Oleh: hurahura | 1 Januari 2011

INTERACTION ON THE SEA: The First Cultural Contact Between The Indian People and The Inhabitants Nusantara

Agus Aris Munandar
Departement of Archaeology
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Indonesia

The migration of Austronesia people from continental Southeast Asia to the islands of Nusantara (The Archipelago), according to Robert von Heine Geldern, were made in two phases:
1.The first phase , which took place in 2500–1500 BC
2.The second phase, which took place in 1500—500 BC
(Von Heine Geldern 1932 and 1936; Soejono 1984: 206–208).
The assumption was made based on the discovery of archaeological finds, particulary monuments from the megalithic tradition, in various places in Indonesia. The first wave of migration was presumed due to the existence of various megaliths that are roughly made and monumental in nature, and therefore were called the old megaliths. The second wave was also presumed due to megalithic finds, but they have been decorated with a variety of rich ornaments and not always made of big stones, and thus were called young megaliths. The assumption about the existence of young megaliths has to be restudied because of the advancement of researches in Southeast Asia.

More recent argument stated that the migration of Austronesian people was most probable has taken place since around 6000 BC up to early AD. They first stayed in Yunnan, South China, then distributed in small groups to all over mainland Southeast Asia and on to the coastal areas. In about 3000—2500 BC, the Austronesians began to sail across the sea into Taiwan and the island of the Philippines. The Austronesian diaspora went on, and in 2500 BC they entered Sulawesi and other surrounding islands. In 2000 BC they probably reached Maluku and Papua. Their migration to the islands of the western part of Indonesia and the Malay peninsula were made in about 2000 BC. The migration went further to the Pasific islands until 500 BC and early AD.

Clearly with the migration process they brought a specific culture that they developed. A significant progress in Austronesian society happened after its migration process in Southeast Asia was about to end. The people has spread and settled in several places in continental and insular Southeast Asia. Based on the artifacts, we may assume that between 5th and 2th century AD a culture thrived that is popularly known as the Dong-son culture. Dong-son is actually the name of a site at Thanh-hoa in the coast of Annam. The Dong-son culture is identical to the manufacturing process of bronze artifact making, although it also produced other items made of other material. Bronze objects associated with the Dong-son culture are widely found all over Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to the Kei island in east Indonesia.

Various bronze objects associated with the Dong-son culture are for example kettledrums, socketed axes, spearheads, daggers, plowing knives, and ornaments. The most impressive characteristic of Dong-son bronze object is the ornaments. All parts of an object, whenever possible, is given ornaments. The ability to express their creativity into ornamental design shows that the bearers of the Dong-son culture are people (artists) with esthetical taste, because the ornaments are not happhazardly applied (Wagner 1995: 25—26).

The most dominant ornaments are geometric and spiral designs, such as circles, rectangles, and stripes (including narrow stripes). Various kettledrums in Southeast were also decorated using animal figures (for instance frog, horse, fish, tiger, and bird) and simple human figures or human faces (though in its simple form) that reminded us to the forms of mask.

The ability of Dong-son people to make bronze objects was naturally handed down to other Austronesian society outside Dong-son but still within Southeast Asia. It is interesting to note that the migration of the Austronesian people to Southeast Asia and beyond was carried out by using boats. Experts agreed that the boats were small (they can carry 2 to 4 persons) with one sail, and with single or double outriggers. Old outriggered boats have also been reported to be found in the coastal area of South India. They were fist thought to be the boats of the Ceylon (Srilanka) people, but evidences show that they were from Southeast Asia.

Linguistic experts have found out that there are similar vocabularies among the various ethnic languages in certain places. Important vocabularies include those those relating to plants, body parts, numbers, natural phenomena, and boat. Pronounciation resemblances and meaning similarities are found in Taiwan, some parts of Vietnam, Malaysia, The Philippines, Indonesia, and even beyond Southeast Asia like Madagascar, Hawaii, Easter island, and New Zealand in the Pasific. It illustrates how far the migration of the Austronesian people. In case of the Dong-son culture, if it thrived and spread out around 5th BC—2nd AD, we can say that the Austronesian people have settled in Southeast Asia, they interact and visit each other after their ancestors left their homelands long before, which was in about 2000 BC.

There is a possibility worth mentioning that at about the same period, the people of Southeast Asia began to meet people from India and China more frequently. It is widely known that with the existence of the Buddhist religion in India, which initiated in 500 BC, they were quite a number of Chinese people who were interested in studying Buddhism in its land of origin. But there is no evidence of Indian people visiting China.

There was also an old hypothesis that many Chinese and Indian people came to Southeast Asia as merchants. It is proven by the mentioning in Chinese sources of spices from the island south of China. Likewise are notes in Indian sources it is about Indian merchants.

It is highly probable that early contacts between people in Southeast Asia and Indian or Chinese occured on open seas, not on the coast. As mentioned before, the inhabitants of Southeast Asia that bore the Dong-son culture were interrelated, and on the way they met people from India and China. It then led to a logical consequence; the “foreigners” were asked to visit the villages of the local people who live in the hinterland of some islands or in continental Southeast Asia, because it is impossible that they were the ones that found the villages in the interior parts of the islands or peninsula.

The existence of various prehistoric monuments (megaliths) in the interior areas can show that the inhabitants of Austronesia descendance had preferred to live in the mountaneous areas in the interior parts of a land, although there were also traces of prehistoric settlements in coastal areas. The choise to live in the interior areas may be related to ancestor worship and devotion to high places (mountains, hills, highlands) which based on available data, have been well-practised by them.

Based on the artifacts, it is believed that there were also Hindu and Buddhist influences, which emerged at the same with the initial contact with Indian culture. In Indonesia aside from inscriptions in the interior part of Kutai (East Kalimantan) and west Java from Tarumanagara kingdom, some bronze and stone Buddhist statues were also faound (such as the bronze statue of Sempaga, and stone Buddhist statues from Jember and Bukit Siguntang. Those statues are of Amaravati style that developed since 2nd AD in South India.

The first written object in Indonesia from Old Kutai and Tarumanagara prove that Indonesia entered the historic period at about 4th AD. It was based on the argument that the characters used in those first Indonesian inscriptions were originated from the Pallava kingdom in South India (3rd–8th AD). However, the form of characters known as the Pallava characters in the Kutai and Tarumanagara inscriptions were not always used during the period of the Pallava kingdom. Similar characters have been known in previous period, for intance in the inscriptions of King Skanda Gupta, who reigned in 136—137 AD, and the one ordered by Maharaja Hastin from Gupta dynasty in 191 AD. The characters, that were thought to belong to the Pallavans, have been widely known all over South India when the Kingdom emerged. It is true, though, that the characters were more popular when Pallava made a grand entrance in the old history of South India.

Finally, there is a problem to be solved in the future, which is the fact that in early AD the people of Southeast Asia have made contacts with both Chinese and Indian culture. What happened next was that in many parts of Southeast Asia, there were more Indian rather than Chinese influences. In this case, Southeast Asia is divided into two cultural influneces:
1.Continental Southeast Asian that is close to China, like Laos and Vietnam, which receive Chinese cultural influence.
2.Other continental and insular Southeast Asia that receive Indian cultural influence, like thailand, Khmer (Cambodia), Burma (Myanmar), Malay Peninsula, and the wester island of Indonesia.

With regards to the strong Indian influence in Southeast Asia, there are several arguments:
a.The region is relatively closer to India, so that the maritime route between Southeast Asia and India was well flourished.
b.There is climate similarity between Southeast Asia, which is influenced by Indian culture, in South and central India where great kingdom thrived in early AD.
c.The Southeast Asian people, with their own reasons, preferred to receive Indian culture, probably due to similarities of their basic religious concepts and rituals, or other reasons.

There is another problem; many Chinese people were actually come to India to study Buddhism. Therefore, the stand between the people of Southeast Asia and China were same, which is as students who studied Buddhism. That was the reason that most Southeast Asian people preferred Hinduism and Buddhism from India, not China’s Konfusianism or Taoism.


BASHAM, A.L., 1959, The Wonder That was India: A Survey of the Cultural of the Indian Sub-Continent before The coming of the Muslims. New York: Brove Press, Inc.

BELLWOOD, PETER, 1978, Man’s Conquest of The Pasifiq: The Prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania. Auckland, Sydney, London: William Collins Publishers Ltd.

BERNET KEMPERS, A.J., 1959, Ancient Indonesian Art. Amsterdam: C.P.J.van Der Peet.

HEINE-GELDERN, ROBERT VON, 1945, “Prehistoric Research in The Netherlands Indies”, edited by Pieter Honig and Frans Verdoorn, Science and Scientists in The Netherlands Indies. New York: The Riverside Press. Pages 129—167.

SOEJONO, R.P. (vol.editor), 1984, Sejarah Nasional Indonesia I. Jakarta: PN.Balai Pustaka.

VOGEL, J.PH., 1925, “The Earliest Sanskrit Inscriptions of Java”, Publicaties van den Oudheidkundigen Dienst in Nederlandsch-Indie I: 15—35. Batavia.

WAGNER, FRIZT A., 1995, Indonesia: Kesenian Suatu Daerah Kepulauan. Tranlated by Hildawati Sidharta. Jakarta: Pusat Pembinaan dan Pengembangan Bahasa, Depdikbud.


  1. Dear Sir,
    The Amaravati Buddha statue from Jember is made from stone or bronze ? Since i found the picture from Rijkmuseum is made from bronze height 47 cm. In your new book (catuspatha) you mentioned also it was made from stone around 3 m height, Where is the statue being kept presently ?

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