Dialogue  July-September,  2011, Volume 13 No.1

Some Characteristics in Cultural Contacts between India and Southeast Asia during Ancient and Medieval Periods

Do Thu Ha*


The author tries to analyze Southeast Asia’s background in cultural contacts with Indian civilization such as multi-ethnic constructure, unity in diversity, the similarities between local religious beliefs and cultures with Indian ones...

The main part of the paper deeply analyzes Southeast Asia’s characteristics on receiving Indian culture; the receiving ways as well as principles in selecting, receiving and localizing Indian civilization in Southeast Asia.

Keywords: Southeast Asia, cultural contacts, India, ancient and medieval times.

Main text:

There are four main cradles of civilization, from which elements of culture have spread to other parts of the world. These are, moving from east to west, China, the Indian subcontinent, “the Fertile Crescent” and the Mediteranean, especially, Greece and Italy. Of these four areas, India deserves a larger share of the credit than she is usually given, because, on a minimal assessment, she has deeply affected the religious life of most of Asia and has provided very important elements in the culture of the whole of Southeast Asia, as well as extending her influence, directly and indirectly, to other parts of the world.

By the beginning of Christian Era, Southeast Asian countries had begun to receive Indian culture through religions and arts and by the fifth century A.D. “Indianized states”. that is to say states organized along the traditional lines of Indian political theory and following the Buddhist or Hindu religions, had established themselves in many areas of Burma, Thailand, Indo- China, Malaysia and Indonesia. Indian culture has spread all over the Southeast Asian area. In the book Ancient History of Hinduised States in the Extreme Orient, noted scholar G. Coedes  said,

“This is the spread of an organized culture, which was based upon the Hindu concepts of royalty, characteristics defined by the Hindu and Buddhist worship, Purana system, believing in Dharma and using Sanskrit as communication means”1.

Once rooted in Southeast Asian soil, Indian civilization evolved in part through the influence of cultural and political changes in the Indian subcontinent. Many scholars have described the eastward spread of Indian civilization in terms of a series of “waves”. And there are good reasons for our considering that such “waves” are still breaking on Southeast Asian beaches today.

I. Cultural integration and the preservation of national identity, the two inseparable sides of only one process, becoming a common rule in human life

Cultural integration and the preservation of national identity as well as finding out the way for every nation to develop are vital challenges to many countries nowadays.

1. This is a vital road to exist and develop. Cultural exchanges among nations, difusion and receiving new cultural values are unavoidable rules, originated from the ancient time and until now, we haven’t got any exceptions. The disappearance of the nation Hittis in the Middle-East and the ruin of the civilization of Maya people in America can be very obvious examples. The reason why those situations happened was that those people cornered themselves, they didn’t have contacts with any other peoples, they were self-sufficient, they didn’t receive any other new trends so that it could help them to develop. It is the rule between giving and receiving, the conversation among the cultures that has created the existence and development of the general human culture because we can learn and get some experience from the past. No culture can exist alone. Closing the door means digging a hole to bury ourselves. Without new elements, new ideas, we would lack the positive factors and strength to push our country to go ahead.

During the process of cultural integration, peoples have to keep the balance between integration with other cultures and preservation of their own national identities. We can not let ourselves be dissolved because we will become rootless, cross-bred. At the same time, we can not close the door looking over the world outside, as we will become backward.

Cultural contacting is a permanent and continual process which happens to every culture and every nation but preservating national identity is  only paid attention to when a nation becomes wealthy, self - confident, self-determined, has the consciousness  of the ego.

2. The lessons from the past in Southeast Asia. Receiving the positive factors from foreign cultures meanwhile preserving national identity by localising those familiar factors are the way to help Southeast Asian countries exist and develop in the natural, social and cultural environment which has been not always favorable. Up till now, Southeast Asia has been occupied or threatened to be occupied by much stronger invaders and much greater cultures such as Chinese, Indian, English, French, American ones...and so on. That’s why, foreigners have got two ways to consider our peoples and cultures in the past.

a. Southeast Asia as the backyard of India and China. The reseachers in Holland, France, England, China...who had a point of view have divided the ancient Southeast Asian countries into two groups: one group includes the countries influenced by the Indian culture and the system of Indian society and the other influenced by the Chinese culture. This theory is not unfamiliar with us. The researchers emphasised on the foreign influences and elements: Languages and orthography or written languages; arts, architecture, literature, religions, legislative and executive system in society...

For a long time, the number of scholars and researchers who have been following this theory, is really numerous. Only the scientific evidences and the development of Southeast Asian countries themselves can make them think in a different way.

b. Southeast Asia as a region which has had its own characteristics and the cultural basis. When we consider the process of localising the factors of some foreign cultures, we can recognise that receiving foreign factors into Southeast Asia in the ancient and medieval time  was based upon the already-existing mind and cultures of the local people.

3. Cultural integration was a process of symbiosis among the different cultures: foreign and local ones. Those were the exogenous factors from two very great cultures, the Indian and Chinese, since early A.D. and internal factors in Southeast Asia that were the ready-made local cultural infrastructure with agricultral cultures.

It was a process of meeting and developing so many factors of different cultures in only one nation. The local factors combined with the foreign ones to create a culture, to turn the direction of development and to converge the qualifications of these cultures itself. To the countries in Southeast Asia, contacting, receiving, converging and changing into new qualifications are the inseparable factors of the only one process: localising.

Even it is national identity that has only been a historic concept of one nation. National identity is not an already-made quality, but step by step, it has been formed up in the changing process of history, society and natural conditions. Identity is something always developing and creating itself in history. We can only talk about a period but not the whole history of a national identity.

II. Local contexts in Southeast under the influences of Indian  civilization

1.  Background of cultures in  Southeast Asia

During the process of receiving Indian civilization, the people in Southeast Asia have had to face up to different favorable conditions as well as challenges originating from the similarities and differences in their cultures compared with Indian civilization.

a. One of the characteristics of Southeast Asian cultures is that they are less discriminating  to other cultures. This characteristic originates from the multi-ethnic group structure of Southeast Asian countries.  Every Southeast Asian country in the past, or nowadays, has got multi-ethnic groups (at least there are ten groups in Cambodia and the most complex country like Indonesia has hundreds of groups ...) but they have only one center. For example, Vietnam has got 54 ethnic groups but the Vietnamese (or Kinh) are the leading people. Likewise Lao group in Laos, Thai in Thailand, Javanese in Indonesia, Malay in Malaysia, are the leading ones.

This structure is different from those of the nations in which there is only one (or a few groups) and one center, such as Korea, Japan, and it is so different from some countries that have many groups and at the same time, many centers like India, or some African countries.

This ethnic group structure is typical in the whole of Southeast Asia. From this structure, another characteristics of Southeast Asian culture emerged, that is, the unification in diversity. In Southeast Asia, the solidarity and unification are very crucial factors for the people to exist and develop. The people here have to learn how to get on well with others, accept other people as they are, work and exist in harmony with the others because only small conflicts can cause a lot of trouble and even wars. Separation is always the permanent danger to the development and progress of this region. It is the unification in diversity that becomes a vital condition to the people in Southeast Asia. This characteristic rules over almost every aspect of economic, political, social, religious and artistic life in this region.

However, the unification in Southeast Asia hasn’t become a strong threat of discrimination and religious conflicts like other areas in the world. Because of the structure of ethnic groups, the issues about national and religious policies are always the significant point in Southeast Asia. We can’t forgive chauvinism, we need the right of self-determination in all the countries in our region. The danger of discrimination among races and religions is always somewhere and I am sure that the lessons in history have made Southeast Asian people wiser to solve their problems. The national policies in every country in Southeast Asia always aim at the solidarity among all ethnic groups as a unified nation, accepting and living in harmony, coexisting and mutually developing. Thanks to that, the integration between the outside cultures and the local ones has been much easier and more peaceful.

b. The local cultural background in Southeast Asia is of wet rice- cultivation. There has been a lot of scientific evidence proving that Southeast Asia used to be one of the craddle of ancient farming by human beings.   

Prof. Nguyen Tan Dac said, “Nowadays, perhaps any well-educated person in Europe knows that before contacts with India or China, the people in Southeast Asia had had a fairly  high cultural life. The clearest achievement is their creating of wet-rice agriculture. Among 5 most ancient centers of farming in the world, was there Southeast Asia”2.

Even, American scholar C.O. Saner believes that Southeast Asia is the most ancient agricultural center in the world.

Prof. Pham Duc Duong remarked:

“The ancient states in Southeast Asia were all formed during the conquest of the deltas of great rivers and during the converging ethnic cultural process. These states all made wet rice agriculture their background and built the traditional cultures with unique national characteristics in the myriad contacts with the two great civilizations in India and China3”.

Even Indonesia- a country which has been under many foreign influences namely from India, Arab, Persia to Holland and others, still has got her own culture with long and deep traditions. The scientists have found a lot of archeological artefacts, architectural relics, ancient manuscripts, anthropological materials... to prove this fact. Up till now, many hot issues such as who and when began to build numerous staired-fields on the hillsides and the complicated irrigational works; where the sources of ancient Javanese architecture of Indonesia with the unique characteristics (like the way to build the houses in Toratja, Karo Batak, etc.) were; who built the solemn Borobodur … haven’t yet got the proper answers.

c. Moreover, always being occupied and invaded by foreign cultures which were much stronger and greater, Southeast Asia received the influences of foreign cultures as an obvious and unavoidable process: but how to do it becomes a big problem because if we haven’t found out the way to manage this process, Southeast Asia would have been dissolved and assimilated into other foreign cultures.

d. The flexibility and tolerance of the peoples in Southeast Asia to the unfamiliar cultural, religious, political and social values were proved clearly in the past. These are also the conditions to exist in almost every country in this area: in religions — the most difficult thing (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia...), in art and architecture (the mixture of many artistic tides and styles and their co-existence in the same artistic works all over Southeast Asia..), literature (sharing the same characters, symbols, styles, like Ramayana, Mahabharata...) and so on.

e. Many researchers have recognized that during the historic process of Southeast Asia, foreign religions and cultures could only be received and rooted when they themselves have got similarities and flexible adaptation with the local ones. Indian ways of thinking, morality, philosophy having got many traits corresponding to the local cultures such as the concepts of loyalty, responsibility to community, social norms... Human life and natural environment in Southeast Asian also have got many similarities to those in India.

All elements together have brought Indian civilization and Southeast Asia close to each other in the ways they evaluate, believe and get perception of life.

2. Indian cultural contacts during the period

Up till now, no one can deny the fact that Indian civilization has had great influence on the cultures of Southeast Asia both in the past and contemporary during period. But we still observe the hot debates about the way Indian civilization has spread to this area. 

a. Different from the integration of other cultures, Indian civilization has integrated into Southeast Asia through the ways of religions- cultures- arts but not violence and hegemony. Based upon the extant material, we know that in 242 B.C. in Pataliputra, King Asoka (273-237 BC) belonging to the Mauryan dynasty sent many monks to propagate Buddhism in Southeast Asian states such as Thailand, Burma, Sumatra…Southeast Asian peoples welcomed warmly and received the ancient Indian civilization mainly through spiritual means. 

b. To establish their monarchy, apart from receiving the patterns for organizing the monarchy and society in Indian style, the tribal chiefs in Southeast Asia also received the Indian systems of religions, philosophy and other cultural and spiritual products in their own local cultural background.

c. However, Indian influences were not equal in all Southeast Asian countries. Because of the geographical locations, economies, societies in Indo-China peninsula, the countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, Laos etc. had different traits compared with others in the area. Although these countries had the advantage of being located on the coast of Bengal Bay and China Sea (with the exception of Laos) but Malaysia, Sumatra and Java had much more advantages than Thailand and Myanmar.  The ships from East India sailing across often didn’t stop in Thailand and Myanmar, they went straight to  Malaysia, Sumatra and Java, and then, went to China. That’s why, though they were all under Indian influence but socome countries got more direct and earlier influences and others got more indirect and later influences.

III. Some principles of receiving Indian influences in Southeast Asia in ancient and medieval times

1. Patterns of receiving Indian civilization in Southeast Asia

a. The role of folklore narrative: Dalangs, folklore singers and artists played specially important role in popularising and modifying Indian literary works in Southeast Asia. This is the most popular and effective way to propagate those works.

Through retelling from generation to generation, those works could be selected and edited to attract more and more audience. Those were  dalangs, who contributed actively to the process of adaptation of the works originating from outside by adding, correcting to make them suitable to the local context and soul. That was the beginning of the formation of new texts, new variants.

b. The contribution of local artistic forms to localizing Indian works: From a foreign work, the artists in Southeast Asia could change, correct and combine the original with the local artistic motifs. From generation to generation, as they were printed or performed, the foreign works could have become the own master-pieces of the region.

c. After the process of spreading and dissolving into folklore arts in Southeast Asia, there was a converging process at higher levels. After a long historical process of being dissolved in folklore arts and modified in all aspects, foreign works could have got a completely new appearance. At some level, those were localised at such a high level that they became a new work with national characteristics, having not less great artistic achievements than the original such as Seri Rama in Indonesia or Ramker (Ramayana Khmer) in Cambodia compared with Ramayana in India.

2. The principles of selecting, receiving and localizing in Southeast Asia

The ways to converge but still preserve national  identity in Southeast Asia under Indian influences were similar to the skills that an acrobat had to demonstrate on a rope: Southeast Asian people had to keep the balance, if not, they couldn’t have existed any longer.

a. The peoples in Southeast Asia did not accept all foreign factors, they accepted only the factors which were suitable to the local cultures. They just accepted those foreign cultural factors and spread them over, which suited each of nations. The people chose what they recognized was suitable for them. For example, India had two great epics Mahabharata and Ramayana but almost every country in Southeast Asia accepted Ramayana because it is easier to retell, to understand, to modify and apply it to the reality there.

b. The peoples in Southeast Asia accepted the Indian system of thought, religion and philosophy but rearranged those different values in other value ladder in order to make this system correspond with their moral and social traditions in the real conditions.

For example, the cultural values of India and China proposed a very high position for man — Man chauvinism — in Manu's Law-178-179 articles or Confucianism), but because the real situations in some Southeast Asian countries were very different, there were some changes. In ancient Southeast Asian kingdoms, there used to be some queens in Majapahit time; the role of women during the ancient time in Java, Cambodia... was fairly high too.

In another aspect, there were different religions in India but when the people in ancient Southeast Asia practiced those, they gave them different levels of attention and practice in their contexts of time or society at that moment. Before Indian culture infiltrated into Southeast Asia, we know that the social ladders in ancient India had divided people into many different classes according to Varna — the caste system. This system reserved the highest position for Hinduism and its followers but when it came to Southeast Asia, the people in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, etc. extolled Buddhism to be their national religion; Javanese people first extolled Hinduism and then Islam.

There was such acceptance and adaptation because those Indian values had received special attention among different receivers. Those values must have been necessary and suitable to the philosophical, literary reality and social thought in those nations.

c. Southeast Asia accepted and modified the new forms and ideas of Indian civilization to express the values of local ones such as:

          l   Using the system of Indian scripts to create their own letters: such as  in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand with Sanskrit and Pali.

          l   Using the abstract vocabulary of the Indian languages to describe and make clear their philosophical thoughts, to enrich their own languages.

d. Thanks to the contact with Indian civilization, the people in Southeast Asia could create a series of cultural and religious master-pieces of very high values. Even the Indian and other foreign scholars and researchers had to express their admiration (such as Thakur Upendra, India; Berna Solang Thierry, George Groslier-France) of the literary works based on Ramayana. Majumdar (India) talked about Cambodian tombstones; Maretin (Russia) talked about Javanese culture in this regard.

Although receiving many cultural values from India, the soul; the national morality, aesthetic tastes, national lifestyles have still been the main virtues carried in such localized masterpieces in Southeast Asia. That’s why through ups and downs in history, those artistic works could have maintained their own values and considered to be cultural heritage of the national culture in every country in Southeast Asia.


In Vietnamese

   1.  Pham Duc Duong, 2000, Vietnam’s Culture in Southeast Asian Context, Publishing House Social Sciences, Hanoi, Vietnam.

   2.  Nguyen Tan Dac, 2003, Southeast Asian Cultures,  Publishing House Social Sciences, Hanoi, Vietnam.

   3.  D.G.E. Hall, 1998, A history of South-East Asia, National Politics Publishing House, Hanoi, Vietnam.

   4.  Do Thu Ha, 2002, Localizing Process of the Indian Epic Ramayana in Some Southeast Asian Countries, (500 pages) Publishing House Culture and Information, Hanoi, Vietnam.

In French

   5.  Coédes. G., Inscriptions du Cambodge, 1937 Vol . I-VIII, Hanoi

   6.  Coédes. G., 1944, Histoire ancient des Etats Hindouises d’Extrême -Orient, Hanoi.

   7.  Coédes.G ., 1943, Les etats hindouises d’ Indochine et Indonesia, Paris. 

   8.  Kaon.Vandy. 1981, Reflexions sur les  litérature Khmere, Phnom Penh.

   9.  Martini.Francois, 1950, En marge du Ramayana Cambodgien, BEFEO 38,2-Journal Asiatique -238.1.81-90.

10. P.Schweisguth, 1951, Etude sur les literature siamoise, National Library in Vietnam, No M20081 (in French).

In English       

11.  Suresh Awashi, 1974, Shadow Plays of India and their Affnities with the Shadow Plays of South East Asia, Kualalumpur.

12.  Brandon J. R., 1967, Theatre in South East Asia, Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts.

13.  Dawee Daweewarn, 1975, Brahmanism in South East Asia.

14.  Groslier Georges, 1969, Ramker (Ramayana Khmer), Le Sangkum -Revue politique illustré, December.

15.  Do Thu Ha, 1999, Cultural Intergration and the Preservation of National Identity in Southeast Asia, Second AUN Educational Forum Proceeding.

16.  H.Srisurang Poolthupya, 1997, Cultural Affinity between Thailan and India, India Perspectives, No. November.

17.  V. Raghavan, 1975, Sanskrit in South and East Asian Literature, Hindutv, Vol.VI, No 8.

18.  H.B.Sakhar, 1985, Cultural relations between India and Southeast Asian Countries, Indian Council For Cultural Relations and Motilal Banarsidass, Shri Narendra Prakash Jain, at Shri Jainendra Press, New Delhi.

19.  W.G. Shellabea, 1915, Hikayat Seri Rama, Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, No 71, Jakarta, edited by S. Sahai  and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 1973.

20. Thakur Upendra, 1986, The Ramayana in South-East Asia, Some aspects of Asian History and Culture, Abhinav Publication,Shftri-Indo-Canadijev Institute, New Dehli, India.


    1  Coedes. G., 1944, Histoire ancient des Etats Hindouises d’Extrêmé -Orient, Hanoi, p.19.

    2  Nguyen Tan Dac, 2003, Southeast Asian Cultures,  Publishing House Social Sciences, Hanoi, Vietnam, p.26.

    3  Pham Duc Duong, 2000, Vietnam’s Culture in Southeast Asian Context, Publishing House Social Sciences, Hanoi, Vietnam , p.09.



Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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