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A South East Asian kingdom in India-The Ahom Dynasty

An amazing story of 600 years of rule by the Tai People of Southern China...........Ramdas Iyer

On the flight from Calcutta to Jorhat, Assam I was seated next to a very attractive woman with whom conversation ensued following take off and did not stop for nearly two hours of flying. She insisted that I must visit Shibsagar, her beautiful home town sometime during my travels but did not quite explain the significance of that place. I asked my local guide to take me to Shibsagar but other than showing beautiful buildings and architecture the history of the place had still eluded me.
Upon return to my lodging I quickly combed the internet to do further research on the place. While 2000 words are not enough to highlight an empire, its mere absence in normal conversations outside of Assam was an object of dismay for me. Having a thick veneer of knowledge in Indian History, the chapter of the Ahoms was completely missing from my knowledge base Not knowing its rich history I deeply regretted not spending enough time especially to see the World Heritage Site: The Burial Mounds of the Ahom Kings. I felt the need to tell the story of the Ahoms and used the quiet time provided by the pandemic to present to my blog readers a comprehensive 600 year history of an amazing kingdom: the Ahom Kingdom of the Brahmaputra Valley in North East India.
The ancient kingdom of Kamarupa once covered the present state of Assam. Pragjyaisha, the capital, was located near Guwahati. Kamarupa is mentioned as a frontier kingdom and tributary of the Gupta Empire in the Allahabad inscription of Samudra Gupta (A.D. 330-375). The Kamarupa -Varman empires (350-650 AD) of the great ruler Bhaskaravarman and his contemporary Harshavardhana ranged up to present day Bangladesh, West Bengal and North Bihar. The Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang( 602-664 AD) visited the capital of Kamarupa and has written about it. He recorded Bhaskaravarman as the King of Eastern India.
The ancient Kingdom of Kamarupa eventually became the Kingdom of Ahom ( 1228-1826) of Assam being physically distant from the center of India it was ruled by tribal kings for many centuries until the early 19th century. The Assamese tribes today numbering over 106 is what makes it a very interesting place with a variety of cultures melded into mainstream Hinduism.
The Kingdom of Ahom remained virtually cut off from the rest of the world for a long time partly because of its geographical location, separated as it was by numerous hills and rivers interspersed by deep valleys, and partly because of the deliberate Ahom policy of isolation. Most of the inhabitants settled along the fertile banks of the Brahmaputra or on the banks of its tributaries. The journey to and from Assam was extremely long and tedious.

To understand the history of the NE of India one must familiarize them with the Caste and Tribe based system that still dominates India. Scholars have argued that during the Aryan settlement in the Indo-Gangetic plains from 1500 BC onwards, the creation of a Hindu state replete with caste system and the usage of the Sanskrit language were considered mainstream. Since Ahom were never in the Sanskritised part of the Indo Aryan people its importance after the Varman Empire was diminished. It was more connected with the hill tribes from north east India, Nagaland, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Yunnan province's non Han Chinese people.
Origins of the Ahom People
The Ahoms were a Tai speaking people came into prominence first in the Yunnan province of China , from where they moved to mainland Southeast Asia in the middle of the 11th century after a long and fierce battle with the Han Chinese. The Tai-Ahoms are traced today to either the Mong Mao Tribe of South China or to the Hukawng Valley in Myanmar.
According to chronicles kept by the Ahoms—Sukaphaa, a Tai prince of Mong Mao, accompanied by his family, five nobles and many followers, mostly men, crossed the Patkai hills and reached the Brahmaputra valley in 1228. They came with a higher technology of wet-rice cultivation then extant and a tradition of writing, record keeping, and state formation. They settled in the region south of the Brahmaputra river and to the east of the Dikho river; the Ahoms today are found concentrated in this region. Sukaphaa, the leader of the Tai group and his 9000 followers established the Ahom kingdom (1228–1826 CE), which controlled much of the Bramhaputra valley until 1826.
Tai-speaking peoples are widely distributed in southern China, mainland Southeast Asia and the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam. For ethnographic and linguistic purposes many subdivisions are recognized, the most important of which are the Chuang in southern China, the Tho, Red Tai, Black Tai and White Tai of northern Vietnam, the Lao, the Siamese or Thai, the Shan of northern Burma, and the Ahom of Assam. The greatest Tai empire to exist till date is that of the Siamese kings of Thailand( Tai Land).
The Ahoms believed that they were divinely ordained to bring fallow land under the plow with their techniques of wet-rice cultivation, and to adopt stateless shifting cultivators into their fold. They were also conscious of their numerical minority. As a result, the Ahom polity initially absorbed Naga, Borahi and Moran, and later large sections of the Chutiya and the Dimasa-Kachari tribal peoples. This process of Ahomisation went on till mid-16th century when the Ahom society itself came under the direct Hindu influence. That many indigenous peoples were ceremonially adopted into Ahom clans are recorded in the chronicles. Since the Ahoms married liberally outside their own exogamous clans and since their own traditional religion resembled the religious practices of the indigenous peoples along with Hindus, the assimilation under Ahomisation had a little impediment.
The Ahom occupy a rather exceptional position amongst the Tai peoples. In the first place, they have remained relatively isolated from other Tai speakers, their contact with Shan (The Burmese Shans can be found in my 'Peoples" album in RamdasIyerphotography.com) and Khamti groups of northwestern Burma being via long, difficult and hazardous trails, and apparently interrupted for centuries at a time.
When the Ahom conquered a small corner of the Brahmaputra Valley at the beginning of the thirteenth century, they probably brought with them their own script, apparently based upon a Mon example. They maintained historical records throughout the centuries, various versions of which have been preserved until today. Although it is possible that the Ahom may have taken note of the Buddhist traditions which were adhered to in some of the regions they must have crossed on their way to Assam, there is little or no evidence that they had been influenced by Buddhism when they entered Assam. Recent research suggests instead that they brought with them their own indigenous sacrificial religion, traces of which can still be found in the modern Hindu Ahom culture of today.( The famous Kali temple of Kamatakiya in Gauhati which I visited sacrifices animals regularly. For many hundreds of years human sacrifice was common here).

Alas the Ahom people found themselves in a different situation from most Tai in that they had discovered a valley of immense size, further to the west of which were mighty kingdoms and elaborate political organizations.
Gradually, step by step, the Ahom extended their grip over the easternmost part of the Brahmaputra Valley, especially at the beginning of the sixteenth century when they conquered the Kachari and Chutiya kingdoms. Later in that century, and during the seventeenth century, the Ahom kings further extended their influence and gradually became masters over the whole of the Assamese valley. This was the time when the gradual "hinduization" of the Ahom upper classes accelerated. The unified country under Ahom rule was soundly defeated by Muslim invaders in 1662, but a few years later the foreign yoke was thrown off and a new, invigorated Ahom rule was born with Shibsagar as its capital.
In the 17th century, the intellectual elite took the sophisticated Bengal culture as the ideal model. From this time onward the Ahom were firmly set on the path towards full assimilation of Assamese Hindu culture and the Ahom tongue became obsolete. Assamese script took over from the old Ahom characters. Only in a few isolated pockets were the old traditions still remembered; amongst the traditional Ahom priestly families the ability to read the old books and the observance of Tai religious ceremonies were perpetuated.
Ahom Religion and Society
The Ahoms worshipped their own tribal gods. However, Brahmanas (one of a class of Hindu sacred writings composed around the 9th to 6th centuries BC and devoted chiefly to the instruction of Brahmins in the performance of Vedic ritual) during the first half of the 17th century achieved a great influence, further giving rise to Hinduism. The rulers started assuming Hindu names since that time. In the reign, the Sib Singh, Hinduism became a predominant religion. However, the Ahom kings did not completely let go of their traditional beliefs to some extent even after adopting Hinduism.
The Ahom society was very sophisticated. Poets and scholars were given land grants. Theatre was encouraged. The Ahom state was completely depended upon forced labor and was forced to work for the state known as paiks. Near about a census of the population was taken and each village was supposed to send a number of paiks in and by rotation.
Majority of the people from the densely populated areas were moved to the thinly populated areas – further leading to the break of the Ahom clans were. However, the administration had become quite centralized by the first half of the 17th century.
The Ahoms society underwent many changes due to a large state being built. The influence of Brahmins increased. The land was given to the temples and Brahmins by the king.

Mughal Incursions & British Rule:
With the successful capture of the Kingdom of Bengal by the Mughals, their eyes were set on the North east of India. The states of Koch and Dhaka were traditional rivals of the Ahom Kingdom were now under the sway of the Mughals. 17 battles were fought between the Ahoms and the Mughals in which the Mughals suffered many defeats due to the tactical guerilla warfare and river battles fought on the Brahmaputra.
These small skirmishes reached the ears of the powerful Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The Mughal army commanded by Raja Ram Singh I tried to capture the Ahom State but failed miserably at the hands of Gen. Lachit Borphukan ( A source of great pride even today)commanding the army of the Ahom Kingdom. Even though the Mughals could capture Guwahati for a brief period, the Ahom wrested control in the Battle of Itakhuli in 1682 and the Mughals could never recapture it again.
Around 1800 there was a small rebellion against the Ahom King Gaurinath by the Ahom nobles which was eventually quelled with the help of the East India Company. When the company eventually withdrew, there was a lot of infighting within the nobility thus opening the doors for the expansionist King Mindon of Burma.
In 1817, the Burmese took advantage of the rivalry between the Ahom chiefs, invaded Assam, and established political control. The Burmese presence threatened British commercial interests. In the first Burmese War (1824-1826), the British drove the Burmese out of Assam. Under the Treaty of Yandabo, the territory was annexed by the East India Company in 1826.
The year 1826 saw the final collapse of the Ahom monarchy which ruled for over six- centuries and marked the entry of the British who stepped in to fill the political void in the region due to depletion of state funds as a result of the many wars waged. It was the beginning of the transition from the medieval to the modern age. When the East India Company appeared on the scene, they were heralded by the Ahomese as saviors and were welcomed with open arms.

The East India Company desperately needed the gold from Tibet to finance its growing China trade. Hence, an alternative route to Tibet became an urgent necessity. They believed that such a route might be possible via Assam. And the fate of Assam was to be decided by them only. Assam was governed as a part of Bengal by the East India Company till its collapse in 1858. The British (United Kingdom) government administered the state from 1858 until 1947. India achieved independence in 1947 and Assam became a state of the Indian Union.

The End
History of India-Romila Thapar
"Mission Assam"- Gen. S.K.Sinha
"Ahom and the Study of Tai Cultures"- Barbara& Jan Tewibl, Australian Nat. Univ, Canberra.



Posted by Ramdas Iyer 12:30 Archived in India Tagged people india company east tai assam ahom tai-ahom kamarupa shibsagar Comments (5)

In the Footsteps of The Beatles to Rishikesh, India

Highlights of my 'Beatles Ashram' visit in Rishikesh, India.............................................Ramdas A. Iyer



It was a grey and rainy day when friend Mark Riesenberg and I crossed the long suspension footbridge, Ram Jhula, hanging nearly 200 feet above the Ganges into the wonderful valley of Rishikesh, early last month. The river Ganga, both a spiritual and life giving resource had finally descended here to make its journey through the plains of India, after traveling from the glaciated peaks of the Himalayan ranges.
I had met Mark in my gym in New Jersey over a decade ago and soon came to realize the spiritual depth of this man though raised Jewish was more Hindu than most. Soon he became my meditation guru and who better to learn the techniques than from a master who was a student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi himself, the founder of Transcendental Meditation( TM) institutes, whose ashram we were visiting. After graduating college in the 60s during the thick of the hippie movement, Mark chose to become a meditation teacher and worked for many years as one for the TM institute in the NY/NJ area.

I had promised Mark that someday I would escort him to the real India and in 2016 accompanied by his daughter Kate, we embarked on a spiritual journey visiting Varanasi, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Bodh Gaya. We were treated to some amazing experiences including the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Haridwar ( over 100 million bathe in the Ganges during this month long worship of the river), meditations twice a day along the Ganges, uplifting moments under the Bodhi tree where Buddha achieved his enlightenment 2500 years ago in Gaya. One of the unplanned highlights was a visit to the Maharishi's much vaunted ashram in Rishikesh; a musical and spiritual retreat for the Beatles in 1968. Mark always remarked that the Maharishi had told him to visit India with an Indian in order grasp the full impact of the experience. The Maharishi's wish had indeed come true.
The Beatles first met the Maharishi in London in August 1967 and then attended a seminar in Bangor, Wales. They had planned to attend the entire ten-day session, but their stay was cut short by the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. Wanting to learn more, they kept in contact with the Maharishi and made arrangements to spend time with him at his teaching centre located near Rishikesh, in "the Valley of the Saints" at the foothills of the Himalayas.
Along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters, the Beatles arrived in India in February 1968 and joined the group of 60 people who were training to be TM teachers, including musicians Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and flautist Paul Horn. While there, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Harrison wrote many songs and Ringo Starr finished writing his first. Eighteen of those songs were recorded for The Beatles ("the White Album"), two songs appeared on the Abbey Road album, and others were used for various solo projects.
According to McCartney, the Maharishi "was great to us when Brian Epstein( their manager) died" and Cynthia Lennon wrote "it was as though, with Brian gone, the four needed someone new to give them direction and the Maharishi was in the right place at the right time." Curious to learn more, the Beatles made plans to spend time at the "Maharishi's training center" in India in 1968.
A quick brief here on the Maharishi(meaning Great seer) is apropos. Mahesh studied physics at Allahabad University and earned a degree in 1942. In 1941, he became an administrative secretary to the great philosopher and Vedanta scholar and Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, Swami Brahmananda Saraswati( respectfully called Guru Dev) and took a new name, Bal Brahmachari Mahesh. The Maharishi recalls how it took about two and a half years to attune himself to the thinking of Brahmananda Saraswati and to gain "a very genuine feeling of complete oneness". Eventually he gained trust and became Guru Dev's "personal secretary" and "favored pupil". He was trusted to take care of the bulk of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati's correspondence without direction, and was also sent out to give public speeches on Vedic (scriptural) themes.
Although Brahmachari Mahesh was a close disciple, he could not be the Shankaracharya's spiritual successor because he was not of the Brahmin caste. The Shankaracharya, at the end of his life, charged him with the responsibility of travelling and teaching meditation to the masses. Thus began the TM movement.
As Mark and I walked through the town along the many ashrams, coffee shops and Ayurveda Clinics, Mark with his characteristic smile quipped " This is a perfect home for a Hippie" . The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram was a bit way out of town, a 20 minute walk along the high river bank where the jungle starts engulfing the narrowing pathway. The Ashram today is inside the Rajaji Tiger Reserve and National Park. Until recently, one had to scale a small fence to get inside but recently access to the site is allowed with an entrance ticket. As we walked into the overgrown vegetation onto the small stone pathway we came suddenly we treated to a unique sight of multiple meditation pods that lined it on either side. The place was quiet, extremely peaceful except for an occasion chirp from the birds amidst the sound of flowing water. Lennon-McCartney song" Mother Nature's Son" written in this location rang in my mind:
"Born a poor young country boy, Mother Nature's son
All day long I'm sitting singing songs for everyone

Sit beside a mountain stream, see her waters rise
Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo

Find me in my field of grass, Mother Nature's son
Swaying daises sing a lazy song beneath the sun

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo
Yeah yeah yeah

Mm mm mm mm mm mm mm
Mm mm mm, ooh ooh ooh
Mm mm mm mm mm mm mm
Mm mm mm mm, wah wah wah

Wah, Mother Nature's son ".

Mindy Poder, executive editor of Travel Age West captures the scene inside the ashram well in her 2014 article.
" While the Ganges River may be a pilgrimage site for Hindus, “The Beatles Ashram” is something of a Mecca to many Fab Four fans. That’s what I explain to Ramesh Chawla, a local guide and native from nearby Haridwar, who has trouble understanding why I would want to visit a closed, decaying ashram. Somehow, in spite of its blazing importance to Western pop culture, the place where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught Transcendental Meditation to his famous followers in the 1960s has been left to rot. There, overlooking the Ganges River, they grew beards, donned Indian-style cotton pajama pants and tunics, meditated in private caves and attended lectures and discussions on their meditations. Following years of extraordinary success and the sudden passing of their manager Brian Epstein, the Fab Four were seeking peace of mind. They were hoping to expand their minds as well.
“Oh, it was pretty exciting, you know,” said Ringo Starr in an interview for “The Beatles Anthology” documentary. “We were in this really spiritual place, and we were meditating a lot, having seminars by Maharishi. It was pretty far out.”
Their time in Rishikesh turned out to be one of the most prolific periods of their career. They wrote most of the double album, “The Beatles” (more popularly referred to as “The White Album”), as well as songs that would later appear on “Abbey Road.” Many songs, such as “Dear Prudence,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and Monkey,” make direct references to what the band learned and saw while in India.
“I remember having a great meditation, one of the best I ever had,” recounted McCartney in the biography “Many Years From Now” by Barry Miles. “It was a pleasant afternoon, in the shade of these big tropical trees on the flat roof of this bungalow. It appeared to me that I was like a feather over a ... warm-air pipe. I was just suspended by this hot air, which was something to do with the meditation. And it was a very, very blissful feeling … And I thought, ‘Well, hell, that’s great, I couldn’t buy that anywhere.’ That was the most pleasant, the most relaxed I ever got, for a few minutes I really felt so light, so floating, so complete.”.

The guide, Ramesh Chawla, referred in Mindy Poder's article incidentally turned out to be our guide too. He was a great 'guyde' and can be seen with us in a photo shot inside the Maharishi's bungalow . Each of the 86 meditation pods had a private room, toilet and a winding staircase that leads to a meditation grotto under the foliage. The scene was very surreal and looked like a scene from "Lost" as mentioned in Poder's article. Two wonderful gentlemen, from New Zealand and lovers of the Beatles emerged from the thicket and were glad to see us since they were completely lost. We walked and chatted away into the late evening with much energy and excitement.
It is said that it was Paul and George who had the most benefits from this trip. Ringo left in a week while Lennon was very restless during his stay. Mia and Prudence Farrow were a part of the Beatles entourage. Prudence was supposed to be a serious meditator, spending hours a day deep in meditation. She became so serious about her meditation that she "turned into a near recluse" and "rarely came out" of the cottage she was living in. John Lennon was asked to "contact her and make sure she came out more often to socialize". As a result, Lennon wrote the song "Dear Prudence". In the song Lennon asks Farrow to "open up your eyes" and "see the sunny skies" reminding her that she is "part of everything". The song was said to be "a simple plea to a friend to 'snap out of it'".
" Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It's beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, open up your eyes
Dear Prudence, see the sunny skies
The wind is low, the birds will sing
That you are part of everything
Dear Prudence, won't you open up your eyes?
Look around round
Look around round round
Look around
Dear Prudence, let me see you smile
Dear Prudence, like a little child
The clouds will be a daisy chain
So let me see you smile again
Dear Prudence, won't you let me see you smile?
Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It's beautiful and so are you................ "


My friend Mark was so excited to visit Maharishi's bungalow- once a wonderful abode with fine detailing and sweeping views of the Ganges below. Mark had always maintained that the Yogi was a very special person with great penchant for of design and organization. This was evident from the layout of the ashram. Later as we walked into the huge meditation/ lecture hall, Mark remembered his lectures in Switzerland in similar halls were Maharishi used to be seated in front of 400 plus devotees who listened to his speeches on Vedanta. One of the idealistic views of the Maharishi was that World Peace could be achieved through inner peace attained through meditation. While a great utopian concept, it was unfortunately a failed attempt at changing the world. At least someone tried and many of us are still on that path.

Just two years ago, Canadian artist Pan Trinity Das set out to revitalize the former meditation hall of the ashram. Das was joined by volunteers from around the world — artists and fans alike. According to the group, the project was closed down after two weeks by park authorities. But with just black, red and white paint, the group created what is now called Beatles Cathedral Gallery. As I view the art that fills the hall, it’s clear that this group tapped into the same creative energy that inspired The Beatles during their stay. We were lucky to photograph this beautiful place and present it here even as the light on that rainy evening was fading rapidly.
On one giant wall, there is a painting of John, Paul, George and Ringo in pop-art style, with each of their faces half-obstructed by shadow. Other pop-art portraits fill the hall, including that of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on an empty stage on the opposite wall. It feels like a visual representation of what the guru-teacher relationship might have been like, as imagined by fans solving the puzzle themselves. Snippets of classic Beatles lyrics written at this very location twirl around the paintings. They fill the silent hall with song. What was even more beautiful was a 'Peace" symbol made completely out of fallen leaves.

It was indeed a reminder of an amazing counter culture age so enriched by the music of the Beatles and the spiritually uplifting message of the Yogi.
With joy in our hearts we left this beautiful ashram, though in a state a decay it still had the spirit of a great philosopher and the imprint of four great musicians. Jai Gurudev!.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


Wikipedia (245 references)Travel Age Media, The Story of the Maharishi (published 1976), William Jefferson,Photographs of the Beatles in Rishikesh by Paul Saltzman, Mark Riesenberg



Posted by Ramdas Iyer 11:55 Archived in India Tagged india himalayas john beatles george rishikesh paul lennon mia starr ringo harrison yogi mccartney tm maharishi mahesh farrow Comments (11)

My-Son, The Ancient Champa Hindu Kingdom of Vietnam

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.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 07:51 Archived in Vietnam Tagged son india vietnam angkor hindu prambanan pagan colonization champa borobadur my- Comments (4)

Buddhism arrives from India to China: A Silk Road Journey

Story of the White Horse Temple built in 67 CE, Lou yang, Henan Province, China..........................by Ramdas Iyer

An interest in 2007 for traveling the silk route and beyond spurred me into taking a trip to Louyang, which lies 300 miles east of its terminal point of Xian. In the year 64 of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), Emperor Mingdi, whose capital was Lou Yang, wanted to send a delegation of his men to study Buddhism in India. Taoism at that time was a higher–level religion in China and was pursued mostly by the upper class. There was a growing need for a more spiritual culture than one built on nature and ghost-worshipping. Mingdi forthwith selected emissaries, in all totaling 18 people, to go towards the west to India in search of the religion based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha.
One has to remember that Hindustan (India was a British creation) then extended from present day Burma in the East till the Uzbek border with Afghanistan in the West. The absence of Islam until 850 CE and the lack of influence of the Levant religions helped Hinduism and Buddhism flourish within this broad sub-continent and parts of Central Asia.
One of the interesting historic features of North India has been its cultural intercourse with several Middle Eastern regions and many tribes of the Central Asian Steppes. By discussing initially the geo-politics of the region, I wish to show the natural process by which Buddhism could propagate to China. I believe this will also be a useful primer to understand early Indian History. Many are already aware of the gradual Aryan migration of nomadic people between 2000-1500 BC into India from Central Asia, through the Khyber Pass and then onto the Gangetic plains. This group of people introduced the pre Hindu “Vedic” cultures in India around 1500BC ( date of the Rig Veda)into India which already had a rich indigenous culture as can be seen existing in current day Tamilnadu ,Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and other parts of South and Central India.

These Aryan interlopers were members of a broader group of Indo- European Steppe nomads (Lithuania-Ukraine area) who splintered with a rival group that led to the foundation of Persia. The similarity of the Aryan Indians and Aryan Persians has been established by scholars through the common language used to recite the Rig Veda by the Indian Brahmins and the Zend Avesta by the Persian Zoarastrians.
As recently as 2010, when India was being pressured by USA to stop importing oil from Iran , the Indian Prime minister before acquiescing to the embargo lamented in public about betraying a historic trust and partnership between India and Iran that was laid on 4000 years of common heritage including the flowering of Islamic Persian culture in modern India. Historians and the informed community always suffer during wars and political crises which sometimes destroys ancient cultural bridges.

When Alexander the Great subjugated Persia in 330 BC his eyes lay upon Hindustan, a land described by Herodotus the father of historic studies. After Alexander’s premature death, the lands between Persepolis and the Indus rivers were ruled by Greek Satrapies. The Greek General Selucus Nikator ruled over the area of current day Pakistan and parts of Punjab...As the Greek-Bactrian (Bactria is current day Uzbekistan) domination waned around 100 BC, the area of northwestern India consisting of Pakistan and the Punjab were run over by the Scythians. The Scythians were an Indo-Iranian horse people who migrated from Central Asia to the European Steppe north of the Black Sea around 700 B.C.
The Scythians preceded the Huns, Turks and Mongols by many centuries. The Scythians did not have a written language it is believed that they spoke an Indo-European language similar to Persian. The Scythians inspired such terror among the Greeks that they are credited with inspiring the myth of Centaur. Indo-Scythians or Sakas(in Sanskrit)is a term used to refer to Scythians who migrated into parts northern South Asia ;Sogdiana( Tajikistan), Bactria(Uzbekistan), Arachosia (Pashtu Afghanistan), Gandhara,(Pakistan) Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, UP and Bihar. from the middle of the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century CE. They ruled from Kabul and Taxila, practiced Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoarastrinism and Ancient Greek religions. They were also known as the Indo-Greeks by many historians.
Around this period, the normally naked Buddha image of central India slowly changed and were now donned in robes similar to that of the Greeks. This Hellenistic evolution of the Buddha’s robes also ended up in the Europeanization of his face (see Photograph). It may be one of the reasons why Jesus allegedly of Ethiopian Jewry was depicted as a Caucasian as is normally done by the rulers of that time.

Following the Indo-Scythians, the Kushans set up their Empire around 30 CEand ruled for over 300 years. It was formed in the early 1st century AD under Kujula Kadphises in the territories of ancient Bactria around the Oxus River and later based near Kabul, Afghanistan. The Kushan Empire spread from the Kabul River Valley and rose to defeat other Central Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthian( Greek-Persians). It reached their peak under the Buddhist emperor Kanishka (127–151), whose realm stretched from Turfan in Xinjiang province of China in the Tarim Basin( see photograph) to Pataliputra (Patna) on the Gangetic Plain.
I am proud to say that my travels have taken me to the far corners of this great Buddhist empire including a visit to Kanishka’s stupa (see photograph) built in 125 AD in Termiz,Uzbekistan, 40 Km from Mazar-i-sharif in Afghanistan, lovingly restored by UNESCO.

The Kushans were one of five branches of confederation of Indo-European nomadic Yuezhi people who had migrated from the Tarim Basin and settled in ancient Bactria ( see photo of Yeuzi man). During the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD, the Kushans expanded across the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent at least as far as and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, which began about 127 AD. Around this time he sent his armies north of the Karakoram Mountains. They captured territories as far as Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkhandh in the Tarim Basin of modern-day Xinjiang, China. A direct road from Gandhara to China was opened which remained under Kushan control for more than 100 years. The security offered by the Kushans encouraged travel across the Khunjerab Pass ( see Photograph) and facilitated the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to China.

Coming back to the original storyof the Chinese emperor Mingdi sending emissaries to Gandhara; after travelling through several countries bordering India such as Getse and Yuchi (the Saka Tartars), and Bactrian Greece they reached Afghanistan (Gandhara country) and eventually met two Buddhist monks named Kasyapa Matanga Pandita (a Hindu Brahmin from Central India) and Bharana Gobhakarana Pandita,( also known as She Matang and Zhu Falang in Chinese, respectively). They accepted the invitation of the emissaries to go to China.

They then proceeded to China on two white horses accompanied by the emissaries. They carried with them a few sacred texts of Sutras - the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters- statues of Buddha, portraits and some sacred relics. They reached Lou Yang where they were put up in a temple. The King met them in 67 CE, with due reverence and was pleased with the presents the monks had brought for him. Pleased with their arrival in China, the king built a temple in their honor and named it the White Horse Temple ( see photograph) as an appreciation of the two white horses that had carried the two monks and the sutras. It is for this reason that the temple is honored as the ‘Cradle of Buddhism in China’. The temple boasts great antique architecture which has remained intact for over 1,900 years. (See Photograph)


The monks resided at the new temple and here they translated the Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese language. The notable of these was the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters which was translated by Matanga. This was the first Buddhist sutra in Chinese language and has the pride of place in the history of Chinese Buddhism. Gobharana translated the ‘Dasa Bhumi’ or the ‘Ten stages of Perfection’
Like in any other historic research, the sutras have also been attributed to another Indian monk Dharmaraksa in 419, but the arrival of the first two monks with the sutras are not in dispute.

The Buddhist religion prospered from here and with the arrival of Bodhidarma (Founder of Chan or Zen Buddhism), another monk from Kerala, India in the 5th century, Chinese Buddhism evolved, spreading to other countries. (Await a future blog on Zen Buddhism and Boddhidharma)
It is for also this reason that the temple is honored as the ‘Founder’s Home’ and the ‘Cradle of Buddhism in China’...

The main temple buildings, a large complex, were reconstructed during the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Qing (1644 to 1912) dynasties covering an area extending to about 13 hectares.

The renowned monk Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) of the Tang Dynasty (see my photograph of a visit to his temple erected in Xian during the Tang Dynasty) spent 16 years on a long pilgrimage to India (630–635 AD) to the land of the Buddha, his cherished desire. He started on his pilgrimage from this temple. On his return from India, Xuanzhang remaine==d the abbot of the White Horse Temple till his death.

I reached Louyang after a 26 hour rail journey across the Gobi desert and after making a train change at Xian. Louyang sits in a very culturally steeped area. It was the eastern capital of the Tang Dynasty and was then considered the second largest city in the world after Xian(Changan) its capital. There is so much to see here including the World Heritage Longman Grottos, a collection of over a thousand Buddha carved on a rock face by cave dwelling monks.

The White Horse temple sits in an old square (see picture) and if one does not understand the significance of the events that led to the construction of this landmark, it will just be another Chinese temple. Thankfully I was prepared for this visit. My trip in 2008 to observe the spread of Buddhism from the Khunjerab Pass ( connecting China to Islamabad, Pakistan) near Kashgar in Xinjiang province all the way to Louyang, a journey of 3500 km through the Tarim basin was indeed a home coming.

I had recently taken up meditation and what an ideal environment was the White horse temple. I closed my eyes at the feet of the statue of Kashyapa Matanga, located in front of his burial mound; a practice in china in those times. The feeling of peace, serenity and inner warmth was indescribable.

With globalization and inexpensive airfares, the whole world is one the move, unintentionally trampling the great sites of the world. While most tourists visit spectacular locations, it is historic locations like the White Horse temple that seems to excite me. One can still find such venues that helps elevate the purpose of a traveler than that of a tourist.
In its quiet surroundings one can see the great burial mound of the two white horses that brought these Sutras. The beautiful statues of these horses are used as photo props by the local Chinese perhaps not comprehending the greatness of their own kings who saw the spiritual impact the arrival of the sutras had on their land.
I also spent another 20 minutes meditating near the mound of the Great master Gobhakarana Pandita. As an ethnic Indian, a descendent of Kaundnya Rishi, one of the great Indo-Aryan sages, these moments carried profound historic and spiritual weight for me.


In 1966 began the most destructive “Cultural Revolution” in China. Regarded as objects of “feudalism, capitalism, and revisionism,” the Buddhist temples, Taoist temples, Buddha statues, historical and scenic sites, calligraphy, paintings, and antiques became the main targets for destruction by the Red Guards.
Here are some notes from a party functionary’s diary
“There was a White Horse Temple production brigade near the temple. The Party branch secretary led peasants to smash the temple in the name of ‘revolution.’ The more than 1,000-year-old clay statues of the Eighteen Arhats built in the Liao Dynasty (A.D. 916–1125) were destroyed.“The Beiye scripture that an eminent Indian monk brought to China 2,000 years ago was burned. A rare treasure, the Jade Horse, was smashed to pieces.”
In 1973, Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia visited the temple. Cambodia was a communist ally of China and Prince Sihanouk was exiled to a palatial residence in Beijing. He was permitted to visit various parts of the country on a tour for propaganda purposes, to show to the outside world that all was normal within China. As an ardent Buddhist, Sihanouk expressed a wish to Premier Zhou Enlai to visit the White Horse Temple. This put the administration into a frenzy, since many parts of the Temple had been damaged during the Cultural Revolution in China and items were missing. Post haste, 2900 artifacts, which were in other palaces and museums within China, such as the Palace of Benevolent Tranquility on the western side of the Forbidden City and statues in the Arhat Hall (Luohan Tang) of the Temple of Azure Clouds (Biyun Si) in Beijing’s Fragrant Hills (Xiang Shan) were secretly shifted to the temple, and the White Horse Temple was fully restored. Interestingly, the shift of artifacts to this temple from other places was decreed as permanent by Premier Zhou Enlai, and not a loan, when the authorities of the palace and Azure temple wanted the artifacts to be returned to them.


The symbolic importance of the temple to the ancient cultural relations between China and India was demonstrated when the Prime Minister of India P.V. Narasimha Rao visited the temple in 1993. A decade later, in 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee also visited the shrine.
To enhance the Buddhist cultural links between India and China, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed on 11 April 2005 under which it was agreed that India would build an Indian Style Buddhist temple to the west side of the White Horse Temple .Under this agreement, India was to provide the architectural design, material for construction, the Buddha statue, landscaping and technical advice of architects and experts during construction. Chinese authorities were to allot land area of 28000 sq.ft for building the temple.
Following the MOU signed by India and China in 2005, a Buddhist shrine that is a close replica of Sanchi Stupa has been completed in 2008 within the precincts of the White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China that was also inspired by Buddhist saints from India in the 1st century AD. The architectural features of the new temple have closely recreated the Stupa at Sanchi. An image of Buddha has also been transported from India and deified in the new temple, which conforms to the Indian Buddhist tradition. The temple has been built over a land area donated by the Chinese Government. The shrine is a two-storied structure with circular walls on both floors. The circular walls inside the temple have been embellished with murals of scenes from the Jataka tales and the life of Buddha. The Buddha statue made in the pattern of the 5th century image of Buddha at Sarnath has been deified in the central congressional hall of the temple. The President of India, Pratibha Patil, inaugurated this temple on 27 May 2010.

the End

Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

Hail O Kashyapa Matanga, hail O Gobhakarana Pandita!

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 08:46 Archived in China Tagged india buddhism china uzbekistan louyang kushan bactria aryan Comments (5)

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