On June 3, 2011, in the streamline modern home of the Indian ambassador to Indonesia, Mr. M.K. Singh, Director of the Indian Cultural Center in Jakarta, shared with Indonesian Heritage Society members his professional and personal fascination with the cultural exchange that has taken place over millennia between India and Indonesia.
He was careful to note that he doesn’t see the connection as influence or a one-way relationship. Initially, I thought perhaps he was just being diplomatic. And, it is true, there appears to be much more of India in Indonesia than the other way around. But that isn’t the full story.
Cultural and historical linkages between the two countries began through trading, thousands of years ago. Though some might view the relationship through a soft power lens, hegemony was not necessarily on the minds of the early merchants, Singh explained.
In fact, there was great resistance in ancient India to geographical exploration. The high-caste Brahmin religious leaders discouraged their countrymen from traveling abroad. Those who dared venture overseas were deemed outcasts, untouchable.
The earliest contact between India and Indonesia is believed to have begun around 261 BC, when Ashoka, King of the Maurya Empire, conquered Orissa, in northeast India, home of the Kalinga people. Some Kalinga began to drift East to what is now Indonesia.
Over time, Hindu symbols and culture attained prominence in Indonesia. Temples such as Prambanan, in south-central Java and elsewhere in Indonesia, including Bali, were erected.
The Javanese language contains approximately 6,790 Sanskriti words. Singh was careful to note that though Sanskrit did not originate in India, the language was further developed there and spread farther East.
Rama, Sita, Hanoman and other characters from the Ramayana are very much a part of Javanese culture, easily recognizable in the Wayang Kulit or Wayang Orang performances. (They are also on view in the recently-renovated Puppet/Wayang Museum, in Fatahillah Square.)
And the elephant-featured Ganesha, Hindu god of beginnings, and the remover of obstacles, appeared on the 20,000 Rupiah note.
The cultural sharing has not been just one-directional, however. Singh noted that following a visit to Indonesia in 1927, Indian cultural icon and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore introduced batik to students at his Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan, West Bengal.
Tagore also introduced to India Rabindra Nritya Natya dance, inspired by mudras, or movements, from Javanese and Balinese dance.
I asked if there were additional examples of Indonesian cultural influence in India.
Singh recounted a romantic tale of a Kalinga prince who meets a Balinese princess studying dance in Kalinga. When she returned to Bali, he followed her there. Though she was engaged to another, he asked her father for her hand in marriage. Her father offered that if the prince could defeat the princess’s fiancé in a duel, the prince could marry her. Victorious, the prince was ready to take the princess back to Kalinga, but her father decreed that she must stay in Bali. The prince left Bali alone, vowing that he would love her forever and that every year, on the day of their parting, he would remember her. Each year, on a full-moon day in November or December, thousands of people converge on the shores of Orissa and launch small paper boats and candles to remember the star-crossed couple.
Singh said that similar examples of Indian-Indonesian cultural sharing can be found along the southern peninsula and eastern regions of India, which he looks forward to exploring further.
Culinarily, and more personally, he added that he and his wife love gado gado, which they’ve tweaked a bit and plan to share with family and friends in India.