Sailing To Suvarnabhumi, The Land of Gold

by Himanshu Prabha Ray & Susan Verma Mishra

Publication: Introduction and Working Papers of the 2016-2018 Project ‘Sailing to Suvarṇabhūmi: Cultural Routes and Maritime Landscapes’, proposed by the ASEAN – India Centre (AIC) at RIS | ADB Document

Published: 2018

Pages: 86

Language : English

This is one of the most comprehensive and groundbreaking works on commercial, maritime, cultural and religious links between India and the Southeast Asian entity.

A mystical quest for the "land of gold", the eastward journey from India was from the earliest times also a commercial impulse driving intrepid sailors through the Bay of Bengal, back and forth, and gave birth to "coastal shrines" along the maritime facades and islands of Southeast Asia.

After a well-documented research through historical documents and oral traditions, the authors note that "the search for Suvarṇabhūmi became the focus of intellectual history in 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and Southeast Asia. Revire points out that, “in the eyes of the Buddhist devotee throughout the Theravada world Suvarṇabhūmi is more than just a name. Much of the scholarship has been preoccupied with attempting to identify the precise location of Suvarṇabhūmi, motivated in part by “the national pride of claiming to be the first Buddhist state of Southeast Asia". Pali sources specifically link the name with a pivotal story that narrates the spread of Buddhism into various ‘countries’ or polities, one of which was called Suvarṇabhūmi.The most important sources are the Sinhalese Chronicles such as the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa. From the 15th century onwards Lower Burma and Northern Thailand adapted parts of the myth contained in the Sinhalese Chronicles."

As for Angkor and the Khmer Empire, the authors remark that "the temples of Preah Khan and Ta Phrom have yielded in situ inscriptions, which provide detailed information and indicate that in both cases the temple complexes were large, had several groups associated with them. For example, there are references to over one thousand teachers at Preah Khan. Both the temples were built in the 12th century by Jayavarman VII and while Ta Phrom was dedicated to the king’s mother as Prajñāpāramitā, Preah Khan was built five years later to the king’s father as Bodhisattva Lokeshvara. Three small temples surround the Buddha temple: the one to the north is dedicated to Siva, and the one to the west to Visnu, while the one on the south is for the deceased king and queen. Built in the Bayon style is the temple of Ta Prohm also known as Rajavihara and located at the edge of the eastern Baray at about one kilometer from Angkor Thom. The temple continued with additions and expansions being made until the reign of Srindravarman at the end of the 15th century. The main image, of the temple was of Prajñāpāramitā, and the northern and southern satellite temples in the third enclosure were dedicated to the king’s guru, Jayamangalartha, and his elder brother respectively. The temple’s inscriptional record states that the site was home to more than 12,500 people (including 18 high priests and 615 dancers), with an additional 800,000 people in the surrounding villages working to provide services and supplies. The stele also notes that the temple amassed considerable riches, including gold, pearls and silks. It is this underlying ideology of moral and spiritual virtues that link Buddhist World Heritage sites in the ASEAN – India region, notably those at Sukhothai and Ayutthaya in Thailand; Borobudur in Indonesia; Ta Phrom in Angkor, Cambodia; Pyu sites in Myanmar; with those in India, such as at Sanchi, Ajanta, Ellora, Bodh Gaya and Nalanda among others. Clearly there is a need not only to study the art and architecture of Buddhist World Heritage sites across Asia, but also to research the scholarly lineages resident at these monastic centres, which led to a sharing of knowledge, both through texts, as well as recitations and performances." (p 69)

The last working paper in the series deals with modern history, with some insights on Bengali poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore's interest for Southeast Asia, and how the specific cultures of the subcontinent inspireed modern Indian leaders.

ADB Input: Some Indian researchers (for instance here) have been claiming that Angkor Wat was directly inspired by the temples of Mahabalipuram -- a 7th-8th centuries royal town and another UNESCO World Heritage site --, that Indian traders sailed to the South-East Asian countries from the seaport of Mahabalipuram, and that King Suryavarman II was a descendant of Cholas, the ancient rulers of Tamil Nadu.

This series of essays was initially part of the 2016-2018 Project ‘Sailing to Suvarṇabhūmi: Cultural Routes and Maritime Landscapes’, proposed by the ASEAN – India Centre (AIC) at RIS (Research and Information System for Developing Countries). The authors are leading Indian historians in the field of maritime history and archaelogy.

We have gathered into one single document the Introduction ("Bibliography on Sailing to Suvarnabhumi") and five working papers by the same authors, also published by AIC-RIS:

  • I) "On the Sailing Ship: Across the Bay of Bengal"
  • II) "Trade Networks and Commodities"
  • III) "Shared Religious and Cultural Heritage"
  • IV) "Of Script and Languages: Deciphering the Transactionsof the Literate World"
  • V) "Travels by (Indian) Leaders in the 19th and 20th Century".

Photo: Group statue at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, Thailand (tastythailand.com)

Tags: Southeast Asia, India, Indian influences, Indian travelers, Bay of Bengal, Ta Prohm, Indian studies, Sukhotai, Suvarnabhumi, Thailand, Burma, Myanmar, Indonesia, Cholas

About the Authors

Portrait of Himanshu Prabha  Ray

Himanshu Prabha Ray

Prof. Himanshu Prabha Ray (15 Aug. 1947) is an Indian Sanskrit scholar, historian, and archaeologist focusing on maritime history and archaeology. A recipient of the Anneliese Maier research award of the Humboldt Foundation for collaborative research and an Honorary Professor of the Distant Worlds Programme, Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, she was also a professor in the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

Until 2015, she was the Chairperson of the National Monuments Authority, under the government of India. In her recent project focusing on Indian coastal belt from Goa to Mangalore, she intends to study the history of the sea through the historical monuments dated back to European time. Himanshi Prabha Ray has published numerous books and essays on Indian and regional maritime trade and exchanges, including Archeology of Seafaring : The Indian Ocean in the Ancient Period (Pragati Publications, 2002) and Coastal Shrines and Transnational Maritime Networks across India and Southeast Asia (Routledge India, 2021). She is the editor of the Routledge series of books Archaeology and Religion in South Asia.

Portrait of Susan Verma  Mishra

Susan Verma Mishra

Dr. Susan Verma Mishra is an Indian archaelogist and historian who published with Himanshi Prabha Ray The Archaeology of Sacred Spaces : The temple in western India, 2nd century BCE - 8th century CE (Taylor & Francis, London, 2016), focusing on the religious shrine in western India as an institution of cultural integration in the period spanning 200 BCE to 800 CE.