In this article we will discuss about the relations of India with foreign countries and the formation of greater India.

India maintained trade and cultural relations with foreign countries from the remotest time in the past till the tenth century A.D. It was only in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that it lost its contact with the outside world and the basic reasons for that had been the absence of its political unity and the degeneration of Hindu society. The impression that India kept no relation with outside world has now been proved entirely wrong.

India had trade relations with the western world even during the period of existence of the Indus Valley Civilization in India, both by land and sea. Some Indus valley seals have been found at Mesopotamia which indicates that India had direct trade relations with it. India kept trade relations with Babylon and Persia as well.

In the sixth century B.C., when the Persian empire extended up to the north-western borders of India, the relations of India with the western world increased which were further strengthened by the invasion of Alexander and the establishment of Greek principalities in some parts of north-west of India.


The Mauryas extended their empire to the borders of Central Asia and Afghanistan which remained a part of their empire. Therefore, during the period of the Mauryas, India kept relations with the western countries like Syria, Bactria, Persia, Egypt and as far as south-east Europe. The Roman empire encouraged direct sea trade with India during the first two centuries of the Christian era and, afterwards, India had a brisk trade directly with Europe through sea-routes from its western and south-western coast.

Pliny wrote that the Roman empire paid £ 5,00,000 every year to India for its merchandise. When the Arabs rose to power in the seventh century, they put hindrances to the direct relations of India with the western world. They took this trade in their own hands and served as a link between India and the western world. Thus, the relations of India with the countries of the west persisted even afterwards though, of course, through Arab traders.

The relations of India with the western world were mainly inspired by trade and commerce, though they definitely brought about some cultural influence on either side. But with certain countries in the north-west, east and south-east, India developed far deeper relations.

Of course, there too, the original intercourse might have been inspired by commercial enterprise, but it was soon over­shadowed by missionary activity which led to a cultural conquest of India over these countries. Besides, Indians set up colonies which brought into existence what may properly be called Greater India.


Afghanistan remained a part of India both culturally and politically from ancient times till its conquest by the Turks. The territory of Kabul and Seistan was called White India for a long time. But Indian culture penetrated further towards western Asia. The establishment of the Kushana empire and the missionary activities of Mahayanism brought the entire Central Asia and the territories upto Chinese Turkistan within the fold of Indian culture.

All countries of this entire region accepted Indian religion, morality, social customs etc. before their conquest by the Arabs and the Turks. In all these countries, the ruling dynasties were Indian, their nomenclatures were Indian; Indian religions, particularly Buddhism among them, were the religions of the people and, the entire region was dotted with temples, Viharas, Stupas and images of Indian gods or that of Mahatma Buddha. It was only the rise and expansion of the power of Islam which destroyed Indian culture in these countries.

India had close relations with Sri Lanka, Tibet and China as well. In Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Buddhism was propagated by the Indians. The efforts started during the reign of emperor Asoka. Afterwards many ruling dynasties of south India maintained political relations with Sri Lanka. Buddhism was propagated in Tibet in the seventh century A.D. The relations with Tibet became more cordial during the period of the rule of the Pala dynasty in Bengal.

At that time many Buddhist scholars and missionaries went to Tibet, propagated Buddhism there and translated many religious texts in the Tibetan language for this purpose. All these efforts firmly established the roots of Indian culture in Tibet. With China, India had both trade and cultural relations. India had developed trade relations with China as far back as the second century B.C., both by land and sea, and, these were maintained throughout the Hindu period, particularly by the kingdoms of south India.


Besides, India developed cultural relations with China through the propagation of Buddhism there. In the first century B.C. the Buddhist monks, Dharmaratna and Kasyapa Matanga, went to China and spent the rest of their lives there translating Buddhist texts into Chinese and preaching Buddhism among the people. By the third or the fourth century A.D., Buddhism became a widely popular religion in China.

Afterwards too many Buddhist missionaries like Kumarajiva, Sangabhuti. Gyanabhadra, Buddhbhadra, Jiva Gupta, Dharma Gupta, Prabhakaramitra, Sudhakarasingha, etc., went to China. The same way, many Chinese pilgrims came to India, the most important of them being Fa-Hien, Hiuen-Tsang and I-tsing.

Thus, there was constant exchange of monks and scholars between India and China for centuries before the invasions of the Turks on India. Because of these cultural and trade relations between the two countries, Buddhism became the predominant religion in China. Besides, Chinese literature and fine arts were also affected by Indian literature and fine arts.

Buddhism penetrated into Mongolia, Korea and Japan as well and became the instrument of popularity of Indian culture there also.

However, India developed far deeper relations with Burma in the east and the countries of South-East Asia. There, the Indians not only carried on trade but established their colonies and by converting the local populace to their religion and culture made those countries culturally a part of India.

Prior to the penetration of Islam and Christianity there, the culture of all these countries was developed by Indians on their own model. Therefore, the culture of these countries remained a part of Indian culture for a long duration and therefore, this region constituted a part of what has been described Greater India.

In has not been ascertained as to when Indian culture grew in Burma and South-East Asia but, probably, the process started quite early. The reasons were many. The primary reason was trade. All these countries have fertile land and produce spices on a large scale. Besides, different minerals are also available here. Indians, primarily, went to these countries for the purpose of trade.

There were several big ports on the east sea-coast of India from where the Indians carried on brisk trade with these countries. Afterwards, many Indians settled down in these different countries. Many among them were traders, some were pure adventurers who went there to gain power and fame and many others were Kshatriyas who, feeling dissatisfied with their fortunes in India, went there to try their luck for better prospects of life.

All these people were responsible for the propagation of Indian culture in these countries. Besides, there were many Buddhist monks and Hindu saints who went there as missionaries and propagated their religion which proved one of the most powerful instruments for Indianising the people there.

Political History of Indian States in the East and the South-East:

Indian kingdoms were established in different countries of the east and the south­east like Malaya, Cambodia, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Bali, Annam, etc. between the second and the fifth centuries A D. Sanskrit remained the language of these countries and somewhere Buddhism, otherwise primarily Saivism, remained the predominant religion of the people.

However, all these kingdoms established by the Indians were vanquished by the end of the fifth century A.D. But again, some time after more powerful kingdoms of Indians were built in Suvarnadvipa (Malay Peninsula, and nearby islands of Java, Sumatra, Borneo etc.), Champa (eastern coast of Indo-China or Vietnam), Kambuja (north-east Cambodia) and Burma, among which many continued for nearly one thousand years.

1. The Hindu Kingdoms of Suvaranadvipa:

The Indians established their rule first of all in the islands of Malaya, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Bali etc. because these were the nearest to the Indian sea-coast. The region comprising these islands was called Suvarnabhumi or Suvarnadvipa at that time. Here, in the island of Sumatra, the first big kingdom of the Hindus, called the Srivijaya, was established in the fourth century A.D. and it continued to exist till the seventh century A.D.

Then, again, in the eighth century A.D. a much more powerful empire was founded by the Sailendras in this region. The Sailendras established their sway over nearly the whole of Suvaranadvipa, comprising Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java, Bali, Borneo, and the other islands of the south-east Asia.

For some time they captured part of Cambodia as well and attacked the sea-coast of Champa also. The Sailendra emperors were the followers of Buddhism. They kept diplomatic relations with China and the Palas and the Cholas of India. They came in conflict with the Cholas and were defeated. This reduced their strength. The Sailendra empire declined after the ninth century A.D. but continued for two centuries more.

Afterwards, it was broken into pieces. Java became independent and a strong empire was established there in the fourteenth century. Rajasanagara, who ascended the throne in 1350 A.D, made it a great empire and his capital Majapahit became a flourishing city in the south­east. His empire included nearly the whole of Malay Peninsula and Malay Archipelago except Philippines.

Rajasanagara and his successors were the followers of Hinduism, though they were tolerant to Buddhism. However, the empire created by him also declined in the fifteenth century under his successors. One important state which grew out of its fragments was Malacca.

One of the rulers of Malacca married the daughter of a Muslim ruling Chief in Sumatra and accepted Islam. Thereafter Islam gradually became the predominant religion in Malacca, except Bali where Hinduism is still the accepted religion of the people.

2. Champa or Annam:

The eastern coast of Indo-China, or modern Vietnam, was known as Annam at that time. As early as the second or the third century A.D., a Hindu kingdom was established there whose capital was Champa. Bhadra Varman, Rudra Varman, Hari Varman, Sinha Varman, etc. were some of the important Hindu kings of Champa. China in the north and Kambuja in the west were the neighbouring states of Champa. It had to fight against both of them for its survival.

The rising power of Kambuja proved against its interest. Jayavarman VII, the king of Kambuja, at one time, succeeded in defeating Indra Varman VIII, the king of Champa. Indra Varman was taken prisoner and Champa became a province of the Kambuja state.

It was only after constant fighting for thirty years that Champa regained its independence. It also suffered heavily by the invasion of the famous Mongol Chief, Kublai Khan, during the period between 1282-1285 A.D. Shortly after this, hostilities broke out with the Annamites who conquered nearly the whole country before the end of the fifteenth century A.D.

3. Kambuja (Cambodia):

In Indo-China, another Hindu state was formed. It was in Cambodia. The Indians called it Kambuja while the Chinese called it the kingdoms of Fu-nan. We find there a Hindu king, named Chandana or Chandra, as far back as 357 A.D. The Chinese called him Chan-tan who sent an embassy to China. Towards the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century A.D., another Indian, named Kaundinya, was elected king by the people of Kambuja.

He was a Brahmana and had gone there direct from India at that time. He married a princess of the Naga-dynasty there, laid the foundations of the greatness of the Kambuja state and Indianised the local people. Gradually, the state of Kambuja extended itself and included the entire territory of Cambodia, Siam and Kochin- China.

In the eighth century, it had to accept the suzerainty of the more powerful Sailendra empire for some time, but in the ninth century we find it independent again.

The kingdom of Kambuja again rose to power under its able ruler Java Varman II, who ruled between 802-854 A.D. His successor, Yaso Varman, shifted his capital to Angkor region (Yasodharapura) which, thenceforth, became the centre of culture and was decorated with architectural monuments which have made Kambuja famous all over the world.

In 1001 A.D., the ruling dynasty was replaced by another dynasty whose founder ruler was Surya Varman. Surya Varman extended the territories of Kambuja. He conquered north Siam and a part of south Burma. His successor, Surya Varman II (1113 to 1143 A.D.) conquered a part of Malaya and the entire south Burma.

He constructed the famous Vishnu temple of Angakor-Vata. The last great ruler of Kambuja was Jayal Varman VII. He conquered Champa and planned its new capital city of Angkor Thom. After his death, the state of Kambuja became weak and it was destroyed by its neighbouring rulers, the Thais of Burma and Annamis.

4. Burma:

Burma was called Brama-desa at that time. The Indians went there both by land and sea and settled in different parts of Upper and Lower Burma. The first Indian immigrants in Burma belonged to Andhra Pradesh and were the followers of the Hinayana sect of Buddhism. They were called Mons and were known as Talaings also which indicate their origin from Telingana in India.

By the seventh century A.D., they established a strong empire in Lower Burma and increased their influence towards north Siam and west Laos. To the north of the kingdom of Mons, another kingdom was established by Hinduized Pyus with Srikshetra as their capital as early as the third century A.D.

This kingdom rose to the status of an important power in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. and its boundaries touched the frontier of Eastern India, Yunnan and Kambuja. Thus, it included a large part of Upper and Central Burma. It remained an important power even in the ninth century A.D. but, then its power gradually declined. The Hinduized Pyus were pressed by the Mrammas from the north and by the Mons from the south. Gradually, they lost their separate existence and were merged into their powerful neighbours.

Another powerful kingdom was created by Mrammas in north Burma. It was a Tibeto-Dravidian tribe who lived on the banks of the river Brahamaputra for a long time and settled in Burma. The Mrammas first accepted Hinduism but one of their rulers Aniruddha accepted Hinayana sect of Buddhism. Aniruddha (1044- 1077 A.D.) was a powerful ruler who conquered entire Burma and propagated Buddhism there.

His successor, Tribhuvanaditva Dharmaraja constructed the famous Ananda temple of Burma. Buddhism became the predominant religion in Burma during the rule of these powerful monarchs. The last ruler of this dynasty was Narasinghapati.

During his rule, the Mongols attacked Burma and he tried to flee to save his life but his own subjects killed him because of his cowardly behavior. One of the descendants of Mongol chief, Kublai Khan, ultimately destroyed the Hindu kingdom of Burma.

Indian Culture in the East and the South-East Asia:

In all the countries of the East and the South-East, Indian civilization and culture were completely accepted. Of course, here and there, the indigenous elements were also absorbed but the basic structure of culture remained Indian. The monarchical government and the administration was run on the ideals of Indian polity. The constitution of Mantri-Parishad, king’s responsibility towards his subjects and the pursuance of Rajya Dharma were all on the Indian pattern.

The same way the language, literature, religions, fine arts and social institutions of India were accepted by the people here. The people of these regions, at that time, were much backward in culture as compared to Indians with whom they came in contact.

They belonged to different grades of civilization, from the semi-savage of Cambodia to the people of Java who had made some cultural progress. Therefore, in fact, the Indians, who were far superior to them in culture, formed the culture and civilization of these people.

1. Literature:

Sanskrit or Pali, a derivative from Sanskrit, remained the main languages of these countries and Indian philosophy, religious texts, epics, etc., formed the source of the contents of their literature. Inscriptions, written in Sanskrit, have been found in thousands at different places in countries like Burma, Siam, Malaya, Cambodia, Annam, Sumatra, Java and Borneo and many of them belong to as far back as the second and third centuries A.D.

More than one hundred Sanskrit inscriptions have been discovered in Champa while those found in Cambodia are larger in number and also of higher literary merit. These inscriptions, and the like, found in other different countries are sufficient proofs that the people here had not only acquired the knowledge of Sanskrit language and its grammar and the knowledge of the Hindu religious texts, epics and philosophy but had mastered them.

It is clear that they studied thoroughly the Vedas, the Puranas, the Ramayana, the Bhagvata Gita, Grammar of Panini, the Mahabhasya of Patanjali and scholarly writings of Kalidas, Vatsyayana, Bhavabhuti etc. Buddhist texts were also popular there and all of them were studied by the people. The kings and rich people took a leading part in literary activities of the people and there had been many scholarly kings like Yaso Varman and Surya Varman I of Kambuja.

Yaso Varman composed a commentary on the Mahabhasya while Surya Varman I was well-versed in Bhasvas, Kavya and Dharmasastras. In Java, the people studied not only Sanskrit but evolved out of it an extensive literature of their own which flourished for nearly five hundred years, viz., 1000-1500 A.D The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were translated into the Javanese language.

Besides, Kavyas like the Arjuna-Vivaha, the Bharat-Yuddha, the Sumanasantaka, etc. were also composed by them. The Sumanasantaka is based on the story of Indumati, the queen of Aja and mother of king Dasarath, described by Kalidasa in the Raghuvansa. The Pali language is still in use in a large part of Indo-Chim.

2. Religion:

The people in these countries were all converted either to Hinduism or Buddhism. While Buddhism became the predominant religion in Burma and Sri Lanka, Hinduism prevailed in all the countries of South-East Asia. Hindu temples and Buddhist pagodas and also the images of different Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as those of Mahatma Buddha, were constructed in large numbers at all these places.

Crawford writes: “Genuine Hindu images, in brass and stone, exist throughout Java in such variety that I imagine that there is hardly a personage of the Hindu mythology, of whom it is usual to make representations, that there is not a statue of.” Among Hindu gods, the first position was assigned to Siva.

Next came Vishnu and then the rest of them. One very popular image in Java is that of Bhatara-Guru. It is regarded as a representation of Mahayogin Siva but some others maintain that it represents the sage Agastya. The worship of Agastya was very popular in Java and therefore, it is quite reasonable that the image is a representation of the Indian sage, Agastya.

Buddhism was also quite popular here. Besides, Tantric cult of Hinduism and Buddhism also influenced the religion of these people. Sri Vijava was a great centre of learning for Buddhist studies. The Chinese traveller, I-tsing, studied here for seven years. The famous Buddhist scholar and teacher of Nalanda University Dharmapala also visited Suvarnadvipa. There was constant exchange of Hindu and Buddhist scholars between these countries and India.

Sivasoma, the teacher of king Indra Varman, came to India to receive education from Sankar, viz., Sankaracharva. One important feature, which was responsible for the propagation of religion in these countries, was the establishment of Asramas like India in the Vedic age. These asramas (hermitages) were the abodes of pious devotees who dedicated their lives to study and meditation.

3. Society:

The people of these countries had adopted all norms of the Hindu society. The caste-system, which forms the fundamental basis of the Hindu society, was accepted in most of these countries and the Brahmanas, the Kshatriyas, the Vaisyas and the Sudras formed the main castes of their society. The Brahmanas were respected in society but they did not interfere in the administration of the state. The status of the Sudras was much better there as compared to India. The caste system was also not rigid there.

Similarly, the women enjoyed better status there as compared to Indian women. The practice of Sati was prevalent only among royal families, while social evils like Purdah, child-marriage, etc., did not grow up there. Women mixed freely with men and participated in all social and religious functions.

They participated in administration also. One queen, named Gunapriya ruled over Java at one time. The food habits and the clothings of the people in most of these countries were similar to those of Indians. Wheat and rice formed their staple diet. Gambling, music, dance, dramas and fighting between animals and birds formed the main items of amusement of the people. The stories of dramas were mostly taken from the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

4. Fine Arts:

There too, as in India, the art was the handmaid of religion. Therefore, primarily, temples and images of gods were constructed for the expression of art. In the beginning, the arts of sculpture and architecture were completely drawn on the Indian model and many early temples and images have been supposed to be constructed by Indian artists who had migrated there.

But, gradually, different local styles were evolved though they also maintained the Indian character. The temples and images, both of Hinduism and Buddhism, have been discovered in such a large number from different places that it is impossible to describe them all. Only a few examples are sufficient to convey an idea of their massive grandeur and artistic excellence.

Many temples and images of the Buddha and Hindu gods like Siva, Vishnu, Brahma etc. have been found in Java. The religious structures in Java are known by the general name Chandi, and most of them are temples, built on more or less a uniform pattern with variations in detail. There are Brahmanical temples on the Dieng plateau in Java.

Among them, the temples of Siva, Vishnu and Brahma are the most important. These temples possess that sobriety and dignity which is usually associated with Indian temples of the Gupta period. There is a beautiful temple of Siva named Chandi-Banon near Barabudur. Still more famous is the Lara-Jongrang group of Brahmanical temples.

The total number of temples here is 156, but there are three main temples in one row. They are of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, the Siva-temple in the centre being the most magnificent.

The temples have been decorated by relief sculptures depicing the story of the Ramayana. Among the Buddhist temples are Chandi Kalasan, Chandi Sari and Chandi Seva. The complex of temples known as Chandi Seva contains nearly 250 temples with the main temple at the centre.

But the most magnificent monument in Java is the famous Buddhist temple at Barabudur which was constructed during the period 750-850 A.D. under the patronage of the Sailendra rulers. It is situated on top of a hillock. The temple has a series of nine successive terraces, each receding from the one beneath it. The six lower terraces are square in plan and the upper three are circular.

The whole structure is crowned by a bell-shaped stupa which stands at the centre of the topmost terrace and is accessible from it by a series of circular steps. The three uppermost terraces are encircled by rings of stupas, each containing image of Buddha.

Besides, the walls and galleries have beautiful sculptured panels depicting the life of the Buddha and his different incarnations as described in the Jatakas. The Barabudur temple is both massive and beautiful. Dr R.S. Sharma writes, “The mighty structure presents a combination of the characteristics of the great stupa of Sanchi and the sculpture of the Kailas temple of Ellora.”

The best temple in Kambuja is the Vishnu temple of Angkor Vat. The name simply means the temple (Vat) of the city (Angkor-nagara). The temple is surrounded by a ditch which is more than 650 feet wide and 2 1/2 mile long. Its entrance gate is towards the west.

The broad paved avenue, which runs from the western gateway to the first gallery of the temple, is 36 feet wide, 1,560 feet long and raised 7 feet above the ground. The first gallery measures about 800 feet from east to west and 675 feet from north to south, with a total running length of nearly 3,000 feet.

The central tower rises to a height of more than 210 feet above the ground level. Thus, the structure of the temple is very massive and impressive. Besides, its proportions, general symmetry of the plan and above all the decorative sculptures have provided marvellous beauty and grandeur to it. It has been justly regarded as the greatest of the monuments in Kambuja.

M. Henry Mouhot who discovered it described it as, “The most wonderful structure in the world, the like of which Greece and Rome had never built.” There are also many other temples of huge dimensions like it in city of Angkor Thom, the capital city built by Jaya Varman VII. The city itself was very much beautiful and grand and could be favourably compared with Rome in the days of Nero.

There are also a large number of temples in Champa. Among them there are three important groups of temples viz., those of Dong Duong, Po-Nagar, Myson, the first being Buddhist and the next two Saivite. These are also beautiful specimens of architecture, though they are in no way comparable to the temples at Java or Kambuja.

The remains of nearly 1.000 temples have been discovered in the city of Pagan itself in Burma, but the finest among them is the Ananda-Temple which was built by Kyanzittha. It has been regarded as the masterpiece of Burmese architecture. It is a Buddhist temple. It is at the centre of a courtyard which is 564 feet square. The temple is made of bricks. It is square in plan, each side measuring 175 feet.

There is a colossal standing image of Buddha which is 31 feet in height and has been placed on an 8 feet high throne. The beauty of the temple has been increased by the numerous stone-sculptured reliefs and glazed terra-cotta plaques that adorn its walls. The temple is surrounded by a 30 feet high boundary-wall. It is believed that this temple was planned and constructed by Indian architects.

Thus, we find that Indian culture in the form of Sanskrit or Pali literature, religion in the form of Hinduism or Buddhism, social institutions based on casteism and the fine arts, particularly that of architecture and sculpture, prevailed in Burma, Sri-Lanka and a large part of south-east Asia for a long time. It was cultural conquest of India.

The Indians civilized most of the people in these countries and made them a part and parcel of Indians. Therefore, these territories, which formed part of Indian culture, have been rightly regarded as parts of ‘Greater India’. One more remarkable feature of Indian colonists in these countries had been that they did not exploit the people of these countries for the advantage of India.

They, rather, established themselves there as their own homeland, participated in the lives of the local people and enriched them with their culture though, of course, they maintained their contact with India. The Indians in the Hindu period could, therefore, be justly proud of being cultural missionaries and daring colonists for a large part of Asia without being the exploiters of the colonies where they held their power.