It was the call of the Suvarnabhumi or Suvarnadvipa– the “land of gold” that lay in the Far East and was reputed to hold vast quantities of gold and precious minerals, which got the initial attention of ancient Indian traders and merchants and made them explore beyond their own frontiers. These far away lands and islands, beyond the mountains and seas of the east, were also reputed for their spices that added further to the attractions for these ancient Indian merchants. These same spices became a much sought after commodity for the Arabs in the 9th and 10th centuries, and the Europeans in the 15th century.
The land in the Far East can broadly be divided into two: the Great Indo Chinese Peninsula and East Indies. Geographically the Indo Chinese Peninsula comprises of long hill ranges of granite stones, narrow valleys, evergreen forests, alluvial plains, small islands, and innumerable rivers. It is made up of the modern day Myanmar (Burma), Thailand (Siam), Malay Peninsula, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam (Cochin China, Tonkin, and Annam). The East Indies, variously referred to as the Indian Archipelago, Malay Archipelago, or Asiatic Archipelago, is made up of more than 6000 islands. These islands include Sumatra, Bali, Java, Lombok, Borneo, Moluccas (spice islands), Celebes, New Guinea, Philippines, and many more smaller islands. The South China sea separates the Indo-China peninsular area from the Archipelago. The ancient Indians referred to these areas of the Peninsula and the Archipelago as Suvarnabhumi, while Malay Peninsula was specifically known as Suvarnadvipa: the proverbial land of wealth that yielded gold (both literally and figuratively).
Many of the common Indians who travelled to these places settled down permanently and married local women, while the Princes who arrived would establish new kingdoms. Both led to widespread Indianisation of these Far East societies, leading to the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism in these areas through art, literature, language, and social customs. A Chinese eyewitness account of such a kingdom in Malay peninsula (Tuein-suin) talks of “500 merchant families, 200 Buddhists, and thousands of Brahmins” settled permanently in that country, and talks of locals giving their daughters in marriages to these Indians.
The movements of the ancient Indians to this Suvarnabhumi in search of wealth and adventure was primarily via the sea route. Starting from the north there was the famous port known as Tamralipti (now known as Tamluk in Midnapur district, West Bengal) from where ships and boats would set sail following the coastline of Bengal and Burma, or they would cross the Bay of Bengal straight to go directly to the Malay Peninsula, East Indies, or farther beyond to Indo China. The other famous ports from ancient and early medieval India were Palura near Gopalpur in Odisha and three near Masulipatam (Machilipatnam) from where regular ships would set sail for the Far East. Another regular sea route started from the Ganges mouth via the eastern coast to Ceylon or Sri Lanka, then from there via the western coast to Broach (Bharuch) at the mouth of the river Narmada in Gujarat, and then possibly farther on.
Travelers and merchants would come by land or river routes to the nearest ports, take a coastal route to reach Tamralipti, Palura, or the harbours near Masulipatam, from where they would board ships for the Far East. It is interesting to note that some of the local stories and socio-religious customs still in practice in these foreign countries point to these Indian places, which were the original homes of the travelers and merchants. As for example, in Sri Lanka, the story of the Prince Sri Vijaya from Bengal establishing a kingdom there is still a popular narrative. There is also the popular narrative of how Ashoka’s descendant was shipwrecked at the Malay peninsula while escaping Magadha via Dantapura, and thereafter establishing the kingdom of Langkasuka (likely 2nd c. CE).
The same area is also associated with the Bengal Prince Sri VIjaya who established the Tambralinga kingdom (10th to 13th c. CE). The Java chronicles narrate stories of how Hindus from Kalinga established their kingdom in that island, and similar narratives are heard from other islands too. The Java chronicles also narrate the story of a Gujarati Prince who had established his kingdom in the island in 75 CE. Similarly in Pegu (now Bago), an old port city in Burma/Myanamar, there are local stories that document the coming of Indians, originally from the lower course of the Krishna and Godavari rivers, who had crossed the seas and settled down in the delta part of the river Irrawaddy and adjoining coastal areas. From these various narrations it appear that the Indians from various parts of the country would travel to the harbour ports, namely, Tamralipti, Palura, three ports near Masulipatam, and Broach, from where they embarked on their voyage for the Far East.
While the sea route was the preferred mode of travel, the land route was also used by some to move towards the East, across Eastern Bengal, Manipur, and Assam. From old Chinese texts it is clear that in the 2nd c. BCE there was an already established and flourishing trade between China and India through the land route that moved across the upper parts of Myanmar and Yunnan. From the Chinese records (that give Chinese version of names of these places) it is seen that Indians had settled down and established significant influences over the locals not only in Myanmar, but also in Yunnan, which incidentally was known as Gandhara (Indianised name given by the Burmese people) until as late as 13th century. Yunnan had the kingdom of Nan Chao or Tali, which as per the local narratives, was established by a son of Ashoka. There were similar other kingdoms (mostly Hindu kingdoms) spread across the entire area established by Indians, such as the kingdom of Ta-tsin, and innumerable others in Pagan, Prome, Laos, Arakan, Malay peninsula, Lower Myanmar, Siam, Annam, Cambodia, Cochin China, Bali, Java, and Borneo. Many of these places still retain their Indian names with only slight changes, while the local culture and continuing socio-religious practices also show their past connections with India.
In Myanmar as per the local traditions it is believed that long before was Buddha was born, a Sakya chief from Kapilavastu came and established his kingdom in the central part of Myanmar, which lasted for 31 generations. Later as the Sakya chief’s family reign was coming to an end, there arrived a group of Kshtriyas from the Gangetic plain. The chief of this clan married the widow of the last king of the Sakya tribe, and established his own kingdom in Upper Myanmar. In the Arakan (now Rakhine-Mynamar), the local traditions say that a prince from the royal family of Banaras settled and established his kingdom at Ramavati (now name modified to Rami or Rambyi). The Cambodian historical records state that king Adityavamsha, a ruler of Indrapastha, banished one of his sons who then travelled to the country of Kok Thlok where he established his own kingdom by defeating the previous ruler. Later he married a beautiful Naga princess, whose father gifted him with a capital city, and the name of the kingdom was changed to Kamboja.
Similarly many Indian texts and folktales also preserve stories that talk of travels to the Suvarnabhumi from times before the Common Era. Many Jataka tales talk of such sea travels, such as the story where the queen of Videha (Mithila) fled to Champa (Bhagalpur) with as much treasure as she could, after her husband was defeated and killed in a battle. Her son took half her treasure and travelled in a ship with some merchants hoping to reach Suvarnabhumi, despite his mothers pleadings to not cross the dangerous seas. Despite a shipwreck the prince came back wealthy and took back his father’s kingdom of Mithila. In another story it is seen that a group of carpenters from Banaras built a ship using forest wood, and they set sail towards the Far East (Suvarnabhumi) in order to find a new place to live in. They discover an island in the middle of the sea that was filled with various fruits and decided to settle down there with their families.
Brihatkatha is another text, which is full of such stories from ancient India, and the most famous among them is that of the adventures of Sanudosa. Here Sanudosa joins a group formed by an adventurer Achera who prepares to travel to Suvarnabhumi. The travel ordeals of the group are narrated in details, and interestingly we get to hear of the many paths taken by travellers while following the land route towards the East Indies. There is the mention of vetrapatha, which means climbing up to the top of the mountain using creepers (vetra); crossing of a dangerous swift-flowing river holding onto the bamboos growing on the banks (vamsapatha); crossing of a narrow path between two precipices by riding mountain goats which is termed as ajapatha or goats’ path; jannupatha (crawling on knees); sankhupatha (using an iron hook attached to a rope made of skin, which is fixed to the cliff side and the traveller climbs up the mountain using the rope- a process of rock climbing still followed by mountaineers); and chhatrapatha where the travellers use a parasol like object made of animal skin to descend to the ground slowly from a height using air pressure (much like parachutes).
The descriptions of the various undertaken paths and the dangers that Sanudosha and his group faced give a fair idea of the difficulties that travellers had to deal with while moving towards East Indies on the land route. The sea route had its own share of dangers and difficulties, which is evident from the detailed description of a sea travel recorded by the Chinese traveller Fa- hien in 5th c. CE, who took the sea route on his return journey from India to China.
The ship in which he was travelling along with 200 other merchants developed a leak, and seeing no other remedies at hand the merchants threw a part of their merchandises into the sea to lessen the burden and save the vessel from sinking. Fa-Hien gives a detailed description of how the merchants were terrified during stormy days and nights when the sky couldn’t be seen, as directions were located by seeing the sun, moon, and stars, and without them they would be floating and tossing about aimlessly like a rudderless ship, completely at the mercy of the foaming bottomless ocean and the unseen rocks below the waters. It took Fa-hien and the merchants more than 90 days of such a treacherous journey to finally reach Java-dvipa (Java).
Such travel narratives and other literary texts (both Indian and of the Far East countries) that give us stories of Indians establishing kingdoms in far off eastern lands echo the characteristics of the then national life of India. While many merchants undertook such dangerous travels for commercial gains (wealth and prosperity), the spirit of adventure and a strong desire to explore new lands is quite clear in many of the narratives, thus reflecting the same on the characteristics of the ancient Indian people. While these stories and legends help us to get a fair idea of the existence of Hindu kingdoms in the Far East and the socio-religious lives of the people in these places, they don’t give much scope to fix exact dates as to when these kingdoms were established. However from various inscriptions, sculptures, temples and temple remains, and from various Chinese and Greek literary records it is possible to say that some of these Indian kingdoms were established not later than 2nd c. CE and possibly even earlier, while trade relations of India with the Far East certainly go well back into the BCE era.
Radha Kumud Mookerjii. Indian Shipping: A History of Seaborne Trade and Maritime Activity of the Indians from the Earliest Times, 1912.
R.C. Mazumdar, Champa, Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East, Vol.I, Lahore, 1927.
R.C. Mazumdar, Suvarnadvipa, Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East, Vol.II, Calcutta, 1938.
R.C. Mazumdar, India and South-East Asia, I.S.P.Q.S. History and Archaeology Series Vol. 6, 1979
R.C. Mazumdar, Kambuja Desa Or An Ancient Hindu Colony In Cambodia, Madras, 1944
(Cover photo by Partha Sanyal: Indian boat on the wall of Raghunath Temple (1772 CE) Bhalia, West Bengal)