Inter-Asian linkages and connectivity are important subjects for modern day research. While we talk of India-Myanmar connectivity, we take into consideration two dimensions, i.e, land and maritime connectivities. This blog talks of India-Myanmar maritime connectivities in pre-colonial historical past taking in purview the Eastern Indian Ocean or Bay of Bengal and its contemporary utilities.

The Bay of Bengal was variously known in the past. In the Sanskrit sources, it was called the prachya payanidhi or the Eastern Sea. It has been called in the Persian sources as Khalij (Bay) of the ocean or Khalij of Hind. The name Bay of Bengal seems to have been used in the European records of the 17th century.

Relations between India and the western parts of Southeast Asia go back to ancient times. India’s cultural influence on Burma, Siam, Malaya, Cambodia and Java is quite evident. The sea was the obvious way to travel between India and the Southeast Asian archipelago and social and religious contacts have also thrived because of these sea borne trading links. It appears from the writings of historians that in the pre-colonial era Myanmar  maintained a significant range of trade in her western edge of the Bay of Bengal which was eventually linked to the Indian Ocean.

Hindu traders and navigators “sailed to Suvarnabhumi (land of gold) and they introduced their own social and cultural institutions there. Therefore, some people like to describe this expansion as the colonial kingdoms of India,” some of which were set up between the second and fifth century A.D.

It is argued in recent researches that India’s maritime contact with Southeast Asia can be dated as far back the 4th century B.C. It was these trade networks which not only marked trade and exchanges but also characterized the trajectory and route of the culture of the region, through Hinduism and Buddhism from South to Southeast Asia. None of the modern historians have so far taken up the question of Siam’s pre-colonial trade into consideration, which includes the parameter of erstwhile Burma too. A few Thai historians in their historical writings regarding Mergui and Tenasserim have mainly referred to the context of “centralist historical ideology”. To put in other words these writings put much emphasis on Ayudhya, Thonburi , Bangkok on one hand & on Pagan, Hantawaddy and Ava on the other, where seat of power by Siamese & Burmese kings  was chronologically erected. With or without historical consciousness, the study of Mergui and Tenasserim from the past  to the present has been heavily relied on Siam & Burmese court chronicles such as Phongsawadan and Yazawin.

There are two special reports concerning this trade. One was written in 1608, the other in 1614, respectively known as Wilee O. Dijk’s Seventeenth century Burma and The Dutch East India Company 1634-1680. Those are important for an excellent overview of various types of cloth produced and traded in the Bay of Bengal in the seventeenth century as quoted in Stephan van Galen. Both reports provide an overview of the trade in this part of the Indian Ocean during the early seventeenth century. It is interesting to note what Cortenhoeff, the author of the 1614 report had to say about trade in eastern Bengal:

The city of Chattigam [Chitragong] where this king [Man Raja-kri] has a fortress, lies at about 22 degrees north. [Chittagong] is situated next to Diango [Dianga] Bouduschreeve (not identified].The cities Saxsala [not identified], Romour [Ramu] and Sijckeraij [Cukkara on the Matamuhuri river]. All these places are situated east of the river Ganges along the coast in the direction of Arakan. Bolwa [Bhalua] lies west of Chittagong. People say that the king of Arakan has again recovered this place from Achabar [Akbar sic.].

Dianga is separated by a small river from the mainland and the government of Saxsala. It has been praised and offered to us as a perfect place for conducting trade in Bengal. The Mogolleessen from the land of Achabar [Mughals from the land of Akbar] also come to Dianga to trade. Dianga is situated within sight of Chittagong and in a straight line would be two hours sailing from Chittagong, the journey however takes three-quarters of day via the river and the sea across the broken land of the delta. [..] From Arakan ships with a draft of two or three fathom can sail to Dianga in three days. […]

This linkage perhaps helped in the intrusion of Mahayana Buddhism in some areas of Burma initially and subsequently to many parts of South East Asia.

By the fourteenth century, Muslim traders were very visible in every important Indian Ocean port on the east and west. A spectacular expansion of Muslim enterprise has been paralleled in the historical mind with the eclipse of Hindu enterprise in maritime trade. It certainly appears that there was a relative decline in the number of Hindus traveling as seafarers and traders, but the decline was far from absolute. One might rather get the impression that the Arab traders were also responsible for spreading Islam, or to borrow the modern coinage ‘Islamisation’, of the Hindu-dominated Southeast Asian communities since their arrival in the fourteenth century. On the contrary, it was once again the traveling Indian muslim merchants from the Gujarat and Coramandal regions of peninsular India, who like their Hindu counterparts in the past, converted the Hindus into Islamic followers in the south east.

Two dominant communities – Klings and Chulias – dominated the Coramandal trade with Malacca and other trading centres in the east. The Klings are Kalingas who originally hailed from the eastern region of Kalingadesa, present day Orissa. They also refer to the Telugu speaking people of the Andhra kingdom. Chulias are the Tamil muslim community whose high visibility as a dynamic entreprunerial class is generally traced to the Arab entry into the Bay of Bengal region during eighth century. However, over the centuries the Chulias had emerged as a vibrant trading community of the Bay of Bengal region with wider commercial networks with Southeast Asian traders, and in the process contributing to the growth of Islam in that region. The influence of the Indian muslim rulers whose political domination extended to Bengal and South Indian regions can not be overlooked as a factor in carrying the Islamic religion to Southeast Asia. Thus, Braudel observes

towards the end of the fourteenth century, under the impulsion of Muslim India and Delhi sultanate, a wave of Indian traders and transporters… had reached the East Indies, accompanied by a strong current of proselytism. The conversion to Islam, which the Arab sailors of the seventh century had not achieved or even attempted, had become a reality centuries later, thanks to trade with India. The coastal towns all went over to Islam one after another.”

The Indian Ocean was converted into a European lake with the discovery of all sea routes to the East. The trade route between the littorals was subsumed by dominant European trading interests. The growth of science and technology was followed by an increase in material prosperity and this affected the political and economic set-ups of the European societies. The monarchical/feudal order collapsed and political authority was relocated in the democratic nation-states. The emerging trading and industrial classes became the basis of new European political structure. However that is a separate story.

In contemporary context, we see that sea still plays a major role. In contemporary contexta significant water project is the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project that was signed by the two ministers from Myanmar and India. Member countries of the ASEAN are naturally endowed with some 51,000 km of navigable inland waterways which can play an active role in transport development. There are urgent needs for developing inland water-transport connectivity to reap the large potential in reducing freight transport cost and time-lag in trade. Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project is in this direction utilizing Kaladan river transport and land transport for better connectivity. It is aimed at an optimal allotment of transport demands among various transport modes such as seaport. A major purpose is to develop Sittwe port (Myanmar) by India Government for supporting the cargo flow from Kolkata to Aizawl (Mizoran State, India) through Kalandan River (Myanmar). The project involves a major upgradation of infrastructure at Sittwe, located about 250km from the Mizoram border on the north-western coast of Myanmar where the Kaladan river joins the Bay of Bengal (IPCS 2008). The project will connect Kolkata seaport, East India with the seaport in Sittwe (Arakan State) – a total distance of 539 km. It will then link Sittwe to the landlocked area of Mizoram in Northeastern India via river and road transport (see red line on the map below). It will promote bilateral relations between India and Myanmar and increase trade with and continue multilateral initiatives, on a nondiscriminatory basis, with Southeast Asian economies.

To conclude one can say that in studying the Indian political and civilisational intercourse with Southeast Asia, a chronological issue that needs to be addressed is whether such expansion could be neatly pegged to a specific time-frame in history, or it was an evolutionary process with no precise and defined beginnings. Dominant historical discourse subscribes to the latter theory. My opinion too pertains to the view that India’s influence in South East Asia/ Burma was a continuous process delimited by any time-frame. Here the context of Bay of Bengal  is eternal and deep rooted, continuing from ancient past to contemporary convergence.

Professor Lipi Ghosh
Fulbright Visiting Faculty
Asian Study Program
California State University


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