History is a testimony to the fact that India has never lived in isolation but ventured out into the far reaches of the world and spread her wings in other horizons. Cultural and trade contacts have rendered the history of India and that of her neighbors with cultural richness and diversity.

India and the Southeast: Culturally Binding

It is a fact of history that Indian civilization and culture began to spread far and wide by the beginning of the first millennium, slowly moving across the Bay of Bengal into both inland and mainland Southeast Asia by the 5th century AD.  Indian religions – especially Sanatana Dharma, Buddhism, and cultural traditions have found a large number of followers in Southeast Asia. It is an interesting point to note that both Hinduism and Buddhism have similarities and differences between them and have been termed as two sides of the same coin. At a later time in history, Buddhism developed newer schools of thought that evolved into several other rituals which were influenced by existing religions and cultures of India, Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. 

Explaining similar significance, Romila Thapar also notes that “religion found an ally in commerce to carry the Indian way of life outside India.” She evinces here that just as Indian culture had its influences on many of the practices of Southeast Asia; Buddhism too wasn’t far behind in introducing Indian culture to various parts of Asia. She further elaborates by saying that “the demands of trade with eastern Mediterranean made Indian entrepreneurs enter South-East Asia, as it was the land of spices and semi-precious stones. Invariably, trade leads to closer interaction between the settlers and the original inhabitants.”

India’s association with Southeast Asia can be traced back to ancient times. Substantive evidence is present to suggest that in the pre-colonial era economic and cultural links between India and Southeast Asia had been present. The colonial interlude created a disruption in these links from flourishing. It was years prior to the Indian independence in 1947 that the importance of such links had been recognized and India’s involvement in Southeast Asia had been taken seriously. India convened the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in March 1947 primarily to express solidarity with the freedom struggles all across Southeast Asia. Equally important was the Special Conference on Indonesia that was held in January 1949, which was attended by 15 nations, to express support to the Sukarno-led armed struggle against the Dutch colonial rule. In fact, it has been argued that freedom struggles, especially in Indonesia and Vietnam, provided major inputs in shaping the nascent Indian foreign policy in the late 1940s.

Northeast and Southeast Asia: Sharing the same archeological history

Northeastern India, a mini India and Southeast Asia, the “further” India has its own sets of parallelism. Turning to archeology to showcase the similarity, sporadic finds of Stone Age tools from Assam were first reported to have been found as early as 1866 and since then, a number of such discoveries have been made from various parts of the region. Ground and polished Neolithic celts are reported to be the most commonly finds and of these, the presence of smoldered celts is worth mentioning. An excavation at Daojali Hadig, North Cachar Hills, Assam in 1961-63 revealed chord-marked pottery in association with the celts. Assortments of the same kind were reported to have been found from Sarutaro, East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya and Parlo, Lower Subdistrict, Arunachal Pradesh. What is striking here is the fact that chord-marked pottery is a dominant ceramic tradition over a wide region of Southeast Asia comprising of China. Hence, it has been concluded that the “Neolithic culture of Northeast India has been derived from the Southeast Asian Neolithic tradition.” It is also hypothetically stated that Northeast India and Southeast Asia belong to a common ecological zone. Evolution of post-Pleistocene human cultures is more or less similar in such a zone. Northeast was defined as a pathway through which celt making made its way to India.

The societies of today are the remains of past cultural systems. These past cultural systems can be better understood by an ethnographic study that would help us in understanding what these cultural systems were all about. In order to help us interpret the past dynamics, Garo communities were carefully analyzed which revealed that they share the same linguistic affiliations of the Boro group of the Tibeto-Burman family spread all over Assam. It was also uncovered that 90% of their material cultures were made up of objects made from organic material and clay.

Northeast India is a diverse contact bowl having been influenced by South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asian countries. This region enjoys a strategic location being at the intersection of South Asia and Southeast Asia. Therefore, Northeast India can act as a land bridge between South and Southeast Asia. In addition, linking the Northeast with Southeast Asia via sea routes like that of ancient times can boost its economic growth and prosperity. Because of its immense potential and strategic location, Northeast India deserves greater attention in the foreign policy decisions of India. Geographically too, the eastern part of the country would gain significantly from the location that Northeast enjoys. Due to prehistoric and proto-historic movements of people into this region from mainland India, South China and Southeast Asia, Dr. Dilip Kumar Medhi referred to this territory as the Great Indian Corridor. 

Image: Arabsalam [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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