May 16, 2015
Updated November 2020
As early as 350 BC, sailors from India and the Malay Peninsula embarked on expeditions across the Indian Ocean reaching the shores of China and East Africa. More recent genetic studies suggest evidence of Indian seafarers reaching as far as the coasts of Australia. Excavations at various sites in Southeast Asia and India in recent decades have brought forth more evidence of such trade contacts of small coastal societies. It was only after these trade links across the seas were established during the first millennium BC, large city states became major players in Indian Ocean trade. For a long time archeologists were biased towards powerful kingdoms and the enormous remains of urban centers of the latter periods, and traders of the earlier periods who pioneered long-distance transport and trade remained an under-studied topic. Although trade contacts of this prehistoric period lack well-documented and archaeologically authenticated evidence compared to the trade contacts of the prominent urban and state-level civilizations of latter years, increasing evidence from a range of disciplines in recent decades suggest that the early Indian Ocean crop and animal dispersions appear to have occurred for the most part; between relatively small-scale coastal societies.
Early Indian Settlements in Southeast Asia
Indian trading settlements sprung up along the coasts of Southeast Asia serving as ports of entry for the small kingdoms in these areas. Entrepreneurial Indian traders and adventurers were followed by scholars, Buddhist monks, some deposed princes, Hindu Brahmin priests, and then by artisan and craftsmen trying to advance their economic and social status. The newcomers were very resourceful and astute and soon after their arrival, they moved swiftly to gain favors with the local chiefs by offering them gifts and impressed them with their knowledge. After settling down among the locals, they learned the local language and married local girls, often from a high level family. These wives, initiated into the religious and moral norms, beliefs and social customs of their husbands soon began to play a pivotal role in spreading these values among the local people. The Brahmin priests accomplished at celebrating rituals educated the local kings and exercised great power as advisors to the kings. Inter marriage played a considerable role and, according to tradition, it was one of these unions that contributed to the founding of one of the oldest Indianized kingdoms Funan in the first century A.D.
The three kingdoms of note during the first millennium were Funan, Champa and Khmer. Funan, a strong maritime state centered on the Mekong Delta, is believed to have trade links with the Pallava Kingdom. Funan was an ideal halfway point on the journey from India to China. Information from Chinese sources trace the growing complexity of Funan as its rulers selected linguistic, cultural, and administrative elements from India. Archaeological evidence shows that Funan was influenced markedly by Indian cultures. Indians came to Southeast Asia, but they did not come to rule, and no Indian power appears to have pursued an interest in controlling a Southeast Asian power from afar.
Another vibrant Indianized kingdom Champa was established in the 4th century AD. Its rulers presided over a small territory between high mountains and the sea in Vietnam. The dominant religion in Champa was Saivite Hinduism, brought from South India. Towards the end of first millennium, the Indianized Khmer Empire of Cambodia, home of Angkor Wat, was the foremost power in mainland Southeast Asia between the first and the thirteenth centuries.
By the time Indian inspired temples and inscriptions appeared in Southeast Asia by the fourth century AD, the between these societies had already come a long way. The presence of metallic vessels, stone and glass ornaments, and technologies adapted to regional style, found at excavation sites in peninsular Thailand strongly suggest that the Southeast Asian societies had sustained relationships with South India as early as the fourth through the second centuries BC.
Evidence for regular trade between Indian and the Malay Peninsula in the latter part of the first millennium BC is well documented from excavations of at Khao Sam Kaeo and Ban Don Ta Phet in Thailand. Both sites are located along the trade routes. Khao Sam Kaeo lies on the east coast Kra Isthmus on Thai-Malay peninsula and Ban Don Ta Phet is near the tin belt of Western Thailand. Trade and interaction expanded during the early centuries of AD. The elite of Southeast Asian trading societies borrowed and reworked Indian cultural features that they identified as status markers. The manufacture of specific Southeast Asian style products made with distinctive Indian technologies excavated at Ban Don Ta Phet and Khao Sam Kaeo indicated the possibility of Indian craftsmen settled in Southeast Asian ports.
Vietnamese and French excavations have revealed that Oc Eo complex in the Mekong Delta had settlements dating back from the first to the third century AD and these excavations unearthed many Indian related materials. Oc Eo is identified as the historical kingdom of Funan that flourished in Vietnam between the first and the sixth century AD.
The Liangshu, the official dynastic history of Liang Dynasty written during the early Tang period, also refers to the events in Southeast Asia in the third century AD. Liangshu mentions the existence of an Indian influenced polity called Dunsun, supposed to be in the Malay Peninsula, possibly at the Isthmus of Kra, containing five hundred families of Hu (interpreted as Indians), some Buddhists and more than a thousand Indian Brahmins. The people of Dunsun practiced the doctrine of the new settlers and gave their daughters in marriage to Brahmins and many of whom did not return to India.
An interesting article titled “Prehistoric Migration: An Antipodenan raj” in the Economist in January 2013 based on a study by Dr. Irina Pugach and her colleagues of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany states – “About 400 years before Captain Phillip and his merry men arrived to turn the aboriginals’ world upside down; it seems a group of Indian adventurers chose to call the place home”. This conclusion was based on the analysis of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP). Dr. Pugach discovered that there is a pattern in SNP in aboriginal Australians that is not found in people from New Guinea or anywhere in South East Asia, but found in Dravidian Indians from the South India. This suggests that people who brought this SNP pattern in their DNA must have traveled directly across the Indian Ocean. The article also cites the similarity in removing toxins from cycad nuts before consumption in Australia and south India. Cycad nuts are endemic to the Western Ghats region of South India. The flour made from cycad nuts is used making several dishes in parts of South India.
Early Crop Dispersion between South and Southeast Asia
Contacts and exchanges along the Indian Ocean coasts also created the agricultural biodiversity that we take for granted today. Crop evidence from Khao Sam Kaeo excavations indicate earlier Indian presence, especially in the form of classic pulses used in Indian cuisine – mung beans and horse gram – (both have their origin in South India) which reached southern Thailand by 300 BC. Wild mung beans were widely scattered in tropical woodlands across South Asia, Southeast Asia, northern Australia and parts of Africa. This raises the possibility of domestication in several geographical regions. However, genetic studies indicate a more restrictive Indian origin; mung bean was introduced as a crop from India to Southeast Asia. Another Neolithic Indian pulse horse gram, although absent from modern Southeast Asian agriculture, was found at Khao Sam Kaeo excavation site. Perhaps cultivation of some of the crops that spread from India in the past may not have continued into modern cultivation. Several garden vegetables found in Indian Ocean regions have Indian or Chinese origins and include winter melons, bitter gourds and musk melons. Other cultivated plants from India include oilseed sesame (sesamum indicum) and fruits such as tamarind and mango. Linguistic evidence suggests that most of these Indian fruits spread to Southeast Asia relatively late during the historical/medieval times. A variety of plants, trees and spices found in South India also have their wild origins in Southeast Asia. These include areca nut palm, sandalwood tree, piper betel creepers, nutmeg and bananas.
With early Indian settlements and crop dispersion, it is quite possible that culinary techniques and recipes were also introduced early on at these new settlements in Southeast Asia. The cuisines of the countries of South Asia and Southeast Asia are creations of historical and cultural alchemy. Cuisines often transport traces of their colonized pasts in their recipes as new ingredients and techniques get incorporated into local cuisines and recipes evolve over time. For centuries, grains, vegetables, fruits, and cooking techniques traveled along with traders from one civilization to another. Arabs traders besides exporting indigenous spices also introduced spices from India and the Middle East to Southeast Asia. These communities were great borrowers and they embraced new ingredients and techniques, but only under their conditions.
Trade with Southeast Asia and South India thrived during the post Sangam period when the Imperial Chola dynasty came to power. Continue reading more about it here – Indian Ocean Trade in the Post Sangam Period
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