World History 1 191 - 12.2.2 Religion and Trade in South and Southeast Asia

The growth of Islam gave Muslims a considerable role in world trade, particularly along the Silk Roads and in the Indian Ocean. By the middle of the eighth century, Islam had moved into northern India, and when the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyad dynasty and then moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad, they established what became one the most important cities along the Silk Roads and a location that allowed them to dominate the growing Indian Ocean trade.

This new capital was situated along the Tigris River, a vital trade conduit to the Persian Gulf and to the Indian Ocean beyond. In the ninth century, the city of Siraf on the Persian Gulf coast was regularly sending ships to China and back and became one of the most important trading ports of this period. However, Siraf’s hold on trade weakened when an earthquake struck and damaged it in 997. Other regions stepped in, including Hormuz, Omar, and particularly Qeys, an island city in the Persian Gulf. Arab expansion into the Indian Ocean trade initially filtered through these ports, but it eventually expanded along the African coast as well (Figure 12.18).

A map is shown with land in beige and water in blue. Africa, Arabia, and Persia are labelled in the west, India is labelled in the south, and China is labelled in the east. The Arabian Sea is labelled south of Arabia and the Indian Ocean is labelled in the south. The Pacific Ocean is labelled in the east and the South China Sea is labelled in the southeast. Blue dashed arrows indicating “Trans-Asiatic route” begin in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of China and head south along the coast, then west below India as well as up and down both of India’s coasts. Then they head east up and down the western coast of Persia and then up and down between Africa and Arabia. Arrows go both ways on all these routes. Red dashed arrows indicate “Secondary route.” One begins just south of Arabia in the Arabia Sea and heads south and back north along the east coast of Africa. Another red dashed line is seen along the eastern coast of China heading north and then south and circling all of the islands in the South China Sea before heading west and up the southwestern coast of China. Another heads west and connects with a blue dashed arrow just southwest of India in the Indian Ocean.
Figure 12.18 In the tenth century, Indian Ocean trade spread from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf down to Africa and around India to China. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Muslim presence in northwest India was also an important link in the chain of Indian Ocean trade. Muslim raiders invaded India in the eighth century and came through Khurasan and Ghazni in the late tenth and eleventh centuries and many of the local inhabitants converted to Islam. In Gujarat, just south of the Sindh region, the Hindu Chalukya dynasty still controlled much of the Indian Ocean trade through their key city of Khambhat. However, by the end of the twelfth century, their power was waning. When the Turkic peoples from present-day Afghanistan began to rule the area of Delhi independently as the Delhi Sultanate in 1206, this region slowly came under their influence.

Generations of incursions from Persian dynasties into South Asia meant that Persian influence deeply affected the region. That Persian influence can still be seen today in the language of Urdu in modern-day Pakistan, which combines Hindu and Farsi elements. One portion of the Delhi Sultanate was Gujarat, which the sultan Ala al-Din annexed in 1304 after years of ransacking Gujarati cities. When the central Asian warlord Timur (also called Tamerlane in the West) sacked and captured Delhi at the end of the century, Gujarat split off from the weakened state to become an independent Muslim sultanate under the Tughluq dynasty. The Tughluqs set about subduing the region’s Hindu Rajput chieftains and building a navy at Diu, strategically located along important trade routes between the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Thus, much of the Indian Ocean trade in northwest India fell into the hands of this Islamic state.

From the decline of the Guptas to the rise of powerful northern Muslim sultanates such as Gujarat, peninsular India was home to the Hindu Chola kingdom, a maritime trade empire. With its vassal states including parts of the modern-day Maldives and Sri Lanka in the south, Chola dominated trade in the nearby portion of the Indian Ocean from about 970 to 1300. Crucially important to its dominance was control of the Palk Strait between Sri Lanka and southern India. The strait acted as a choke point where vessels had to stop to pay taxes, usually a portion of their cargo. Many of these vessels were known as dhows and carried twelve to twenty-four sailors (Figure 12.19).

A black and white drawn image of a boat is shown on rough, dark waters. The boat is curved and flat with a small triangular tent at the left and a person seen at the front. A large, white, triangular rigged sail is on the right and a rolled up sail is seen at the back.
Figure 12.19 This is an image of a ship called a dhow, with lashed and stitched hull construction and a lateen (triangular) rigged sail, such as Arab merchants used en route to India. (credit: “Arab Dhow” by The New Gresham Encyclopedia, Vol IV, Part 1/Project Gutenberg, Public Domain)

Secondary trading also occurred, in which authorized middle merchants conducted exchanges between these larger ships and smaller port cities, a system known as cabotage. In the eleventh century, the Chola were trying to extend and consolidate their control over regional trade. To this end, Rajendra I, the “Victor of the Ganges” (1019–1021), sailed up east India’s Coromandel coast and seized ports with the goal of deepening commercial ties with China, where trade in items such as ivory and glassware were common.

The Chola enjoyed an artistic, architectural, and literary flowering during the tenth and eleventh centuries. This “Imperial Golden Age” saw an explosion in the construction of monumental temples, like the one at Thanjavur on the southeastern coast, in the so-called Chola style—identifiable by such elements as high surrounding walls and stepped, pyramidal towers (Figure 12.20). Many of these sites housed intricately ornamented bronze statues of deities commissioned by the rulers, signifying their prominence, wealth, and devoutness. The golden age of the Chola is also known as the greatest epoch in South Indian literary tradition. One notable work of this tradition is the Ramavataram, a twelfth century Tamil epic written by the poet Kambar that was based on the Ramayana, the Sanskrit epic that told of the exploits of Prince Rama. All of this is a clear reminder that throughout world history, art and architecture tend to flourish when there is economic and political stability to support and sustain those efforts.

A picture of a stepped-pyramidal shaped stone building is seen. It is brown, blue and black with a door at the right with a two-step stoop. No windows or other openings are seen. Palm trees peek out from behind the building in the background and a light brown dirt floor is seen around the tiled gray base under the structure.
Figure 12.20 This Hindu temple dating from the Chola dynasty’s golden age represents the distinctive stepped-pyramidal shape that was a common feature of Chola architecture. (credit: “A Surya temple from Eastern Chalukyas of Vengi era” by G.N. Subrahmanyam/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Their golden age would not have been possible had the Chola not controlled trade through the Palk Strait, which generated enormous revenues. The monopolization of choke points was essential to anyone wishing to profit from maritime trade, as the founders of the Srivijaya Empire discovered with their command of the Malacca Strait. Traders sailing from the eastern Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia had to travel through this strait, between today’s Sumatra in the Indonesian archipelago and Malaysia (Figure 12.21). From around 650, Srivijaya profited by managing and taxing the lucrative trade that passed through the strait.

A map of India is shown with land also seen to the northeast. Land is highlighted beige and water is blue. The Indian Ocean is labelled in the south and the Bay of Bengal is labelled to the east of India. The southern half of India is highlighted green as well as the northern third of the island located to its southeast, indicating “Chola Territory.” Cities labelled with red dots within this area include, from north to south: Vengl, Kanchipuram, Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Nagapattinam, and Thanjavur. A thin oval area on the northeast coast is highlighted orange indicating “Chola Influence” with these areas labelled within from north to south: Vangadesam (Pala), Odda, and Kalinga. The bottom two thirds of the island southeast of India is also highlighted orange as well as all the islands in the southeastern portion of the Bay of Bengal. A small, circled area is orange on the east coast of the Bay with the city of Pegu labelled within with a red dot. Land located in the southeast part of the map is highlighted orange in a “V” shape with these cities labelled within, from north to south: Cahaya (Chaiya), Kadaram (Kedah), Panai, and Srivijaya (Palembang). A blue arrow indicating “Trade Routes” runs from the southern tip of India, east across the Indian Ocean, through the islands in the southeast, and then north up the coast. The city of Kalyani (Basavakalyan) and the area of Western Chalukyas are labelled in India. The city of Pagan and the Burmese area is labelled north of Pegu and the city of Chenla (Khmer) is labelled in the east with the areas of Champa and Sambor Prei Kuk (Siem Reap) labelled as well.
Figure 12.21 This map shows the maritime trade route of the Srivijaya Empire, which went through the Strait of Malacca, the narrow stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra. For a time, Srivijaya, with its capital at Palembang, controlled most of Southeast Asia’s waterborne trade. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

During its early history, Srivijaya was highly influenced by both Buddhist and Hindu traders coming from India. For example, in the Srivijaya capital of Palembang in southern Sumatra stands a magnificent Buddha statue dating from the seventh or eighth century. Sculpted in the highly ornate and detailed Amaravati style still popular in contemporary India and named after the southeastern region where it originally developed, this work attests to the role of trade in spreading art, culture, and ideology. Hindu shrines and temples that still stand also show the depth to which Hinduism penetrated Srivijayan culture and society during this formative period.

By the tenth century, Srivijaya controlled all trade between the Indian Ocean and China. Alarmed by the exorbitant taxes on trade and the threat of piracy the Srivijaya posed, however, the Cholas sent a maritime expedition against them in 1025, crushing their major ports including Palembang and reducing Srivijaya’s power and influence for a time. Although Srivijaya managed to recover somewhat, its grip on maritime trade soon weakened permanently. By the thirteenth century, it had largely been displaced by the port of Malacca, which came to dominate a region that included modern-day Singapore.

The thirteenth century marks a time of considerable Islamic expansion into Southeast Asia; the Acehnese peoples on the northern tip of Sumatra were the first to embrace the religion. Many merchants in particular converted to Islam, which ensured the safe movement of their goods and protections against loss, especially in the states on the northeast coast of Sumatra such as Perlak and Aru, followed by Pasai in the north, and Malacca, the new maritime center. A further stream of Islamization came with Sufi missionaries. Sufism, a branch of Sunni Islam, blended Islam with local religious traditions, encouraging non-merchants to convert. Over time, Islam came to dominate much of the Malay Peninsula as well as Sumatra and, particularly in the fifteenth century, northern Java.

Hinduism, like Islam, grew in Southeast Asia during the later Middle Ages. In the twelfth century, for example, construction began on the great temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat was meant to serve as the state temple, funerary complex, and capital city of the reigning monarch Suryavarman II. Hindu motifs decorated the exterior of the structure in bas relief form, featuring images of the gods and scenes from the epic Indian poem Mahabharata, while the temple’s five towers were meant to represent Mount Meru, the dwelling place of the gods in Hindu religion. By the end of the twelfth century, however, the complex had been transformed into a Buddhist center of worship.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax