The Indian Ocean is vital to global trade. The route from the Red Sea to the Straight of Malacca has been mankind’s premier oceanic mercantile highway since antiquity. Lying at the crossroads of this body of water is the Indian Subcontinent. Oddly enough, the South Asians have played a secondary role in the Indian Ocean world. Arabs and Europeans have usually been dominant, but Indic peoples have definitely plied these waters too. And from the days of the Indus Civilization, traders from throughout the Subcontinent’s littoral have done business everywhere from Arabia to East Africa.
It is in Southeast Asia though that Indic seafarers left their greatest legacies. Hinduism, Buddhism and the Sanskrit and Pali languages reached Southeast Asia via the Monsoonal trade routes. The reason why South Asia has been underrepresented in the history of the Indian Ocean is because their intentions were peaceful: the Indic world was known for projecting soft power rather than naval might. This pacifistic trend was reversed twice, firstly by the Chola Emperor Rajendra and later by Parakaramabahu of Lanka based on another emotion key to the South Asian experience, honour.
Rajendra Chola was perhaps the greatest of the ethnic Tamil Chola Emperors of South India during the medieval period. His military exploits included the formation of a vast maritime empire stretching from the Laccadives and Maldives to Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands. On the mainland he extended his rule along the eastern seaboard right up to Bengal, where his reaching the Ganges was considered an extremely auspicious achievement for this Hindu monarch. It was his invasion of the Srivijaya Empire, in what is today Indonesia and Malaysia, that is considered his greatest military feat. This event is closely linked to the Indian Ocean trade.
The reason why South Asia has been underrepresented in the history of the Indian Ocean is because their intentions were peaceful: the Indic world was known for projecting soft power rather than naval might
In 1025 AD, the economic activity of the Indian Ocean littoral was dominated by trade between two polities, the Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt to the west and the Song Dynasty of China, across the Strait of Malacca. Traditionally South India had been the stop-over point for ships sailing from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and China, but due to advancements in shipbuilding, now vessels from Egypt and Southern Arabia could go directly to Indonesia and then onwards to China, bypassing South Asia. This greatly profited the Buddhist Shailendra Dynasty, the rulers of the Srivijaya Empire based in Sumatra, Java, Borneo and the Malay Peninsula, at the expense of the Cholas. Rajendra did not take this affront lightly.
Rajendra planned his naval expedition meticulously. His fleet first went as a whole to the Andamans to wait out the Southwest Monsoon. Here the fleet was divided with one portion heading on down the Maly Peninsula to Malacca and the other sailing south through the rough seas off Sumatra during the height of the Northeast Monsoon, an unprecedented feat in maritime history. These two expeditionary forces attacked Srivijaya at several points and crippled their main trading ports. The second group swung around Sumatra and then crossed the Sunda Strait and attacked the Srivijaya capital on that island. Srivijaya never recovered from the Chola invasion. The Cholas effectively conquered what are today Malaysia and the Western islands of Indonesia but were unable to hold or administer them for very long, with local dynasties retaking control under Chola influence. Ethinc Tamil trading guilds subsequently dominated the mercantile culture of the region. This eventually lead to the rise of the Hindu Majapahit Empire in the Malay Archipelago.
One of the oldest possessions of the Cholas outside South India was the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. The Chola rule of the island was seen as a great affront by the native Sinhalese, who unlike the Dravidian Tamils were Indo-Aryan speakers and Theravada Buddhists, not Shaivite Hindus. Parakramabahu I came to power as king of Polonnaruwa, the largest and most powerful kingdom on the island at the time, in the years following the Chola withdrawal. He is best known for politically unifying the several Sinhalese principalities and conducting great works of civil engineering, such as massive dams, to create water reservoirs. He is also known for building temples in the city of Polonnaruwa.
Theravada Buddhism had been introduced to Southeast Asia from the island and subsequently when Buddhism declined in Sri Lanka itself, monks from Burma and Thailand had played important roles in reviving it
Parakramabahu was a devout Buddhist and he oversaw the relations between Lanka and the Theravada Buddhist polities in Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism had been introduced to Southeast Asia from the island and subsequently when Buddhism declined in Sri Lanka itself, monks from Burma and Thailand had played important roles in reviving it. The Kingdom of Bagan was at that time in control of what is today Myanmar (Burma) and was a great center of Buddhism. Sri Lankan monks and envoys often visited Lower Burma by sea to study and forge links between the two Buddhist lands. As Lanka was the land of the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, which was then housed in a temple in Polonnaruwa, they were held in high esteem by the Burmese. This was until King Narathu of Lower Burma started to forsake the visiting Sinhalese and banned the export of elephants from Burma to Sri Lanka. Although Sri Lanka had plenty of elephants of its own, the Sri Lankan variety of the Asiatic elephant is usually tusk-less and tuskers are preferred for temple ceremonies and processions, so these were obtained from Burma.
When word of this refusal to provide elephants got to Parakramabahu, he immediately assembled an invasion fleet. Other than warriors, also on board were hundreds of the fearsome war elephants of Lanka. The fleet left the port of Trincomalee on the East Coast and probably followed the Northeast Monsoon up the Bay until they reached the coast of Bengal and then subsequently hugged the coast down to Lower Burma. The Sinhalese sailed up one of the arms of the Irrawady Delta and sacked the city of Pathein, capturing and killing Narathu in the process. Making sure that Sinhalese pride was restored, the Lankans returned to their home, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.
Indic Civilization almost from its inception has been one that has had immense soft power but has not been adept at conquering foreign lands by military force. The Subcontinent is a land of creation, not destruction. But there is an underlying concept in Indic culture that can, when threatened, lead to violence and that is the concept of honour. Both the Tamil Cholas under Rajendra and the Sinhalese under Parakaramabahu felt that they had been insulted by the upstart Southeast Asians, a people who had adopted their culture and religion. It is because of this affront to their honour that these two great Southern kings sent their navies to sack Southeast Asia. Both the Tamils and the Sinhalese will be remembered in the annals of history as the only South Asians to have invaded Southeast Asia and exerted their military and political control across the Bay of Bengal.