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Past Business & Cultural Links between South & Southeast Asia

I am honoured to be in this august company on the occasion of the release of the book “Early interaction between South and Southeast Asia”. I would have been perfectly happy to be part of the audience and therefore feel privileged that I have been asked to address this gathering.

I am extremely happy to share the stage with my good friend Subbu, who is one of the sponsors of the book.

Subbu belongs to a trading tradition which is more than two thousand years old. Originally settled in the Chozha country, Chettiars migrated South following differences with the king and settled in what is today known as Chettinad. An idealized description of the merchants plying their trade in Puhar as found in “Pattinappalai” is as follows: “They shunned murder and put aside theft, pleased the gods by fire offerings, they registered others rights as scrupulously as their own, they took nothing more than what was due to them and never gave less than what was due from them. Trading thus in many articles of merchandize, they enjoy an ancient heritage of prosperity and lived in close proximity to one another.”

“Kaveri Puhum Pattinam” otherwise known as Poompuhar was a flourishing port which for a while served as the capital of the early Chozha kings and was washed away by a tsunami around 500 A.D possibly caused by the eruption of Krakatos. A Purananuru poem says that ships without slacking sail, poured out merchandize brought from overseas. Seals, coins, medallions, pottery and other artifacts from Greece, Rome and Babylon excavated from Arikamedu provide enough evidence of the trade that existed between the early Chozhas and others from 200 B.C. onwards.

After the destruction of Poompuhar, Nagaipattinam became the main port of the Chozhas and reached its zenith by the time the Chozhas attained dominance in Eastern Trade by the 10th century.

Kalki, the author of Ponniyin Selvan, described the involvement of the Chozhas in this Eastern Trade. As a writer of historical novels, his facts were accurate be it “Sivagamiyin Sabadam” which is the story of Mahendra Pallavan and his son Narasimha Pallavan and the invasion of Kanchi by Pulikesin, or “Ponniyin Selvan” in which the main character is Arulmozhi Varman who later became Raja Raja Chozha the builder of the Brahadeswara Temple. Writing about the guild of merchants who traded with the countries of South East Asia, he mentions about the defeat of the pirates by the Chozha fleet. He also mentions of the resounding Tamil names like Manakkavaram, Mapappalam, Mayirundingam, Kadaram, Ilanuri Desam, Sri Vijayam, Chavakam, Pushpakam and the archipilago, Munneer Pazhantheevu which consists of twelve thousand islands. Quoting the Anaimangalam copper plates, he writes about the Choodamani Viharam built in Nagaipattinam by a Sailendra king in memory of his father. The Chozha kings made grants of villages for the support of the Viharam.

Korkai, Musiri and Mahabalipuram were the main ports of the Pandyas and Pallavas. Both these dynasties had active trade with the Mediteranean followed by the Arabs, who were mainly responsible for the import of horses.

Active trade links were established between the Mediteranean, the Near East, the West and East Coasts of India, Sri Lanka, South East Asia and China. This was the sea link of the Overland Silk Route. The Bay of Bengal was not an obstacle for trade between the towns along the South East Asian coast and India. An 1025 inscription found in Thanjavur states that between 1012 and 1042 King Rajendra’s ships battled in the seas to secure free passage for the merchants. However, travel by sea depended on wind power, and people had to rest for long periods depending upon the vageries of the monsoon. This is when goods were exchangd, the products of exchange being local produce like camphor, benzoin, forest produce, tin with luxury goods like glass wear, beads, Chinese silks and Middle Eastern goods. Tin was especially prized because of its use for casting bronze utensils and later the world famous Chozha bronzes. The Indian technique of irrigated rice cultivation was introduced. Ship building in both the West Coast and East Coast of South India developed as a result, and even though Chinese junks because of their size outclassed the Chozha ships and dhows, at that period most of the trade was carried on Indian vessels. Embassies were dispatched to China where trading posts were also established.

By the 12th century the pattern of trans shipment was set. Arabian ships sailed to Indian ports where goods were trans shipped to South Eastern ports.

Accompanying this prodigious trade was the movement of artisans, sculptors, architects and men of relegion. It was the great Emperor Ashoka who after embracing Buddhism, embarked on an evangelizing mission. He sent emissaries all over India and Srilanka. Seats of learning were established in Taxila in the North West, Nalanda in Bihar, Nagarjunakonda in the South to which students came from far and near. Buddhist monks and scholars spread the message of the Buddha to Tibet, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and China. Mahayana Buddhism was carried to China by a scholar from Kancheepuram. A synthesis of Greek and Indian sculptures was the Gandhara sculpture and this resulted in the sculpture of Buddha in various postures and mudras becoming the most numerous in the world. Like the Bamiyan Buddha and Kamakura Buddha, they were huge while the Emerald Buddha in Thailand is small. Stupas and Viharas were build to house the relics of the Buddha. Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka is a living example of this great heritage. The Gupta period saw the sculpture of icons and structures of Hindu Gods, events from the Hindu Puranas and rituals surrounding temple worship. How the temple structure developed is best demonstrated by the open air museum at Aihole and the Chalukyas of Badami were great supporters of Puranic sculpture in spite of being Jains. While Buddhism flourished outside India, by the 6th century, it diminished in importance in India with Brahmanism associated with Vedas, the Puranas and the concept of the Trinity dominating forms of worship. Rituals became extremely important, especially to betow importance to the ruling elite who legitimized their authority as “Devarajas”.

While the Portugese and Spaniards embarked on their maritime expeditions with a Christianizing mission as per Papal edict, the trade links between India and South India Asia developed into religious links in a benevolent manner. The religious and cultural Indianization had Buddhism and Hinduism playing dominant roles. Sanskrit became an important language of religious worship and the court language. From the 4th century, edicts were issued in Sanskrit and the local language. The Pallava influence can be seen from the use of the Grantha script.

Does the use of Sanskrit denote an Indianization, that is the transplantation of a superior culture over an inferior one? The theories of R.C. Mazumdar and other earlier historians who upheld this idea have been effectively debunked by later day historians. Sheldon Pollock argues that Sanskrit was not a lingua franca but its spread was affected by traditional intellectual and religious professionals often following in the train of scattered groups of traders and adventurers and carrying with them disparate and decidedly uncanonized texts of a wide variety of competing religious orders Saiva, Buddhist, Vaishnavite and others. There is little to suggest that Sanskrit was an everyday medium of communication in the South let alone South East Asia or ever functioned as a language of trade, a bridge, link or lingua franca except amongst those traditional intellectuals.

He further argues that from the plain of Kedu in Central Java, to the basin of Tonle Lap in Cambodia from Gangaikonda Cholapuram in Tamilnadu to Patan in Gujarat and beyond, imperial formations had many features in common. It was a symbolic network created in the first instance by the presence of a similar kind of discourse in a similar language displaying a similar idiom and style to make similar kinds of claims about the nature and aesthetics of polity – about kingly virtue and learning; the dharma of rule, the universality of dominion. A network, accordingly wherein the elite shared a broadly based communality of outlook and could perceive ubiquitous signs of its beliefs. There was thus a certain concrete reality to the Sanskrit cosmopolis – a world in which perduring political claims were articulated in a gramatically regularized language which made claims to be eternal and universal and non placeable.

Hermann Kulke, who drawing on his own research in Orissa argues that the experience of local societies receiving inputs towards state formation by Indianising elites was not unique to South East Asia but also applied to the eastern and southern regions of the subcontinent,. Sanskrit inscriptions, Hindu temples, social stratification, spread of intensive wet rice agriculture appeared simultaneously in various regions of South and South East Asia about the same time. The idealogy of kingship which emanated from the Gupta court found fertile ground in South East Asia for the same reason it did in east and South India suggesting a convergence in both sides of the Bay of Bengal.

Sanskrit cannot be separated from Brahmins and Brahmins cannot be separated from religion. The one complicating factor was Buddhism. By linking Mahayana Buddhism with the cult of Devaraja the rites and duties of the purohits remained a mixture of Hinduism and Mahayanism until the introduction of Pali Buddhism in the thirteenth century. Thai kings surrounded themselves with the apurtenances of Khmer royalty and recruited court Brahmins from Cambodia. By its very nature, Buddhism was conceived with the acquisition of spiritual merit and moral perfection rather than rites and ceremonies of the royal court which were left to the Brahmins. Even though Theravada was well established, the grand ceremonies required the services of Brahmins. The priesthood stood for a social order and for the rituals that gave to the political or local community a sense of unity and place in the world.

The book currently reviewed is the second part of a series of papers written on the subject of early Inteactions between South and South East Asia. The first part is titled “Nagapattinam and Swarna deepa”. This book deals in two parts, exchanges and interactions which took place from pre Christian times till the 14th century after which significant changes in politics took place both in South India and South East Asia. Material culture, interchange of goods, maritime practices, religious influences, the role of Sanskrit, boat building practices, have all been dealt with very exhaustively thanks to the untiring effort of historians, archeologists, epigraphers and host of other intellectuals who have described various occurences, even leading to the qustion “Was South East Asia indianized” thereby implying the super imposition of an inferior culture with a superior one or did everything happen simultaneously on both sides of the Bay of Bengal. Even the various Ramayanas especially the Laotian version has been examined.

The book however does not deal with the only state where Hinduism is practised, that is Bali, in great detail. Probably this is because the period covered by the book stops in the 14th century while the occupation of Bali by Javanese kings in the face of the Islamic onslaught took place after that. Hinduism in Bali is considerably different from that practised in India and elsewhere. The temple rituals and funerary practices are different, the only common feature seems to be the Gayathri Mantra and the performance of Ramayana which is more like the “Valmiki version” instead of the versions practised elsewhere in which all the characters including Rama, Lakshmana, Ravana and Hanuman are depicted differently. One remarkable feature in Bali is the presence of sculptures depicting scenes from the Mahabharatha, similar to sculptures found in Bhubaneshwar. These are probably of recent origin. The Ramayana murals in the Emarald Buddha Temple in Bangkok are again as per the Valmiki version. One reason cited for their prominent position is that the kings desired to be known as the true followers of the Rama heritage as upholders of Dharma. Set in a Buddhist temple it is probably to indicate that Rama himself is a rebirth precursor of Buddha an opinion interestingly shared by Annamacharya the great Telugu composer.

By the 14th entury, significant political upheavals had taken place in South India and South East Asia in the face of the Islamic onslaught. The Pandyas who can rightfully claim to be the longest surviving Tamil dynasty were defeated. Islam swept through South East Asia. Traders from Arabia, Iran, South India came in search of pepper. The old merchant guilds disappeared and a new Islamic order was established to be followed by the Portugese, Dutch and English who established the East India Company to break the Dutch monopoly on the pepper trade. The rest is modern history.

A narrow spit of “No man’s Sand” which was given to two Englishmen by the representative of the Vijayanagara kingdom became a settlement, then a fort, a town, a city and a metropolis which became the chief Indian outpost of an empire over which the sun never set. The firenghee who meekly sought the concession from the erstwhile Nawabs, became their overlord. The graceful Persian of the court was replaced by English.

Macaulay’s minute which was primarily intended to create babus to help governance introduced English learning. In the wake of the direct governance by the Raj, schools and colleges were established which produced scientists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, statesmen and political leaders and journalists. Free movement of professionals serving in various agencies ensured that there was a skilled cadre of administrators in the far flung territories, where microfinancing was introduced by the Chettiars. Tea, rubber estates and mines producing gold, coal, iron, tin and other minerals were established. With the laying of railways in the colonies, labour was recruited to work in Ceylon and Malaysia.

This new diaspora brought along with it, its own customs and religious practices. Temples for Mariamman and Murugan were built in Singapore, Penang, Saigon and other places to serve which, “Gurukkal” from Tamil Nadu were engaged. Festivals like Navarathri, Thai poosam, Deepavali are being celebrated with great pomp and devotion, which is demonstrated through Kavadis, Firewalking, piercing the body…..etc.. In short a little India?

The post colonial area saw the emergence of great leaders like Nehru, Sukarno who through the “Panch Shila” established the ground work for cooperation. It is a different story that China which was one of the signatories broke the understanding, even before the ink dried. The voice of the “Non Aligned” nations became an universal force to reckon with.

For the past two decades, globalization has become an universal phenomenon. The internet has cut down all barriers of communication. This has resulted in business process outsourcing. The advantage of higher education having been fully recognized, students are now forming a big portion of international travel. Thanks to the free movement of professionals of all nationalities, cultural barriers are disappearing, food habits are changing. English being the most widely spoken language, communication has become easy. Free trade agreements have made it easy for cross border investments and easy movement of goods. For instance, Thailand is one of the biggest sources of components, assemblies and raw material for the expanding Indian automobile industry. Singapore is one of the biggest overseas investors in India. Indian investments in South East Asia are increasing.

In spite of the various fusion experiments taking place in music, dance and drama, there is still an enormous urge for classicism in the arts especially the classic Carnatic music, Bharathanatyam and other forms of dance. As we are attending this talk, a memorandum of understanding is being signed by the Music Academy and the Singapore Institute of Fine Arts for a collaboration between the two institutions. This is being signed in the presence of Mr. Nathan, the former President of Singapore, who has been in the forefront in fostering Indo Singapore relationships.

What started two thousand years ago as a pure trading relationship, has undergone so many changes, but the endearing values still remain through vicissitudes, and hopefully will adapt to the changes but retain its substance.

(Text of address delivered by Mr C. V. Karthik Narayanan on the occasion of release of book “Early Interaction between South &Southeast Asia”, at a function organized in Chennai by the Madras Book Club on 15 December 2011)

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