Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan; sandstone sculpture from Phnom Da, Cambodia


‘Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan’; sandstone sculpture from Phnom Da, Cambodia, circa 600

Sometime in the early tenth century, a ninety-foot-long, three-hundred-ton trading ship sank off the coast of Java, probably the victim of a sudden monsoon storm. The ship went down with all hands. The crew and the cargo lay on the floor of the Java Sea undisturbed until 1997, when marine archaeologists located the wreck near the Intan oil field. In due course, the salvage divers brought to the surface all that survived of the vessel’s rich cargo. The finds were described by one of the excavators as “astounding.”

There were fine Chinese ceramics, including costly white porcelain, and 20,000 Chinese stoneware pots. There were gold ring-weights used by jewelers to measure expensive raw materials, as well as the jewelers’ intricate creations themselves. There were bronze vanity mirrors of exactly the sort depicted in the sculpture galleries of the nearby Buddhist site Borobudur, where the sophisticated court women of Java are shown combing their hair and applying makeup, in present-day Indonesia. Load by load, the divers brought up Indian steel weapons and Bengali brass lion-head finials, bottles from Thailand, glass from the Middle East, and silver ingots from Tang China. The ship also appears to have been carrying carved ivory and wooden doors from Bengal to a temple in Southeast Asia. There was even a ship’s compass—a new technological breakthrough at the time.

Intriguingly, there was also a lot of ritual Buddhist paraphernalia, apparently smelted in Sumatra and intended for export: bronze Buddhist statuettes and masks representing Kala, the demon of time; ceremonial spears, vessels, and bells; and a haul of Buddhist ritual scepters called vajras, or “thunderbolts,” that were used by tantric monks as magical weapons and symbols of power. Hinges from now-lost wooden chests hinted that the most valuable cargo may have been textiles: Indian cotton or Chinese silk, or maybe both. A “brief description cannot do justice to the wealth of information that the Intan [wreck] provides,” wrote John Miksic, a historian of Southeast Asia. “A shipwreck is a time capsule, a moment frozen in time.”

Analysis of the Intan shipwreck provided a detailed picture of both the economic and the human connections linking early medieval India, Southeast Asia, and China—the region sometimes described as Monsoon Asia. Today, in a world divided by national boundaries, we tend to think of Cambodia, Indonesia, and China as very far from India. But in the ancient and medieval world the sea did not divide so much as unite. Sea travel was the fastest, safest, and cheapest way to move people and goods in the premodern world, costing about a fifth of the price of equivalent land transport. For all their fame, the overland Silk Roads always carried much less trade than the Sea Roads: ships, after all, could carry much greater loads and travel more quickly than camels.

Recent work by two scholars has done much to illuminate the fast-developing history of maritime Asia. Himanshu Prabha Ray is a veteran Indian writer on the sea routes who has, over many years, produced a weighty shelf of remarkable scholarship on the history and archaeology of the Indian Ocean. Her latest book, Coastal Shrines and Transnational Maritime Networks Across India and Southeast Asia, brings together decades of her research and is far more wide-ranging, engaging, and important than its rather dry and specific title indicates.

Meanwhile two collections of essays by younger scholars edited by the Italian historian Andrea Acri—Esoteric Buddhism in Mediaeval Maritime Asia: Networks of Masters, Texts, Icons and The Creative South: Buddhist and Hindu Art in Mediaeval Maritime Asia (coedited with Peter Sharrock)—highlight a remarkable paradox first noticed by the French scholar Sylvain Lévi in the 1930s: Indian religious and epic literatures found their most monumental visual, artistic, and architectural expressions not within the boundaries of modern India but on what we might today consider foreign soil, particularly at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobodur.

In the introduction to The Creative South, Acri and Sharrock write that “far from being a mere southern conduit for the maritime circulation of Indic religions, in the period from ca. the 7th to the 14th centuries,” Southeast Asia actually transformed “the rituals, icons and architecture that embodied these religious insights with a dynamism that often eclipsed the established cultural centres” in India.

Current research increasingly shows that the Southeast Asian “peripheries” were freer to innovate than the traditional “centres,” while the flourishing trade routes provided them with the necessary flow of human and material resources. As a result, the early kingdoms of Maritime Asia became the wellsprings of cults, ritual technologies, sacred art/architecture….

The scale and artistic originality manifested in the monumental ritual centres in Java, the Malay Peninsula, Campā [Vietnam], and the Khmer domains [Cambodia] are striking evidence for the religious and political novelties devised and implemented in the South. The direct access Buddhist and Śaiva masters were afforded to the royal courts of the emerging Southern states—access which went beyond that achieved from the Buddhists’ monastic confines in the subcontinent—opened the way to the construction of monuments…on an unprecedented scale.

Perhaps the best embodiments of this process are two monks who appear prominently in the work of both Acri and Ray. Vajrabodhi (671–741) was in some ways South India’s answer to Merlin, a wonder-working Buddhist monk and tantric master who was clearly a man of immense learning and charisma. He claimed the power of creating downpours with the aid of magical rain-dragons and to know mantras, or spells, capable of destroying enemy armies and even of bringing the dead back to life.


Vajrabodhi, born as a prince in the Pallava dynasty in southern India, was only nine when he was sent to the great Buddhist university-monastery of Nalanda, the most sophisticated educational institute in premodern Asia. He spent the years 701–708 in South India, where he received his initiation into secret tantric formulae, allegedly passed on to him in an “iron stupa.” Soon after this he was summoned home by his royal cousins to their capital of Kanchipuram to bring rain during a terrible drought.

After precipitating an unseasonal monsoon, Vajrabodhi was sent as an ambassador to the emperor of China. He first visited Sri Lanka, where he made a pilgrimage to the Buddha’s footprints on Adam’s Peak and the great tantric monastery of Abhayagiri in the capital, Anuradhapura, from which he obtained copies of a number of esoteric Buddhist texts. His next stop was Java, where in 717 he met his future protégé, Amoghavajra (705–774), the young nephew of a Sogdian trader from Samarkand, who would become the most powerful monk in China. Several essays in Acri’s book make the case that the tantric texts that Vajrabodhi brought to Java at this point later inspired the shape of Borobodur, the largest Buddhist monument ever built, which takes the form of a giant three-dimensional Buddhist mandala in stone.

In 721, having stilled a raging tempest at sea by their joint powers of tantric meditation, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra finally reached the Chinese capital of Chang’an. Here one of Vajrabodhi’s diplomatic gifts, a talking parrot, caused a great stir, but more remarkable gifts were to follow. For in Chang’an Vajrabodhi once again worked his magical rainmaking skills in front of the new Tang emperor, Hsuan-tsung.

“Since the first moon of that year it had not rained for five months,” wrote one Chinese historian. Prayer was offered at the sacred temples of mountains and rivers without result, so the emperor ordered Vajrabodhi to set up an altar to pray for rain:

Northwest winds began at once to blow [so heavily] that the tiles on the roofs were lifted and trees were uprooted. The clouds dropped their rain. The people far and wide were astonished. A hole was torn in the roof above the altar and heavy rain poured into the hall. Next morning, people of high and low degree in the capital asserted that Vajrabodhi had seized a dragon which had jumped up through the roof, and thousands of people daily sought to see the place. Such is the miraculous effect of the use of tantric altars.

In the years that followed, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra became some of the most prolific writers and translators in Buddhist history, bringing new Indic ideas of cosmology, reincarnation, drug prescription, astronomy, horoscopic astrology, calendrical computation, and planetary predictions to the Chinese court. They also initiated pupils across China into their new tantric doctrines; one student from their teaching lineage, Kukai, took their teachings to Japan. Meanwhile the texts, statues, and paintings that the monks brought with them changed the course of art history: one essay in The Creative South argues convincingly for a strong Pallava iconographic and artistic influence on the murals at the Buddhist cave complex at Dunhuang, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, while another in Esoteric Buddhism links a Bodhisattva statue that Vajrabodhi brought from Nalanda and his ideas of Five Supreme Buddhas to a series of magnificent ritual bronzes and stone sculptures in Java and Thailand.

Years after the death of Vajrabodhi, Amoghavajra returned to Sri Lanka to access more sacred texts before taking them back to China, where he used his enhanced tantric skills to protect the imperial order and defeat the Tang’s enemies:

An edict was issued summoning Amoghavajra to court. The emperor called the monk for no other reason than that the city of An-hsi had been surrounded by enemy troops of the five nations….

Amoghavajra said, “Your Majesty should carry an incense burner to the place where I will conduct the ritual. And your majesty should pray to the Heavenly King of the North to send divine troops to save them.”

The emperor quickly entered the ritual area and prayed. Before [Amoghavajra] had recited the secret words twice seven times, the emperor suddenly saw two to three hundred divine beings wearing armor….

In the fourth month of the year, a memorial came from An-hsi, which said [that on the same day Amoghavajra had prayed] to the northeast of the city dark cloud and fog had appeared. In the fog were beings who were [ten feet] tall…[and] all wore gold armor. After dusk came the sound of drums and loud cries…. The trembling of the earth and the shaking of the hills stopped after three days. The frightened troops of the five nations all retreated…. Moreover, golden rats chewed the strings of their bows and crossbows and destroyed their other weapons so that none could be used.

Acri describes the surprisingly globalized world these tantric monks traveled through as a “Buddhist cosmopolis.”


In 1964 the colonial French scholar Georges Coedes wrote that “the history of the expansion of Indian civilization to the east has not yet been told in its entirety”; it “is one of the outstanding events in the history of the world, one which has determined the destiny of a good portion of mankind.” Ray and Acri, like most modern scholars, would be quick to qualify Coedes’s notion of Indian cultural colonialism and instead refer to a reciprocal relationship of cultural “convergence” between rulers in India and their counterparts in Southeast Asia. They point out that Southeast Asian elites always selectively used and transformed what Indians brought to the region, adapting rather than slavishly adopting Indian ideas. They also make clear that there were many cases where Hindu or Buddhist ideas from Southeast Asia found their way back to India, enhanced and modified by the work of scholars, theologians, and artists of Maritime Asia, a loop that Acri compares to what he calls “the pizza effect”: “A Neapolitan dish that has flourished and evolved in the US and has been further exported…around the world and re-imported into Italy.”

Yet for all this, the cultural flow was overwhelmingly one-way. Although early medieval India was divided into many different competing kingdoms, few of which had the immense resources of the Tang emperors of China or the Khmer kings of Cambodia, India as a cultural, sacral, and geographical unit was still the great intellectual and philosophical superpower of Asia. The influence of Indic religions, and the whole linguistic and literary apparatus that came with them, eventually stretched over the greater part of the continent, from Afghanistan, Persia, and the Gulf in the west to Japan in the east, from the island of Sumatra in the south to Mongolia and parts of Russia in the north. As a result of the efforts of Indian missionaries like Vajrabodhi, over half the world’s population today lives in areas where Indian religious ideas are or once were dominant.

Trade between India and Southeast Asia began very early. According to Himanshu Prabha Ray:

By the middle of the second millennium BCE, the first plant cultigens from Southeast Asia start to appear in the archaeological record of South Asia. An example is the areca nut palm, which was probably introduced to South Asia around the mid-second millennium BCE, together with other Southeast Asian tree crops.

These included crops later regarded as quintessentially Indian, such as ginger, sandalwood, rice, and the coconut palm.

There is evidence that by the fourth century BCE, Indian merchants had already established a regular sailing network that stretched from the east coast of the subcontinent across the Bay of Bengal to Java and the South China Sea. Indian pottery, bronze bowls, and precious stones formed into simple jewelry—etched and banded agate and faceted carnelian beads, some shaped into tiny tiger figurines—are found distributed in sites across the Gulf of Thailand. The great Indian epics, which were taking shape in this period, talk about Indonesia as Suvarnabhumi, the Land of Gold, which was not just a figure of speech: Indian merchants brought skilled artisans with them to refine the gold they bought. At Krabi, Thailand, archaeologists found a goldsmith’s touchstone etched with the earliest Tamil inscription in Southeast Asia; it is written in the Tamil Brahmi script of the first to third centuries CE and proclaims itself the property of Perum patankal—the Great Goldsmith.

Bodhisattva Samantabhadra; painting on silk from the Mogao Caves in Jiuquan, China

image musée Guimet

Bodhisattva Samantabhadra; painting on silk from the Mogao Caves in Jiuquan, China, ninth or tenth century

India’s ancient religious systems were surprisingly slow to join the list of South Asian exports. The historical Buddha lived in northern India in the late fifth century BCE, but there is no clear archaeological evidence of the religion he founded until the time of Emperor Ashoka, who adopted many of its ideas and raised the earliest surviving Buddhist monuments around 250 BCE, two hundred years after the Buddha’s death. It’s only in the first century CE that images of the Buddha take a recognizable form and begin to spread northward to Afghanistan and western China, and eastward along the sea routes to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Java, and Cambodia. According to Ray, it is not until the third century CE—some seven hundred years after the Buddha’s death—that the first simple wooden Buddha images began to appear in sites around the Mekong Delta.

Likewise, while Hinduism has very ancient roots in the Vedas (the Rig Veda dates from around 1700–1500 BCE and is the oldest collection of hymns to survive in devotional use), the great Gods of Hinduism—Lords Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, and the Devi, or Great Goddess—don’t really appear in familiar forms until the second century BCE, and there are very few stone temples to them from before the fourth century CE. Nevertheless, from that period on, Hindu worship spread around Southeast Asia with remarkable speed.

The Mekong trading centers of Angkor Borei, in Cambodia, and Óc Eo, its counterpart just over the Vietnamese border, seem to have been the most important Southeast Asian ports of this early period. Here, in the rainy season, a network of canals flood into a wide, freshwater lagoon that submerges the fields, leaving the higher hills, like the early temple site of Phnom Da, as conical islands in the stream that look from a distance, as you chug toward them on a fishing boat, like the smooth, curved backs of bathing elephants.

This lagoon became from the first century CE the terminus for a trade route leading west to India, Persia, and the Roman Red Sea ports, as well as eastward to China. The Chinese called this area Funan; the Indians, Vyadhapura. We do not know what it was called by its own inhabitants. “This place is famous for precious rarities from afar,” wrote one Chinese trader in the third century CE. “Pearls, incense, drugs, elephant tusks, rhinoceros horn, tortoise shell, coral, lapis lazuli, parrots, kingfishers, peacocks, rare and abundant treasures enough to satisfy all desires.”

Excited by such descriptions, a French archaeologist named Louis Malleret set to work in the 1920s and dug up a large town, dating to 100–300 CE, with a geometrical layout on an Indic-inspired plan and connected by an extensive canal system to different inland trading posts. Malleret also found a whole museum full of treasures, which hold valuable clues as to how Indic culture, religion, and languages first seeped into the region.

In the lower layers of Óc Eo, Malleret found many Indian trade goods but no signs of Indic religions: there were shards of Indian terracotta containing writing in the Brahmi script, a South Indian iron dagger, and Indian glass beads, as well as Roman intaglios, coins of Antoninus Pius, and some Sassanian Persian effigies; then, rather later, a Shiva lingam and several plaques with Hindu deities. A few Han mirrors indicated connections with China, but the links with India—far more distant than China—proved more common and significant.

It was on the hill of Phnom Da near Angkor Borei that the earliest Hindu and Buddhist shrines were found by French archaeologists. Here were Buddhas that stiffly echoed the stance of those found at Sarnath, outside Varanasi, at Amaravati, on the Andhra coast, and their cousins at Anuradhapura, in northwest Sri Lanka. By the sixth and seventh century, Phnom Da was also home to major shrines to Vishnu and Harihara, in a new and fine Khmer style, quite distinct from anything seen in India.

It is unclear what caused this sudden acceleration of Indian activity in Southeast Asia beginning in the fifth century CE. The alchemy of urbanization and state formation increased the wealth of Southeast Asian ports, making voyages there much more profitable. Another factor may have been the disruption caused by the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE, followed by the incessant wars between Byzantium and Persia in the sixth, then the rise of Islam in the seventh. India and Rome had been major trading partners—Pliny complains that the wealth of Rome guttered to India due to the decadent tastes of grand Roman ladies for Eastern luxuries; after the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth century, there was once again extensive trade between India, the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean. But the spread of Indian religious systems to Southeast Asia coincides exactly with the lean period in between these two eras of plenty and prosperity. The decline of Mediterranean gold exports to India in the fifth century may have led to a major realignment of Indian trade to face the rich lands to the east.

With these traders came learned Brahmins and Buddhist monks. As Acri notes, “Early Buddhist literature is permeated [with tales of] seafaring…: witness the many Jātakas…containing references to merchants engaged in sea travel between port cities in India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia.” These brought with them a rich harvest of Indian art, architecture, and learning, which the chieftains of Southeast Asia clearly felt gave cosmopolitan glamour and divine sanction to their rule. A Chinese text from around 400 CE talks about a thousand Indian Brahmins at the small coastal court of Tun-Sun: “The people practice their doctrine and give them their daughters in marriage. In consequence, many of these Brahmins do not go away.”

From around the fourth century CE, the different states of Monsoon Asia all began to look in one way or another to Indian political and religious models, and began to adopt, to different extents, many of the ideas of the Indian monks, traders, Brahmins, and scholars who were docking at their ports. Hindu ideas of divinely sanctioned kingship proved especially useful to local kings keen to expand their influence and territory. So it was that the Indic gods, goddesses, cosmologies, philosophies, sacred and scientific texts, methods of counting, and the idea of zero all passed across the Bay of Bengal and took root in Southeast Asia.

Most important of all was the Sanskrit language and the Brahmi script used by the Pallava kings of southern India: up to this point, there appears to have been no indigenous writing system in Southeast Asia. Ray notes that the first Sanskrit inscription in Southeast Asia was found at Vo Canh on the coast of Vietnam, on a stele that scholars have dated to around the third century CE. By the fifth century a raja in east Kalimantan named Mulavarman left an inscription on seven sacrificial Vedic posts. Mulavarman compares himself to Yudhisthira, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, and says he defeated his enemies and made them pay tax. He also claims to have brought many Shaiva Brahmins from India into his kingdom. The inscription seems to record the moment the rulers of the region embraced not just Hinduism but also the written language of the Pallava kingdom: almost every pre-Islamic and precolonial script in Southeast Asia—Khmer, Javanese, Kawi, Lontara, Lao, Thai, Malay—derives from the script that these early South Indian travelers brought with them.

Mulavarman’s inscription also proves that these changes came not with the sword, but peacefully, with the lure of Indian civilizational and spiritual sophistication, as Mulavarman’s grandfather has an indigenous non-Sanskrit name: Kadunga. The adoption of Indian court practices, in other words, came voluntarily, with conversion, not conquest—contrary to the model Hindu nationalist historians of the 1930s once suggested.

Soon Hindu temples were appearing all along the coastlines of Southeast Asia: Ray references an inventory of 909 known temples from this period.1 Java’s earliest temple complex, built between 675 and 725, lies high on the Dieng Plateau, some three hours’ drive from Borobodur in the Highlands of Central Java. Here, occluded by plumes of sulphurous steam belching out of geysers, the oldest surviving Hindu temples in Southeast Asia were built within the rim of a still-active volcano. It is a deeply eerie spot, still known as “the Place of the Gods.” The temples rise amid bubbling mineral springs where steam mingles with thick cloudbanks scudding through bamboo slopes and up into forests of teak and mahogany.

Most of these temples are in a similar style to the Pallava temples in Kanchipuram and are especially close to the profile of the Shore Temple at the Pallava port of Mahabalipuram where Tamil ships once left for Southeast Asia.2 But none is directly modeled on any single Indian temple, and several features, such as the wonderfully tall and elegantly elongated doorways, are unique to Java. Most of the upper stories of these temples have upturned corner accents, presumably typical of wooden Javanese prototypes and resembling Chinese flying eaves. So amid much Indian influence, local forms were already beginning to develop.

Indeed, as early as the seventh century, the Chinese traveler-monk Yijing was advising his monastic readers that if they wished to study Sanskrit or the latest Buddhist theology, there was no longer any need for them to make the long pilgrimage to India. The sophisticated Buddhist monasteries of Srivijaya (present-day Sumatra), a short trip across the South China Sea, would, he said, do equally well.

This process culminated six centuries later in the building of the most magnificent Hindu temple in the world—not in India, but in Cambodia.

The Khmer temple, tomb, observatory, dynastic funeral chapel, and national shrine now known as Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple complex ever built. At Angkor the temple alone covers over four hundred acres. Beyond stretches a palace complex, pleasure lakes, and the quarters of the Khmer capital city, which is so vast it can be seen from space.

By the twelfth century the Hindu Khmer Empire was at its height and stretched across the region, controlling, with varying degrees of authority, modern Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. The Khmers were consummate hydraulic engineers. The four hundred square miles around Angkor was a dense network of villages set amidst a patchwork of fields, roads, canals, reservoirs, bridges, and embankments that carefully managed the monsoon floodwaters to enable optimum conditions for wet-rice agriculture. This in turn sustained a population that according to one scholar exceeded 1.5 million people, many of whom were drafted as laborers between harvests. At that time, London had a population of just 18,000.

Nor was there anything of this scale at the time in India. Angkor Wat is roughly contemporary to the great South Indian Chola temples of Tanjore, and the Khmers and Cholas, the two great powers of Maritime South Asia, were allies and in close dialogue: as one essay in The Creative South shows, Chola innovations inspired the dancing halls of Angkor. Nevertheless, although the largest Chola temples are five times the size of anything that preceded them, they are dwarfed by the Khmer temples. Angkor is not just the most spectacular of all Indic temples, but the largest religious structure constructed anywhere in the ancient or medieval world.

In 1113 the greatest of all Southeast Asian rulers, Suryavarman II, was anointed king by the venerable Brahmin Divakarapandita, who, according to a contemporary inscription,

performed sacrifices to the spirits of the ancestors. These gifts included two fans of peacock feathers with golden handles, four white parasols, ear ornaments and rings, bracelets, pectorals and golden bowls, workers, elephants and sacred brown-coloured cattle.

Work began on Angkor Wat in 1122. The central statue of Vishnu was dedicated in July 1131, when Suryavarman turned thirty-three. The complex would not be finished until after his death in 1150, after nearly three decades of hard labor. The moat alone took five thousand men ten years of digging.

Out of the trees of the Cambodian jungle, a mountain of masonry rises in successive ranges—a great tumbling scree of plinths and capitals, octagonal pillars and lotus jambs. Shingled temple roofs cover reliefs of Indic snakes, lions, and elephants, gods and godlings, sprites and tree spirits, dreadlocked holy men, and miles of crumbling friezes of heavenly dancing girls. The complex was intended to represent both a microcosm of the Hindu universe and the personal funerary chapel for its builder—a concept that has no direct parallel in any monument in India. It was built as a series of concentric courtyards surrounding a central pyramid, on top of which a quincunx of five towers rises in a very literal recreation of scriptural depictions of Mount Meru, the mythic home of the Hindu gods.

Inside, the West Gallery was decorated with long friezes of stories from the Indian epics, such as Ravana shaking Mount Kailash and the Battle of Lanka described in the Ramayana. Elsewhere we see Vishnu’s victory over the asuras, the churning of the oceans, and the judgment of Yama. The Khmer kings clearly saw themselves as living inside a world inspired by Indic mythology and populated by all the gods and heroes of the epics. That such a world was successfully recreated in the rice fields of Cambodia is demonstrated by the stunning half-mile-long frieze narrating Kurukshetra, the apocalyptic battle of the Mahabharata. This is placed next to a similar frieze depicting the victorious armies of Suryavarman. The viewer is clearly invited to compare the two. Yet the forms and styles of this festival of Indian mythology are at once Indian-inspired and quite different from anything in India.

The great quincunx of Angkor in many ways represents the visual climax of the history of the diffusion and transformation of Indic culture in and by the peoples of Maritime Southeast Asia. It is a process brilliantly captured in all its nuance, variety, and complexity by the pioneering work of Andrea Acri and Himanshu Prabha Ray.