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India's deep but forgotten roots in South-east Asia

6 107 165

Twenty years ago, when I moved from India to Singapore with my husband, I found myself marvelling at the many reminders of home after the initial strangeness of being in a foreign city settled down.

These reminders reveal themselves like threads woven through the fabric of daily life - my neighbour lighting incense before an altar, the new year timed to the lunar calendar, even the concern for departed atmans (souls) as echoed in the observance of the Hungry Ghost Festival.

To be sure, similar beliefs and practices can arise across cultures. But it was when I visited Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam that it became increasingly evident to me that there was a Greater India that most Indians were unaware of. The batik designs worn by stewardesses aboard Singapore Airlines bore an unmistakable Indian stamp. The Buddhist religion was, of course, the most obvious Indian export.

There were other deities like Ganesha in Thailand, which were clearly of Hindu origin. Of course, Buddhism was itself an artificially separated religion; its concepts flew seamlessly from the earlier streams of thought enshrined in the Vedas.

But the biggest Indic influence I saw was in the diffusion of Sanskrit into the languages of the region. Bahasa, bumiputera, samudra, rasa, jaya and raja were just a few of many Malay words that were rooted in Sanskrit.

And yet , to my surprise, the museums I visited in Malaysia were more focused on European colonial powers, which became significant only during the last 400 years.

As I began researching for my book on the educational heritage of ancient India, I discovered that Indian knowledge had........

© The Straits Times