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Early Indianized States

The Indian traders who visited Malaya in the first centuries AD inaugurated a process of cultural influence which was to continue for over 1,000 years. From India came many of the Malays' basic political ideas and practices, art forms and popular legends. Indian traders introduced, successively, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Indian influence came in waves, each somewhat different from others, and the Indian contributions to Malayan culture represent several periods of history and geographic regions.

Chinese chronicles describe a trade with India from the seventh century BC. There was an overland route, but at least some of this trade went through the Strait of Malacca or across the Isthmus of Kra, and some contacts between the Malays and Indian and Chinese traders must have existed long before the traces deciphered by later scholars were left. During the first and second centuries B.C. these routes came into greater use, as understanding of the monsoon winds increased and the construction of larger seagoing vessels, some of which could cany as many as 700 men, was mastered.

New trade also was encouraged by the gold of Southeast Asia, India's earlier supply in the Roman Empire having been cut off in the first century by an edict of Emperor Vespasian. Malaya first appears in Indian literature as the Suvarnabhumi (Land of Gold) and in the second century AD the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy referred to it as Chersonesus Aurea (Golden Chersonese).

The Peninsula's first Indianized states were in the north. Chinese records list three which existed in the second and early third centuries: Lang-ya-siu, later called Langkasuka, in the region of Kedah and Perak and probably extending across the Peninsula along the line of a trade route; Tan-Mei-Liu, or Tambralinga, further north near the modern Ligor in Thailand; and T'iu'ku'li, along the west coast of the Isthmus. All of these probably were dependencies of the first really powerful state of Southeast Asia, the kingdom of Funan in Cambodia, which dominated the trade route between China and India for 5 centuries.

Of the three, most is known of Langkasuka, which lasted for several centuries. According to tradition as recorded in the Kedah Annals, the dynastic history of the state, it was founded by Sri Marong Mahawongsa, a member of a semiroyal family of India who was shipwrecked on the Malay coast. His children founded other states, including Perak and Patani. The Annals claim further that Indian influence extended to Funan from Langkasuka. At its height in the sixth century Langkasuka was a strong and wealthy state, where the distinctions between commoner and noble were defined in dress and the king was surrounded by considerable ceremony.

The early Indian traders must have been held in high esteem by the local rulers with whom they established contact, for they married into the ruling families and saw their customs quickly adopted in Malay courts. There is no evidence that they imposed their ways by conquest; since many of the rulers adopted the title of raja, the most probable explanation of the transplanting is that the new knowledge and the Hindu court traditions brought by the traders were welcomed by the local rulers as lending new prestige. From inscriptions and architectural fragments found in Kedah, mainland Penang, and the tin districts of Perak, it is apparent that both the Hinayana and Mahayana forms of Buddhism, as well as Hinduism, had reached Malaya in this early era.

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Page last modified: 10-04-2012 18:51:35 ZULU