How India Influenced Southeast Asian Civilization


Last month, Asia-watchers would have taken note of a cultural controversy relating to representation of various Asian ethnicities in the movie Crazy Rich Asians. Now, another debate has risen over the origin of elements of Indonesian culture, and its relation to Indian civilization.

This itself was a function of a larger controversy about the casting of Korean actress to play Voldemort’s snake (and the related problem of relating all Asian cultures with each other), Nagini, in the latest Fantastic Beasts film, which is part of the Harry Potter universe. In response to this, Harry Potter’s author J.K. Rowling tweeted on the Asian origin of the naga, saying that “the Naga are snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology, hence the name ‘Nagini.’ They are sometimes depicted as winged, sometimes as half-human, half-snake.”

This in turn, led to a controversy on the origin of the naga, who are snake-like beings that feature prominently in Indian religious symbolism, both Hindu and Buddhist, with many fans criticizing the author’s statement that the naga were Indonesian, rather than Indian, accusing her of not doing her research.

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Of course, Hindu elements are an integral part of Indonesian culture, which was mostly Hindu or Buddhist before the spread of Islam in the 14th century; for example, Indonesia’s national airline is named Garuda, after the bird-like mount of the Hindu god Vishnu. Yet, it is a little bit of a stretch to associate Hindu mythology first with Indonesia, rather than India, although ancient Hindu civilization is the collective legacy of many modern nations today. The word nāginī (नागिनी) is a feminine form of the Sanskrit word for serpent or snake, which is nāga (नाग) in the masculine, and was found first in the ancient Hindu epics like The Mahabharata, where naga, as part-human, semi-divine creatures, play prominent roles.

Yet, the question arises: how did the naga get to Indonesia? One of the most interesting phenomenon in history is the spread of Indian culture to Indonesia, and Southeast Asia, in general, which mostly did not involve conquest until the campaigns of Rajendra Chola I, ruler of the Chola dynasty, based in modern Tamil Nadu, India, who invaded the Indianized Indonesian state of Srivijaya (650–1377 CE) in 1025 CE. Tamil, rather than Malay power, predominated in maritime Southeast Asia for two centuries subsequent to this. The decline of Srivijaya, based on the island of Sumatra, led eventually to the rise in maritime Southeast Asia of the Hindu empire of Majapahit (1293-1527 CE), based on Java.

Yet, Indian and Hindu influence had already permeated Southeast Asia for at least a millennium before the Chola invasion. From the beginning of the common era, Indian traders, looking for exotic spices to trade with Arabs and Romans, had begun to visit the region. And the use of Sanskrit for records reached modern Cambodia and southern Vietnam by the first or second century of the common era, from where Indian and Southeast Asian traders went both ways, and to China. The ships of this region were advanced, ocean-going ships, described by observers as “nearly one hundred Chinese feet long and six across ‘with their bows and sterns like fishes….The large ones carry a hundred men, each man carrying a long or short oar, or a boat-pole.’ Their hulls were made of layered wooden planks, caulked with tree resin and sewn together with twine made from coconut husk.”

Interestingly, there is little evidence that the spread of Indian culture in Southeast Asia occurred overland, despite the close proximity of Bengal and Myanmar, while Indian culture did spread overland to Tibet, and via trade routes through Afghanistan into Central Asia and Xinjiang. For example, the oldest states in Myanmar, the Pyu city-states of the Irrawaddy river valley, seem to have been influenced by maritime trade with South India, because their script is derived from the script used by the Tamil Pallava dynasty between the 3rd and 5th centuries CE, which is also the origin of most Southeast Asian scripts, like Thai, Khmer, and Javanese.

The oldest inscription found in a Southeast Asian language is found in what used to be the Cham kingdom in modern south-central Vietnam, coming after a series of Sanskrit inscriptions, at Đông Yên Châu, in the fourth century. South of the Cham kingdom was the Khmer civilization of Funan (as the Chinese knew it), an “entrepôt polity [built] on a millenium of trading contacts with regions in India.”

Geneticist Razib Khan believes that Indian civilization in Southeast Asia was spread not only through diffusion by traders, but by the migration of significant numbers of Indians. There is some evidence that some of the ruling class of Funan came from India, in addition to also containing local aristocrats. As historian Ben Kiernan writes, in the fifth century, Chinese sources reported that “a man who was ‘originally a Brahmin from India’ became king of Funan and ‘changed all the rules according to the ways of India.’ Two fifth-century inscriptions from Funan express devotion to the Hindu god Vishnu. Funan’s rulers often used the Sanskrit title varma (warrior).” It would not be incorrect to state that during the first millennium of the common era, Southeast Asia was a part of greater India, though afterward, the region came under significant Chinese political and cultural influence, to the point where by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it was partially assimilated into the Confucian-inspired Chinese geopolitical state-system, while retaining Indic religious influence.

Thus, it is not surprising that Indian religious beliefs and motifs began to influence the emerging Southeast Asian societies around the beginning of the common era, resulting in the localization of many aspects of Hindu-Buddhist culture in Southeast Asia. The Hindu epic, The Ramayana, became very influential in the cultural life of the region, being retold in multiple local variants. Naga too were present in Southeast Asia from very early on. As the fourth-century Cham inscription states:

Success! This is the king’s holy naga. Whoever treats it well will see joys fall from the sky; whoever insults it will suffer for a thousand years in the hells with seven generations of his family.

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