India or Indians never lived in splendid isolation but since times immemorial Indians had cultural and trade contacts with the outside world.
By the beginning of the first millennium, the civilization and culture of India began to penetrate slowly across the Bay of Bengal into both inland and mainland South-East Asia.
By the 5th century AD, the Indian religions Sanatana Dharma, Buddhism, and cultural traditions took deep roots in the regions of Burma, Thailand, Indo-China, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The impact of the eastward spread of these regions was not sudden but took place in waves. The cultures of modern South-East Asia offer evidence of a long period of contact with India. We can notice the influence of classical language of India on South-East Asian languages and scripts. Likewise, the theory of kingship, traditional dance and puppetry, and place names, customs and traditions exhibit Indian influence.
Romila Thapar suggests that religion found an ally in commerce to carry the Indian way of life outside India. In this process, Buddhism acted as a catalyst introducing Indian culture to different parts of Asia. The demands of trade with eastern Mediterranean made Indian entrepreneurs enter South-East Asia, as it was the land of spices and semi-precious stones. Invariably, trade leads to closer interaction between the settlers and the original inhabitants.
Through contact and interaction, Indian cultural influence slowly and gradually penetrated into the local pattern of life particularly in present-day Thailand, Cambodia and Java. Chinese annals testify to Indian activities in Funan or the Mekong delta as the first sphere of influence. Indians also established small settlements in the Malay Peninsula as it was connected with maritime centres on the east coast of India. Evidence is available of ships sailing from Tamralipti and Armaravati to Myanmar or Burma, Martabam and Indonesia. Ships sailed from the ports of South India to Tennaserim, Trang, the straits of Malacca and Java; the western parts of India also participated in the promotion of trade and commerce.
In this context, Romila Thapar is of the view that the nature of the Indian connection varied according to the region from where it came and kind of relations it had with the host country. The available epigraphic and literary evidences prove that from the first century onwards, systematic colonization of these areas was undertaken.
Ptolemy’s reference to Yavanadvipa proves that such influence existed in the first century AD itself we know the existence of Indian communities in Funan or Cambodia. Further, we have a reference to a Brahmin, Kaundinya as a founder of a dynasty in southern Thailand. The kingdom established by Kaundinya appears to have flourished for a few centuries and evidences of epigraphy and literature testify that by the beginning of the 5th century AD, Indian influence in South-East Asia was firmly established.
By 6th century AD, the Sailendra Empire raised in the Malayan peninsula, where we notice the caste system, the Brahmanical faith and its rituals and Sanskrit language within a century of its rule. It reached its glory in the 7th century within a span of three centuries; the Sailendra Empire began to fight with the mighty Cholas. Here we notice a sort of mingling of Brahmanical and Buddhist faiths and the famous and the magnificent Buddhist monuments of Borobudur were built.
The Sailendra Empire included the islands of Sumatra, Java and Borneo. By the 9th century, Java became independent. Kamboja, a former vassal state of Funan gained importance as it is said to have ruled for 900 years of this kingdom and its rulers, Jayavarman I and II, Yasovarman and Suryavarman II are considered the most important. This kingdom of Kamboja is said to have included modern Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and parts of Burma and the Malayan Peninsula. The kings were the followers of Saivism, and Sanskrit became the language of the country. The famous temple of Angkorvat built by King Suryavarman II and the ruins of Angkorthom stand as testimony to the greatness of Kamboja.
Angkorthom was the capital of Kambhoja, which was built in the form of a perfect square. The kingdom of Kamboja appears to have declined after Jayavarman II, but it continued to exist as a small principality till the end of the 13th century. Champa or modem Thailand was another famous kingdom, which included the southern portion of Indochina or South Vietnam, Cambodia, some parts of Thailand, Laos and North Vietnam. It too was established in the 1st century AD with Indrapura as its capital. It is said that more than 19 dynasties belonging to Indian origin ruled over the region for more than 11 centuries.
Most of the rulers appear to be worshippers of Siva but some of them also worshipped Vishnu. The Champa kingdom disappeared after a prolonged struggle with the kingdom of Annam. Coming to the erstwhile Ceylon, the connection between India and Ceylon is as old as our epic, the Ramayana. The regular colonization of Ceylon begins with the conquest of this island by Vijaya, the founder of the Simhalese dynasty. It is a well-known fact that Asoka Maurya sent Mahindra and his sister Sanghamitta to Ceylon to spread Buddhism. Slowly and gradually, Buddhism became a religion of significance and popularity in Ceylon. History testifies to intimate contacts between these two countries. Burma or Suvarnabhumi also had contacts with India since times immemorial.
There is evidence to prove that relationship between the two is as old as the Buddha himself. Ashoka is credited with sending of Sonna and Uttara, missionaries of Buddhism to Burma who successfully converted Burma into a land of Buddhists.
Hindu settlements were set up in Arakan, Srikshetra, Thalin and Peger; Indian influence is very visible in Burma too. Thus, what we see in ‘Greater India’ or ‘further India’ is the spread of Indian pattern of life into these territories and a blending and mixing of local pattern with the Indian pattern. It is quite an exaggeration to state that these territories were more indianized by the adventurous efforts of traders than by religious missionaries of Buddhism and Brahmanical faith of Sanatanadharma.