Agencies of Cultural Expansion: 

The Indian cultural expansion in S.E. Asia did not take place over a small period of time.

It was the culmination of a continuous process over a long period of time which slowly spread over this region.

Of course, there were several agencies which helped this process of cultural interaction. These agencies took the lead in spreading the cultural message of India to large parts of S.E. Asia.

Indic Global Village - Lecture - It's All About Culture

Image Source:

Maritime Activities:


Maritime activities of the Indians are not a new phenomenon. Right from the third millennium B.C., India had developed commercial contact with the outside world. For example, some material remains of the Harappan culture have been found at sites of Mesopotamian Civilization. Such inland Indian trade and commercial activities progressed further with the march of time. The process was accelerated due to the very geographical position of the country.

Surrounded by water on three sides, India occupied the central position in the Indian Ocean area. This geographical location prompted the Indians to undertake maritime activities through overseas trade and commerce. Further, trade and commerce were the source of enormous wealth and prosperity.

Thus being prompted by geographical as well as economic factors, the Indian merchants undertook innumerable sea voyages to different parts of the world in ancient times. India not only served as a link between the East and the West but also gave a new impetus to the maritime urge of the people of the country. Commerce offered excellent economic opportunities and thereby a successful maritime trade developed.

Coming to the context of South East Asia, it was a region of special attraction for the Indian mercantile class. The fertile soil and abundant wealth of the area had earned the region titles like Suvarnabhumi or the Land of Gold, Tokkola or the Land of Cardamom, Narikeldweep or the Island of Coconuts etc.


The Indian merchants followed two routes. One was through Bengal, Assam, Manipur and Burma to reach different parts of S.E. Asia. The other was the sea route mainly from the Coromandel Coast or the coast of Bay of Bengal from the river Ganga to the mouth of Cape Comorin. Literary sources also confirm the existence of a number of ancient ports among which Tamralipti or modern Tamluk in Midnapore (West Bengal), Palur or Patura in Ganjam (Orissa) and Machhlipatnam (Andhra Pradesh) were more important.

“Avery large number of ports and cities of these regions (including S.E. Asia) became the flourishing centres of Indian culture and were rarely subjected to Indian kings and conquerors who hardly witnessed the horrors and havoc of any Indian military campaign or expedition and were perfectly free, politically and economically. The people, elevated to nobler sphere by Indian culture, religion and art, looked upon India as a holy land, a sacred region of pilgrimage rather than an area of jurisdiction and political supremacy.”

The Chinese pilgrims Fa-Hien, I-Tsing and Huen-Tsang have also made vivid references to the above-mentioned Indian ports and bustling maritime activities associated with them.

Role of Missionaries:

The process of Indian cultural expansion in S.E. Asia received further impetus from the missionary activities of the Buddhist and Hindu monks. Accompanying the mercantile class in their maritime activities, these monks and saints took a leading role in spreading the message of Indian thought and culture in those far-off regions. Since they had absolutely no political ambitions, with their superior cultural background they began to influence the native people by setting up ashrams and hermitages. The local people too, on their part, gave a warm response to the process of cultural interaction.


There are records of two Indian saints named Kaundinya and Agastya who had established their ashrams. They were two Brahman sages whose names have been recorded with reverence in the inscriptions as the founders of Hindu royal families.

The Buddhist missionaries also played an active part in this process of cultural synthesis. It was right from the days of Emperor Ashoka that Buddhist bhikshyus lika Sona and Uttara came to Myanmar (Burma) on missionary assignment. Some of the Buddhist monks also accompanied the traders. They spread the Buddhist message of non-violence and thus became the torch-bearers of Indian cultural heritage. The people of the region accepted the cultural change with open heart as it was devoid of any proselytizing zeal or political ambition.

“The salient feature of India’s cultural expansion was that, it v as carried by the Indians not by military force, but by persuasion and individual instances of devotion to deeds, not by arms but by missionaries … This is a true character of India’s cultural expansion. The Hindu culture in all its aspects permeated the life of the people of S.E. Asia and elevated them spiritually.”

Kshatriya Domination:

The process of cultural assimilation was further boosted by the Kshatriya adventurous tradition of conquering new lands and carving out new kingdoms. So the Indian Kshatriya princes in accordance with their tradition established a large number of dynasties. The history of Indo-China is replete with such episodes.

These princes of Indian origin helped in spreading the message of Indian culture to a great extent. Their Indian origin, taste and temperament prompted them to follow Indian customs, traditions and beliefs in foreign territories.

The Indian families who migrated to these East Asian countries also planted the seeds of Indian culture among the local residents. As a result, their cultural influence on the foreign people was deep and quite far-reaching. The concept of Great India evolved out of this process of interaction which grew strong roots in Myanmar and S.E. Asia.


Since the ancient period the people of India had maintained an intimate contact with the outside world. India’s immediate eastern neighbour, Myanmar (earlier known as Burma) was greatly influenced by Indian culture. The very geographic, location of the country and the prevailing land route from India to Myanmar through Kohima facilitated this cultural interaction.

During the Ashokan rule, Buddhist missionaries visited the country several times. Even the learned Buddhist scholar

Buddhaghosha went there to spread the message of Buddhism In course of time Burma evolved as an important stronghold of Hinayana form of Buddhism.

The renowned Chinese pilgrim Huen-Tsang has referred in his accounts to several kingdoms of Burma ruled by Hindu dynasties. These dynasties had a pioneering role in the growth and spread of Indian culture. It is interesting to note that Pali language not only developed here but several Hindu and Buddhist books were translated into this language. Even the Hindu kingdom in the region of Prome in 3rd century A.D. was called Srikshetra, which undoubtedly refers to Puri.

The archaeological remains of Thatum, Pegu and Prome reveal close similarities with Indian art tradition. Further, the sculptural representations of Buddhist Jataka stories and the life style of monks and nuns in the pagodas of Myanmar remind us about the close cultural affinity between the two lands.

South East Asia:

The cultural expansion of the Indians found a very conducive field in the region of South East Asia. Behind this cultural expansion undoubtedly remains the maritime as well as colonial activity of the Indians. The region was a land of attraction for spices, minerals and metals for which it had been frequently referred to as Suvarnabhumi or Suvarnadweepa in Jataka stories, Brihatkatha and Katha Sarit Sugar. Foreign literary sources like Periplus of the Erythrean Sea also refer to the voyages of Indian merchants across the seas for maritime activities.

From 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. there developed powerful kingdoms and empires under kings bearing Indian names and having Indian descent. References may be made to the kingdom of Dwaravali in Siam (modern Thailand), King Jayavarma II of Kamboja (modern Cambodia), Saiva kingdom of Champa (modern Indo-China), Sailendra dynasty of Indonesia (ancient Java, Sumatra and Borneo) and Hindu kingdom of Bali which clearly point at the political hegemony of the Hindus in South East Asian countries. Most of the dynasties and kings of this region trace their origin to India and Indian families.

It is quite peculiar to note in this connection that when the Hindu kings and subjects in India had already lost their political freedom in their own country, Hindu sovereigns ruling over these South Eastern tracts of Asia continued to reign with glory and splendor. From Indo-China to Malay Archipelago, from Sumatra to New Guinea and even in the Philippine islands in the Pacific region, Hindu hegemony continued to grow.

It is a universal trend of history that when people of two countries live together, the people of the more advanced culture automatically influence the people with less developed and smaller culture. The cultural domination of the Indians in the South East Asian region was also no exception to this trend.

The superiority of Indian culture with its liberal and multi-dimensional approach began to influence the life style of primitive races through religion, literature, social customs, traditions etc. The result of this cultural interaction of course brought in its wake many good results. Indian influences were felt in their society, religion and spirituality, art and architecture, language and literature, administration and other areas of civilization.


The cultural hegemony of the Indians over S.E. Asian region can be better understood if we take into account their society and social features. The Varna system of Vedic Indian society was introduced in most of these areas. S.E. Asian literature makes reference to the Chaturvarna (four Varna’s) with specific mention of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras. But this caste system was accepted by the local people with less rigidity. The system of inter-caste marriage and dinner was widely prevalent.

The ideals of marriage, rituals of marriage ceremony, sanctity of family life and family relations had lots of similarities with Indian traditions. The Brahmin and Kshatriya classes enjoyed superior position in the society. The Brahmins were divided into two classes following the name of the God they worshipped. A worshipper of Shiva was called Shaiva and a worshipper of Buddha was called Buddhist. The kings also assumed Kshatriya hood and used to add Varman, meaning the Protector, at the end of their names.

In the sphere of amusement and entertainment too one finds the shadow of Indian cultural heritage. A typical play called Wayung (like Indian puppet show) is acted on popular themes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. At present most of the S.E. Asian countries have embraced Islam, but the Wayung show still retains its popularity.

Moreover, the habits of dress, diet and ornaments too have marked resemblances. In the social system, Indian traces are to be found among the girls who have been given the liberty to choose their own husbands as in the Indian system of Swayamvar and in the absence of Purdah system. Thus S.E. Asian societies show marked resemblances with Indian culture. Hinduism and Indian socio-cultural traditions were not only a civilising factor, but also a motivational factor for progress and prosperity.


Remarkable trends of Indian religious heritage are found in S.E. Asian countries. The establishment of various Hindu dynasties in the region prompted the Indians to migrate to build their fortunes. In due course the migrants with superior cultural heritage inspired the locals to follow their socio-cultural habits and customs.

The inscriptions and images discovered in these regions give us a clear picture of the prevalence of Hinduism and Buddhism. Hindu gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva along with their family associates were worshipped. Shiva was the most popular deity among all. Along with these gods, Mahayana form of Buddhism was equally prevalent.

Java was the most important centre of Buddhism. Chinese chroniclers also refer to the dominance of Buddhism in this region. Chinese scholar I-Tsing stayed at Sri Vijay for seven years for an extensive study of Buddhist texts. Even Dharmapala of Nalanda and Dipankara Shrijnana of Vikramshila also came here for higher studies. The rulers of Shailendra dynasty of Java were great patrons of Buddhism, especially of the Mahayana form. So the images of Buddha in different forms had been installed in Buddhist pagodas, shrines and monasteries. The Buddhist Pagodas of Dong Duong and Borobudur stand as testimony to the popularity of Buddhism.

Another interesting feature of the religious belief of the South East Asian people was the existence of a large number of ashrams which were established in the pattern of Indian temples, mathas, viharas, ghatikas and agraharas associated with Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Buddhism. The existence of these institutions refers to the prevalence of a spirit of socio-religious harmony and toleration.

The ashrams in particular upheld great moral as well as spiritual values. They were centres of pious, devotional and humanitarian activities. With large royal endowments behind them the ashrams carried on these works with devotion. A large number of such ashrams existed all over Cambodia.


When the South East Asian society and religion were under the cultural domination of India, local literatures were also affected by Indian influence. The study of Indian religious literature not only influenced the religious habits of the people but also affected their linguistic tradition. The medium of literature and inscription was both in Sanskrit and Pali languages. These two languages were highly cultivated by the people of the region and were used both in royal courts and in social life.

Several Sanskrit inscriptions of exceptional merit have been discovered in the Malay peninsula, Java, Kamboja and Champa. The oldest Sanskrit inscription is the Vo-Chanh inscription in Champa belonging to 2nd century A.D. Further, many of these inscriptions contain more than one hundred verses which reveal their mastery over Sanskrit. Sanskrit grammar, rhetoric and prosody were also widely taught and practised.

South East Asian literature also throws light on the study of the Vedas, Puranas, myths, legends and epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The names of Manu, Panini and Patanjali are also associated with their literary activities. The prominent Brahmanical and Buddhist divinities and ideas are also included in their literary tradition.

The people of the region introduced geographical names associated with Indian origin. Mention may be made of Champa, Kamboja, Ayuthia (Ayodhya), Dvaravati, Amravati and the names of rivers like Gomti, Ganga, Yamuna etc. bear resemblance with Indian names and tradition. They still call their schools, libraries and other public places by their original Sanskrit names. Thus Sanskrit language and literature along with Pali had made profound impact on the cultural heritage of S.E. Asia.



Along with such changes and influences in the society, art and architecture too reflected new traditions and designs imported from India. Innumerable temples, shrines and stupas along with the images of gods exhibit the impact of Indian art and architecture. They show the characteristic features of Indian iconography and artistic excellence.

As a matter of fact, the artistic pursuit of the people developed with the full support of their kings. They also patronized the Indian artists to promote art and architecture in these regions. These artisans on their part did not show any disregard to local traditions and ideas. So out of these cultural interactions magnificent temples, stupas and monuments of great artistic and religious value emerged as symbols of a new cultural synthesis.

Among the several specimens of South East Asian architecture Angkorvat temple, Borobodur stupa, Buddhist and Brahmanical temples of Java and Myanmar are remarkable. Angkorvat temple near the city of Angkor Thom in Cambodia is mainly a Vishnu temple. Its magnificent designs with artistic charm are the objects of attraction. Stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are portrayed on the walls of the main temple.

Similarly in Java, Borobodur stupa is another brilliant historical structure. The Shailendra rulers of Java were devout Mahayana Buddhists and their devotion to Buddhist faith has been reflected on the walls of the temples with exquisite images of Buddha. The total number of such images of Buddha is 432. The central stupa has the image of a Dhyani Buddha (Buddha in meditation) which is considered as the finest creation of Indo- Javanese sculpture.

Rightly these two monuments stand as a wonderful testimony to the influence of Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Indian culture. Their conception, design, execution and decorative finish testify to the high standard of cultural relationship between India and S.E. Asia.

Traces of more Hindu temples are found in Java though many of them are in dilapidated condition. These temples are called Chandi in the local Javanese tradition. The temples in the valley of Prambonan in Java are equally noteworthy. The complex consists of eight main temples – three in each row and two between them, enclosed by a wall. The temples of 42 panels of relief sculptures depict the story of the Ramayana on their walls.

Three Buddhist groups of temples in Java are great centres of beauty. They are Chandi Kalasan, Chandi Sari and Chandi Seva. These temples have resemblances with Buddhist temples of the Gupta age. Chandi Kalasan is a temple of the Buddhist Goddess Tara. These groups of temples of the Indian colonial art stand for grandeur of conception, design and skill of execution and refined ornamentation.

In Myanmar, the finest Buddhist temple is Anand at Pagan. It has an image of Lord Buddha which is 9.5 metres high. The temple is decorated with the sculptured panels describing stories relating to the life of Buddha. Thus Indian cultural expansion had touched almost all aspects of S.E. Asian civilization. Indian religion, literature, social customs etc. influenced it to a very great extent.

However, it should be borne in mind that this cultural expansion was never marked by any violence or political objections. Rather it was marked by commercial intercourse, trade settlement and cultural interaction with the outside world, especially the S.E. Asian region. This interaction was never a superficial one; indeed, it had touched the grass-root level of the society.

The local people had extended their hands of friendship to the Indians and had opened their doors to welcome the arrival of Indian cultural heritage. There was no social tension or cultural conflict of any sort. Indian cultural tradition acted not only as a civilizing factor for the native locals but it also acted as a motivating factor to develop their own socio-religious-cultural set up following the Indian style.

Thus in the early centuries of Christian era India built an extensive cultural empire in S.E. Asia. This trend continued for centuries together. As a result, the high ideals of Indian philosophy, spiritualism and values permeated the very spirit of the people. They developed interaction and were benefitted by coming in contact with a superior culture.

The Indian cultural expansion was not oppressive in character, rather it was educative and elevating. The expansion and development of Indian culture in S.E. Asia has proved to other civilizations of the world that such a cultural synthesis is a healthier one as it is devoid of religious fanaticism, proselytizing zeal or hegemonistic aspirations.