Revisiting Swarnabhumi/dvipa: Indian Influences in Ancient Southeast Asia

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Revisiting Swarnabhumi/dvipa:
Indian Influences in Ancient Southeast Asia

Joefe B. Santarita, Ph.D.

India’s civilizational connections with Southeast Asia for thousands of years are unavoidably invoked in various speeches of Indian officials every time they visited Southeast Asian countries. These references were inspired by the long history of lucid Indian interactions with inhabitants of Southeast Asia whom Indian writers and travelers called as Further/Greater India and/or Swarnabhumi (land of gold).
This paper revisits the various literatures written primarily by Indians and other prominent scholars that discuss the Indian influences in ancient Southeast Asia particularly the framing of Swarnabhumi with special reference from 9th to 12th centuries. In particular, this paper will look at the advent of Indian traders and migrants in early times and the vestiges they created and/or contributed to the present civilization as reflected in religion, arts, architecture, traditions, languages, vocabularies and many more.
Ancient Southeast Asia, Indianization, Architecture, Culture
In most recent times, India’s civilizational links with Southeast Asia over a millennium are consistently invoked by Indian officials in their speeches when visiting Southeast Asian countries.1 Prime Minister (PM) Manmohan Singh, for instance, stated in the 3rd India-ASEAN Business Summit in October 2004 that India wished to look east because of centuries of interaction with the region. Fifty years ago, then PM Jawaharlal Nehru also made a similar observation that ‘each blade of grass here breathes of Indian culture’ during his visit in Cambodia.2
Invoking this historical connection is undoubtedly rooted to the history of Indian expansion in ancient times by referring to Southeast Asia as Further or Greater India. This was even cemented by specifically calling the area as Swarnabhumi, Sanskrit word for ‘land of gold’, a reference that is corroborated by Chinese annals when ancient Chinese called the place ‘kin-lin’ (kin for gold). This Chinese saga is, however, not discussed in detail in this paper.
The primary objective of this paper is to revisit Indian influences in ancient Southeast Asia particularly the framing of Swarnabhumi through the various literatures written primarily by Indians and other prominent scholars. In particular, this paper will look at the advent of Indian traders and migrants in early times with special reference from 9th to 12th century links and the

vestiges they created and/or contributed to the present civilization as reflected in religion, arts, architecture, traditions, languages, and vocabularies, among others.

Swarnabhumi and Swarnadvipa are two interesting terminologies for historians and scholars of ancient Southeast Asia. Their etymology originates from the Sanskrit words such as the prefix swarna for gold and suffixes bhumi for land as well as dvipa for island. Thus, Swarnabhumi simply refers to the land of gold while Swarnadvipa means island of gold. These references obviously imply that the places constituting the present Southeast Asia were producers of gold and metallurgy was already practiced by early inhabitants. Furthermore, these references also prove extensive trading contacts between Indian traders, sailors and even brahmins (priests) with the local populations. Given the Sanskrit origins, there is no doubt that the areas under study are greatly influenced by the coming of Indians from Indian sub-continent.
Swarnabhumi, as concept and a reality, was captured in the works of prominent scholars on ancient Southeast Asia. Many of them have written numerous manuscripts on the early development of the region. It is, however, interesting to revisit the works of Indian authors such as Dhirendra Nath Roy, 1929 ‘The Philippines and India’; Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, 1929 Suvarnadvipa, Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East, Vol.II.; Jawaharlal Nehru, 1946 ‘Discovery of India’; Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, 1947 ‘The Survey of India’; Sisirkumar Mitra, 1949 The Vision of India; Nilakanta Sastri and G. Srinivasachari, 1971, An Advanced History of India; Amartya Sen, 2005, Argumentative Indians; and D. Sardesai, 2010, Southeast Asia: Past and Present.
The works of these authors, their perspectives and views will be the basis of the discussion, a fresh look in understanding ancient Southeast Asia against the usual interpretation of prominent western scholars such as Oliver Wolters, D. Hall, Higham, Arthur Basham, and others.
Majumdar stated in his book Swarnadvipa that ‘it is not known precisely when contact began between India and Southeast Asia.” There are enough references in Indian books, accounts of Arab travelers, Chinese historical accounts, old inscriptions, as well as the magnificent ruins of ancient monuments, like Angkor and Borobudur. The old stories in Sanskrit contain many accounts of perilous sea voyages and of shipwrecks. Both Greek and Arab accounts show that there was regular maritime intercourse between India and the Far East at least as early as the first century B.C.3
Sar Desai observed that Indians came in Southeast Asia almost the same time with the Chinese. Large-scale penetration by Indians and Chinese cultures began around the commencement of the Common Era (1 CE), 2 or 3 centuries after the first major political consolidations in those countries in the 3rd century BCE – China under Shi Huang Ti and India under Ashoka Maurya.4
When Indians migrated to SEA in 1st millenium BCE, the people in the area discovered among the Indian immigrants a similar cultural base, a shared substratum, some of whose traits were pre-Aryan and common to all peoples of Monsoon Asia. However, the large scale acculturation of SEA elite on the Indian pattern could not have been the work of Indian traders (Vaisha) or of sailors (Sudra) but of the Brahmans, priestly class, who had monopolized knowledge of the sacred lore, the rites and rituals, customs and laws. This initiative for the Indianization process came from the region’s ruling class who invited Brahmans to serve as priests, astrologers and advisers.
The influence of India across the land frontier was cultural and religious. Across the sea, it was also political. Communication by sea between the ports of South India and the islands in the Pacific was well established many centuries before Common Era. It is good to quote at length the observations of Panikkar on Indian movements in Southeast Asia and the establishment of communities he called as Further India or Suvarnabhumi and Suvarnadvipa.
By about the 1st century C.E., small waves of colonists began to establish themselves on the coastal regions of the Indonesia islands and Indo-China. They established small principalities, married locally and their States became the centers of flourishing trade with India, carried on through the east coast ports from Tamralipti to Negapatam. Indian colonies which exploited tin and gold mines also existed in Selensing, Panga, Puket and Takuopa. The region around the Bay of Bandom was the great center from which Indian influence radiated.5
Furthermore, Panikkar even believed that the actual migration happened in the 1st century C.E. by land across Malaya and by sea through the Straits of Singapore. The discovery and colonization of Sumatra, Java and Borneo were the results of oceanic navigation. The earliest evidence of an actually flourishing Hindu community on the Pacific coast comes from Funan.6 It is also to the credit of Panikkar in using a map about the expansion of Indian influence in the Far East. The old names of Southeast Asian places in Indian literature including the Swarnabhumi for mainland Southeast Asia, Swarnadvipa for Sumatra and interestingly Panyupayana for the Philippines are indicated in the map.7 Similar but more pronounced map on ancient Southeast Asia is also found in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India8 (See Figure 1).
FIGURE 1. Map of Ancient Southeast Asia

Courtesy of Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India.
G. Coedes also shared a similar observation regarding the establishment of Indian influence in the region as mentioned by H.G. Wales. Coedes opined that the introduction of Hindu cultural pattern was a gradual process, beginning with the arrival of a few merchants and adventurers who later became more numerous and were accompanied by Brahmans. He further believed that the superior cultural endowments of the migrants, often basically similar to those of the local people, assured the newcomers of a welcome. They frequently intermarried and were often employed by the local rulers. Indianized kingdoms soon came into being, either as a result of an Indian imposing himself on the native population or else through a native chief adopting the foreign civilization.9
For several millennia, the presence of Indian communities in Southeast Ramayana and the creation of Swarnabhumi left considerable imprints in the present civilizations. It ranges from infrastructure to arts, cultural artifacts and traditions.
In terms of infrastructure, the early polities commissioned monumental projects to include the establishment of today’s great landmarks such as Angkor. Its power extended far and beyond the boundaries of modern Cambodia, to Laos and Thailand, where about 300 Khmer sites have been identified. Most are located near the northern border of Cambodia in south Khorat; some lie in the Chao Phraya Valley, and some are near the Three Pagodas Pass, which leads to the modern border between Thailand and Burma.10 Angkor Thom, for instance, or ‘Great Capital’ is a royal complex at the center of the empire built at the end of the 12th century. It is a walled complex containing religious and administrative officials and religious sanctuaries. Angkor Wat, on the other hand, is a huge complex of religious significance. The principal shrine is located at the eastern end of the square enclosure. To reach the main temple, guests have to follow an axial pathway in the form of a stone bridge half a kilometer in length. This pathway is fringed with balustrades in the form of a giant serpent and is flanked by rectangular baray. Branches off the main walkway lead to pools, stone structures called libraries and other now-vanished structures.11 Barabudur, on one hand, is a Buddhist monument in central Java. The basic ground plan, a hilltop partly leveled to provide a flat space around the monument, partly covered with stone, was constructed in the mid-8th century. Four staircases led from the ground level to the top of the monument; these were modified several times due to the structure’s instability. The retaining walls on both sides of each gallery on the four square terraces are decorated with reliefs. Most of the scenes are depicted from the Jataka tales, stories from the previous lives of Buddha.12
In terms of literature, Indian Ramayana was adapted in other national epics in the region. The Ramayana, according to Santosh Desai, seems to have traveled from India to Asia in the early centuries C.E. It was transmitted along 3 routes: by land, the northern route took the story from the Punjab and Kashmir into China, Tibet, and East Turkestan; by sea, the southern route carried the story from Gujarat and South India into Java, Sumatra, and Malaya; and again by land, the eastern route delivered the story from Bengal into Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Vietnam and Cambodia obtained their stories partly from Java and partly from India via the eastern route.13
Almost all countries of Southeast Asia have the Rama story. In Indonesia for instance, Kakawin Ramayana is an old Javanese rendering; Yogesvara Ramayana is attributed to the scribe Yogesvara circa 9th century CE, who was employed in the court of the Medang in Central Java. It has 2774 stanzas in manipravala style, a mixture of Sanskrit and Kawi language. The most influential version of the Ramayana is the Ravanadham of Bhatti, popularly known as Bhattikavya. The Javanese Ramayana differs markedly from the original Hindu prototype. The 9th century Javanese Kakawin Ramayana has become the reference of Ramayana in the neighboring island of Bali. The bas reliefs of Ramayana and Krishnayana scenes are carved on balustrades wall of 9th century Prambanan temples in Yogyakarta. In Indonesia, Ramayana has been integrated into local culture especially those of Javanese, Balinese and Sundanese, and has become the source of moral and spiritual guidance as well as aesthetic expression and also for entertainment. Cultural performances such as Wayang shadow puppet and traditional dances often took their story from Ramayana. In Bali as well as in Java, the dances based on the episode of Ramayana often performed in temples such as Prambanan in Java and Pura in Bali.
Phra Lak Phra Lam is a Lao language version, whose title comes from Lakshmana and Rama. The story of Lakshmana and Rama is told as the previous life of the Buddha. In Hikayat Seri Rama of Malaysia, Dasharatha is the great-grandson of the Prophet Adam. Ravana receives boons from Allah instead of Brahma. In many Malay language versions, Lakshmana is given greater importance than Rama, whose character is considered somewhat weak.
The Cambodian version of Ramayana, the Reamker, is the most famous story of Khmer Literature since the Funan era. It adapts the Hindu concepts to Buddhist themes and shows the balance of good and evil in the world. The Reamker has several differences from the original Ramayana, including scenes not included in the original and emphasis on Hanuman and Sovanna Maccha, a retelling which influences the Thai and Lao versions. Reamker in Cambodia is not confined to the realm of literature but extends to all Cambodian art forms, such as sculpture, Khmer classical dance, theatre known as Lakhorn Luang (the foundation of the royal ballet), poetry and the mural and bas reliefs seen at the Silver Pagoda and Angkor wat.
Thailand's popular national epic Ramakien (from Sanskrit rāmakīrti, "Glory of Rama") is derived from the Hindu epic. In Ramakien, Sita is the daughter of Ravana and Mandodari (Thotsakan and Montho). Vibhisana (Phiphek), the astrologer brother of Ravana, predicts calamity from the horoscope of Sita. Ravana has her thrown into the water, who, later, is picked by Janaka (Chanok). While the main story is identical to that of the Ramayana, many other aspects were transposed into a Thai context, such as the clothes, weapons, topography, and elements of nature, which are described as being Thai in style. It has an expanded role for Hanuman and he is portrayed as a lascivious character. Ramakien can be seen in an elaborate illustration at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok.
Other Southeast Asian adaptations include Ramakavaca of Bali (Indonesia), Yama Zatdaw (Myanmar), and Maharadia Lawana as well as Darangen of Mindanao (Philippines).
One of the prominent legacies of Indian early contacts in Southeast Asian region is the existence of Ramayana. In the Philippines, the Rama story is popularly known as Maharadia Lawana which Dr. Juan Francisco discovered in 1968 as a Maranaw narrative. This version is in condensed form in comparison to the Indian Ramayana but still contains the major episodes of the latter such as winning of Sita, her abduction, the search for Sita and her return. These four episodes as they are narrated in the Maharadia Lawana correspond to the five kanda (songs or chapters of Ramayana) such as Balakanda, Aranyakanda, Kiskindhakanda, Sundarakanda and Yuddakanda.14
In Maharadia Lawana story, Rama is Radia Mangadiri, Laksmana is Radia Mangawarna, Sita is Tuwan Potre Malano Tihaia, Kusa/Lava is Laksmana, who in the story assumes the character of Hanuman. Ravana is Maharadia Lawana. The story’s setting is in the legendary island of Pulu Agama Niog.15
Aside from Maharadia Lawana, people of southern Philippines still observe the darangen as part of their cultural milieu especially in rural areas. It is still customary to invite the onor (singer) during the kalilang or feast, whether it is for the dead or for any other occasion. The host includes darangen singing as part of the activities. If the darangen sung as Princess Gandingan, the audience gets a triple treat: kulintang playing, bayok (antiphonal singing by the two characters) and singkil dancing.16 In Darangen, similar episodes of the abduction and subsequent recovery of Princess Lawanen are chanted only on special occasions.17
In particular, this pre-Islamic epic consists of 17 cycles and a total of 72,000 lines, telling the stories of heroes as well as episodes of Maranao history and tackling the immortal themes of life, death, courtship, politics and love. Darangen contains Maranao social values, customary law, ethics and aesthetics.18
Other than Ramayana, it is interesting to point out the other vestiges of Indian influences in the Philippines which early travelers referred as Panyupayana. These cultural links between India and the Philippines include the presence of Singkil, hundreds of Sanskrit words in Filipino languages and the discoveries of various Hindu-Buddhist artifacts among others.
Singkil, for instance, is an elegant, stylized performance dance usually involving performers interpreting archetype characters inspired by and interpreted from the thread of storylines found similarly in the Indian epic Ramayana. They include those of a princess, her faithful assistant, friends, as well as ardent suitors who would be stepping in and out, sitting or standing on 2 sets of bamboo poles crossed, and being thumped on the floor and hit together by men to make percussive music for the dance. Native music instruments like the agung (gong) and the kulintang (made of 8 small gongs set on a rack) complete the ensemble of musical instruments in the dance. The Maranaw people in southern Philippines even before the arrival of the Spaniards in 16th century and the arrival of the Islam religion in the Philippines by the 12th century observed these oral traditions by re-telling similar stories found in the Indian epic Ramayana into ‘Darangen.’ This re-telling is the basis of the story being interpreted and performed whenever the singkil is danced.
The body, arms, and hand swaying and movements in this dance remind those who have studied ancient dance forms from many countries of the Hindu-style of dancing, which in the singkil can be explained by the extensive influences made by the Sri-Vijaya and Majapahit empires that reached Indonesia as well as the many islands of the Philippines. In the performance, the main dancer-Princess Gandingan interprets the movements after learning the rituals from her mother, the powerful healer in the village, in gathering medicinal plants and herbs from the forest. Movements that interpret Gandingan’s sojourn in the forest, either alone or with her friends and faithful assistant that usually bear a beautiful parasol for the princess wherever she goes during the dance.19
Aside from performing arts, the most extensive evidences of Indian influences in the Philippines are Sanskrit elements in the languages of the country. These have persisted since their introduction in the Philippines between the 10th and 15th centuries and have been fully assimilated into these speech systems. There appear to be about 336 words in Philippine languages that are recognizably Sanskrit in origin and 50% of these have definitive provenance in Sanskrit.20 William Henry Scott even gave actual statistical count of Sanskrit words in Philippine languages. He found out that some 150 separate Sanskrit words are identified as the origin of Philippine terms majority are in Tagalog and the rest in Bisaya, Ilocano and Sulu21 (Tausug).
In terms of concrete manifestations of Indian presence in the Philippines, Francisco identified some artifacts that are housed either in the National Museum of the Philippines or abroad.22 These include the Buddhist Tara of Agusan, votive stamp of Calatagan, Golden Garuda of Palawan and other glass beads.
In Agusan, a Golden Tara, an eight-inch tall image of a woman in pure gold at Maasin, Esperanza, was discovered in the early 1920's and a Molten Jar unearthed at Bahbah, Prosperidad in the early 1960's, marks Agusan's pre-Hispanic cultural history which was greatly influenced by India. The icon, a 21-karat gold figurine, is presently kept at the Gem Room of the Chicago Field Museum of National History, Chicago, United States of America. The said Buddhist image of the Sailendra Period during the Sri-Vijaya History (900-950 AD) is the earliest known image of Indian origin, depicting early Indian-Philippine relations.
In Calatagan, Batangas, clay medallion or votive stamp on whose obverse face is an image of the Avolokitesvara Padmapani in bas-relief was discovered. The image stands in the classic Indian pose known as ‘tribhanga’, three bends and appears to hold a padma, lotus in his right hand. This object was associated with 14th – 15th century and is now stored in the National Museum of the Philippines.
Furthermore, the Golden Garuda pendant was found in Brookes point Palawan. Such image is now stored in the National Museum of the Philippines and is believed to be the vehicle of the Hindu God, Vishnu at the height of power of the Hindi-inspired Majapahit Empire. This image along with other artifacts such as glass beads of various colors and the Filipino words of Sanskrit origin are testaments of Hindu influence in pre-colonial Philippine society.23
Moreover, an ivory stamp seal associated with a shell midden dated 9th-12th century was found in Libertad, Butuan City in Agusan del Norte (southern Philippines). Inscribed on the seal is the word Butban in stylized Kavi. The script has a similarity to the Tagalog script. Butban, was presumed to stand for Butwan or Butuan since the letters “b” and “w” were frequently interchanged.
Lastly, a golden statuette of the Hindu-Buddhist mythical beings Kinnari found in an archeological dig in Esperanza, Agusan del Sur. In Buddhist mythology and Hindu mythology, a kinnara is a paradigmatic lover, a celestial musician, half-human and half-horse (India) or half-bird (Southeast Asia). She is renowned for her dance, song and poetry, and is a traditional symbol of feminine beauty, grace and accomplishment. Thus, the discovery of kinnari only proves that a civilization of Indian influence had existed before the Spanish conquest.
The concept of Swarnabhumi has important implications to Southeast Asian history and to the development of the present civilization. This ancient connection has contributed to the enrichment of Southeast Asian historical memory and became the source of pride and inspiration. Although Swarnabhumi is a manifestation of colonization, the cultural expansion was never confused with colonial domination and commercial dynamism far less economic exploitation. Instead, the process has had been a welcoming development for early Southeast Asians either in land mass or archipelagic. It proves that water is not a barrier but facilitator of changes and exchanges. The presence of Swarnabhumi is a tangible manifestation of Asianization of Indian Culture in this part of the world. The Swarnabhumi’s vestiges left indelible marks to the present civilization of Southeast Asia. At the same time, the celebration of Indian civilization can go hand in hand with an affirmation of India’s active role in the global world. As Amartya Sen rightly pointed out that ideas and people have moved across India’s borders over thousands of years, enriching India as well as the rest of the world.24


Baladad, Jerome. Singkil: The Maranao native dance. February 2012.

Coronel, Ma. Delia. Introduction. Darangen Volume 1. Marawi City: Mindanao State University, 1986.

Desai, Santosh. Ramayana-An Instrument of Historical Contact and Cultural Transmission Between India and Asia. The Journal of Asian Studies. 30.1. 1970.

Francisco, Juan. From Ayodhya to Pulu Agamaniog. Quezon City: Asian Center, 1994b.

Francisco, Juan. Maharadia Lawana. Quezon City: University of the Philippines, 1969.

Francisco, Juan. Sarimanok and the Torogan & Other Essays. Marawi City: Mindanao State University, 1994a.


Manipon, Roel. Dancing Darangen: The Way to the Maranao Epic. National Commission for Culture and the Arts. 2008.

Miksic, John. The A to Z of Ancient Southeast Asia. United Kingdom: Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2007.

Nehru, Jawaharlal. Discovery of India. London: Meridian Books, 1951.

Panikkar, Kevalam. A Survey of Indian History. New Delhi: Asia Publishing House, 1971.

Santarita, Joefe. ‘Capitalising on Cultural Connections: Indian Influences in the Philippines.’ Anjana Sharma, Ed. Civilizational Dialogue: Asian Inter-Connections and Cross-Cultural Exchanges. New Delhi and Manohar, 2013.

Sar Desai, D. Southeast Asia: Past and Present. Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2010.

Sen, Amartya. Argumentative Indians: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity. London: Penguin Books, 2005.

Wales, H.G. The Making of Greater India. London: Bernard Quaritch, Ltd., 1961.

1 Santarita, 2013. 129.

2 Nehru, 1951.

3 Majumdar.

4 Sar Desai, 2010. 14.

5 Panikkar, Kevalam. A Survey of Indian History. New Delhi: Asia Publishing House, 1971. 83.

6 Panikkar, 78-79.

7 Panikkar, 75-76.

8 Nehru.

9 Wales, 1961. 25-26.

10 Miksic, 2007. 18.

11 Miksic, 23.

12 Miksic, 51.

13 Desai, 1970. 5.

14 Francisco, 1994b. 117.

15 Pulu means island, Agama for village and Niog for coconut. Hence, Pulu Agama Niog simply means coconut grove village. Francisco, 1994b, 68.

16 Ma. Delia Coronel, ICM. Introduction. Darangen Volume 1. Marawi City: Mindanao State University, 1986. 6.

17 Francisco, 1969. 4.

18 Manipon.

19 In the story, a powerful spirit named ‘Makalinug,’ (thunder) who would represent himself like a handsome prince-like creature, would be waiting for Gandingan in the forest, and would try to entrap her with his charms and magic. Depending on the choreography design, the storyline would then be followed by having Makalinug creating havoc and confusion to Gandingan and her company. She then danced, jumped, swayed, ran, stepping in and out of the performance area as the audience continues to hear percussive music from the bamboo poles, the agung and the kulintang.  She is supposed to be exquisitely able to overcome the challenges of the vines and other natural traps found in the forest, which are represented by the bamboo poles. Using shawls, scarves and the apir (the large pair of fans on the dancers’ hands) or just bare hands, Gandingan and her company would be shown performing elaborate body movements all throughout the performance. They would also create chime-like music from the anklets and bracelets that they usually don for the performance, and which served as the basis why this dance is called singkil (or how the anklets are called in Maranao). Baladad February 2012.

20 Francisco. 1988, 31.

21 Scott. 1968. 52-53 as cited by Francisco, 1988.

22 Francisco, 1988, 31-32.


24 Sen.

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