Tracking Indian Footprints in Southeast Asia

The first rays of the sun cast a metallic glow on the blue-green crater of one of the world's oldest volcanoes - Gunung Sumeru - in Indonesia. The belief is that the process of creation began from the rock-head that spews billowing columns of lava-laced smoke throughout the year. It is the seat of the Hindu deity of creation - Brahma, and is one of the early Hindu linkages between India and the Southeast Asian nations.

The many cultural and religious links between India and Southeast Asia are steeped in the folds of time.

Now veteran filmmaker S. Krishnaswamy seeks to capture on celluloid some of those linkages. The Sumeru is the take-off point for Krishnaswamy's new 17-episode serial "India Imprints", which traces the impact of ancient Indian spirituality, philosophy and culture on Southeast Asia that shares a long maritime and trade history with India.

"A large part of the region was colonized by the early Hindus who went to Java, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as sailors and traders through the sea route," explained the filmmaker, who heads the 44-year-old documentary film production house Krishnaswamy Associates credited with movies like "India 5555" and "Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi".

"India Imprints", some episodes of which were screened this month in New Delhi, is sponsored by public broadcaster Prasar Bharati. It was shot by a 10-member crew led by Krishnaswamy and his wife Mohana in locations across Southeast Asia - Indonesia, including in ancient Java and Bali, besides Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Gunung Sumeru, said Krishnaswamy, is an important symbol of the impact of ancient India in eastern Asia because the indigenous Tenga people of the area practiced the ethnic creed of Brahma for 1,000 years and even built a temple devoted to the Holy Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

"The single most important aspect of Hindu influence in Southeast Asia is that wherever you go, you find that Lord Ram or Rama of the Indian epic Ramayana, an avatar of Vishnu, is a hero," Krishnaswamy said. 

Ramayana, supposedly written by Vedic sage Valmiki, is the story of the valiant Rama who fought the demon Ravana from Lanka, who had abducted his wife Sita, with the help of an army of jungle apes (monkeys) led by monkey-god Hanuman.

Rama rescued his wife and returned to his father's kingdom Ayodhya, from where he was exiled, to establish Ram Rajya (utopian welfare state). 

Almost all countries in Southeast Asia have their own versions of the Ramayana in local editions and local languages.

"The Ramayana was translated in the local Southeast Asian dialects during the early Christian era.

"The general story remains the same, barring a few oddities. For instance, in the Thai version of the Ramayana, Hanuman is married whereas in the Indian version, Hanuman is a bachelor," Krishnaswamy said.

The Indian epic Mahabharata also has an interesting twist in the local Indonesian version, says the filmmaker.

"Draupadi, the common wife of the five Pandava brothers in the Indian version, is married to only Dharma or Yudhisthira, the eldest of the five brothers, in the Indonesian edition." 

Mahabharata, written by sage Ved Vyasa, is the story of an epic war between the Pandava and Kaurav brothers. The epic is central to the socio-religious and political history of India because of the participation of Krishna, Hinduism's most popular divinity, who steered the course of the battle for the Pandavas. "Almost everyone in Southeast Asia is familiar with Ramayana and Mahabharata. The epics are part of their academic curriculum and pet themes for royal ballets and musicals," Krishnaswamy said.

According to the filmmaker and his wife Mohana, Hinduism, one of the most popular religions in the region, has bred a deep sense of spirituality among the local youth. They are proud to admit their Indian linkages, be it through Buddhism or the ancient Hindu faith.

Krishnaswamy's episodes span a rich heritage trail. From Sumeru, the camera travels on a boat through the Mekong river in south Vietnam to the sprawling ruins of Champa, an ancient Hindu kingdom, bordering Cambodia.

Champa, which flourished nearly 1,000 years ago, was founded by a Brahmin sailor-prince Kaundiya from India, who married a Cambodian Nag princess Soma, the daughter of the moon and founded a long line of royals. Most Cambodians trace their ancestry to the Hindu Brahmin prince.

"The Vietnam war took its toll on Champa. American planes and helicopter bombers destroyed the spires of several temples in carpet bombing operations," Krishnaswamy said.

The filmmaker's next stop was Laos - the land of lush natural forests, rivers and hills. The camera zoomed on an majestic peak, called the Linga Parbat, where Indian sailors built a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity, Shiva, long before Christ was born.

The crew subsequently moved to Kawa Sili Dang, a volcano in central Java, home to a cluster of small simple temples dedicated to Draupadi and the five Pandava brothers of Mahabharata, nearly 1,400 years ago.

"Borobudur is an important Indian spiritual linkage in the region. It was ruled by the Shailendra dynasty, who had close ties with the Pallava kings of south India. Several Brahmins from the ancient city of Chidambaram migrated to settle here," the filmmaker explained.

Even now, the Buddhist priests at the royal palace of Thailand bear the titles of "Brahmins" because they perform religious rituals, most of which are distorted versions of Tamil rituals from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The last but not the closing shot of Krishanswamy's tranche of excerpts is the majestic Vishnu temple of Angkor Vat in Cambodia built by the mighty Varman kings of the Khmer dynasty who ruled the country for several hundred years. They were deeply influenced by Hinduism and Tamils from the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Legend says that Angkor Vat was conceived by a Tamil minister of the 11th century king Surya Varman, under whose reign it was built.

"During the 7th to the 15th century, a number of Hindu temples were built in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand by the Shailendra kings," Krishnaswamy said.

According to the filmmaker, the qualitative difference between the colonists from India and western nations was that the Indian merchants, who sailed to Southeast Asia, enriched the culture of the land by adding to its history.

"They had no intention of war. Indian merchants went to trade, spread art, culture and the Indian philosophy; whereas the western colonialists went as conquerors and destroyers," Krishnaswamy explained.      


More by :  Madhusree Chatterjee

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Views: 3470      Comments: 1

Comment Mr and Mrs Krishnaswamy, I am visiting from Australia and was amazed to see your documentary on TV recently. My wife, Neelam and I are; and, indeed the whole of India should be indebted to you for your stupendous undertaking.

I am not sure if you will even receive this comment, but please accept our congratulations, if you do. We will anxiously wait for the series "India Imprints" on DVD. If it is already out, we will buy it soon as we could before we go back to Australia.

You are true Indians!

Kind regards,

Vinod and Neelam Bhalla.

Vinod Bhalla
31-Mar-2012 13:20 PM

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