Centre for South Indian Studies

Cultural, Religious and Civilisational Influence of Hindutva on Southeast Asia (Part -3)

Hinduism in Singapore

The introduction of Hinduism into Singapore dates back to the early 10th century, during the Cholaperiod. Immigrants from southern India, mostly Tamils, arrived as labourers for the British East India Company, bringing with them their religion and culture. Their arrival saw the building of Dravidian temples throughout the island, and the beginnings of a vibrant Hindu culture. The first temple, Sri Mariamman Temple in Singapore’s Chinatown. There are currently about thirty main temples in Singapore, dedicated to various gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon. Today, two government bodies deal with all Hindu affairs: The Hindu Endowments Board and The Hindu Advisory Board.Hindus are a minority in Singapore, comprising about 5.1% of its citizens and permanent residents in 2010. Among 15 years or older population, there were about 158,000 Hindus; 37% of all Hindus in Singapore speak Tamil at home, another 42% speak English. Deepavali is a major Hindu festival and a public holiday observed in Singapore.

Hinduism in Thailand

A number of Hindus remain in Thailand. They are mostly located in the cities. In the past, the nation came under the influence of the Khmer Empire, which had strong Hindu roots. Despite the fact that today Thailand is a Buddhist majority nation, many elements of Thai culture and symbolism demonstrates Hindu influences and heritage. For example, the popular epic, Ramakien, is based on the Ramayana. The Royal emblem of Thailand depicted Garuda, the vahana (vehicle) of Vishnu.

The Thai city, Ayutthaya near Bangkok, is named after Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama. Numerous rituals derived from Brahmanism are preserved in rituals, such as the use of holy strings and pouring of water from conch shells. Furthermore, Hindu deities are worshipped by many Thais alongside Buddhism, such as Brahma at the famous Erawan Shrine, and statues of Ganesh, Indra, and Shiva, as well as numerous symbols relating to Hindu deities are found, e.g., Garuda, a symbol of the monarchy. Reliefs in temple walls, such as the 12th-century Prasat Sikhoraphum near Surin (Thailand), show a dancing Shiva, with smaller images of Parvati, Vishnu, Brahma and Ganesha.

The Devasathan is a Hindu temple established in 1784 by King Rama I. The temple is the centre of Brahminism in Thailand. The royal court Brahmins operate the temple, they perform several royal ceremonies per year.An annual Giant Swing ceremony known as Triyampavai-Tripavai was held in major cities of Thailand until 1935, when it was abolished for safety reasons. The name of the ceremony was derived from the names of two Tamil language Hindu chants: Thiruvempavai and Thiruppavai. It is known that Tamil verses from Thiruvempavai — poet pratu sivalai (“opening the portals of Shiva’s home”) — were recited at this ceremony, as well as the coronation ceremony of the Thai king. According to T.P. Meenakshisundaram, the name of the festival indicates that Thiruppavai might have been recited as well. The swinging ceremony depicted a legend about how the god created the world. Outside shops, particularly in towns and rural areas, statues of Nang Kwak as the deity of wealth, fortune and prosperity (the version of Lakshmi) are found.

The elite, and the royal household, often employ Brahmins to mark funerals and state ceremonies such as the Royal Ploughing Ceremony to ensure a good harvest. The importance of Hinduism cannot be denied, even though much of the rituals have been combined with Buddhism.

Hinduism in Vietnam

The first recorded religion of the Champa was a form of Shaiva Hinduism, brought by sea from India. Hinduism was the predominant religion among the Cham people until the sixteenth century. Numerous temples dedicated to Shiva were constructed in the central part of what is now Vietnam. The Champa civilisation was located in the more southern part of what is today Central Vietnam, and was a highly Indianized Hindu Kingdom, practising a form of Shaivite Hinduism brought by sea from India. Mỹ Sơn, a Hindu temple complex in central Vietnam built by the Cham people is still standing albeit in ruins in Quảng Nam Province, in Vietnam. Since the 15th century under the growing Vietnamese kingdom from the north, Champa was conquered and reduced as a polity. The Chams were subsequently absorbed by the Vietnamese and today are recognised as one of the many ethnic minorities of Vietnam.

The Chams Balamon (Hindu Brahmin Chams) form a majority of the Cham population in Vietnam while most of the remainder are Cham Bani followers of Islam. The term Balamon is considered to have been derived from Brahmin, however, another study suggests that 70% are considered to descend from the Nagavamshi Kshatriya caste (pronounced in Cham(?) as “Satrias”), and claim to be the descendants of the Champa Empire. In any case, a sizeable proportion of the Balamon Hindu Cham are considered Brahmins.Hindu temples are known as Bimong in the Cham language and the priests called Halau Tamunay Ahier.

The exact number of Hindus in Vietnam are not published in Government census, but there are estimated to be at least 50,000 Balamon Hindus, with another 4,000 Hindus living in Ho Chi Minh City; most of whom are of Indian (Tamil) or of mixed Indian-Vietnamese descent. The Mariamman Temple is one of the most notable Tamil Hindu temples in Ho Chi Minh City. Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan Provinces are where most of the Cham ethnic group (~65%) in Vietnam reside according to the last population census. Cham Balamon (Hindu Cham) in Ninh Thuan numbered 32,000 in 2002 inhabiting 15 of 22 Cham villages. If this population composition is typical for the Cham population of Vietnam as a whole then approximately 60% of Chams in Vietnam are Hindu.

The Indian Horizon

The rise of India’s influence had taken place when the Khmer kings spread it to other regions and decline began with the coming of Islam. But even though it was a long time ago that India’s influence on Southeast Asia’s culture and civilisation more or less halted, the impact can be seen and felt even today on its customs, culture, architectural designs. Finally, the decline of India’s influence in Southeast Asia began from around the 13th century when conversions to Islam took place in many major countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

India’s cultural conquests were peaceful and without forced conversions. There was no evidence of violence, colonisation and subjugation and there was no extensive migration from India to the countries of Southeast Asia. The Indians who went there did not go to rule nor had any interest in controlling from afar. A Mahabharata Monument depicting Krishna and Arjun riding a chariot pulled by eleven horses is placed prominently in a park in central Jakarta. Southeast Asia absorbed and retained its past Indian influence in a very distinctive manner over the centuries and today it has melded into the Southeast Asian culture. The influence of India can also be felt in the food and flavours of South East Asia. There are many spices in common between Indian and Southeast Asian foods. Nearly all the people of Southeast Asian region eat rice and curry like the people of Eastern India with many common ingredients. Indian herbal medicines also reached Southeast Asia from ancient times and are used even today in many countries. Closer links with the Southeast Asian region is thus a natural outcome for India and its ‘Act East policy’.

The Government of India’s ‘Act East policy’ aims at improving economic and political relations with the Southeast Asian region which has had close contacts with India for centuries and is linked culturally and geographically with it. India has been able to make inroads in trade and investments with members of the ASEAN by signing a Free Trade Agreement in 2009 which will aim at increasing business between the two and renew the partnership and contact with member countries with similar culture, artistic tradition, family values and customs.

Colonel Manoj Joe Purakel (Rtd)

(The writer is a veteran of the Regiment of Artillery. An alumnus of OTA and Defence Services Staff College ,he is a veteran of Operation Pawan (Sri Lanka) , Punjab and J&K Insurgencies. He was also a Commando Instructor in the Black Cat Commando Training Centre)

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