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Keynote address by Secretary (East) at the Inaugural Session of the International Conference on “ASEAN-India Cultural Links: Historical and Contemporary Dimensions” held at New Delhi (July 23, 2015)

July 23, 2015

Prof. Lokesh Chandra, President ICCR;
Ambassador Shyam Saran, Chairman, RIS;
Prof. Sachin Chaturvedi, DG, RIS;
Dr. Prabir De, Coordinator, ASEAN-India Centre;
Distinguished Speakers;

Excellencies;

Ladies and Gentlemen;

  • May I, to begin with, extend a warm welcome to all the eminent speakers who have congregated here today from various parts of South East Asia and India for this conference. Some have even come from as far afield as North America! A special welcome also to the galaxy of distinguished observers, ASEAN and other Ambassadors in New Delhi, as well as stakeholders involved in various capacities in sustaining and deepening the ASEAN-India relationship.
  • The destinies of South-East Asia and India have been linked, almost inextricably, for the past two millennia. As the two sides work to bolster their relationship, especially against the backdrop of India’s renewed commitment to ASEAN with its action-driven and result-oriented 'Act East Policy,' we also wish to concurrently stimulate intellectual exchange on the historical and contemporary socio-cultural linkages that bind us, enabling us to acquire a better understanding of our shared heritage and histories. We recognise that political-security and economic cooperation between India and ASEAN must go hand in hand with better understanding between our peoples and deeper integration of our societies.
  • Evidence of the earliest contacts between India and its South East Asian neighbours can be traced as far back as the 1st century A.D. Excavations of the Pyu settlements in present day Myanmar show evidence of the earliest South East Asian contacts with India, and one of the sites is called Beikthano, meaning the ‘City of Vishnu’. Indian influence is evident in Pyu architecture, coinage, statues of Hindu deities and the Buddha, and other early forms of epigraphy. Pyu coins have been unearthed as far as the Mekong Delta, indicating that trade and culture followed the same route.
  • Besides the famed temples of Cambodia like Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm with distinct Indian connections and influences, another group of sites scattered through central Thailand called Dvaravati, associated with the Mon inhabitants, which flourished from the 7th century A.D. to the end of the 1st millennium, also show heavy influence of Indian culture, especially Buddhist influence, in addition to that of Vaishnavite and Shaivaite traditions. The Kingdoms of Cham, which were the southern neighbours of Vietnam, also demonstrated extensive influence of Indian culture, with the famous area of 'My Son' having a complex of temples dedicated to Shiva.
  • The Government of India is today actively involved, along with its ASEAN partners, in efforts to preserve, protect and restore many of these symbols and structures that represent the civilizational bonds between ASEAN and India.
  • In addition to the earliest cultural contacts between our regions, evidence of extensive and dynamic trade between India and South East Asia in subsequent centuries has also been found. Under the Gupta Dynasty, which flourished from 4th to 6th century A.D., trade links with Kedah on the Malay Peninsula and sea links with the coasts of Vietnam and Thailand were well established. Trade also flourished under the Chola Empire in the 9th century A.D., especially between Tamil Nadu and Myanmar.
  • Commerce primarily happened via the seas with the ancient port of Tamralipti at the mouth of Ganges being one of the earliest points of embarkation. From there, ships sailed across to the Malay Peninsula, either along the coast of Bengal and Myanmar or through the Bay of Bengal. Later routes diversified, for example, from Tamralipti in Odisha to Sri Lanka and the Nicobar Islands, which would then either go on through the Sunda Straits or the Straits of Malacca. Not only were the trade networks vast but importantly, commerce and exchange was a two-way process, with both Indians and South East Asians playing an active role in it.
  • Many centuries have passed since the first signs of the budding commercial relationship between India and South East Asia, and while the exchanges have waxed and waned over the centuries, trade between India and South East Asia remains an important aspect of our engagement in the 21st century, with ASEAN being India's fourth largest trading partner today.
  • Our ancient interactions demonstrate South East Asia’s widespread religious and political affinities with the Indian sub-continent. Scholars have observed that the Gupta dynasty provided an attractive coherent model of political, social and religious integration for rulers of South East Asia, and its success was emulated in South East Asia, where Indian constructs such as iconography, the Sanskirt language and religious practices were utilised, often for political ends. Importantly, these constructs spread, not through conquest but essentially through non-political agents such as merchants and religious men, and were an indicator of the "soft power” that India enjoyed in its extended neighbourhood.
  • Inscriptions reflecting Indian linguistic influence on the kingdoms of South East Asia are also present from Vietnam to Indonesia. In the Khorat Plateau of Thailand, there are Sanskrit inscriptions from the 6th century A.D. Inscriptions from the same time period are also found in Cambodia where Sanskirt was combined with archaic Khmer, as well as along the coast of Vietnam on the Truong Sane range. Meanwhile, the oldest Sanskrit inscription from Java is estimated to be from the 5th century A.D.
  • The adoption of Buddhist architectural styles from South-East India also began around the same time. Many Indian kingdoms sent monks to spread Buddhism in the region. The most famous amongst these was Emperor Ashoka who sent Buddhist emissaries to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam as well as the Malay peninsula. The religious links took with them linguistic, architectural and literary influences. Moreover, the spread of Buddhism to South East Asia went beyond the linear path. Contrary to what is traditionally traced from India towards the East, Buddhism instead, once transmitted from India to the East, was localised, re-created and diffused again, through different parts of Asia, including India.
  • With the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism also came the assimilation of Indian mythology and folklore into local mythology of the South East Asian region. Even though Hinduism did not take root as a major religion, Hindu texts became part of the historical-cultural DNA of the people across South East Asia. The Thai Epic, Ramakien is based on the Ramayana, and the city of Ayotthaya was named after Ayodhya. In Lao PDR, the popular version of the Ramayana is called Pha Lak Pha Lam, whilst in the Philippines, the folk narrative holds much resemblance to the Ramayana. An adaptation of the Ramayana called the Yama Zatddaw was also introduced as an oral tradition in Myanmar. In Indonesia, the Ramayana is called the Kakawin Ramayana, whilst the Malay version is called the Ramayana Hikayat Seri Rama.
  • Cultural and intellectual exchanges and people-to-people contacts continue to be an important pillar of India-ASEAN relations today, and we aim to expand them through various initiatives, such as through the exchange of artists, students, journalists, farmers and Parliamentarians, as well as a multiplicity of think tank initiatives.
  • The ancient socio-cultural relations and linkages have also found contemporary expression in the form of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation, a modern grouping aimed at reviving cooperation between the peoples of the Mekong and Ganga river basins in the fields of tourism, education, culture and people-to-people contacts. An MGC Museum of Asian Textiles has been inaugurated in Siem Reap, Cambodia, last year, not far from the famous Angkor Wat, showcasing affinities in our weaving and textiles.
  • Another major project underway is the re-establishment of the Nalanda University, once a world-renowned knowledge hub where scholars from around the world, including South East Asia and India, exchanged knowledge and ideas. We are working to create a similar world class university in the 21st century, with the support of our East Asian partners, and have offered scholarships to students from CLMV countries to study there.
  • Connectivity is key to facilitating socio-cultural exchanges and an important priority that we are working on. India shares both a land and maritime boundary with ASEAN. The linkages between ASEAN and India’s North Eastern states and communities are not just of close geographical proximitybut of blood relations. The Tai race from Thailand has its descendants, the Ahoms, living in the north-eastern state of Assam. The Khamtis who are descendants of the Tai from Thailand and Myanmar are also found in both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Meanwhile, the Khasis in Meghalaya are believed to have ancestral links to Thailand. As connectivity expands, so will the people-to-people exchanges along the border.
  • Moreover, many Indians emigrated to South East Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the British colonial rulers sending hundreds of thousands of Indians to work in plantations and mines in the region. Their descendants today constitute a vibrant community of Indian origin people, contributing actively to their respective countries of adoption. Malaysia alone has nearly 2 million persons of Indian origin, constituting the second largest Indian diaspora abroad, after the United States.
  • During the colonial period, political bonds were also forged between our leaders, who displayed a great sense of hope and unity during our common struggles for independence. For instance, Indian freedom fighters shared close relations with freedom fighters of Myanmar, and Gandhiji visited Yangon thrice, whilst Bal Gangadhar Tilak was deported to Yangon by the British for several years. The Indian National Army under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose recruited Indian personnel from Myanmar and Singapore during WWII, making South East Asia a theatre of the INA’s struggle against British rule. Notably, the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, spent his life in exile in Myanmar and lies buried there.
  • India and ASEAN are today at the threshold of a qualitatively more substantive and reinvigorated relationship. As we work to give shape to our Plan of Action for the period 2016 to 2021, setting new goals to move the ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership forward, we not only aim to strengthen the third pillar of our engagement, i.e. the socio-cultural pillar, but also wish to bring it to the forefront of our relationship.
  • This conference is a direct outcome of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi's desire to expand our civilizational links with ASEAN countries as well as to document them comprehensively. I would like to thank the ASEAN India Centre at RIS for undertaking this conference at our behest. My special thanks are due to Ambassador Shyam Saran, who already had this idea in his mind and has taken special interest in the Conference and invitees. As you have been informed, the idea was born out of the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group between India and ASEAN, of which he was the Chairman. The papers presented at the conference will be published in a book which will be shared with our ASEAN partners.
  • Moreover, this is the first step in our journey to establish research partnerships between universities and academics in India and ASEAN to work on producing high-quality research papers on the entire gamut of the historical and cultural links between India and South East Asia. We will also hold a second conference on our historical and cultural linkages in Jakarta in the coming months to take this initiative forward.
  • I would like to conclude by thanking everyone present here for their contribution in making the ASEAN-India relationship richer, fuller and stronger.

Thank you for your attention