Chapter 12 Transformations in Asia, 220-1350 A.D.
India and Southeast Asia
India and Southeast Asia
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.
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
Coming of Islam
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.
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.”
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 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.
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
Influence in Southeast Asia
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.