The Hindu Presence in World Culture

European travelers to the Indian subcontinent and colonial scholars did everything to encourage the idea that India was a stagnant country and its people largely immobile, but this view betrayed Europe's own parochialism and the inability of Europeans to confront some of the exceedingly cosmopolitan cultures of the Indic world. Buddhists and later Hindu kings were carriers of Indic culture to Southeast Asia in the second half of the first millennium, and though Bali is generally characterized as the Hindu "paradise" or "getaway" in Muslim Indonesia, the Prambanan plains of central Java are a striking testimony of the infiltration of Hindu culture into all of Southeast Asia. Down to the present day, the Javanese are steeped in the culture of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

India also developed extensive links with central Asia, Aden and the Gulf, and the east coast of Africa, and one effect of the European presence in India was the excision of the memory of these forms of interculturality. Gujaratis, Hakkas, Cantonese, Malayalis, Arabs, Bataks, Acehnese, Malays, Minangs, and Parsis mingled together. Before European hegemony commenced in the modern period, the Indian Ocean trading world provided the conditions for multiculturalism that the Western world, which did everything to eliminate diversity and plurality, now claims as its signal contribution to world history. There is evidence of Indian settlements in east Africa extending back to the 12th century.


Kadaram or Bhujanga

Kadaram (the ancient Kedah Kingdom), or KatahaNagara or also called Bhujanga (Bujang Valley) was one of the important ancient Hindu Kingdoms of South Asia. Kadaram was situated in region of southern Thailand, and northern peninsular Malaysia. It is presently known as Kedah. Being situated in a strategic place which commanded the northern approaches of the Straits of Malacca, it became a center of power and economy. It had very close connections with many countries of the ancient world. Trade connections between western Indonesia and Southern India seem to have been close during the reign of the Pallavas, from the 4th to 9th centuries CE. These relations helped spread Hindu culture and religion to the Malays, and also lead to the emergence of Hindu Kingdoms like Kadaram (Old Kedah), Langkasuka, Funan, and Champa. The word "Bujang" in a modern Malay Language means bachelor but the proper spelling is actually in Sanskrit, "Bhujanga" or dragon. Add the prefix 'Lembah', which means valley, and you get Dragon Valley.

The site covers an area of 224 square kilometers. When you make your way around the cluster of temple ruins, you will note the dominant influences of Hinduism and Buddhism. Researchers have concluded the ruins and artifacts found here dating back to the 5th century AD. Both civilizationspracticed trade relations with old empires of India, Cambodia and Srivijaya. It was even visited by the Chinese monk I-Tsing in 671 AD.

It is the richest archaeological area in Malaysia. Archaeological research indicates that an ancient Hindu Kingdom ruled here as early as 300 AD. Relics of the kingdom found at the site and now on display at the Archaeological Museum include inscribed stone caskets and tablets, metal tools and ornaments, ceramics, pottery, and Hindu icons. More than fifty ancient tomb temples, called candi, have also been unearthed, many of which were built during the Bujang Valley civilization's heyday.

What remains now to be seen are some remnants of this ancient society which includes temples, tablets and drainage channels which have been found across more than 300 sq km surrounding the "GunungJerai" (means Mount Jerai) which happens to be the highest peak in Peninsular Malaysia located at the northern region.


Archaeological Excavation

If we were to look for proof of the existence of the earliest Malay kingdoms on the peninsula, it is inevitably Kedah that has yielded the most ancient archaeological evidence so far discovered. Since the first excavation in 1936 by British archaeologists, H.G Quatrich Wales over 50 archaeological sites have been discovered. This gives evidence to the daily living of people long ago. The temple grounds are sacred where few of the temples have been restored while others are left as it is and is still undergoing research.

The two most prominent sites containing 600-year old candis were unearthed in 1997. Most prominent is the 1,000-year-old Candi Bukit BatuPahat (Temple of the Hill of the Chiselled Stone) believed to be built in the 17th Century on the summit of a small hill. These sites of temple ruin stretch all the way from GunungJerai to Kuala Muda in the south. Throughout the course of the excavation, archaeologists have found various artifacts such as pottery, jewellery, stone pillars, stone carvings and statues. These findings are displayed at the LembahBujang Archaeological Museum nearby.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Captain James Low found: "undoubted relics of a Hindoo colony, with ruins of temples …' and '… mutilated images. ..' extending 'along the talus of the Kedda mountain Jerrei.' Among his later finds were fragments of a Sanskrit inscription of the fourth century A.D. written in the oldest Pallava alphabet as well as a slab found in the estuary of the Muda River bearing a Sanskrit prayer in fifth-century Pallava script for the success of a voyage about to be undertaken by a sailing-master (mahdndvika), indicating the estuary was a home port for Indian traders during the fifth century A.D. Later excavations in the valley of the Bujang River (an tributary of the Merbok River further north) uncovered various sanctuaries, palace halls of audience, temples, stapas, forts, as well as a number of other unidentified buildings. The shrines in the Bujang Valley were later abandoned in favour of sites nearer the Merbok estuary.

Indian ships found a sheltered anchorage and probably a small community of indigenous folk practicing subsistence cultivation and fishing. No doubt these folk had diversified their simple economy by casual trading with Indian merchants entering the Straits of Malacca. Their settlement, at first a mere village, had grew to become the collecting point for the forest products of the surrounding hinterland, aided also by its strategic location at the western end of a trans-peninsular route to the east.


Metal-smelting Workshop

The archaeologists found a metal-smelting workshop replete with a network of furnace nozzles which was unearthed in an oil palm plantation in "Sungai Batu" (means Stone River). The system of metallurgy found here similarly resembles the techniques used in ancient India. There were also like ceramics, pots, bracelets and beads. "This is the first time that an advanced metal industry from such a period has been confirmed to have existed in this region", says Associate Prof Dr. MokhtarSaidin from the Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR) from the USM. He points out that they are gradually uncovering the remaining mounds which require a lot of patience.


Early References

There is also a great deal of references in ancient and medieval Indian literature to locations which have been identified as Kedah. One of the earliest presumed references to Kedah (called, at varying times, Kadaram or Kataha) is contained in the Tamil poem Pattinappilai, was written at the end of the second century A.D. It described goods from Kadaram "heaped together in the broad streets" of the Chola capital.

The seventh century Sanskrit drama Kaumudimahotsava called Kedah Kataha-nagara and described it as a country famed for its social attractions and gay life. The Agnipurina also mentions a territory known as Anda-Kataha, with one of its bounds delimited by a peak, which scholars have assumed to be GunungJerai. There are two further references to Kataha in a Prikrit work, the Samaraiccakaha written about the middle of the eighth century, relating voyages to Kataha-dvipa. Stories from the Kathasaritsagara described the elegance of life in Kataha, calling it 'the seat of all felicities'.

After a period of independence, Kedah then attained its height of greatness as the seat of power for the Sri Vijaya empire on the peninsula. It was clearly the chief power on the peninsula and in many ways surpassed Palembang in terms of trade and its strategic links with India and the rest of the region. Its fortunes, however, began to wane after the great raid by RajendraChola on the Sri Vijaya empire in 1025 A.D. Kedah was a primary military objective and despite what the Cholas described as the "fierce strength" of the defenders, it fell to the raiders, its king losing "large heap of treasures" to the new conquerors. Kedah later tried to assert its independence from the Sri Vijaya empire and another Chola King ViraRajendra raided Kedah in 1068 A.D. to aid its king. But the great city-state sinks into obscurity after that. The Kingdom of Ligor takes over the mantle of power from Sri Vijaya on the peninsula and its king Candrabhanu uses Kedah as a base for attacks on Sri Lanka. The Thais were to later subjugate this kingdom, leading to Thai domination of much of the northern peninsula in the centuries to come.


Ramakien - from the Ramayana to the National Epic of Thailand

Ramakian (Ramayana in India) is the tale of the God Vishnu who incarnated as Rama to punish the YaksaTotsagan. This is the story of Phra Ram and his Consort Sita (NaangSiidaa). Ramakian is one of the foundations of Buddhist Literature in Thailand, and is taught in every Primary school. The Ramayana came to Southeast Asia by means of Indian traders and scholars who traded with the kingdoms of Khmer (such as Funan and Angkor) and Java (Srivijaya), with whom the Indians shared close economic and cultural ties.

The spread and popularity of Ramayana over the centuries may be seen in the number of variations of the story in the region. By the Dhonburi period of Thai history, the Thai version of the Ramayana (The Story of Rama) had been renamed Ramakien (The Glory of Rama) while the same story became known as Ram-Lak in the Lao version. Although older versions of Ramakien are extant, such as a book dated to the Dhonburi period, the most complete version of the Ramakien is the "Rama I version", an epic poem composed by King Rama I in the 18th century.

In the late first millennium, the epic was adopted by the Thai people, who had migrated to Southeast Asia from southern China. The oldest recordings of the early Sukhothai kingdom, dating from the thirteenth century, include stories from the Ramayana legends. The history of the legends was told in the shade theater (Thai: หนัง, Nang), a shadow-puppet show in a style adopted from Indonesia, in which the characters were portrayed by leather dolls manipulated to cast shadows on a nearby screen while the spectators watched from the other side. The Thai version of the legends was first written down in eighteenth century, during the Ayutthaya kingdom, following the demise of the Sukhothai government. Most editions, however, were lost when the city of Ayutthaya was destroyed by armies from Burma (modern Myanmar) in the year 1767.

The version recognized today was compiled in the kingdom of Siam under the supervision of King Rama I (1736-1809), the founder of the Chakri dynasty, which still maintains the throne of Thailand. Between the years of 1797 and 1807, Rama I supervised the writing of the well-known edition and even wrote parts of it. It was also under the reign of Rama I that construction began on the Thai Grand Palace in Bangkok, which includes the grounds of the WatPhraKaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The walls of the WatPhraKaew are lavishly decorated with paintings representing stories from the Ramakien.

Rama II (1766-1824) further adapted his father's edition of the Ramakien for the khon drama, a form of theater performed by non-speaking Thai dancers with elaborate costumes and masks. Narrations from the Ramakien were read by a chorus to one side of the stage. This version differ slightly from the one compiled by Rama I, giving an expanded role to Hanuman, the god-king of the apes, and adding a happy ending. Since its introduction to the Thai people, the Ramakien has become a firm component of the culture. Though many consider it only an adaptation of a strange work from an archaic system of beliefs, it is firmly embedded in the cultural history of the country and the people. The Ramakien of Rama I is considered one of the masterpieces of the Thai literature. It is still read, and is taught in the country's schools.


The Birth of the Cosmos at Angkor Wat

The east-facing temple wall at Angkor Wat portrays the Hindu creation story known as the "Churning of the Sea of Milk." These panels are best seen around the time of sunrise. Former University of Michigan professor Eleanor Mannikka has discovered that the sun interacts with several of the panel's images on important dates of the annual solar cycle. The entire scene contains a total of 183 figures that collectively represent the number of days between the Winter and Summer solstices that take place each year during the months of December and June, respectively.

At the pivot point of this magnificent relief is the figure of the Hindu solar deity Vishnu (right), who occupies the one position in the panel that is directly illuminated by the rising sun on the day of the vernal equinox each March. In addition to the relief, the temple of Angkor Wat features solar alignments in which the Sun appears to rise out of its central tower on the day of the vernal equinox each March from at observation point located at the western end of the long causeway that leads up to the temple gates. Set at the beginning of the Golden Age, the Churning of the Sea of Milk explains how the forces of light (devas) and darkness (asuras) once worked together to generate the elixir of immortality that the Hindu scriptures call the amrita. At the beginning of the world, the devas fought bitterly with the asuras for a thousand years.

Each side was separately attempting to generate the elixer called the amrita, which would render immortal anyone who drank it. Unable to generate the amrita, both sides asked Lord Vishnu for assistance. After explaining to the celestials that they would have to work together in order to generate the amrita, Vishnu organized the forces of light and darkness into two groups. At Angkor Wat, the asuras are arrayed on the left. They are led by their captain Bali, who holds the head of the serpent king that served as the churning rope.

To the right are arrayed the forces of light, led by the monkey king Sugriva who can be seen holding onto the serpent king's tail. At the center of the entire operation is Vishnu, who guides the churning operation from his commanding position on the pivotal mountain of Mandara, around which the serpent king has wrapped his body. To keep the Mandara from sinking into the Sea of Milk, the king of the tortoises acts as the mountain's support. After two thousand more years come to pass, the churning operation finally succeeds, generating not only the much coveted elixir of immortality, but also the sun, the moon, and the celestial nymphs called the apsaras. They rise like stars and hover over the Milk Ocean, which symbolizes the Milky Way galaxy. Like the revolution of the sun, moon, planets, and stars that eternally revolve about the dome of the firmament, the visitor to Angkor is part of a cycle that must periodically return to the beginning. Having assimilated Angkor's cosmic perspective, the visitor walks back through the temple proper, down the long western causeway and steps back into the world of the present.


The Srivijaya Empire

Srivijaya is an ancient kingdom on the island of Sumatra. Known to be existed around 1400, it was found by DapuntaHyangÇriYacanaca. Buddhism was then spread, and records describe the Srivijayan capital Palembang as a center of Buddhist learning. The time the Buddhist monk, I-Ching, came to Srivijaya, he recommended it as a centre of Buddhist learning. He spent the whole of six months learning Sanskrit there. At the time the growing trade and shipping between India and China, controlled by Srivijaya, had attracted the rivalry of both East Java and the Cholas of south India. So later in 1025, the Cholas attacked Srivijaya, captured its king, and devastated the country.

The Indian influence over South-East Asia expanded a lot during the time of Pallavas between the fifth and seventh centuries and the influence was mainly seen in Cambodia. In Srivijaya, a maritime power and dynasty which controlled the empire (stretching from Sumatra to Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) arose from obscurity in the 8th century. Srivijaya was an Indianised polity, more Buddhist than Brahminical with its capital near Palembang in South Eastern Sumatra.

Rival to the Srivijaya dynasty was the joint kingdoms of Sailendra and Sanjaya based in central Java. It was during their time (after 780 CE) that the temple building activity flourished in the island. These temples were based on the layout and elevation of the Pallavan and Chalukyan temples. An exception to this style of construction is the colossal temple at Borobudur, which apparently started as a Hindu temple and was converted to a Buddhist place of worship.

One of the largest Hindu temples in the region is Prambanan, located in central Java. This temple, which was built around 850 CE during the time of the Sanjayadynasty is dedicated to the Trimurtis. There are about 200 temples in this complex and the bas-relief of the temple depicts the story of Ramayana. Parts of this temple were damaged in the recent earthquake that hit Indonesia. The longest axis of the island runs approximately northwest - southeast, crossing the equator near the center. The interior of the island is dominated by two geographical regions: the Barisan Mountains in the west and swampy plains in the east. To the southeast is Java, separated by the Sunda Strait. To the north is the Malay Peninsula, separated by the Straits of Malacca. To the east is Borneo, across the Karimata Strait. West of the island is the Indian Ocean.


The Hikayat Seri Rama

The Ramayana helped to mold concepts of state and kingship in Malaysia. The epic probably reached Malaysia by way of Javanese traders who brought their shadow play, WayangKulit. Many changes developed in the Malay version Ramayana and those changes depended upon the local traditions and politics. Religious beliefs also influenced these changes since the Malays were followers of Islam. There are literary and folktale versions of Ramayana in Malaysia. The Hikayat Seri Rama exists in both written and oral form, and the WayangKulit Siam is a shadow play from Kelantan on the border of Malaysia and Thailand (Siam). The Ramayana in Malaysia is used more for entertainment and social education rather than for spiritual or religious purposes. Kelantan is strongly Islamic, but it is also the main base for the Malay shadow puppet theatre.

The main purpose of the Hikayat Seri Rama is to show the ideals of righteousness, love, loyalty, and selfless devotion. This Malay version has combined elements of the Indian Sanskrit Ramayana with local traditions and beliefs to create a highly developed story which is enjoyed by many. All Kelantan dalangs (shadow puppet puppeteers) are Muslims. The wayang (shadow play) is disliked by the conservative Muslims. They criticize the rituals and practices associated with the art which appear to them to be outlawed by Islam. The religious conservatives are also concerned with the effect that the music has on the people and the dalang during the performance. They object to the trance-like effect which seems to be produced by the gamelan (gong orchestra). The dalang usually performs 200 - 300 shows a year and probably no more than two are held for purposes other than entertainment. The literary and folktale versions include variations, changes, omissions, and additions based upon the particular region. Another version entitled WayangKulitGedek appears to have come from Southern Thailand.

In Malaysia, the Ramayana episodes are divided into two categories, those that concern the fundamental plot, pokok, (base,trunk) and those non-fundamental episodes, rantings (twigs), which consist of Rama's adventures and those of the other main characters. These extensive ranting stories are performed by local puppeteers (dalang) or performers.


Suvarnabhumi Airport - Churning of the Milk Ocean

If you've ever departed from the new Bangkok airport - Suvarnabhumi Airport, you will be greeted by an impressive statue the moment you clear immigration. The statue depicts one of the famous scenes from Paraana's (Hindu literature) — Samudramanthan (Devanagari: समुद्रमंथन) aka the churning of the ocean of milk. This story is celebrated in a major way every twelve years in the festival known as KumbhaMela.

The Churning of the ocean of milk tells of the story where Asuras and Devas (Celestial Beings) cooperated to churn the sea for thousands of years in order to extract the elixir of immortality, coveted by both groups. As you can see from the pictures, the Devas are engaged in a tug of war with the Asuras. Each team is holding onto one end of the king of serpent - Vasuki (aka Naga). The center of the serpent is coiled around Mt. Mandara (which is a pivot) and at the base of this pivot would be Vishnu, incarnated as a huge turtle.

As the ocean churned, a deadly poison known as halahala emerged. Shiva drank this poison and his wife stopped it in his throat with her hands, causing the throat to turn blue. (explaining why Shiva is sometimes called Nīlakantha meaning Blue Throat). From the churning, numerous opulent things were also produced including Dhanvantari (Heavenly Physician) carrying the pot of Amrita - the heavenly nectar of immortality. In the end, the cooperation between Devas and Asuras was shattered with Vishnu taking the form of Mohini — a beautiful and enchanting damsel who served to distract the Asuras while distributing the nectar to the Devas. (a little cheating and deception seems to be happening here). The Devas having fulfilled their plan of acquring all the Amrita banished the Asuras out of Heaven and into the underworld.

Some wayangkulitMelayudalang claim that there are well over 1,000 flat leather puppets in a complete set, encompassing all the character needed to tell the Panji and Pandawa stories. The puppets used to this day, retain a form, style, and design very similar to the Javanese leather puppets of the wayangkulitpurwa. The stage itself, however, follows the traditional Malay shadow play roofed operating hut raised on stilts, with a white screen stretched over a frame to partition off the unwalled side of the hut for viewing by the audience. Like the Malay wayangkulit Siam folk village form of shadow puppet theatre, the wayangkulitMelayu orchestra players sit inside the hut behind the dalang. While the manipulation of the leather puppet movements as well as the pace at which the story progresses is much slower in the wayangkulitMelayu type when compared to the fast-paced, village folk style of the wayangkulit Siam.

The Malays do not look for the Hindu/Buddhist concepts of dharma, karma, and moksha in the hero Rama. They only view him as a righteous and virtuous model for mankind. With these traits he was able to triumph over evil. When comparing the Sanskrit Ramayana and the Hikayat Seri Rama we find they share the basic universal theme that goodness, righteousness, and justice will prevail over evil. These values and ideals appealed to the people in all the countries of South East Asia influenced by India.

Malay storytellers however show the legacy of their particular civilization in their version of the epic. Malay writers and storytellers produce variations in which Lakhsmana, the younger brother, becomes more important than Rama the elder prince. Rama, although righteous and virtuous was perceived to be weak and his character is often moved to the background. The younger Lakhsmana's courage and willingness to react decisively appear to be traits which are more appreciated by the Malays.