Chapter 12 Transformations in Asia, 220-1350 A.D.

Section 4  India and Southeast Asia

After the fall of the Gupta and Harsha Empires, India was ruled by many states and empires. Eventually, Islamic invaders from the north took control of northern India and began to impose a new centralized rule, as well as a very different cultural tradition. Meanwhile, Indian civilization had also been spreading overseas along the trade routes to Southeast Asia. Hindu, Buddhist, and later Islamic culture heavily influenced peoples and states from Java to the Philippines—much as Chinese culture spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

India After Harsha

After the fall of Harsha, in the mid-600s, India was divided among many local dynasties, which rose and fell and replaced one another in a complex progression. In the south, the most powerful dynasties to emerge were the Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas of the Deccan, and the Cholas, a Tamil-speaking dynasty that came to rule the Coromandel Coast. 

            In the north the fall of Harsha’s empire ushered in a period of political disintegration. At the end of the 700s, the Pala dynasty in Bengal began to consolidate its earlier conquests in Bengal and Bihar and expanded into the Punjab. Under their ruler Dharmapala, the Palas took control of Kanauj, Harsha’s old capital and the symbol of imperial power. The Palas were Buddhists and patronized Buddhism even as it was in decline in the rest of India. They also established overseas ties with Buddhist states in southeast Asia. Pala success, however, was short-lived.

            In the early 800s, a new dynasty called the Pratiharas emerged from their base in Rajasthan to challenge the Palas for control of Kanauj and the Ganges plain. By 835, they had driven the Palas out of Kanauj. Soon, the Pratiharas Empire was the strongest state in northern India. As with other states before them, however, the Pratiharas were unable to establish a strong central government.

The Coming of Islam

In the early 900s, as Pratihara rule weakened, strong local rulers emerged through much of northern India. Many of these rulers were the heads of Rajput clans which had probably first entered India from Central Asia during the Hun invasions of the 500s. Supported by their clansmen, the Rajput clan chiefs founded kingdoms in North India and carried on Hindu cultural and religious traditions. They emphasized warfare and valued heroism in battle. As they fought among themselves, as well as against outsiders, however, they were unable to unite the country or prevent the eventual conquest of northern India by a new group of invaders—the Muslims.

Early Muslim invasions.  The first Muslim attack on India came in 711, when Arab forces conquered the Sind region of western India. Three hundred years later, the Turkish sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, launched his series of devastating raids on India, sacking cities and pillaging temples. Each time, noted one account, he returned home “with so much booty, prisoners, and wealth, that the fingers of those who counted them would have been tired.”[15] Mahmud’s assaults finally put an end to the Pratihara dynasty and brought Sind and the Hindu kingdom in the region just west of the Indus River into the Ghaznavid Empire. The Ghaznavids administered these new Indian provinces from a provincial capital at Lahore.

            After Mahmud’s death, however, later Ghaznavids were largely content to rule the territory they had already gained. For the next hundred and fifty years, northern India was basically free of invasion. In the late 1100s, however, yet another Turkish dynasty, the Ghuris from northern Afghanistan, swept south through the passes into India. As they moved south under their leader, Muhammad Ghuri, the new Turkish invaders first defeated the Muslims of Sind. Next they moved against an alliance of Rajput kings. Unlike Mahmud of Ghazna, the ghuris were out for conquest not just raiding. The Rajput army, with its slow-moving infantry and battle elephants, was no match for the highly mobile Turkish cavalry with its deadly bowmen. By the early 1200s the Muslims controlled most of North India.

The Delhi sultans.  The new Muslim regime, founded in 1206 with its capital at Delhi, became known as the Delhi Sultanate. For the next three centuries, the Delhi sultans expanded their empire, even taking in portions of southern India. Brutal in conquest, the sultans were less harsh as rulers. In general, they allowed Indians to continue their traditional way of life. At the same time, however, since they adhered to Persian conceptions of kingship and the state, they broke the power of local rulers and established a strong central administration.

            Although the first sultans were not very cultured themselves, they opened their doors to artists and intellectuals from other parts of the Islamic world, particularly Persia. As a result, the Delhi Sultanate became a center of Islamic culture. A distinctive Indo-Muslim architecture emerged, combining elements of Islamic and Indian styles. Persian language, literature, and customs became common at the royal court in Delhi. In addition, a new language, Urdu, was created, combining Persian and Arab words with Sanskrit grammar.

Islam and Hinduism.  The arrival of Islam had profound implications for Indian life. In the past, Hindu culture had shown a great capacity to absorb invading peoples. Islam resisted such absorption, however. In fact, great differences separated Muslims from Hindus. Hindu polytheism repelled the Muslims. The Hindu caste system seemed to contradict the Islamic belief that all people were equal before God. Hindus and Muslims also had different rules about the kind of food and drink they could have.

             It was only through the Muslim mystical sect of Sufism that Muslim and Hindu ideas found some common ground. Like the Hindus, the Sufis believed in a personal connection with God. In their search for union with God, they even adopted a number of Hindu meditation practices. Because their beliefs were less alien to many Hindus, the Sufis actually won some converts to Islam. In general, though, relatively few Hindus adopted the Muslim faith. At times, religious differences even led to violent conflict between Muslims and Hindus. Such differences remain a troubling issue in modern India and a living legacy of India’s past.

Indian Influence in Southeast Asia

The growth of Indian civilization had a great impact on the peoples of Southeast Asia, a region that lies just east of India across the Bay of Bengal. As early as the A.D. 100s Indian traders had begun a lucrative sea trade with Southeast Asia. By the Gupta age, Brahmans and Buddhist monks were traveling to the region, spreading the ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism.

            Local rulers, seeking to enhance their prestige, embraced many of these new ideas. The Sanskrit language came into wide use, which in turn led to the introduction of Indian literary classics, such as the Ramayana. Some rulers adopted Indian names and built temples in the Indian style, such as the massive Buddhist complex at Borodobur, in Java. From Malaya to southern Vietnam, many Southeast Asian kingdoms showed strong Indian influences.

The Khmer Empire. The most powerful Indian-influenced empire to arise in Southeast Asia was that of the Khmer, in present-day Cambodia. Beginning in the early 800s, the first great Khmer ruler, Jayavarman II, began to enlarge his kingdom. During the time of its greatest power, from around 850 to 1250, the Khmer Empire controlled much of Southeast Asia. The Khmer rulers adopted a blend of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, presenting themselves as god-kings and incarnations of Vishnu and the Buddha.

            The Khmer built their empire on the basis of agriculture. They constructed large irrigation systems to ensure year-round rice production, which in turn allowed for a growing population and increased taxes. The wealth generated by farming was channeled into various public works, including roads, reservoirs, and hospitals. The Khmer also built a magnificent capital at Angkor and numerous Hindu and Buddhist temples throughout the empire.

            The most famous Khmer temple was Angkor Wat. Built in the 1100s, this temple still stands today. It covers nearly one square mile and is surrounded by a three-mile-long moat. Its towers, monuments, and walls are covered with intricate carvings representing Indian religious beliefs. The huge resources required to build Angkor Wat weakened the Khmer Empire, however, and attacks from outside, notably by the Mongols, eventually led to the empire’s fall. By the 1400s, the Thai people from a region near China had conquered the Khmer Empire.

Srivijaya. Indian culture also influenced the islands of Southeast Asia, particularly the Srivijaya Empire on the island of Sumatra, and their neighbors and rivals, the Buddhist kings of the Sailendra dynasty in Java. Srivijaya was primarily a sea-faring empire. it depended for its prosperity on control of the overseas trade that passed through the Sunda and Malacca straits. From its capital at Palembang, the empire also ruled over the coasts of western Java and the Malay Peninsula.

            In the early 1000s, with the collapse of the T’ang dynasty, shipping through the straits began to diminish. As their revenues also dropped, the Srivijaya rulers began to raise their taxes and duties on all shipping. Eventually this rise in demands brought an attack from the naval forces of the Chola Empire in eastern India. The devastation inflicted by the Cholas only caused the Srivijaya kings to increase their demands on foreign trade. The empire finally disintegrated altogether in the 1300s.

Islamic influences. Indian contacts with Southeast Asia continued even after the forces of Islam had begun to conquer the sub-continent. As India’s thriving overseas trade continued, Muslim Indian merchants contributed to the already growing presence of Muslim merchants from Arabia and Persia through much of Southeast Asia. The result was the establishment of Islamic states in Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, and the Philippines, where Muslim culture remains vibrant to this day.

            Islam particularly appealed to the rulers of port cities, or kingdoms that depended primarily on overseas trade for their prosperity. Perhaps the most important Islamic state was Malacca, which emerged on the Malay Peninsula in the early 1400s. Malacca controlled the straits of Malacca much as Srivijaya had before it.

            With the wealth they obtained from trade, the Malaccan sultans became not only wealthy but extremely powerful. Malacca became the major clearinghouse for all the goods of Asia, India, Africa, and even Europe, as they were carried back and forth by merchant vessels plying the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, and the Java and China Seas. Silks from China, cotton goods from India, pepper, cloves, and nutmeg from east Africa and southern Arabia, pearls from Japan and the islands of southeast Asia, all passed through the warehouses of Malacca.