Bridgeman Images

A tower at the Bayon temple, founded by the Khmer king Jayavarman VII, Angkor, Cambodia, late twelfth–early thirteenth centuries

“People of distant places with diverse customs,” wrote a Chinese Buddhist monk in the mid-seventh century, “generally designate the land that they admire as India.”

Xuanzang was a scholar, traveler, and translator. When he wrote these words in the seventh century, he had just returned from an epic seventeen-year, six-thousand-mile overland pilgrimage and manuscript-gathering expedition to the great Indian centers of Buddhist learning. Buddhism by then had been the established religion of most of South and Central Asia since it was taken up by Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC, around three hundred years after the Buddha’s death in northern India. The account Xuanzang wrote of his journey, Buddhist Record of the Western World, makes it clear that the places he passed through from western China to the Hindu Kush were then very largely dominated by Indic ideas, languages, and religions.

For most of its later medieval and modern history, it was India’s fate to be on the receiving end of foreign influences. Following the establishment of a series of Turkic-ruled Islamic sultanates throughout India in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Persian became the language of government across much of the region, and Persian cultural standards, in art, dress, and etiquette, were adopted even in Hindu courts. By the nineteenth century, English had replaced Persian, and India became instead a distant part of the Westernizing Anglosphere. To master English was now the route to advancement, and Indians who wished to get ahead had to abandon, or at least sublimate, much of their own culture, becoming instead English-speaking “Brown Sahibs,” or what V.S. Naipaul called “Mimic Men.”

But for at least seven hundred years before then, from about 400 AD to 1200 AD, India was a large-scale and confident exporter of its own diverse civilization in all its forms, and the rest of Asia was the willing and eager recipient of a startlingly comprehensive mass transfer of Indian culture, religion, art, music, technology, astronomy, mythology, language, and literature. Out of India came not just artists, sculptors, traders, scientists, astronomers, and the occasional fleets of warships, but also missionaries of three Indic forms of religion: Buddhism and two rival branches of Hinduism: Shaivism, in which Lord Shiva is revered as the Supreme Being; and Vaishnavism, which venerates Lord Vishnu.

If the scale and breadth of this extraordinary cultural diffusion is not as well known as it should be, that is perhaps partly because of a tendency to perceive and study this process as two separate disciplines, each the preserve of a different group of scholars. The many Buddhist monuments scattered around Afghanistan and the Taklamakan desert in northwest China, through which Xuanzang passed, for example, are usually viewed today as the first step in the story of the spread of Buddhism from India through Asia, or else as an episode in the history of the “Silk Road,” a term coined in the nineteenth century by the Prussian geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen to describe the trading routes linking China with the Mediterranean West. Conversely, the spread of Indian and especially Hindu culture, literature, and religion southeastward to Burma, Thailand, Sumatra, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Java, and the Malay Peninsula tends to be studied as part of the story of the adoption throughout Indo-China of the Sanskrit language and literary culture.

Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held two remarkable but quite separate shows that, along with their catalogs, reflected this conceptual division. The northward thrust of Indian influence was examined in a small but fascinating show entitled “Buddhism Along the Silk Road: 5th–8th Century,” which was mounted in the Indian department of the museum between June 2012 and February 2013. The visual legacy of the diffusion of Indian art to Southeast Asia was the subject of a far more ambitious exhibition held at the Met a year later, in the summer of 2014, entitled “Lost Kingdoms.”

Both exhibitions were beautifully mounted and brilliantly curated. Yet to tell the diffusion of Indian influence at this period as two separate processes partially obscures a still more extraordinary story. For it is now increasingly clear that between the fourth and twelfth centuries the influence of India in both Southeast and Central Asia, and to some degree also China, was comparable to the influence of Greece in Aegean Turkey and Rome, and then in the rest of Europe in the early centuries BC. From the empire of the Gupta dynasty in the north and that of the Pallava dynasty in the south, India during this period radiated its philosophies, political ideas, and architectural forms out over an entire continent not by conquest but by sheer cultural sophistication.

On a bright, cloudless day last spring, I drove out of Kabul with a party of French archaeologists. We headed warily south through Logar province, past a succession of fortified mudbrick compounds surrounded by barren stripfields and sheltered by ragged windbreaks of poplar. After an hour, we turned off the road onto a bumpy mud track and headed up, through a succession of Afghan army checkpoints, into hills that were still, in April, etched with drifts of snow. At the summit, we crossed onto the high-altitude plateau of Mes Aynak, twenty-five miles southeast of Kabul.


The landscape could not have been more bleak or remote, yet in the sixth century this was the site of one of the most important Buddhist trading cities in Central Asia, a major stopping point for caravans of Indian traders and pilgrims heading toward China, and an important center for the northward diffusion of Indian culture, philosophy, and ideas. It was also a major stop for Chinese monks like Xuanzang heading southeast to the Indian cities of Sarnath, Bodh Gaya, and the great Buddhist university of Nalanda in northeast India, then the greatest repository of learning east of Alexandria.

Around us, all that remained of this once-great metropolis—the crumbling ruins of dark mudbrick buildings—stood out against the thick snowfields, their forms mutilated and eroded by two thousand years of winter rains. A hundred miles to the west lay the Bamiyan valley with its empty niches where once stood two of the world’s largest Buddha statues. When the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001, the caves of Mes Aynak were being used by al-Qaeda for training some of the September 11 hijackers. Now the plateau was full of archaeologists urgently scraping away at the ground with trowels before the Chinese company that owns the land moves in, destroys the Buddhist remains, and turns it all into a vast copper mine.

Crowning the top of the hill above the excavations lay the newly uncovered ruins of a citadel of Buddhist monastic buildings. Here lines of stucco Buddha statues faced square slate Buddhist stupa shrines. On the walls of the chapels inside the stupas, sometimes almost invisible, at other times startlingly vivid, were the outlines of delicate sixth-century Indic wall paintings on plaster, distant cousins of those being painted at the same time in the Ajanta caves inland from modern Bombay. Here the archaeologists had recently found a spectacular life-sized gold face of a meditating Gautama Buddha sculpted in the North Indian style of the Gupta empire—tense-lipped, eyes half-closed, focused fixedly inward in search of enlightenment.

The influence of early India is equally striking in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia—all places as different as one could imagine from the mountains of the Hindu Kush. The temple of Bayon on the edge of Angkor Wat is perhaps the most spectacular example of this (see illustration above). The temple rises out of the trees of the Cambodian jungle. A mountain of masonry ascends in successive ranges, a great tumbling landslide of sculpted plinths and capitals, octagonal pillars and lotus jambs. Tree trunks spiral out of the vaults of the shingled Buddhist temple roofs like the flying buttresses of a Gothic cathedral; branches knot over Sanskrit inscriptions composed in perfect orthography and grammar, before curving around the reliefs of Indic lions and elephants, gods and godlings, sprites and tree spirits. The trees’ roots fan out like fused spiderwebs and grip crumbling friezes of bare-breasted apsarasas (heavenly dancing girls) and dreadlocked sadhus (wandering holy men).

In the evening, by the light of a torch, the forty-foot-high face of the temple’s twelfth-century founder, Jayavarman VII, looked out from the monsoon-stained ashlar of one of the spires. This was the Sanskrit name taken by a Khmer prince who had overthrown the Hinduism of his ancestors—venerated in the main Angkor temple complex—in favor of another rival Indic religion, Buddhism, while retaining in his service Indian Brahmins to administer his kingdom. Here he was still, staring out into the night, with his full lips and firm chin, broad nose and prominent forehead, his expression impassive but pensive and philosophical, a man both monk and monarch.

Jayavarman built his temple in the twelfth century, the same century that brought the Turks to India—the beginning of the end of the long period of Indian cultural influence throughout the region that had started seven hundred years earlier in Afghanistan at Mes Aynak. By this time, Buddhism had come to flourish across Afghanistan and Central Asia. Sanskrit, the classical Indian literary language, had become the language of learning in Tibet. Thriving along the trading cities between the Himalayas and the Gobi desert were Buddhist monasteries founded by Indians whose great libraries of manuscripts were written in Indian scripts. The murals in several of the monasteries drew on the themes, styles, and motifs developed by Indian painters at Buddhist cave monasteries such as Ajanta.


In Quanzhou—China’s greatest seaport, facing the Taiwan Strait—Chinese sculptors had created statues that took as their model the work of Indian artists of the Gupta Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries AD in such towns as Sarnath and Mathura in the Ganges plains. At the T’ang court, Sanskrit poetry exercised its allure on the imperial poets. But what had happened in Southeast Asia was even more remarkable and profound.

As the great Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock put it in his magisterial The Language of the Gods in the World of Men:

All across mainland and maritime Southeast Asia, people who spoke radically different languages, such as Mon-Khemer and Malayo-Polynesian, and lived in vastly different cultural worlds adopted suddenly, widely, and long-lastingly a new language [Sanskrit]—along with the new political vision and literary aesthetic that were inseparable from it.1

Sanskrit became throughout Southeast Asia the language of court, government, and literacy, and while it remained an elite tongue—like Latin in medieval Europe—it left a permanent mark on the map: the name Java, for example, derives from the Sanskrit Yadadweepa—the island is shaped like a yawa, or barley corn. Indeed so deeply immersed in Sanskritic culture did the elites of the region become, and so central was Indian thought to the conceptual world of the scholars, rulers, and administrators of the region, that they began renaming both themselves and their landscape after people and places in Indian mythology.


Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A statue likely representing the goddess Uma, Lord Shiva’s consort, southern Vietnam, second half of the seventh century

The earliest inscription in Khmer territories in Southeast Asia records how a fifth-century ruler in what is now Laos took the Indic name Devanika and the Sanskrit title Maharaj Adhiraja (King of Kings) during a ceremony when he installed a Shiva lingam—the symbol representing the Hindu deity Shiva—under the phallic-shaped mountain that towered over his capital of Champasak. There he consecrated a water tank that he named Kurukshetra, after the plain slightly to the north of Delhi where the great battle of the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata was fought.

The towers of Angkor Wat—shaped in a quincunx, five points in a cross—were named after Mount Meru, the home of the gods believed in Indian myth to lie at the center of the world. A ninth-century inscription from Dong Duong—the main town on Vietnam’s largest island—claims that the rulers of the area were descended from the sage Bhrigu of the Mahabharata. The principal city of what became Thailand was named Ayutthaya, after Ayodhya, Lord Rama’s capital in the other great Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. These were conscious acts by which the living landscape was empowered with mythological Indic names and Indic metaphors of divinity, in effect extending the sacred landscape of the Indian holy land so that it became their own.

Exactly how this process happened is still a matter of dispute. Few now believe, as some Indian nationalist historians once claimed, that Indians founded imperial colonies in the Indo-China region they called the Lands of Gold.2 It appears instead that large numbers of highly educated monks and Brahmins traveled with the fleets of Indian merchant ships trading with Indo-China, carrying portable religious objects and artworks. They sought employment and offered in return their literacy—there appears to have been no written language in Southeast Asia before Sanskrit was imported—as well as their political, technical, and cultural knowledge.

In time, some merchants built armed coastal enclaves for themselves, much as the East India Company would later do at Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. Meanwhile the emigrant Brahmins married into the families of kings and chieftains across the region, and established themselves as a wealthy, learned elite. Sanskrit inscriptions scattered from Burma to Java bear witness to the dominant status they achieved.

Today scholars talk of a reciprocal relationship between rulers in India and their counterparts in Southeast Asia, a process of interaction that was so advanced, according to Pollock, that “in the first millennium it makes hardly more sense to distinguish between South and Southeast Asia than between north India and south India…. Everywhere similar processes of cosmopolitan transculturation were under way.” Pollock describes this cultural commonwealth as the “Sanskrit cosmopolis.”

Yet for all this, the cultural flow was overwhelmingly one way: there are no inscriptions in the Khmer language in southern India, no Indonesian architectural forms in Bengal. Instead it was Indian religions and Indian languages that were in use in Angkor and the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya. As the historian Michael Wood nicely put it in his book India, “history is full of Empires of the Sword, but India alone created an Empire of the Spirit.”

The earlier exhibition at the Met, “Buddhism Along the Silk Road, 5th–8th Century,” contained only sixty objects filling a single room, but the artworks it featured—statuary, jewelry, architectural reliefs, wall paintings, found objects from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the western reaches of Central Asia—were of spectacular quality and interest and many are illustrated in the online catalog.

The show, put together by the associate curator of the Department of Asian Art, Kurt Behrendt, demonstrated how the diffusion of Indian culture northward reached its peak in a period that Indian nationalist historians have called “the Golden Age of the Guptas,” between 320 AD and the last part of the sixth century. This era of great prosperity and growing international trade was when Indian culture was at its most self-confident and widely admired. This was also the time that the Puranas, the ancient Hindu texts telling the stories of various deities, which form the template for much of modern Hinduism, were reaching their final shape and the astronomer Aryabhata was correctly calculating the length of the solar year, using two crucial Indian inventions: zero and “Arabic” numerals. At this time, too, Sanskrit drama and poetry reached their climax, the Kama Sutra was being compiled, and the playwright Kalidasa (circa 400–455 AD) was writing his great masterworks, including the story of Shakuntala, an orphaned girl who becomes an Indian queen.

Exhibit after exhibit in “Buddhism Along the Silk Road” showed how influential Gupta innovations were on the art of Buddhist Afghanistan and the lands beyond. A gorgeous fifth-century stucco head of the Buddha from Hadda, near the Khyber Pass, showed him locked in deepest meditation. Much of the paintwork has survived, giving it an eerily contemporary feel; yet the abstracted treatment of the eyes and the intersecting planes defining his forehead, eyebrows, and nose are all features shared with images then being produced in Gupta India.

Interestingly, according to Behrendt, the period of greatest Indian cultural influence does not seem to have been at the peak of the power of the Gupta emperors so much as during their precipitous decline in the later sixth century when tribes of Huns invaded northern India, bringing the two regions under one political leadership. This also created a diaspora of displaced Brahmins, artists, and intellectuals who scattered around the region, taking refuge in remote areas such as Kashmir and the furthest Himalayan passes, and so spreading ever more widely their ideas, rituals, and art forms.

The second Met show, “Lost Kingdoms,” was a much grander affair: in fact it was the largest pan-regional show ever mounted of Southeast Asian sculpture, terracottas, and bronzes. It was put together by the curator of the Indian and Southeast Asian department, John Guy, who also edited the remarkable catalog. This book is a monument in itself, containing a set of remarkable essays representing the current state of scholarship, and weaving a diplomatic course through the thicket of national sensitivities of the countries from whom Guy borrowed the 150 often very large and often breathtakingly beautiful national treasures on show. Few of these lenders now wish to be looked on merely as Indian cultural satellites.

“Lost Kingdoms” opened by illustrating how cosmopolitan the Indian Ocean was in the early centuries AD, when each monsoon would bring a fleet of Roman ships to southern India in search of silk and spices. This caused a dramatic drain of Western silver to India, something confirmed by finds of several huge Roman coin hoards in Tamil Nadu. One South Indian king even sent an embassy to Rome to discuss the empire’s balance of payments problems. Some of these Roman and Byzantine ships traveled on to Southeast Asia, bringing with them luxury objects, as well as bullion. The show included a third-century Roman coin minted in Cologne and a Byzantine bronze oil lamp, both of which have recently turned up in excavations in Thailand.

New archaeological evidence suggests that the Indian Ocean trade began earlier than was previously realized, gaining momentum from the third century BC. The seepage of Indian religious ideas eastward was eased by the similarity of the pre-Buddhist nature cults that formed the bedrock of folk religions in both regions. This meant that Indian Sanskritic religion, and its pantheon of beliefs and deities, were easily grafted onto a common foundation of the cult of powerful nagas and yakshis, water and tree spirits, who were believed to rule the untamed landscape.

While there are traces of North Indian Gupta influence on the arts of Southeast Asia, by far the most influential region was southern India, which was then under the joint sway of the royal Indian Chalukya dynasty in south-central India and the Tamil Pallava dynasty, who controlled the southern tip of the Indian peninsula and who grew rich from the thriving international trade passing through their port of Mahaballipuram, some thirty-five miles south of modern Chennai. In Mahaballipuram today massive sculptures of elephants, warriors, and sages as well as flights of gods and goddesses still face onto what was once a quayside where, according to a seventh-century poet, “ships rode at anchor, bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, with big-trunked elephants, and with mountains of gems of nine varieties.” This was the sight that greeted Indian traders returning from voyages across the Indian Ocean to Java and Bali.

It is no surprise that Tamil literature of this period is full of seafaring expeditions in search of gold, precious metals, and raw materials, in much the way the Chinese are doing in Africa today. One epic, the Manimekalai, includes stories of merchants who sailed to Java, while another epic describes kings who sent off fleets of ships laden with silk, sandalwood, spices, and camphor.

Inscriptions in the Tamil script are among the earliest in Southeast Asia: around 450 AD a ruler in West Java declared himself a devotee of Vishnu and identified himself with that god with these words: Purnavarman, the “great king, ruler of the world, whose footprints are the same as those of Lord Vishnu.” There are very clear affinities between the sculpture on the Pallava temples at Panamalai in Tamil Nadu and the reliefs at the Dieng and Borobodur temples over two thousand miles away in central Java. Four hundred years later, large-scale sculptures in the Pallava style were still being produced on the Malay Peninsula.

In the “Lost Kingdoms” exhibition, successive rooms illuminated successive waves of Indian influence, starting with the art of Southeast Asia’s early Buddhist sites. The highlight of this first Buddhist phase was a podium containing four large, seated Buddhas, one each from Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand, arranged back to back, facing the cardinal points of the compass. Each was shown to be deep in meditation, smiling yet tense with spiritual concentration as each attempted to make a spiritual crossing of the turbulent waters of existence and rebirth, from samsara—the illusory physical world—to spiritual liberation. Each Buddha was chosen to represent a distinct sculptural tradition, each with its own personality, flavor, and style, where Indian inspiration had been transformed by local artists to produce something quite new and distinct. The connection to India was as clear as the degree to which the artists in Indo-China had radically transformed their models.

While the Buddhist presence in Southeast Asia appears to be closely linked to merchants and their commerce, the Brahminical Hindu presence that succeeded it was more closely associated with kingship and statecraft. Vaishnava Hinduism arrived a little later than Buddhism, initially as a vehicle for chiefs to sacralize their rule. A spectacular Vietnamese Vishnu towered above the gallery, the perfected human, tall, severe, and authoritarian, and the ideal model for divine kingship. Yet within a hundred years, by the seventh century, the rival Hindu cult of Lord Shiva had begun to dominate the cults of both the Buddha and Vishnu. Here the most striking images were those of Shiva’s beautiful consort, Uma, embodied in two deeply graceful, sensual, slender-bodied female statues (see illustration on page 12). Both are probably portraits of actual Khmer princesses and sculpted with a startling naturalism: confident, proud, full-lipped, tight-bodied, strikingly more muscular and less voluptuous than their Indian counterparts. They were placed facing one another across the gallery, competing for attention in the Met as once these woman might have faced off against each other in a Khmer court.

While the direction of influence was always from India to Southeast Asia, the exhibition clearly showed the degree to which Southeast Asians transformed what India sent. At every point Indian influence was adapted rather than slavishly adopted. This was not just a matter of style: the iconography was also sometimes quite different. A sculpture of the Buddha’s first sermon in central Thailand had, for example, an audience of dreadlocked Hindu holy men, their faces wracked with confusion as the Buddha’s words challenged beliefs they had held all their lives. There is no parallel for this image anywhere in India.

India turned more inward-looking in the twelfth century as it battled successive waves of Turkic invaders from the north. At this time Chinese influence slowly replaced India’s in much of the region, as the decline of Indian influence coincided with a rare moment of expansion of the Chinese presence, culminating in the fifteenth-century voyages of Admiral Zheng He, which reached as far as Jeddah on the Red Sea and Malindi in East Africa.

Today this battle for influence continues in countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka, which find themselves caught between the two great economic powers of the future, as China and India again confront one another, each aiming to dominate the lands and oceans that lie between them. In the last decade Chinese growth has far outpaced that of India, as has the power of the Chinese navy to project itself into the Indian Ocean through a line of newly acquired deepwater ports, the “String of Pearls” stretching from Gawda in Pakistan through Trincolmalee in Sri Lanka eastward to the Chinese mainland. But Indian soft power in the form of its culture and movies remains dominant in much of Southeast Asia, and as “Lost Kingdoms” demonstrates from a very different period, India’s ability to exert power through the sheer charm of its civilization should never be underestimated.