India’s Diaspora Connections in South-East Asia

Dr. Gautam Kumar Jha
September 29, 2019


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The history of human movement and settlements from one place to other is both natural and vast. In the ancient period, people settled far and abroad, not only in the want of resources but also when to expand their trade connectivity. The Indians present in the Southeast Asian (SEA) countries became an important Diaspora after several hundred years of their settlement. This had also become a very important subject of discussion today, particularly when there was political and social prejudice prevailing against the people of Indian origin, mostly in those countries where Indians were brought as indentured laborers during the colonial period but over time, they became strong and prosperous communities. 

Most of the common people of SEA are unaware of the fact that these regions were like ‘janapadas’ or independent provinces of Greater India, like any other political regions i.e., Saurashtra, Kalinga, and Banga. Indians established many colonies in the regions of Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Siam. The people of these regions embraced Indic way of life. The kings and their kingdoms took up Indian names, and the common masses became followers of different Hindu streams i.e., Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Buddhism. The kings used the Sanskrit language for their administrative work and got Indian epics Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas translated into their local languages. 

The ancient overseas trade system of India was mostly dependent upon the monsoon rhythm. The people of ancient followed eastern and western monsoons to complete their trade cycle. The trade communities from eastern, southern and western ports of India ventured into the littoral regions of Southeast Asia and gradually settled there. These littoral regions were adjacent to Malacca, and Sunda Straits which were very efficient and safe for the Indian traders coming mostly from the ports of Kalinga, Nagapattinam and Kachch regions. These straits were full of opportunities due to their long stretch and presence of gold on both sides of Malay peninsula, Sumatra touching Java, and further to southern Vietnam and China. As a result, these cross-regional interactions have been captured in our epics and mythological texts. The Valmiki Ramayana gives a very important reference in this regard:

यत्नवन्तो यवद्वीपम सप्तराज्यो पशोभितम, सुवर्ण रुप्यक द्वीपं सुवर्णकरमण्डितम II

Migration from the mainland to this region happened mainly in three phases which may be divided into ancient & medieval, modern and post-Cold War periods. The first phase is not documented, but there are references found in the Indian mythological and classical texts, besides some of the inscriptions speak volumes of active engagements among the people of the two regions. The ancient period interactions can be found between different dynasties in North and South India. In the north – Sunga, Satavahana, Nanda, Mauryan, Kalinga and Gupta, and in the south – Pallava, Chalukya, Pandya, and Chola.

The Indian settlements in Java during 9th century got mixed with the locals, and they were referred to by various names in the past; as Kalinga people, Aryas, Sinhalese, people from Pandiya Kera (Pandiyas), Keralites Dravidians, Chams, and Khmer. Since there was an active trade between the western coast of India and the SEA, the Gujarati and Sindhi merchants from the Indian subcontinent also settled in Sumatra. 

The entire trade region of SEA was divided into three zones as per the stretch of the many dynasties i.e., Suwarn Bhumi (Malay Peninsula), Suwarn Dwipa (Sumatra) and Java Dwipa (Java). There is a comprehensive account of the migration of Tamil populations as evidenced in Lobo Tua Inscriptions dating from 1088. The Suruaso Inscription are dated from the 14th century and are written in old Malay and Tamil. 

Different dynasties and kings built thousands of temples, stupas, and viharas in which stone statues of Shiva, Vishnu, Brama, Ganesha, Durga, Gautam Buddh, Bodhisatva were carved, and some of them are still found as ancient Indic glories of the different nations in the region. Stories related to interactions among Srivijaya and Chola, Pallava with the Champa kingdom, and the King Nandivarman-II reflect that the entire region of SEA was under one umbrella culture. 

A proverb in ancient India was very popular among Gujrati traders about Java: those who go to Java or the East never return, but if he returns, his decedents live at ease for generations. The term ‘Orang Keling’ (Kalinga people) is very frequently used for Tamil Indians and considered derogatory in Malaysia because of the second phase of the settlement of Tamil population. However, the term is not derogatory in Indonesia, for the same word Kalinga, and many authors agree to its reference, refers to people migrating to Sumatra from the eastern coast of India. K Sridharan in his book ‘Maritime history of India” writes about Indian emigration to Java as “Indeed, they (the Kalingas) were responsible for having initiated the adventurous spirit of emigrating to Java.” 

The second phase witnessed forced or lured migration when British East India and Dutch East India Companies took the benefits away and made the economic conditions of India and Indonesia penurious. They filled their new colonial states i.e., Malaysia, Indonesia Suriname, Réunion Island, Fiji, Mauritius, Trinand & Tobago and some African countries with Indian laborers as sugarcane and rubber (which were then high-value commodity to be traded) plantation workers. The third phase was mostly in the post-globalization era when Indian traditional business communities found this area conducive to expand their trade. The third phase has witnessed Sindhis, Gujaratis, Jains, Odia, Tamils, and Kannada migrate to SEA in a slow and steady pace to do business. 

*** The author is Assistant Professor at Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies at School of Language Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***