Mid-April is a time of fun and frolic in large parts of India as several communities celebrate the commencement of the new year in accordance with the Hindu lunisolar calendars. The celebration of Vishu in Kerala, Poila Boishakh in Bengal, Baisakhi in Punjab and Rongali Bihu in Assam among several others, welcome the new year with cultural activities, culinary delight and religious performances. Interestingly, it is not India alone that celebrates the beginning of the new year in April. Large parts of Southeast Asia, namely Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar greet the new year too with similar celebrations as that in India. The commencement of new year go by different names in the Southeast Asian countries. While Thailand celebrates Songkran, in Laos it is referred to as Bun Pi Mai and Myanmar and Cambodia embrace the new year in the form of Thingyan and Chol Chnam Thmey respectively.
The cultural similarities between India and the Southeast Asian countries is hardly coincidental. The large scale acceptance of the same lunisolar calendar in each of these regions is rooted in a kind of colonial cultural exchange that is most often associated with European countries alone.
When one refers to the term ‘colonisation’, it is the process of trade and power made popular by West European countries that comes to mind. What is often overlooked is that similar trends occurred in this part of the world as well. The lunisolar calendars of Hindu and Buddhist communities is one evidence among several others of a period in history when Indian traders and elite groups ‘colonised’ several parts of Southeast Asian countries.
Colonial endeavours of India
The first person to do an indepth study of the process of “Indianisation” in Southeast Asian countries was a French scholar called George Coedes. He is the one to have coined the term “Farther India” to refer to those states of Southeast Asia who in his words, experienced the “civilising activity of India.” Geographically it refers to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and the Malay states.
However, even though Coedes defined Indian expansion into Southeast Asian countries as a process of civilising, there were significant differences between the European way of colonial control and that of India’s endeavours. Unlike the Europeans in America or the Asian and African countries, Indians were not complete strangers to the populace of Southeast Asia. Relations between the two regions date back to prehistoric times. However, from the beginning of the Christian era, these relations resulted in the formation of Indian kingdoms in the regions of Southeast Asia.
Trade was perhaps the foremost reason for movement between the two regions, in particular trade in spices, aromatic wood and fragrant resins. However, the most important product of trade was undoubtedly gold, which appeared most attractive to Indians. With the birth of Buddhism in India, the religious restrictions placed on overseas travel by Hindus was lifted, thereby encouraging more trade endeavours and also explains the popularity of Buddhism in these regions.
The process by which Indian trading activity resulted in the formation of kingdoms is yet to be confirmed. According to Coedes it is possible that individual traders over time set up small kingdoms of their own carrying within them Brahmanical or Hindu cultural elements. Alternatively, it is also possible that local chieftains approached the Hindu elites for seeking validation from them and in turn borrowing Hindu cultural aspects from them.
The first Indian kingdoms in Southeast Asia were Funan, which is the predecessor of Cambodia and Lin-yi in southern Vietnam. Both of them were formed in the second century AD. Over time similar kingdoms came up in several other regions, which continue to show traces of Indian religious, linguistic and cultural influences.
Influence of ‘Indianisation’ on Southeast Asia
Writing about the influence of India on “Farther India” George Coedes says that “the expansive power of their culture and the dynamism of their civilisation, of which the Indians seem never to have been completely conscious manifested themselves in all the countries to which they emigrated.” The foremost impact of India on these countries appears to be in the field of religion in the form of Sivaism, Vishnuism, Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and later Singhalese Buddhism. Sculptures and images of Vishnu and the Buddha, particularly of the kind that traces its roots to the Amravati school is evidence of the Indianisation that occurred in these regions. An example is the Dong Duong Buddha found in Vietnam and is believed to be a residue of Gupta empire’s influence and can be dated to the 4th century AD.
In terms of language, it is the scholarly language of Sanskrit that had its strongest influence on the languages of Southeast Asia and elements of the language can still be found in the current local speech of the countries. In fact the most ancient Sanskrit inscriptions in ‘Farther India’ is believed to be almost as old as the oldest Sanskrit inscriptions in India. Sanskrit literary works such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas continue to play a very important role in the cultural milieu of the Southeast Asian countries. With the emergence of Buddhism, the Jatakas too became popular in “Farther India.” Similarly, the Dharmasastras or the laws of Manu have a significant say in the code of ethics in these regions, much the same way as they have a role to play among the Hindu communities of India.
Seen in light of the broader pattern of cultural expansion that occurred between India and ‘Father India’, the celebration of the new year according to the traditional Hindu and later Buddhist calendar becomes understandable. Coedes believed that the reception of Indian culture, made “Father India” visible in history. “Without India, its past would be almost unknown,” he wrote. However, rather than making Southeast Asian cultures appear only receptive in nature, we can safely say that the cultural similarity among South and Southeast Asian regions was more a product of tolerance and the ability of one community to inspire and be inspired by another.