Beads, Social Change and Interaction between India and South-East Asia. (Research)

By Bellina, Berenice | Antiquity, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Beads, Social Change and Interaction between India and South-East Asia. (Research)


Bellina, Berenice, Antiquity


The Indianisation of the east--a changing concept

A major task for archaeological and anthropological research is to reconstruct and understand patterns of cultural exchange. For more than a century, the sequence of cultural exchanges between India and South-east Asia has been referred to as 'Indianisation', because it led to major transfers of Indian religious, political and artistic features to South-east Asia, all of them closely connected with the process of state-formation. Indianisation is a passionately debated subject, and the explanations proposed have varied greatly according to the period and the background of the scholars concerned.

The earliest scholars working on early South-east Asia were trained in Indian philology, epigraphy and art history and lacked the archaeological methodology to take account of the thousand years before the emergence of these first states about the fifth century AD. Early in the 20th century scholars of the 'Greater India' movement credited the formation of the first states to a large-scale colonisation from India (Majumdar 1941: 21). For van Leur, on the other hand, writing from the perspective of Indonesian history, Indianisation was initiated by South-east Asian elites who needed to import Indian advisors to strengthen their political and social legitimacy (Van Leur 1955). From the 1960s, the concept of a 'civilising' and 'colonising' India lost further credibility when research revealed a high level of social, political, economical and technical development in the South-east Asian region in the late prehistoric period, independent of any Indian intervention. Research has also demonstrated the dynamism of intra-regional exchange networks dating back to the Bronze Age if not before (Bayard 1984; Higham 1989: 190-238; Glover 1998: 22-27; Glover & Syme 1993). During the 1980s, Wolters developed the concept of 'localisation' by which Indian elements were adapted to local ideologies and values (Wolters 1999: 15-26), while Kulke (1990) proposed a 'convergence' hypothesis in which politically similar societies on either side of the Bay of Bengal came into closer contact through trade, and the elites of South-east Asia employed Brahman ritual specialists to legitimise their rule.

Nowadays, most scholars agree that there was contact between the two regions from at least the middle of the first millennium BC when some Indian products (beads) and technologies (iron and glass working) start to appear in mainland South-east Asia. Most also consider that South-east Asian elites actively encouraged these exchanges and that they selected and adapted some of the Indian politico-religious concepts to their own ends, even if the net effect remained a transfer of cultural features from India to South-east Asia.

Until very recently, these models still relied on the study of texts, inscriptions and art dating to a time when the process was already well under way. This has led to a description of the interaction between India and South-east Asia which is inadequate in a number of particulars. Indianisation was seen as an exclusively historical episode, independent of the preceding proto-historical period. The process is portrayed as essentially political and religious, concerning only the elite, and takes no account of the possible impact of the exchange on Indian societies.

Rewards of archaeological investigations

One way to investigate the changes experienced within the main body of society is to examine the distribution and use of a widely dispersed but highly valued artefact, or "status marker". This was the purpose of the research reported here. A formal and technological analysis of agate and carnelian beads dating from the protohistorical period through the early historical period allowed different models to be reappraised and led to a new view on the topic (Figure 1). It showed that cultural exchange was already underway in the protohistorical period, and while Indianisation certainly took place, the transfer was not all one way: South-east Asia specified the form of the symbolic objects and India was itself affected by the exchanges. …

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