buddhism, Jainism and the Brahmanical faith, building a number of architecturally innovative temples.
Most significantly for Southeast Asia, the Pallava expanded their influence eastward. Using centuries-old trade routes that linked China to Rome via Southeast Asia, India, the Arabian Peninsula and east Africa, Pallava merchants traded extensively with their Southeast Asian counterparts. This trade system only intensified over time. As the Khmer empire expanded in peninsular Southeast Asia and the Srivijaya empire ruled the archipelagos, the Chola kingdom, successors to the Pallava, exerted a growing economic and cultural influence on the region.
While archaeological digs have unearthed Chinese ceramics in modern-day Cambodia and Khmer pottery in Europe, the cultural effects of this ancient trade system are more readily apparent. Indeed many cultural traits that are today shared by different Southeast Asian nations are in fact derived from the Pallava and Chola expansion eastward and the cultural mixing that happened in the following centuries.
One salient (and delicious) example is cuisine. Curry is a staple in the region – think Thailand’s gang keo warn, Cambodia’s fish amok and Malaysia’s Penang curry. Curry, however, is not endemic to Southeast Asia. The word itself comes from the Tamil kari and its export east is evident not only in the mass consumption of curries but also in the words to describe them. In Indonesian and Malay, curry is also kari and Sumatran cuisine in particular features Indian style curry. In Thai, many curries go by the name gaeng but gaeng gari refers specifically to South Indian style yellow curry while in Cambodia, the kroeung curry makes up the base flavor for a number of commonly consumed dishes. Kroeung -like curry has existed for over a millennium in what is now Cambodia. While ingredients like tumeric and and coconut milk are naturally found there, it was the arrival of Indian traders during and before the Khmer empire that predicated their combination into curry.
The Pallava’s greatest influence is arguably their script. The Pallava script, first used in the 6th century, was one of a number of widely-used Brahmic scripts whose descendants are now found throughout the subcontinent. Like curry, the Pallava’s script followed their boats and inspired number of writing systems now used all over Southeast Asia.
There are three older scripts that are direct descendants of Pallava that in turn gave rise to other, later writing systems – Khmer, Mon, and Kawi. A fourth, the script used by the Chams who once ruled much of coastal Vietnam, also descends from Pallava.
The Khmer were the first to adopt the South Indian script. The kings of Angkor also adopted the suffix –varman (i.e. Suryavarman II, Jayavarman VII), a name that was popular with the Pallava royals and traced their lineage to a wandering Pallava prince. As their empire expanded to swallow large swaths of peninsular Southeast Asia, their writing system also grew in influence. Today, the modern Khmer script, the Thai script and the Lao script are all prominent derivatives of the writing system used at Angkor.
The Mon people, centered in Lower Burma’s coastal rice-growing heartland, adopted another form of the Pallava script, called Pallava Grantha. Pallava Grantha, also a parent writing system for the modern Indian languages Malayalum and Tamil is characterized by a more rounded look as opposed to the boxier Pallava. Pallava Grantha gave birth to the Mon script in Burma around the 8th century C.E. This writing system in turn inspired the Old Burmese script used at the court of Pagan in Upper Burma and subsequently the modern Burmese script. The Mon script is also the source for the script of the Shan language, the Dai language in China’s Yunnan province and the Lanna script of Northern Thailand.
Unlike the other three, the Kawi writing system was created not in peninsular Southeast Asia, but on the island of Java. It too was derived from the Pallava script and the oldest Kawi texts date to the 8th century. It grew to prominence during the Singhasari Kingdom in the 13th century and was used across the Indonesian archipelago and in what is now the Philippines. Descendants of the Kawi script include Javanese, Balinese, and the Philippine Baybayin script.
With such a large impact on the region’s writing systems, it is no surprise that the literary traditions of Southeast Asia were also affected by the subcontinent’s culture. The Indian epic Ramayana is the most prominent example. Despite the prevalence of Theravada Buddhism in the region (also an Indian import), local versions of the epic poem, containing many themes and characters from Hindu mythology, can be found almost everywhere.
In Thailand, it appears as the national epic Ramakien, portrayed completely on the walls of the country’s most sacred temple, Wat Phra Keow. The Cambodian version Reamker has been the most famous Khmer story for over a millennium, with bas reliefs depicting scenes from the story on the walls of Angkor Wat. In the former Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, Laos, two lacquered scenes from the epic are displayed prominently on the walls of the king’s reception room.
One of the most unique examples comes from Malaysia, where the story has been adapted over the centuries for the largely Muslim population and substitutes Allah and Adam for the original Hindu deities. There also exist distinct versions of the Ramayana from Myanmar, Java, Bali, and Mindanao, among other places in the region.
The Ramayana’s influence extends past literature and art into dance, as well. In a region whose populace was largely illiterate until the 20th century, local dance theatre has been the most popular non-literary medium for the story. To this day, characters like Rama, Sita, Ravanna and Hanuman the monkey king appear regularly with elaborate costumes in communities all over Southeast Asia.
Cuisine, written language, literature and dance are only a few examples of areas where India has impacted Southeast Asian cultures. Religion (Hinduism and Buddhism in the classical states and then Islam in the past millennium), the spoken language (many terms relating to politics and religion in the languages of both peninsular and archipelagic Southeast Asia derive from Sanskrit) and architecture (Hindu and Buddhist temples from Myanmar’s Bagan, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, and Indonesia’s Borobudur all display Indian-influenced architectural styles) were all heavily impacted by the classical Indian cultural expansion.
Moreover, the subcontinent’s influence on Southeast Asia did not end with the classical age. Trade between the two regions grew continuously up through the colonial era. During the 19th century, Britain’s colonization of India, Myanmar and Malaya facilitated not only increased trade, but also increased immigration. Millions of people from all over the Indian subcontinent moved into these other colonies, bringing a wealth of cultural traditions into the existing mix. In the 1920s and 1930s, Yangon (Rangoon) was the largest immigration port in the world, with most arrivals coming from India. Now, biriyani, dhal and roti flatbread are all as easily found on the streets of Yangon and Kuala Lumpur as they are in Delhi.
Southeast Asia, and the diverse cultures of the hundreds of millions of people that live there, is a true melting pot of cultures. While the states of classical India did imbue the Southeast Asian kingdoms with many of its traditions, they were not the only contributors.
As the name Indochina implies, the Han Chinese state also had an impact on the development of the states to its south, most notably the Dai Viet Empire that rose in the Red River valley. However, Chinese and Indian traditions contributed mostly to the high culture of the Southeast Asian states. Oftentimes, the complex cosmologies and exotic ways of faraway empires had little effect on the peasants that made up the bulk of the populace. Local traditions and folk customs made up the core of mass culture and despite the millennia long process of Indian cultural infusion, they still do.