Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Sumatra’s Indian Connect

Raghu Gururaj 
February 14, 2021 | 7:44 pm
(Illustrated by Randy Dwicaksono)
(Illustrated by Randy Dwicaksono)

India's relationship with Indonesia dates back more than three millennia leading to an enduring cultural linkage between the two giants. Whether it is political philosophy, culture, cuisine, art forms, or language, the bonds between the two countries are manifest today in the bewildering diversity of India and Indonesia, providing comfort and familiarity to each other.

Sumatra was the first to welcome Indians several centuries ago. It absorbed the three main religions of India: Hinduism from ancient times, Buddhism in the medieval period, and Islam from the 12th century onwards. What is remarkable is that the several waves of Indian influxes into Sumatra at different points in history brought with them different aspects of Indian culture and civilization from those moments in time.

These influences have left indelible marks on Sumatran life to this day.Several events, landmarks, milestones, rituals and social mores of Sumatra serve as a constant reminder of India’s cultural connections and influence in this part of the world.

The three-part series on ‘Sumatra’s Connect to India’ is an attempt to trace the origins of Indian influence from 400 CE onwards in Sumatra and its impact on society. The discussion centers on the manifestation of Indian influence in today’s Sumatran life and looks to the future as to how this could be leveraged to forge an enduring economic partnership to suit the geopolitical and economic realities of 21st century.



For centuries, Sumatra Island had been continually impacted by external influences, including from India. The romance and mystique of Sumatra constantly beckoned Indian Kingdoms and later immigrants. One cannot help but reflect on thefact that Sumatra was known in ancient times by the Sanskrit names of Suwarnadwīpa (Island of Gold) and Suwarnabhūmi (Land of Gold) serving as proof of some kind of Indian influence. 

The Early Indians
The early Indians first came to the East and West of Sumatra much before the Christian era in search of trade and riches. With them, they brought Hinduism. 

Later on, the Indian influence in Sumatra and other parts of South-East Asia coincided with the rise of powerful maritime Kingdoms in India such as the Pandyas, Pallavas and Chola dynasties, whose traders visited Sumatra between the 2nd and 5th century AD. As their commercial influence extended over Sumatra and other parts of the region, so too did Saivism and other variants of Hinduism and Buddhism. 

By then, the use of Sanskrit and Pali language and influence of Hindu traditions and customs had taken a firm foothold in Sumatra. Historical records indicate that in the year 717 AD, a Tamil priest by the name of Wajabodhi introduced the sect of Mahayana Tantric Buddhism to the Malayu kingdom as evidenced by the temples in today’s Padang region and statue of Adityawarman in Pagarruyung.

During this period, Indian cultural influences became more visible, such as the use of Tamil and Sanskrit on inscriptions. However, from 7th century onwards, the Indian scripts were used more often to write down indigenous languages which by now already contained many loan words from Sanskrit and Tamil. 

It was around this time that one could sense that indigenous Indonesians had in a way begun to embrace Hinduism and Buddhism. 

Influence of Indian Kingdoms on Sumatra
Somewhere around that time (6th century) Kalingga became one of the earliest Hindu-Buddhist Kingdoms in Central Java. The power of the Sriwijaya Empire in South Sumatra, a major maritime and commercial kingdom between the 7th and the 13th centuries, was based on its strong commercial relations with similarly powerful maritime Kingdoms of India like the Pallavas, Pandyas and Cholas. 

The word “Sriwijaya” was derived from Sanskrit, which suggested a strong Indian connect. 

Several inscriptions in Sumatra, especially the ones at LobuTua, demonstrate the close trading relations between Indian Kingdoms and Sriwajaya Empire in Sumatra. 

The inscriptions also describe that Pallava and Cholan traders guarded their loot and commercial cargos obtained from Sumatra in their fortified godowns guarded by their soldiers and shipped them back to India.

Kutai inscriptions on seven stone pillars found in East Borneo in 5CE were written in Sanskrit. Copperplate inscriptions of 860CE found at Nalanda records the gifting of five villages by Palaking in Rajgir and Gaya for the monastery at Nalanda that was built by Sri Balaputradeva of Shailendra dynasty.

Sriwijaya Empire & Nalanda bore close architectural similarities. Moonstone & cement of damaged walls at Nalanda resembled those found at Sari and Kalasan Temples in Java & Candi Muaro, Jambi in South Sumatra. A visit to the Candi Muaro Temple Complex will reinforce that sense of this historical cultural connect.

The Sriwijaya Empire had also developed into a religious and academic center in the region. It adhered to Mahayana Buddhism. 

By then, Nalanda had captured the imagination of Buddhist students from China, Burma, Cambodia and other places. Such scholars flocked to Nalanda to study theology, arts, humanities, sciences, and more.Buddhist students from China learned Sanskrit and the cultural history of Nalanda at Sriwijaya University in South Sumatra before departing for Nalanda. 

Such academic migrations between Sriwijaya and Nalanda became famous as the Knowledge Route between the two empires and made Sriwajaya University famous as the stopping point for Chinese Buddhist pilgrims on their way to India, especially to Nalanda.

Sumatra’s Indian Connect

The kings of Sriwijaya even founded monasteries at Negapattam (now Nagappattinam) in Southeastern India. The Chudmani Vihara in Nagapattinam constructed in 1006 CE by Sriwijaya king Vijaya Mara Vijayatunnga Varman, is perhaps the last citadel of Buddhism in South India today. Built under patronage of Rajaraja Chola, about 350 Buddha bronzes have been found dating back to 11-16th centuries. 

Bronze inscriptions in Nalanda, Bihar, reveal that King Balaputradewa of Sriwijaya Empire, South Sumatra, built the monastery for Sriwijaya students who studied in Nalanda. Indonesian historian Aris Munandar mentions that monastery had rooms built for Sriwijaya monks. 

The Sriwijaya Empire continued to flourish until it was overrun by the Cholas from South India, somewhere around 1025, when the city of Palembang in today’s South Sumatra was seized by Chola Kings. 

Indian traders bring Islam to Sumatra
Coinciding with the decline of the Sriwijaya Empire in the 11th century, Islam made its way to Sumatra through Indian traders from Gujarat, especially to Aceh and North Sumatra. 

It was said that the variant of Islam that came to Indonesia from India was the heterodox mystic sects of Sufism, something that was not entirely foreign to the Javanese ascetics. One could see a parallel between the Javanese traditions of disciple initiation by the teacher with Indian Sufi teaching methods. 

By the late 13th century, the monarch of the Samudra kingdom in Sumatra had converted to Islam. This fact was recorded by Marco Polo who visited the island in 1292 and Italian Odoric of Pordenone in 1321.

Indian laborers at Sumatran Plantations
In 1863, Dutch tobacco traders had succeeded in obtaining land concessions in North Sumatra to plant high quality tobacco that was suited to be used as cheroot wrappers for European consumers. 

They initially employed Chinese laborers or coolies and built up a successful business. Interestingly Chinese coolies refused to prolong their contracts with the Dutch businessmen and instead opted to procure plots of lands within the Dutch concessions to grow vegetables and raise pigs. 

The Dutch traders turned to India to bring Indian coolies from Tamilnadu, Kerala and parts of North India to Sumatra. Though the British had imposed strict emigration regulations, the Dutch managed to find ways to bring a large number of Indian laborers from places like Tanjore, Madurai, Salem, and Nagapatinamby ship.

As the Dutch expanded their plantation operations and ventured into palm oil, coconut farming, coffee growing and arecanut, a good many Tamilian labourers found themselves working in different parts of Sumatra. 

They were employed not just for plantation work, but also for different auxiliary purposes, such as cart and cattle driving, road and ditch making, working on coffee, and other trial cultivations. Their monthly wages amounted generally from six to seven dollars. 

They were often referred to as Klings, a derogatory term for black skinned people, but were much valued in Sumatra for their hard work, good work ethics and honesty. An estimated 28,000 Indian laborers were employed in all parts of Sumatra in various low-level capacities. 

Around early 1900s, several Indians came to East Sumatra, mostly traders and money lenders (Chettiar community from the South),Punjabi Sikhs and Indian Muslims from North and West of India. 

Around the 1930s, there was an estimated 5.000 Punjabi Sikhs in Sumatra, who were engaged in dairy farming and trading in sports goods. There were also small time Indian merchants called “Bombay” from Central parts of India, who set up textile shops and outlets in Sumatra. 

At around the same time, the Chinese community managed to obtain plots of lands for agriculture and received credit through their clan associations “Kongsi” in Singapore, Malaysia, and elsewhere which enabled them to set up small businesses in the plantations. 
However, the Indians could not find such institutional support from Indian diaspora associations in Singapore and Malaysia and therefore became less adventurous, preferring to stick to their traditional vocations and services in Sumatra.

Japanese occupation of Sumatra
When the First World War broke out, Indian Sumatrans found themselves divided on both sides of the war. On the one hand, several members of the Indian National Army came from Burma to take sides with the Japanese. Indian Tamils living in Sumatra joined forces with INA. 

However, in the midst of Indonesia’s freedom struggle, some units of British Indian battalions arrived at Belawan Port in Medan to join forces with the Indonesia militias and youths who were fighting for the country’s freedom. 

Most of the Indians in Sumatra were ultimately won over by the Indonesian militias, who reminded Indians about their close affinity with Indonesian people, cultural linkages with Sumatra and lure of landed property to desert to the Indonesian side with their guns.

While the Chinese ex-coolies were able to transform themselves into successful businessmen with support from diaspora associations in the region, the Indian migrants lived a predictable static life. However, with the opening of the ferry service from Sumatra to Penang in 1976, 
Indian Tamils in Sumatra were able to forge much closer and stronger links with the Indian diaspora in Malaysia and began to form their own businesses and deepen the cultural connect with Sumatra.

Raghu Gururaj is the Consul General of India to Sumatra who lives  in Medan.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author.

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