India's deep but forgotten roots in South-east Asia

Twenty years ago, when I moved from India to Singapore with my husband, I found myself marvelling at the many reminders of home after the initial strangeness of being in a foreign city settled down.

These reminders reveal themselves like threads woven through the fabric of daily life - my neighbour lighting incense before an altar, the new year timed to the lunar calendar, even the concern for departed atmans (souls) as echoed in the observance of the Hungry Ghost Festival.

To be sure, similar beliefs and practices can arise across cultures. But it was when I visited Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam that it became increasingly evident to me that there was a Greater India that most Indians were unaware of. The batik designs worn by stewardesses aboard Singapore Airlines bore an unmistakable Indian stamp. The Buddhist religion was, of course, the most obvious Indian export.

There were other deities like Ganesha in Thailand, which were clearly of Hindu origin. Of course, Buddhism was itself an artificially separated religion; its concepts flew seamlessly from the earlier streams of thought enshrined in the Vedas.

But the biggest Indic influence I saw was in the diffusion of Sanskrit into the languages of the region. Bahasa, bumiputera, samudra, rasa, jaya and raja were just a few of many Malay words that were rooted in Sanskrit.

And yet , to my surprise, the museums I visited in Malaysia were more focused on European colonial powers, which became significant only during the last 400 years.

As I began researching for my book on the educational heritage of ancient India, I discovered that Indian knowledge had far-reaching impact. Universities were scattered over the entire land of India. There was of course, the famous Nalanda in the fifth century AD and Takshashila a thousand years earlier, but apart from these, there were scores of forest universities, temple universities and campuses of learned men and women dating back more than 5,000 years.

A sizeable number of foreign students from China, Korea, Japan, South-east Asia and West Asia flocked to India. Famous Chinese students (later professors) such as Fa-Hien (fifth century AD), Xuanzhang and Yijing (both from seventh century AD) have left behind detailed accounts of the educational ecosystem of India.

The subjects taught included logic, sciences, mathematics, grammar, debate, astronomy, medicine and more, which were mostly taught in Sanskrit. The colleges were funded by grants from kings and queens. Villagers contributed food grains, clothes and other necessities to support students and professors. There was a well-oiled machinery to facilitate the culture of learning.

Foreign students made difficult journeys on foot, pack animals and by ship, often risking their lives, to imbibe knowledge from the professors of India. It was not easy to gain admission into the top universities such as Nalanda, which had stringent entrance examinations that eliminated 80 per cent of applicants. This is why villages located around Nalanda had schools that trained students to crack the examinations.

During the course of their studies, foreign students such as Xuanzang copied hundreds of texts and carried back as many manuscripts as they could manage to their home countries. It was considered a sacred duty by these Chinese pilgrim-scholars to take back holy texts and their commentaries from India.

Interestingly, a large number of Indian scholars also travelled to China starting from the first century AD, upon being invited by kings from various dynasties. Hundreds of Sanskrit works were painstakingly translated into Chinese by Indian scholars in collaboration with Chinese intellectuals. It is on record that some of the Indian scholars were persuaded by Chinese kings to marry their daughters in order to produce gifted progeny. Several Indian mathematicians and astronomers from the best universities held high positions in China's scientific establishments. This is how Indian numerals were introduced into China as also the "navagraha" calendar and navigational principles.

Indic ideas flowed in all directions and moulded customs and traditions. Since the South-east Asian countries were just a quick sail away from the major ports of India, it was commonplace for Indian traders, artisans and scholars to frequent these regions from ancient times (possibly the second century BC). The similarities in temples, deities, textiles, medicines and belief systems that we see today are not by coincidence.

It was India which set the trends in architecture, textiles, medical systems, consumer goods and navigational methods. It is not surprising that India was then the biggest supplier of economic goods (along with Ming-ruled China) to the world. This is not to imply that the Indian civilisation comprised people of superior intellect. Put simply, the antiquity of the Indian civilisation extends to thousands of years, during which people were able to get over the basic problems of survival earlier, and thereby focus their time and energies on unravelling the complex mysteries of the universe as well as in expanding trade.

It was the sea route to India that the colonial powers of Portugal, Spain, France and England set out to explore in order to gain direct access to the physical and intellectual wealth of India. It is why the Native Americans were exultantly called Indians and why in Lisbon, the place from where Portuguese ships set out towards Asia was called Avenidas de India (Avenue to India). The target was India, while the spice-endowed lands of South-east Asia turned out to be bonus offerings.

The name Singapura was not merely the result of a lion-like animal being spotted by an Indonesian prince. The island was a part of Sanskritic kingdoms centred in Indonesia, which were highly civilised and cultured. The powerful Srivijayan Empire and the Majapahit Empire cannot be dismissed as footnotes of history.

The marvels of engineering, logistics and management that we witness in temples of Angkor Wat and Borobodur were built by Indic dynasties that stand as reminders of the glorious civilisation that emanated from India.

Given the richness and extent of Indic influence, it is surprising that India's contribution to building the edifice of Asean culture is not acknowledged to the extent it should be. The ties with European colonising powers are remembered better than the deep-rooted influence of a non-colonising India.

• The writer is an author, environmentalist and commentator who specialises in Indic history, water issues and current affairs. She has recently published a book, The Educational Heritage Of Ancient India - How An Ecosystem Of Learning Was Laid To Waste.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2018, with the headline 'India's deep but forgotten roots in South-east Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe