Separated By Bay Or Connected By Sea? Re-interpreting “Indianisation” of Southeast Asia | Andrea Acri and Himanshu Prabha Ray in conversation with William Dalrymple

Separated By Bay Or Connected By Sea? Re-interpreting “Indianisation” of Southeast Asia | Andrea Acri and Himanshu Prabha Ray in conversation with William Dalrymple

The story of India and Southeast Asia is one of shared histories and heritage. With the Bay of Bengal nestled between them, the two lands have a striking number of similarities in the context of the spread of religion, language and culture across waters. It brings to mind an idyllic picture of ships sailing from the southern part of India brimming with knowledge, goods and art to the Southeast Asian ports and merging into the local indigenous cultures in fascinating ways. But was it a mono-directional transference or a more robust exchange of influences across the regions?

This session at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2022 brought together two leading experts in Southeast Asian studies - Andrea Acri and Himanshu Prabha Ray, along with author and Festival Co-Director William Dalrymple, to discuss the same. The three author-historians embarked on a virtual journey illustrating how recent research has brought to light the areas in question having an intricately interconnected web of cultural transmission, which cannot be interpreted in its entirety without delving into a more inclusive examination of the history and geography of the regions. In fact, scholars have been involved in a rich debate over the past few decades concerning the spread of Indian culture through maritime trade, and the ways in which one could approach this continuously evolving narrative today.

Dalrymple started with an interesting quote by pioneering French historian George Cœdès who wrote in 1964, “The story of the expansion of Indian civilisation to the east has not yet been told in its entirety. It is one of the outstanding events in the history of the world - one that has determined the destiny of a good portion of mankind.” He set in motion this intriguing discussion with arguably one of the most contested conundrums concerning past and current scholarship in studies of the South Asian and Southeast Asian diaspora – the perceived impact and nature of “Indianisation”, a term now considered as a possibly flawed assumption based on latest findings. Dalrymple touched upon what he called a fruitful yet sometimes ‘heated’ debate amongst experts in the field, before Acri took over the helm.

Acri noted right at the outset it’s imperative to be wary of the quotation marks in “Indianisation”. At the risk of stating an opinion that may not be popularly agreed upon - he said that ‘India’, ‘South Asia’ and ‘Southeast Asia’ are just constructs; terms that have been shaped and contained into different fields in postcolonial studies. Instead of viewing them as separate areas of study, we have to account for the history behind these terms and reconceptualise the region through a new narrative. He talked about the current trend among scholars of viewing these individuated areas of study through different lenses - such as the Sanskrit cosmopolis, the Buddhist ecumene, the Shaiva age or Maritime Asia - all of which capture the cultural transfer between the two continents in a more inclusive manner. He stressed the need to consider a borderless history and geography of the region to truly understand the depth and scale of developments in art and architecture.

One aspect of Acri’s description really resonated with me. Borrowing from Paul Mus’ Monsoon Asia, Acri said that people commonly assume that India and Southeast Asia are ‘separated’ by the Bay of Bengal, whereas if we think of them as connected by 1000 odd kilometres of sea, the whole intermingling of culture and religion starts to make a lot more sense. In fact, in earlier times it was easier to travel from India to Southeast Asia by water than it was to travel from the north of India to the south by land.

After a nudge from Dalrymple, Acri explained the ‘Pizza effect’. Invented in Naples, Italy, the pizza was made famous in the USA by Italian immigrants and repackaged with new flavours, etc., from where it became a global phenomenon. After its unprecedented success, Italy re-imported the pizza in its newly repackaged form to Italy itself. Similarly, one can infer that different forms of Hinduism and Buddhism travelled across the sea to Southeast Asia, to be re-packaged and sent back in a modified, sometimes fully transformed avatar to the Indian mainland. Acri gives the example of an 8-armed figure of the Buddhist deity Amoghapasha originating from Sumatra, Java. After being derived from Indian models and transmitted back to India, the figure was re-transmitted to Indonesia in the 11th-12th century! Many such figures and architectural remains of temples in Southeast Asia today are, in fact, by-products of the pizza effect started by the Europeans.

Following Acri’s pizza effect analogy, historian and author Himanshu Prabha Ray made a timely quip saying that “...the term Indianisation itself is a pizza effect!” According to her, the Europeans discovered Southeast Asia and India in the early 20th century, and the term “Indianisation” was, unfortunately, invented to couch what the Europeans and particularly the French considered the ‘civilising mission in Asia’.

But whether it’s Sheldon Pollock’s ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ or the ‘convergence’ of Hermann Kulke - all these terminologies, in Ray’s opinion, have a single-centred focus on state and political history. Her viewpoints move away from all this and instead focus on examining shared heritage across the Bay of Bengal through early movements among small-scale mobile communities. There is archaeological evidence dating as far back as the Neolithic times suggesting that the inter-regional transference was mutual and not solely pertaining to elite groups. For instance, while Buddhism as a religion originated in India, after reaching all the different continents in maritime Asia through the Silk Route, it transformed and multiplied into many ‘Buddhisms’, traces of which can be found back in India. The concept of relic enshrinement and worship were central to all ‘Buddhisms’ across South and Southeast Asia; and it was monks and nuns who had a hand to play in this assimilation of Buddhist practices across regions, with early literary references corroborating that claim. The nature of these relics ranged from bone ash to gold, silver and terracotta caskets to texts. Interestingly, we don’t consider nuns as part of these groups, whereas in reality, they actively carried relics and set up stupas wherever they went.

Aside from Indic influences in art and architecture, scholars have also studied its ‘Sanskiritisation’, particularly the spread of the Sanskrit language across borders, connecting India to Southeast Asia. Ray presented evidence to show that Sanskrit was not the only language there, and the local elite knew of many others, including Pali, and the Ancient Burmese language - Pyu. While the languages were varied, inscriptions were written in the southern Brahmi script common across the two continents. “This wealth of both relics as well as inscriptions in a variety of languages is further supported by what we get in terms of the archaeological evidence for stupas from the 4th to 6th century,” said Ray, describing how everything from the shape of the stupa to the use and size of the bricks had affinities with similar monuments and Buddhist reliquary found in Andhra Pradesh.

The culminating argument that Ray proposes is similar to Acri’s: by viewing the cultural exchange between India and Southeast Asia as an interconnected and shared heritage across the sea, one can refresh their perspective to be wary of the plurality of religions, and do away with archaic notions of linear development not just within each religion, but also perceiving them as following one after the other, i.e. as Buddhism followed by Hinduism.

To conclude the session, Dalrymple made an astute observation about the difference in size between Indian and Southeast Asian sites, and asked if there was a reason behind them being presumably much bigger. Acri’s hilarious retort about the scale reflecting the Southeast Asian rulers’ egos was not only fitting, but inadvertently underlined the lesser-known fact of Southeast Asia having a wealth of resources due to trade and rice cultivation.

While the speakers highlighted different aspects of the Indo-Southeast Asian cultural commingling in a thought-provoking exchange, the key takeaway was that although they may be separated by the Bay of Bengal, the connections between India and Southeast Asia are entangled much more deeply than what we had previously perceived and should instead be viewed as a cultural unity.