Spreading and colonization of South East Asia by the early Hindus from India by Ramdas Iyer
I opened the NY Times today and realized that the famous North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap who threw both the French and the Americans out of his country had passed away. Growing up in India during the Vietnam war I remember that many Indians were mostly sympathetic to the American “cause” out of ignorance and also due to the existence of strong US propaganda there. As someone who came to the US out of love for everything American I could not accept the fact until I visited Vietnam in 2012 the extent of our misadventure there.
So this beautiful fall morning I decided to revisit Vietnam through the eyes of an Indian American. I had published a photo blog on Mi-Son Kingdom of the Champa Hindu people last year. Here I will try to elaborate on that text and include some fascinating facts about India and South East Asia from 1BC until the 19th Century.
I am peeved by the lack of knowledge nor interest exhibited by "bulk" tourists who are bused to fragile sights in hordes . While their money is important for protecting the sights the damage caused by touching and trampling cannot be quantified. Above all most of them do not have a clue of why they are even there except to fill a blank afternoon in the itinerary. So here is my contribution to those who wish to learn a bit more about Champa and to indeed fill in the blanks..
The transmission of Indian culture to distant parts of Central Asia, China, Japan, and especially Southeast Asia is certainly one of the greatest achievements of Indian history or even of the history of mankind. None of the other great civilizations - not even the Hellenic - had been able to achieve a similar success without military conquest.
Indian and Chinese kingdoms, the two great powers of Asia where predominantly conducting trade via land utilizing the silk route, from 500BC through 1000 AD). Indian and Chinese influences by land can be seen in Burma, Laos and North Vietnam. Sea trade was predominantly Indian in SE Asia since its navigators traded with the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and as far as Rome at the height of the Roman Empire. It is believed that it was the Persians who developed the technology for carrying over 600 troops on large ships during Persia’s incursions into Greece around 400 BC. This technology was adapted by the early Indians to begin colonizing SE Asia and establishing Indianized states somewhere around 50 AD.
The first of these “Indianized” states to achieve widespread importance was Funan, in Cambodia, founded in the 1st century A.D. These local inhabitants were the Khmer people. Khmer was the former name of Cambodia, and Khmer is their language. The Hindu-Khmer Empire of Funan flourished for some 500 years. An elite practiced statecraft, art and science, based on Indian culture to the Malay Peninsula in the west. The first organized state to achieve fame was the Hindu-ised Malay kingdom of Srivijaya, with its capital at Palembang in southern Sumatra. Its commercial pre-eminence was based on command of the sea route from India to China between Sumatra and the Straits of Malacca. In the 6 th – 7th centuries Srivijaya succeeded Funan as the leading state in South East Asia.
By the 7th Century a powerful Indianized Buddhist Kingdom, Sailendra, rose in Java( Indonesia)challenging the supremacy of the Sri Vijaya Kingdom in Sumatra. A union of these two Empires resulted in Hindu/Buddhist dominated kingdoms until the early 14th century when the visitations of Europeans Spice traders eventually led to their colonization of SE Asia.
The various Indianized states and empires of this first 1500 years A.D., though founded by Indian colonization and maintaining diplomatic contacts with India, remained politically independent of the Indian kingdoms. The only exception to this was the temporary conquest of Malaya by the Chola kingdom of southern India in the 11th century, but the Sailendra kings of Srivijaya were victorious in a long war against the Chola armies of Peninsular South India. My ancestry for the past 500 years was rooted in the Chola Capital of Tanjore, which until this day is home to refined South Indian culture.
The patronage of Indian arts and culture by the Empires of Sri Vijaya (Sumatra), Mahajapit & Sailendra (Java), Funan( Cambodia),the Pagan( Burma) and the Champa (Vietnam) have given us some jewels of Asian architecture. They include the monuments of Pagan, (built from 1044 to 1287 AD), Angkor (Combodia;,889 to c. 1300 AD), the Borobudur (Java, early ninth century AD), Prambanan (Java 9th century) and Mi Son (Vietnam 4th-10th centuries). Though they were influenced by Indian culture, they are nevertheless part and parcel of the history of that respective country as witnessed by me between 1996-2012.
With this backdrop of a strong Indian political and religious influence in SE Asia we can begin to explore the Champa people and the eventual building of the magnificent Mi-Son Complex near Danang, Vietnam. The people of Champa (Cham people) were descended from Malayo-Polynesian settlers who appear to have reached the Southeast Asian mainland from Borneo and Aceh, Sumatra around the Ist century BC .
About 100 km from Danang, the famous US Air base during the Vietnam war, lies Mi-Son, the holy site of the Champa Hindu Kingdom that was established by Bhadravarman in the 4th century AD. in a Chinese dominated area. The Han dynasty held sway over Vietnam and Cambodia for 1000 years till the 10th century. The Cham rebelled against the Han Dynasty and drove it northwards creating a huge swathe of territory extending a 1000 km from Danang in the central Highlands southwards. Hinduism must have deeply influenced the Cham people who experienced the rule of Hindu kings over a millennium during their gradual move from Sumatra and Borneo into Vietnam.
The rulers of Champa, presided over a small territory between high mountains and the sea. This not only gave them extensive maritime access but also helped them stave any land-based invasion by non-maritime powers in their neighborhood. They were a belligerent lot resorting to fighting often with the Chinese to the north, and the great Khmer kingdoms(Hindu and Buddhist), then dominating Cambodia, Thailand, southern Vietnam and Laos. Due to lack of arable land in their narrow territory, they also resorted to piracy. The 53 plus rulers of Champa dynasty ruled the middle Vietnam for 900 years and built elaborate temples from the 4th century in wood and from the 7th century in stone, until their weakening and subsequent destruction by the 14 th century when the Minh kingdoms of Vietnam grew more powerful.
The Mi- Son Sanctuary dates from the 4th to the 13th centuries AD. The property is located in the mountainous border of Quang Nam Province, in central Viet Nam. It is situated within an elevated geological basin surrounded by a ring of mountains, which provides the watershed for the sacred Thu Bon river. and through the historic heartland of the Champa Kingdom, draining into the South China Sea at its mouth near the ancient port city of Hoi An. Hoi An is another World Heritage site that I visited is preserved wonderfully despite the many wars Vietnam endured. This is the base from where one explores the Champa sites.
The tower temples were constructed over ten centuries of continuous development in what was the heart of the ancestral homeland of the Cham clans who the kingdom of Champapura (Sanskrit for City of the Cham people).They owed their spiritual and cultural identity to the Indian sub-continent. Under this influence many temples were built to the Hindu divinities such as Krishna and Vishnu, but above all Shiva. Although Mahayana Buddhism penetrated the Cham culture, probably from the 4thcentury AD and became strongly established in the north of the kingdom, Shivite Hinduism remained the established state religion.
The main deity for all the temples was lord Shiva with the Mi- son complex dedicated to Bhadreswara; making the founding King Bhadravarman the god king ,by adding the Eswara (God) suffix similar to the Shivite Pandya kings who claimed to be Sundereswara (King Sundara plus Easwar)in Tamilnadu, India.( As a child I have worshiped Shiva at the Sundereswara Temple in Madurai.) They used the sanskritised Pali as the court language with several tablets still pockmarked by machine gun bullets in the complex today. Completely overgrown by forests the French archaeologists uncovered the Mi Son complex in the late 19th century. The Champa kingdom comprised of Amaravati nagar in the north( Mi-Son) and Po Nagar in the south. The Po Nagar Hinduism never really vanished and is still practiced by the minority Champa community of south central Vietnam. There are many Champa built pyramidal towers similar to Gopurams in south India. The worship is not that of classical Hinduism and has drifted to more animist form of Hindu worship seen in Bali.
The story of Mi-Son is exciting and very sad at the same time. Due to its
mountainous ground cover ,it served as a major Viet Cong Base operating inside south Vietnam. A single week of carpet-bombing campaigns by the US Military during August 1969 razed the site from more than 70 temples to its current 20. French Champa experts appealed to president Nixon in vain. In fact the hostile terrain was impenetrable by US forces that they had to finish off the elaborate and finely adorned tall buildings that did not collapse by B-52 aerial bombing with focused helicopter bombing. Upon mentioning this to my cousin Hari in India, the words that came out of his mouth were “An American Bamiyan?”
Although Cham art and those of Southeast Asia were all adapted from the arts of the Indian subcontinent, each Southeast Asian civilization possessed their own grammar and vocabulary to express their aesthetic characteristics and tastes. The ethnic aesthetics of indigenous people filtered the Hindu and Buddhist arts that come from India, resulting in a disparate artistic lexicon and differing artistic sensibilities.
The Champa Kingdom collapsed with the resurgence of Viet Kingdoms( Dai-Viet) in the 10th Century in the wake of the collapse of the Song Dynasty in China. As a traditional enemy, the Viets embarked on a genocide of the Champa people. Between 1200 and 1700AD the kingdom went through several attacks and counter attacks by the Khmer and the Viet including a brief takeover by the Mongols of Kublai Khan. The Champa kingdom seized to exist after 1832 when it formally became a part of the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam.
Much to our blessing the original Bhadreswara temple stands. Though started in the 5th century the current structures were renovated in the 10th century .Please see my photographs taken around 7 am on a wet, rain soaked day including a sculpture of shiva with two unexplored 6-ton bombs next to it. This visit to Mi Son was a highlight of my south east Asia trip. I plan on exploring other Champa and Khmer Hindu temples in Vietnam ,Cambodia and Laos in the future. Please note that a good portion of Cham people were converted to Islam by the Indonesians in the past 200 years and only 60 percent of the Cham claim to be Hindus. There is an elaborate Cham festival every year at Po nagar, Vietnam presided by Cham Brahmin priests.!!!!
This again shows that commerce and cultural intercourse changes entire civilizations and continents. Shouldn’t that be the lesson learnt from the Indians for western action in the Middle East. A couple of years ago I read an article in the Wilson Quarterly about how Central Asia and the fringe Islamic countries can become less polarized from the international community with the re establishment of the Silk Route for commerce. China is already successfully attempting that in Central Asia and Africa.
The Indian Hindu community has built over 300 temples in the US. While they are great centers for keeping an ancient culture alive , I would only hope some of the contributions can go back to India to restore the thousands of grand and historic monuments that are crumbling into oblivion daily. The End.
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References and further reading sources:
Vestiges of Champa Civilization by Tran Phuong
Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Hindu Colonies in the Far East. by R. C. Majumdar