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Hinduism in Southeast Asia


HINDUISM IN SOUTHEAST ASIA . Śaiva, Vaiava, and other sectarian traditions involving the worship of the many gods and goddesses that fall under the rubric of what is today called Hinduism have existed in parts of Southeast Asia for over two thousand years. Most of these early Hindu traditions have died out, but the dominance of their presence is attested by a legacy of architecture and performing arts, and to a lesser extent, proper names, manuscripts, and rituals. Small pockets of Hindus from early migrations, as well as descendants of more recent migrations, still live in Southeast Asia. Many of the early kingdoms in Southeast Asia, starting in the first half of the first millennium ce, adopted and adapted the specific Hindu texts, theologies, rituals, architecture, and forms of social organization that were suitable to their times and conditions. These traditions especially their relationship to the sacrality of the land and social structures indicates that Hinduism was characterized by transnational features, which adds nuance to our understanding of the cultural features that were carried by Hindu migrants.

The many areas where Hindu and Mahāyāna Buddhist culture coexisted, peacefully for the most part, included Champa (central and southern areas of Vietnam), Kambuja (Cambodia), Sri Vijaya, Yavadvipa (Indonesia, Java, and possibly Malaysia and other countries), Suvara Dvipa ("the golden island," a name identified with many places), Sri Kshetra (Burma/Myanmar), as well as Thailand and Laos. Although Hindu traditions thrived in all these countries, there were perhaps more Hindu dynasties and a greater degree of state-sponsored Hinduism in Cambodia than in other kingdoms. By about the fifteenth century, with the increasing popularity of other traditions, such as Theravāda Buddhism in Cambodia and Islam in Indonesia, the explicit practice and acknowledgment of the Hindu traditions died out.

The boundaries of most kingdoms fluctuated through the centuries. At the height of its power, for instance, the Kambuja Empire included a major part of Southeast Asia from present-day Myanmar (Sri Kshetra) to central Vietnam (Champa), from the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, all the way down to the Malayan peninsula.

George Coedes (18801969) and other scholars called the process by which Hindu and Buddhist cultures and worldviews were transplanted in Southeast Asia Indianization. Hindu and Buddhist traders, priests, and an occasional prince traveled to Southeast Asia beginning in about the second half of the first millennium bce (or earlier) and eventually migrated there. The term Indianization, however, should be used with caution; although one can certainly speak about many features of "Indian" culture that took root and still linger in the area, there was a dynamic interaction between local traditions and those brought by Indian traders and migrants. While there was considerable Sanskritization and Brahmanization, the depth of the influence of these traditions for the people is still a matter of scholarly dispute. The most pervasive areas of influence seem to have been in the dissemination of architecture, rituals, and narratives such as the Rāmāyaa and the Mahābhārata. Many of the traditions, especially those of the epics, are still performed, but the stories are situated in the context of Buddhist traditions.

Sources of Knowledge

Our knowledge of Hindu traditions in Southeast Asia is based on archaeological sources, icons, inscriptions, temple architecture, texts, and performing arts. Archaeological evidence, including icons of several deities, coins, jewelry, and the like, has been of utmost importance. Most informative are the elaborate Sanskrit inscriptions that mark donations, consecrations of temples and icons, and dedications of public works. Some of the longest Sanskrit inscriptions are found in this region, particularly in Cambodia. The inscriptions are in many Sanskrit meters and reveal an excellent knowledge of Sanskrit literature and literary conceits. Dating of these inscriptions has been problematic, but some of the early ones in the Mi Son temple complex in Vietnam may date to as early as the third century ce. A late fifth-century inscription in the kingdom known as Funan (southern Cambodia and Vietnam) describing Queen Kulaprabhavati's endowment of monies to a hermitage may be one of the earliest inscriptions in Cambodia. Inscriptions have been found in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Bali. The rise and decline of Sanskrit as the medium for these inscriptions follow trends that are seen in India. In many cases, as in Cambodia, the Sanskrit inscriptions are followed by records in a local language. Most books and manuscripts in Cambodia have been destroyed over the centuries, but many stelae carry inscriptions.

Chinese texts, including travelogues and descriptions by visiting political missions, also provide extensive information on cities, everyday life, royal processions, and so on. Theatrical performances in Thailand and Indonesia introduce us to the world of Kakawin poetry, said to be descended from the kāvya style of literature in India. Manuscripts, copied through the generations in Indonesia, give us various versions of the Hindu epics and stories from the Purāas. Temple architecture and iconography also inform us of the depth and pervasiveness of Hindu culture in Southeast Asia, as well as the areas in India from which the migrants may have come.

Origin Stories

Several founding stories, especially those of the Khmer people, speak about the union of an Indian ancestor with a nāga woman. The term nāga in Indian (Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain) narratives refers to a semi-divine group of people associated with serpents. Some stories depict them as being descended from serpents, or as having some of their mythical powers. The term nāga also referred to a community of people in India during the time of the Buddha. Early Chinese accounts (c. 230 ce) speak of a man from India named Hundien meeting a woman, Liu Ye, who ruled over the land. After a battle, Hundien (Kaundinya?) married the princess. Another story traces the people of Cambodia to the royal holy man Kauinya who is said to have married the local nāga princess, Soma. This version of the story, which some scholars consider a distinct narrative, is recounted in a temple inscription in Mi Son (Champa), which probably dates to around the third century, or perhaps much later. This inscription tells of Kauinya receiving a javelin or a spear from Asvathamman (the son of Droa, a teacher of the princes in the Mahābhārata ) and throwing it into the air, thus marking his territory. He eventually married Soma, daughter of a nāga king. A later Cambodian story that does not turn up until the classical age (c. ninth century ce) tells of a legendary sage Kambu who married a celestial woman called Mera. Some scholars derive the word K(h)-mer from the names of these parents. The country born (Skt., ja ) from the union of Mera and Kambu was called Kambuja.

In these stories, a male ancestor from India marries a divine or local princess; the name Soma ("moon") suggests the alliance between the male ruler from the solar lineage and the woman from a lunar lineage. The solar and lunar dynasties were prominent in Hindu narratives, and almost every Hindu king traced his ancestry to these lines. Some of these stories are connected with the Pallava dynasty, which was in power in the Southeast part of India (Tamil Nadu), particularly near the city of Kanchipuram. Other stories, like those of the nāga origin, are strikingly similar to those found near Kashmir.

Origins of the Migrants in India

It is difficult to categorically state the various places in India from which the Hindu migrants in Southeast Asia came. Speculations on places of origin in India are based on fragmentary sources, including inscriptions, histories of maritime expeditions, and stylistic similarities between architecture and sculptures. There seem to have been both sea routes and land routes from India to Southeast Asia.

Two areas that seem to have had regular and extensive contact with Southeast Asia are Kanchipuram (near Chennai, South India) and the areas traditionally known as Kalinga (modern Orissa), farther north on the east coast of India. The temple towers of Angkor Wat (or Vatt), for instance, are strikingly similar to those found in Orissa, particularly the Brahmeshwar Temple (built circa 1061 ce by Queen Kolavati) near Bhubaneshwar. The area between Orissa and Andhra Pradesh near the lower Ka River also seems to have been a place from which there was active contact with Southeast Asia.

Kanchipuram was an important city in South India for several centuries. The Angkor Wat, for instance, is a three-storied, west-facing temple dedicated to Viu, similar to the Vaikuntha Perumal temple, built in the eighth century in Kanchipuram. The temple in Cambodia replicates some of these features and combines it with the architecture of Kalinga. The area around Kanchipuram also has several temples with icons of Viu similar to those in Cambodia.

More speculative are theories pointing to other areas near Kashmir as the source for certain aspects of Hindu culture in Southeast Asia. Some Hindu origin stories are similar to those of Kashmir and Nepal. In addition, there are striking similarities in the sculpture and texts of the Chalukya empire (northern Karnataka, c. sixth century ce) and some Southeast Asian cultures.

There are hundreds of place names in Southeast Asia that are similar to names in India.

There were many areas in India that could have been the land of origin for the migrants who settled in Southeast Asia. Hinduism seems to have been global or at least transnational. There seems to have been regular contact with traders, sailors, pilgrims, and migrants, and therefore continuing links between South and Southeast Asia.

Early History and Aspects of Hindu Culture in Southeast Asia

Historians believe exchanges of goods and ideas between India and Southeast Asia may have begun as early as 350 bce; such an exchange had certainly been established by the first few centuries of the Common Era. Traders, their families, and eventually priests came and settled in these lands and eventually intermarried with the local people. The cultures of India may have spread in this way all over Southeast Asia. Some scholars, however, insist that local kingdoms exercised a great deal of control over what they imported from India, that Indian court culture was not a dominant culture imposed from outside on a passive Southeast Asian land, and that local rulers invited Indian brahmans to serve them and selected what they wanted of Indian culture. It is certainly true that although there was extensive cultural influence from India, some important features of Indian lifeincluding the dietary culture and the caste systemnever took hold in Southeast Asia.

Indian migration to Southeast Asia occurred in small waves, with the migrants following land and sea routes. These new people came with their narratives and literary traditions, a knowledge of construction techniques and the religious principles behind the engineering of temples, as well as public waterworks, performing arts, astronomy and astrology, and statecraft. Small groups of settlers seem to have shared their traditions through the invitation or request of the local elite. Some of these were adopted by the local people, some modified, others jettisoned.

Archaeological data from the Oc Eo area of the Mekong Delta shows evidence of settlements from before the beginning of the Common Era. Chinese texts speak about a state called Funan occupying a part of Cambodia and southern Vietnam. While there are Chinese descriptions of this kingdom from about the third century ce, it may have been in existence as much as two centuries before that. Historically, evidence of early Indianization in Southeast Asia is offered by Sanskrit inscriptions, including an inscription in Champa (at Vo-Canh in the Khanh-Hoa province of modern Vietnam), which dates to the third century ce. Here, the author refers to himself as the delight of the family of Srimar, a king who established a dynasty in Champa in the second century ce.

By the fifth century ce, several small Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms were established in the Indonesian archipelago. The Srivijaya kingdom, based in Palembang in south Sumatra, was very powerful for a while, controlling key trade routes and extending its empire to Thailand in the north and West Borneo in the east. It was largely Buddhist, but Hindu dynasties flourished in central Java. In the Sanjaya (Mataram) kingdom, one of the best known and largest Hindu templesthe Loro Jonggrang at Prambanan (near Yogyakarta)was built in the ninth century ce. Hindu dynasties ruled in Bali after the ninth century ce.

Clear Indian influence is evident in the names of places and royalty. Many of the early kings in this region had Hindu Sanskrit names, such as Rudravarman, Bhavavarman, or Jayavarman. Almost all the early kings in Southeast Asia bore names ending with the royal varman, as was the custom in India, where, according to the dharma, names of katriya should end with varman. There is also evidence of women rulers; the earliest may have been Queen Kulaprabhavati in southern Cambodia in the fifth to sixth centuries ce. Queen Jayadevī ruled in Cambodia in the early eighth century. The earliest capital in Cambodia was called "Hari hara alaya"the sacred abode of Hari (Viu) and Hara (Śiva). Some of these names have lingered and have been modified in Southeast Asia.

Coronation and consecration rituals referred to in the inscriptions seem to follow Hindu texts. In Cambodia, after the time of Jayavarman II (early ninth century), we hear about the "devarāja [god-king] cult." Hiranyadama, the royal gurū, apparently conducted this rite, and it seems to have established Jayavarman's legitimacy. The Sdok Kak Thom inscription (c. 1052) gives many details about the concept of devarāja and associates it with a particular temple (Rong Chen) and with specific kings. The concept of devarāja involved the concept of the king (rāja ) as a divine being (deva ), perhaps centering the royal power in a particular icon of Śiva (a liga ) and divine power in the kings. Perhaps only kings whose hereditary legitimacy was in doubt emphasized the devarāja concept.

Hindu Deities in Southeast Asia

Śiva, Viu, and the goddess Lakmī were all popular in Southeast Asia, but in addition, Hari-Hara, an amalgamation of Viu and Śiva, was revered, particularly in Cambodia. Hari-hara, who is seen in reliefs in the Badami caves (c. sixth century ce, Northern Karnataka in India), became popular after the seventh century. He is mentioned in many inscriptions in Cambodia, and is represented in numerous icons. Icons of Brahmā, Viu, Śiva, Hari-Hara, Gaeśa, Skanda, Nandi (a bull sacred to Śiva), Garua (the eagle mount of Viu), the nine planets worshiped by Hindus, and other deities have been found all over Southeast Asia. The invocations in inscriptions also express reverence to amalgamated deities like Ardhanārīśvara (a combination of Śiva and the goddess Pārvatī). Several incarnations of Viu are carved in temples.

Śiva was perhaps the best known deity in all of Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, Śiva is usually depicted with two wives, Umā and Gagā. Rivers in Cambodia were eventually considered to be holy like the Ganges, such as, after the eleventh century, the rivers flowing from the hill Phnom Kulen to irrigate Angkor. The sacrality of these rivers was stated on carvings made on rocks on their banks, which emphasized the identification of such rivers as the Kbal Spean with the Ganges. While Śiva worship, particularly as represented by the creative symbol of the liga, was popular, the worship of Viu also flourished across the region. Knowledge of the Indian Vaiava texts, including the two epics, was widespread, at least among the elite. Long after Śaivism and other forms of Hinduism disappeared from Cambodia as living religions, knowledge of the Rāmāyaa thrived through the performing arts. Starting with the endowments of Queen Kulaprabhavati in the late fifth century, many endowments were made to temples of Viu in Cambodia. The walls of many temples are carved with scenes from the Rāmāyaa and the Purāas, and scenes from the Rāmāyaa are carved on the walls of the Prambanan temple near Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Most temples in Southeast Asia emphasize one deity but consecrate many others in the same place. Śiva, Viu, and Devī are commonly represented all in the same building. Women seem to have had an important role in consecrating deities in temples; both in Bakong and later in the temple at Bantei Srei in Cambodia, women were involved in the consecration. The Prambanan temple in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, has temples to Brahmā and Viu, but the main shrine is dedicated to Śiva.

Mahāyāna temples included stupas, along with Buddhist and Hindu deities. Thus, there is a stupa at the center of Preah Khan (near Siem Reap), which was constructed by Jayavarman VII (a Mahāyāna king), as well as a very large Śiva liga on the western side of the structure. There is also a magnificent panel of Viu on Ananta, with Lakmī at his feet. Similarly, at the Bayon, which was built by the same king, there are many panels depicting Viu, Lakmī, and Śiva.


Hindu traditions have been showcased most prominently in Southeast Asia through architecture. There are hundreds of temples in every country, the most famous being the Loro Jonggrang temple (c. mid-ninth century), popularly known as the Prambanan temple, in Indonesia, and the Angkor Wat (mid-twelfth century) in Cambodia.

The Prambanan temple complex is about 20 kilometers east of Yogyakarta, Java. It is variously attributed to a king of the second Mataram dynasty, Rakai Pikatan, or to Balitung Maha Sambhu. There are well over 250 smaller temples in the Prambanan complex, which is spread out on the Prambanan plain. The main temple to Śiva is about 47 meters high. Viu had his own shrine (as did Gaeśa) and is represented in the carvings of the Rāmāyaa found throughout the complex. A princess, Loro Jonggrang, who is sometimes identified with Durgā, is also enshrined in this complex. Śiva's temple is flanked by shrines to Viu and Brahmā. While Brahmā, the minor creator deity, is seldom worshiped in temples in India, there are several icons to him in Southeast Asia. Worship of the three deities (Viu, Śiva, and Brahmā) probably came to Southeast Asia before Brahmā was reduced to a minor deity in the subcontinent. In India, sculptures depicting Brahmā survived long after he lost his importance in the texts.

All the major buildings in the Angkor area of Cambodia emphasize Hindu principles of construction. Many of them are theologies in stone. Some of the early temples were built on a square or a rectangular foundation; in others, the innermost shrine was to be a square. Temples to Śiva frequently stand on artificial hills of five levels; the number five, associated with the five-syllabled mantra "O nama śivāya," is prominent in all constructions to this deity. The Bakheng, in Cambodia, has 108 towers; from any side, only thirty-three towers are visible. This is said to remind one of the thirty-three devas or celestial beings that the Bhadārayaka Upaniad speaks ofdescribes eight vasu s, eleven rudra s, twelve āditya s, plus Indra and Prajāpati. Recent studies have shown that the details of the measurements of Angkor Wat correspond to various Hindu deities and their stars, as well as to the Hindu calendar.

Many Cambodia kings built Hindu temples in conjunction with irrigation systems, reservoirs, and the management of water reserves, although the issue of water management is a contentious topic among scholars. Udaya aditya-varman constructed a vast reservoir on the western side of Angkor (the western Baray); it is about 5 miles wide and 1½ miles in length. A temple to Viu was later built in the center of this area. Angkor functioned as both a sacred temple city and as the administration point of a vast irrigation system.

Sūryavarman II (r. 1131c. 1150) built Angkor Wat and dedicated it to the Hindu god Viu. The term angkor comes from the Sanskrit word nagara (city), and the Buddhists who occupied this building in later centuries called this a place of worship or wat, a word derived from the Sanskrit vatika (garden). It was one of hundreds of temples built by the Khmers. Angkor Wat, regarded as the highest achievement of Khmer architecture, covers an area of 1,500 by 1,300 meters (4,920 by 4,265 feet) and is surrounded by a vast moat that is 180 meters (590 feet) wide. Balustrades in the shape of giant nāga s line the causeway leading to the temple. The Angkor Wat temple, which is built on three levels, has five main towers representing the five peaks of Mount Meru. There are, of course, extensive sculptures throughout the complex.

Viu is the presiding deity of Angkor Wat. There are many bas reliefs depicting stories from Sanskrit texts, including the Bhāgavata Purana, Harivaśa, and Rāmāyaa. Scenes from the Rāmāyaa appear on the northern side of the western wall. The reliefs on the entire north wall and the north part of the east wall depict stories of celestial beings and gods fighting various demons. The largest bas relief in the world, on Angkor Wat's eastern wall, depicts a story that seems to be the most popular in all of Hindu and Buddhist Cambodia, although it is relatively unknown in Indiathe story of the churning of the ocean of milk and Viu's incarnation as a tortoise. The reliefs on the south wall depict various hells and heavens as described in the Purāas. Near the front entrance, symmetrical to the Rāmāyaa relief, there is a battle scene from the Mahābhārata. Returning to the western wall, we first see the brave warriors on their chariots in the battle scene. It culminates with a striking relief of Bhīsa, an elderly general lying on a bed of arrows with the five Pāava brothers near him. The story refers to the time when Bhīsa instructed Yudhihira, the eldest of the brothers.

Reliefs of Viu reclining on his serpent Ananta are common in Southeast Asia, and narratives from the Rāmāyaa are seen in many temples in Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia. References to the churning of the ocean of milk appear in stylized panegyrics, as well as in art. For instance, such kings as Indravarman I (877889) were compared to Viu with Sri Lakmī, the goddess of good fortune. In South India the story of the churning of the ocean of milk is commonly rendered in dance, but rarely in sculpture. The narrative, found in the Purāas, describes how the deva s and the demons, consummate enemies, came together to churn an ocean of milk in search of the nectar of immortality. Viu, who is glorified in this story, initiated the action and then helped by taking the form of a tortoise upon whose back Mount Mandara, used as a churning rod, rested. The snake Vāsuki served as a rope, and after the rising of initial poison, which Śiva swallowed to protect the participants, various treasures emerged. Lakmī also appeared and chose Viu as her husband. Compared to the thousands of sculptures in India relating to Rāma or Ka, the more important incarnations of Viu, the tortoise incarnation is marginal except in the performing arts.

Many temples in Southeast Asia had an astronomical and calendrical function. Scholars have shown that the positioning of the Angkor Wat temple is coordinated with very precise astronomical configurations, and the measurements correspond to cycles in the Hindu calendar. In some cases, there is also a numerical correspondence, as between the numbers of celestial beings and demons in the large panels and calendrical calculations.


Sectarian affiliation was flexible among the Hindus, and family members may have followed different sectarian traditionsŚaiva and Vaiavain considerable harmony. Many inscriptions, especially in Cambodia, indicate that royalty traced their descent both in matrilineal and patrilineal lines. Importance was given to biological ancestry, and pride was taken in important and learned ancestors who are spoken of as brahmans and who were learned in the Vedas. The title vrahmana (Skt., brāhmaa ) is also attached to some names in Khmer. However, although great respect was shown to brahmans in Cambodian (as well as Thai) culture, the caste system as we know it in India did not exist here. New castes were created by kings, who had the power to assign caste names to subjects. Thus, the caste system existed for brahmans and royalty, but beyond that we do not know whether it had much currency. It appears that although the caste (vara ) system existed in Cambodia, the castes were probably largely ceremonial orders, and did not apply to the common people.

There seems to have been a strong matrilineal tendency in Cambodia, but it is not possible to say whether it was a local phenomenon or was imported from South India. The Sdok Kak Thom inscription, for instance, which is one of the most important sources of Cambodian culture, speaks of many generations of kings and priests through a mostly matrilineal descent. Many women apparently held royal office, and they certainly sponsored many pious and charitable projects. The inscriptions also describe many queensIndra-lakmī, Kambuja-rāja-lakmī, and Jayaraja-devīwho wielded considerable power. Both men and women made claims to the throne.

It is not clear how the Hindu traditions died out in the many kingdoms of Southeast Asia. Theravāda Buddhism had a strong presence in Thailand, and, after several wars, Buddhism became the religion of Cambodia. Islam became a dominant presence in Indonesia after the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Small pockets of Hindus have lived continuously in some regions like Bali. Although there is a sense of cultural amnesia among Indian Hindus about the spread of Hindu traditions, the Hindu legacy is evident all over Southeast Asia. Hindu narratives are depicted in the performing arts throughout the region. Sanskritized names are still prevalent, even among Muslims in Indonesia. Brahmanical rituals prevail during coronation celebrations in Thailand. Histories of Hinduism will have to take this transnational aspect of the religion into consideration when assessing the region's culture and legacy.


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Kam, Garrett. Ramayana in the Arts of Asia. Singapore, 2000. A good introduction to the temple sculptures of the Rāmāyaa and the living traditions of the epic in performing arts. Excellent illustrations.

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Sharma, J. C. Hindu Temples in Vietnam. Noida, India, 1997. A good study focusing on Hindu influences on the various regions of Vietnam. This is a subject that has not been studied extensively. Good illustrations and maps.

Thierry, Zephir. Khmer: The Lost Empire of Cambodia. New York, 1998.

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Vasudha Narayanan (2005)

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