Ramayana to Bollywood, Indonesia still loves India

India's success in technology, sustainable economy and educational centres has impressed Indonesia.

india Updated: Nov 22, 2005 19:51 IST

The visit of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono opens a new chapter in the growing relations between Indonesia and India. The president, whose name has a Sanskrit origin, is determined to curb terrorism and corruption. These are issues of concern to India too.

India's success in high technology, sustainable economy and educational centres has impressed Indonesia.

New Delhi has established an Indian Cultural Centre in the resort island of Bali. Similarly, Balinese Hindus are building a Balinese Hindu temple in native architectural style on the banks of the Ganges at Rishikesh.

The relationship between India and Indonesia is deep-rooted. Since centuries the people of Java and Sumatra have welcomed Indians who came to the islands for trade. The stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata integrate both the countries.

The epics have played a strong role in the history of Indonesia and are part of its unique culture. They have achieved great popularity in the socio-political life of Indonesia.

Even today, in the open theatre of the Prambanan in Java, Muslims perform the Ramayana during full moon nights. This is an example for India to be reminded of the strength of its own religious and cultural roots.

During the rule of King Sriwijaya, many Indonesians went to Nalanda University in India.

Roughly a thousand years before the beginning of the Christian era, Indian contacts had been established. Swarnabhumi (Sumatra) finds mention in Jataka stories while there is reference to 'Yava Dwipa' or Java in the Ramayana.

The cult of sage Agastya was well developed in Java and we find his statue at the famed Prambanan temple. The wave of Hinduism was predominant throughout Java and it was not just exclusively Saivism.

The Mahayana of Buddhism, as a separate and integral cult, belongs mainly to the period of Sumatran rule in Central Java. Even at that time, it was a Tantric form which later became increasingly so in Nepal, Cambodia and Bali.

In Bali, Buddhism and Saivism inseparably combined. After Agastya's visit in Java, Sage Markandeya followed. It was he who laid the foundation of the mother temple in Besakih, Bali.

Majapahit the last kingdom of Hindus established their suzerainty over Palembang and Pahang in Sumatra, and over Malay from Singapore to Kedah and Trenggan. But we do not find any documented history between India and Indonesia after 1400. The two countries also show a similar pattern in architecture.

Earliest Sanskrit inscription found in Annam is dated to 200 A.D. It seems that before the 5th century, contacts began with India. Indian immigrants in the Malay Archipelago are still called Kaling in Medan, Indonesia. It is a survival of the name Kalinga, by which the inhabitants of Orissa were once known.

In old Javanese language, we find roughly around 30 percent Sanskrit words, which shows the close connection between India and Indonesia.

When Arab and Chinese trade flourished, Bali began its close links with Java. Javanese culture had developed based on old Indian traditions but were Indonesian in essence. The old Javanese language became a vehicle of the classic epics.

All ancient inscriptions found in Indonesia up to 5th century are in Sanskrit using Pallava script.

It is interesting that Indonesia absorbed the three main religions of India: Hinduism from ancient times; Buddhism in the medieval period; and Islam from the 12th century onwards.

India traders mainly from Gujarat introduced Islam into Sumatra. By the 15th century, Islam had spread all over Java.

It is to be noted that the transition and absorption of diverse religions was effected without any bloodshed. When Islam came to Indonesia from Gujarat, India herself was under Mughal rule and the philosophy of Sufism practiced in India had its similar impact on Indonesia.

The cultural influence of Islam in India is evidenced in the prevalence of Sufi mysticism and folk art and poetry where Hindu and Muslim traditions were blended together. Similarly in Indonesia, Islam and Javanese culture blended to form a unique confluence.

The relations between India and Indonesia underwent a bleak phase from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Rabindranath Tagore visited Java and Bali in 1927. Tagore stayed for two weeks in Bali and was all praise for Balinese Hinduism.

But it is just not religion and culture that have brought Indonesia and India together. Even today one can find people humming 'Kuch kuch hota hai.' Bollywood films and songs are part of the young modern Indonesians' entertainment fare.

(Somvir is a visiting lecturer of Indian culture and Vedic philosophy at the Faculty of Letters, Udayana University, Bali.)

First Published: Nov 22, 2005 19:51 IST