The spread of Indian culture and civilization to the other parts of Asia constitutes an important chapter in the history of India. India had established commercial contacts with other countries from the earliest times. It had inevitably resulted in the spread of Indian languages, religions, art and architecture, philosophy, beliefs, customs and manners. Indian political adventurers even established Hindu kingdoms in some parts of South East Asia. However, this did not lead to any kind of colonialism or imperialism in the modern sense. On the other hand these colonies in the new lands were free from the control of the mother country. But they were brought under her cultural influence.
Central Asia was a great centre of Indian culture in the early centuries of the Christian era. Several monuments have been unearthed in the eastern part of Afghanistan. Khotan and Kashkar remained the most important centres of Indian culture. Several Sanskrit texts and Buddhist monasteries were found in these places. Indian cultural influence continued in this region till eighth century. Indian culture had also spread to Tibet and China through Central Asia.
India and China
China was influenced both by land route passing through Central Asia and the sea route through Burma. Buddhism reached China in the beginning of the first century A.D. A number of Chinese pilgrims like Fahien and Hiuen Tsang visited India. On the other side, hundreds of Buddhist monks like Gunabhadra, Vajrabothi, Dharmadeva and Dharmagupta visited China. Indian scholars translated many Sanskrit works at the request of Chinese emperors. This contact with China continued even in the thirteenth century when the Mongols established their empire in China. Chinese art had also been influenced by Indian art.
India and Tibet
Tibet was influenced by India from the seventh century. The famous Buddhist king Gampo founded the city of Lhasa and introduced Buddhism. The Tibetan alphabet was devised with the help of Indian scholars. Later, the Indian scholars helped for the establishment of Lamaism in Tibet. In the eleventh century the Pala dynasty of Bengal had close contacts with Tibet. When Bengal was attacked by the Muslim rulers, many Buddhist monks sought shelter in Tibet.
Despite having different political history, Sri Lanka experienced a great cultural influence from India. Buddhist missionaries had spread not only the religious faith but also cultural traditions. The art of stone carving went to Sri Lanka from India. In the fifth century, Buddha Ghosha visited Sri Lanka and consolidated there the Hinayana Buddhism. The famous paintings of Sigiriya were modeled on the Ajantha paintings.
Indian Culture in South East Asia
Indian culture had extended its mighty influence in the South East Asian region consisting of the Malay Archipelago and Indo- China. They are located across the Bay of Bengal. Being fertile and rich in minerals, these lands attracted the attention of the Indians. Moreover, the east coast of India is studded with numerous ports and Indians undertook frequent voyages to these lands. The ancient traditions refer to traders’ voyages to Suvarnabhumi, (the land of gold) a name generally given to all the countries of the East Asia. Indians began to colonize the East Asia in the Gupta period. It was further encouraged by the Pallavas. The Indian colonists established great kingdoms and some of them lasted for more than a thousand years. A number of dynasties with Indian names ruled in various parts. Till the arrival of Islam in the fifteenth century, Indian culture dominated this region.
Cambodia was colonised by Indians in the first century A.D. They influenced the native people called the Khemers. The ruling dynasty was known as Kambojas and their country was Kamboja or modern Cambodia. Under the early rulers Saivism and Vaishnavism made steady progress. The Kamboja empire at its greatest extent included Laos, Siam, part of Burma and the Malay peninsula. Numerous Sanskrit inscriptions give us a detailed history of its kings. A number of Hindu literary works like the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Panini’s grammar, Hindu philosophical treatises were all known to the people of Cambodia. Like the Pallava kings, they were called Varmans. Yasovarman and Suryavarman II were two well-known rulers. Temples were built in South Indian style. There are plenty of Sanskrit inscriptions.
The most famous of these temples was the temple (wat) of Vishnu built by Suryavarman II in his capital city Angkor. It was popularly called as the Angkorwat Temple. It is standing on top of a terraced structure. Each terrace is a sort of a covered gallery which contains numerous relief sculptures. The temple is constructed on the Dravidian style and the sculptures depict episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Kambhoja kingdom declined only in fifteenth century.
Champa or South Annam is situated to the east of Cambodia. The first Hindu dynasty was established by Sri Mara in the second century A.D. A number of Sanskrit inscriptions throw light on the history of Champa. Twelve Indian dynasties ruled over Champa and by the thirteenth century Champa was annexed to Cambodia. Under its Hindu rulers the Hindu religion and culture, customs and manners were introduced in Champa. Saivism and Vaishnavism flourished. Buddhism also existed side by side. Various works on Hindu philosophy, grammar, fine arts and astrology were written.
Siam or Thailand
There were several states in Siam following Indian culture. Thai script was developed with the help of Indian scholars. The traditional laws of that country were composed on the model of Dharmasastras. The temples at Bangkok contain many sculptures depicting the Ramayana.
Sumatra and Java
The Malay Archipelago had remained an important link between India and the Far East. Several Hindu kingdoms existed here between fifth to fifteenth centuries A.D. The most important Hindu kingdom in the big island of Sumatra was Sri Vijaya. It was a great centre of trade and culture in the seventh century. Subsequently, the Sri Vijaya kingdom developed into a powerful maritime and commercial power known as the Sailendra empire extending its sway over the neighbouring islands of Java, Bali, Borneo and over Cambodia.
The Sailendra rulers were Mahayana Buddhists and maintained cordial relations with the Indian kingdoms of the Palas of Bengal and the Cholas of Tamil Nadu. Rajaraja Chola allowed the Sailendra king Maravijayottungavarman to build a Buddhist monastery at Nagapattinam. His son Rajendra conquered the Sailendra kingdom for sometime. Later they became independent. The Sailendra empire continued intact till the eleventh century A.D. A Hindu kingdom was established in Java as early as the fourth century A.D. In Central Java arose the kingdom of Mataram which became a strong centre of Hindu religion and culture. It was conquered by the Sailendras of Sumatra. Till the ninth century Java continued to be a part of the Sailendra empire. Later it regained its independence. Java attained greatness and splendour in art under Sailendra rule.
The greatest monument of Indo- Java art is the Borobudur which was built during A.D. 750-850 under the
patronage of the Sailendras. It is situated on the top of a hill. It consists of nine successive terraces, crowned by a bell-shaped stupa at the centre of the topmost terrace. The open galleries in the terraces contain 2000 bas-reliefs (small carved stone figures) illustrating various incidents in the life of the Buddha. The lower parts are rich in decoration while the upper portions are plain and unadorned. Borobudur is described as an epic in stone, the most wonderful Buddhist stupa in the world.
In the twelfth century, eastern Java with Kadiri as its capital developed into the leading kingdom of Java. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries which marked the golden age of Javanese culture, Majapahit became the capital of the far-flung Javanese empire which included the neighbouring islands. Indian art and literature flourished in Java to an extent unknown elsewhere. Still, ruins of hundreds of temples and manuscripts based on the Sanskrit language are found in Java. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were popular and even today furnish the theme for their popular shadow-play. The fall of Majapahit brought to an end all artistic activity in Java.
Bali came under the rule of Hindu dynasties as early as the sixth century. I-Tsing refers to the prevalence of Buddhism there in the seventh century. The stone and copper plate inscriptions from that island show that it was colonised directly from India. Later it became subordinate to Java. Its people continue to be Hindus and even today we find the prevalence of the caste system there.
The cultural contacts between India and Burma (now Myanmar) dates back to the period of Asoka, who sent his missionaries there to preach Buddhism. Many Hindu kingdoms existed in Burma. Pali and Sanskrit were the languages of Burma till thirteenth century. Both Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism were followed by the Burmese.
Thus for nearly fifteen hundred years Hindu kings were ruling over numerous islands of the Malay Archipelago and over the Indo- China peninsula. Indian religions and Indian culture moulded the lives of the primitive inhabitants of these regions who were elevated to a higher plan of civilization.