Essay on Indian History: Overseas Trade and Commerce and its Impact on South East Asia


From remote antiquity India had trade relations with western countries both by land and sea. The invasion of Alexander the Great formed an important landmark in the history of the contact between India and the West. The overland route ran through the Khyber Pass and across the Hindukush to Bakha to which converged all principal highways from central Asia and China on the East and Mediterranean and the Black Sea/Ports on the West. From ancient times to the medieval period Indian merchants helped the spread of Indian culture and establishment of colonies at various places outside India.

While the countries of W. Asia, Central Asia, China and Tibet came under Indian influence, intimate contact was established between India and areas of South East Asia. Since the Second World War the term South East Asia has been used to describe the area to the east of India and south of China which includes Combodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and several other smaller territories. The term Greater India originated during the time of Dutch or French dominance over this area.

Buddhist Jatakas refer to Indian merchants sailing from Tamralipti (Midnapur) or from Bharu Kacha (Broach) on the Western coast for Suvarnabhumi with the aim of acquiring immense riches. Katha Sarita Sagar, and BrihatKatha Manjari relate many such stories about merchants going to Suvarnadwipa for trade. Katha Kosa narrates the story of Nagadutta, who made the voyage to Suvarnadwipa with five hundred ships. Katha Sarita Samagrah, Bruhat Katha Sloka. Samgrah and Katha Kosa relate many stories of Indian merchants sailing to Suvarndwipa. Suvarnadwipa is also finds mention in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Chinese writings.


D.G.E. Hall opines that the relation between India and South East Asia goes back to the prehistoric period. It has been presumed that the sea route was taken by the Austro – Asiatic races in very early times. Aryan invaders, after their conquest of coastal regions of India, simply utilised the technical knowledge of sailing. The very name of Indo-China, farther India, ‘Insulindia1, and Indonesia are as significant as Ser-lndia implying an extension of Indian culture in the East. Ptolemy’s term – “Trans Gangetic India” applied to the region between India and China on the East-side of India.

At least for more than one thousand years Indian cultural influence dominated the whole of South East Asia, ports and marts like CCEO on the Cambodian Coast. Sri Vijaya (in South Sumatra), Malayan seaside places like Chaiya on the isthumus of Kra were centres of commerce which ships carrying European and Indian merchandise touched on their way to China.

Immigration in larger numbers and permanent settlement began in the first centuries of the Christan era with commerce as the driving force in South East Asia. By the beginning of the Christian era we find in South East Asia communities, which had a definite culture of their own. Historians are of the view that as early as the sixth century B.C. trade flourished between them. This is proved by the great quantity of glass beads imported from India, and by the fact that, long before first century A.D., there were in Perak and Johore centres of this bead trade.

J. Krom observes that Indian migration to South East Asian countries began with traders who settled and married native woman thereby introducing Indian culture. Coedes holds the same view suggesting that the spread of Indian culture came as a result of the intensification of Indian trade with south East Asia in the early centuries of the Christian era. According to Prof. C.C. Berg, Indian culture struck root in south-east Asia as a result of the activities of Indian warrior immigrants. Besides there is also a Brahmin theory. This hypothesis says Brahmans were responsible for the spread of Indian culture in South East Asia.


Economic gain was the chief cause of the maritime contact between India and South East Asia. According to H.D. Sarkar, “Economic motives, adventure and missionary work seem to have mainly lured Indians to this region.” Modern scholars are of the view that, besides Indian, the Malays were also responsible for the spread of Indian culture in South East Asia. Malays were notable sailors. Most likely they visited Indian ports. In case of Java, during the reign of Dharmavamca (991-1007 AD), a number of Javanese scholars brought back from India many of the Sanskrit texts which they translated into old Javanese and those translation marked the beginning of Javanese literature.

The fertile soil and the wealth of South East Asia held great attraction for Indians. Places such as Suvarnabhumi, (the land of Gold), Tokkola, the land of cardamom, Narikela Dwipa (the island of coconuts etc) were referred to by historians.

The Buddhist missionaries coming from India to South East Asia also contributed to the spread of Indian culture in South East Asia.

Desire for trade was one of the important factors that brought India into contact with the rest of Asia. Traders were followed by missionaries, who propagated religion in different parts of Asia and accordingly Indian culture spread to these lands. Many Indians also migrated.


In ancient times Kalinga had great maritime traditions. Kalinga had a long coast line. This exercised a great influence on its people. Kalingans had access to the sea. Their natural tendency was to have trade with Islands in the Indian ocean. There were good harbours on the coast of Orissa also. Ptolemy in the 2nd century A.D. knew of a port called Palura (Patura in Ganjam District). As per Ptolemy’s Account, there was a direct route from Patura, across the sea to the Malayan Peninsula. Dantapura mentioned in the Buddhist literature is probably the same as Palura. Tamralipta (Midnapur dist. of W. Bengal was a wellknown port in ancient times.)

It was in this port the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hien embarked on a large merchant vessel and reached Ceylon after fourteen days on his return voyage to China. The Chinese Pilgrim l-tsing left by the sea route in 671 AD after having passed several years in Sumatra, arrived at the port of Tamra lipti. Che-li-Tal was also another port. Hiuen-tsang has mentionaed that it was a resting place for sea-going traders from distant lands. Sylvan Levi mentioned that Charitra was a ‘Samudra Prasthana’, that is a place departure for the oceans. Historians have not yet identified this place.

The Jaina work Uttarayan Sutra also refers to another port or Kalinga called Pithunda.

Little is known about the beginning of trade contact with South East Asia. It has been said that, when Asoka conquered Kalinga, the people of Kalinga had already built up a vast overseas empire. It was a prosperous area. Its wealth most probably came from trade and commerce.

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