Traveling across Java and Bali in 1927, the writer Bengali Rabindranath Tagore exclaims: “I see the India everywhere, but do not recognize one ! “. The island of Bali , Indonesia ‘s only true international tourist destination, is indeed the only traditional Indonesian society to have remained essentially Hindu. And Java visitor can easily notice the presence of religious monuments Buddhist and Hindu built between the viii th and xvi th centuries, and attend performances whose story is drawn from the great Indian epics of Mahābhārata and Ramayana .

Written between the iii th century BC. BC and iii th century AD. BC , the Ramayana mentions the names Suvarnadvipa, “the island of gold”, which probably means Sumatra, and Yavadvipa, “the island of millet”, that is to say, Java . The Sumatra coast has long been indeed a gold-producing region. As for Java, before becoming a big producer of rice, it has long produced millet.

The oldest relic Buddhist found in Indonesia is a statue of Buddha in bronze style Amaravati the west of the island of Sulawesi dates from the iii E and iv th century. In Sumatra , several Buddhist relics sites have been found in RiauProvince , including Muara Takus, and in the Riau Islands Province , an inscription on Karimun Island. In Java , East of Jakarta, an inscription in Sanskrit and Pallava writing , statues of Vishnuand found Buddhist constructions, which date from around 450 AD. AD

The circumstances that led to the introduction of Indian cultural and religious concepts and models in Malaysia and Indonesia are not yet fully understood. We can only notice their presence at least from 450 apr. AD

But recent excavations (2000) conducted at the mouth of the river Musi in South Sumatra revealed harbor sites we dated st century AD. AD These sites do not show traces of Indian cultural influence, although there found objects including Chinese origin that show that these sites were trading with China and India. And excavations started in 2002 east of Jakarta aim at a better knowledge of structures prior to the Buddhist constructions of its sites.

The study of current Austronesian societies provides evidence to reconstruct the social and political organization of the inhabitants of Indonesia before the appearance of Indian models. It is thought that their society was relatively egalitarian and that the function of chief was not hereditary, but was based on the personal qualities of the one (or the one) who exercised it.

Around 100 AD AD , the opening of sea routes between China and India makes the ports of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra a stopover. Indeed, the navigation depends on the winds, so the rhythm of the monsoon. The boats are often forced to stop in South Sumatra, which is both righteous for navigation from China and at the entrance of the Straits of Malacca that boats have to borrow to go to India.

This participation in international trade results in an influx of wealth that benefits unequally the members of the societies of the port cities. Some do better than others. They must then justify this greater wealth in the eyes of the society in which they live. It is thought that this is how the Indian concept of king ( raja ) and royalty is adopted. More generally, these richer people than others adopt both Indian political and cultural concepts and models to legitimize their new position.

It was long thought that this “indianisation” had been made by “high caste Indians (who) would come to seek fortune in gold country and spices 2 . It is now thought to have been a selective indigenous process, that is, it was the local elite that chose what suited it in foreign cultures. The factors that argue in this direction are:

  • Although the caste system is adopted (it still exists in Bali , whose society has remained Hindu), it corresponds rather to a formalization of the social classes and does not know this division in closed bodies socially and professionally.
  • In the region of the east of the Bay of Bengal and the south of the South China Sea , the Austronesians, a seafaring people, are the main actors in navigation and commerce.
  • These Austronesians had exchanges with both the Chinese and the Indians, and therefore had two cultural systems in which to choose models, but opted for the Indian.

This adoption of Indian models was no doubt easier as, as Paul Mus points out, India shared with the societies of South-East Asia a pre- Aryan common stock and the natives ” did not may not have always aware to change religion by adopting that of India 3 . ” His goal was the legitimation of the sovereign. This was affirmed by rituals intended to make the king the incarnation of a Hindu deity or Buddha . The Nagarakertagama , an epic poem written in 1365, says of King Hayam Wuruk of Majapahitthat “he is Shiva and Buddha”. It was about convincing society that prosperity depended on respect for the sovereign.

Given the traditional conception of the leader in Austronesian societies, this new political system certainly resulted in a permanent struggle between the sovereign and the princes to whom he claimed to impose his suzerainty. In addition, the need to maintain its wealth, the basis of its power, pushed the sovereign to recognize the suzerainty of China, price to pay for it to accept the arrival of Indonesian boats in its ports. The Chinese texts mention the innumerable “embassies” coming from Java. The fiction imposed by China was that of princes coming to pay tribute to the emperor, who in return rewarded them with gifts.

Notes and references

  1. ↑ Rabindranath Tagore , Jatri ,
  2. ↑ Berg, CC, Hoofdlijnen der Javaansche-Literatuur Geschiedenis , Groningen 1929
  3. ↑ Paul Mus , Indian and indigenous Cults Champa , BEFEO (Bulletin of the French School of the Far East ) XXXIII, p.367


  • Cribb, Peter, Historical Atlas of Indonesia , Nordic Institute for Asian Studies , 2000
  • Manguin, Pierre-Yves, “The Archeology of the Early Maritime Polices of Southeast Asia”, in Bellwood P. and I. Glover, eds., Southeast Asia: from Prehistory to History , 2004
  • Wolters, OW, Early Indonesian Trade