Greater India: The Indian Ocean Rim is a natural hinterland

November 15, 2010

A version of the following was published by DNA on Nov 16th at and the pdf is at

Greater India: The Indian Ocean Rim is a natural cultural hinterland


Rajeev Srinivasan on why “look East” should be more than a slogan


While the Obama visit occupied the entire mind-space of the Indian media, it seems life did not exactly come to a grinding halt elsewhere. Indians didn’t hear much about the volcano in Indonesia that blew up, for instance, but they should pay a lot more attention to Indonesia and its region.


Southern Java’s Yogyakarata, the old cultural capital of Indonesia, is close to the remarkable monuments at Borobudur and Prambanan. Yogya has an ominous presence in the background – just 30 kilometers away lies the dangerous Mount Merapi (‘meru’ + ‘api’ – mount of fire).


Indeed, Merapi’s most recent eruptions in late October and early November created a death of toll of several hundred people, some buried in fine volcanic ash –with scenes reminiscent of Pompeii – and others killed by fast-moving pyroclastic flows. They had to shut down the airports in Yogya and nearby Solo.


Merapi is within 40 kilometers of both Borobudur and Prambanan. Borobudur, the massive Buddhist monument from the 9th century CE, is the largest man-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere: a giant stupa, a sculptured hill covered with hundreds of seated Buddhas with enigmatic smiles and mudras of blessings. The structure represents various levels of the Buddhist universe.


Prambanan, less well-known, is the Hindu equivalent of Borobudur, and from roughly the same time period. They are stylistically polar opposites: Borobudur is powerful and muscular, whereas Prambanan (a suggested etymology is ‘brahma-vana’) is tall, slender and ethereal. Indeed, another name for Prambanan is ‘slender maiden’. It consists of three temples, one each to Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. The Siva temple is the tallest and the best preserved. In an earthquake in 2006, Prambanan was severely damaged. A big eruption of Merapi may altogether doom it.


Indonesia shows the power of Indic ideas – as Tagore remarked, wherever you go in the country, you are reminded of India, because of familiar cultural signals. Even the languages – old Javanese and Balinese – look much like Indian scripts, and children still chant “a, aa, e, ee”. A large number of cultural memes in Indonesia are imported from India, including in traditional dance, puppetry, music, even in the name of the national airline, ‘Garuda’.


In the middle of a large square in Jakarta, there is a giant sculpture of the Gitopadesa. On a full moon night, I have watched Javanese Muslim dancers perform the Ramayana Ballet outside Prambanan . There is the Hindu island of Bali, where the Hindus fled when a Javanese king of the Majapahit dynasty converted to Islam.


Hindu and Buddhist ideas from India made their way to the Indonesian archipelago around the second to fourth century; they thrived for a thousand years, not through conquest but because the ideas themselves were useful and good.


There was in fact an Indian military invasion – although that was later. Circa 1017, Rajendra Chola sent a huge expeditionary force clear across the ocean to defeat the Srivijaya Empire in Sumatra. It was possibly the largest naval fleet ever assembled before the advent of steamships in the 19th century, quite likely bigger, and certainly more successful, than the Spanish Armada.


Unfortunately, unlike the big claims the Chinese are making – and these grow with every retelling – of their Admiral Zheng He and his alleged naval adventures, India has been noticeably reticent about the glorious maritime exploits of the Cholas. This needs to change, purely out of necessity: India needs to provide a counterweight to China.


An intriguing article in the New York Times of November 12th by Robert Kaplan (“Obama takes Asia by sea”) applies Spykman’s ideas about “rimland” and “heartland”, suggesting that rimland India and Indonesia will influence the strategic future of Asia, whereas the interior powers of Russia and China are handicapped by being landlocked. The Great Game was about Russia’s desired access to warm-water ports, and now China, with its ‘string of pearls’ is trying to build a network of friendly naval bases.


The US is now exhorting India to no longer just “look east”, but become a presence in East Asia. With China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea, in Tibet and Kashmir, it is necessary to ‘contain’ China with a web of relationships, such as with Vietnam and Japan.


India has so far fumbled its connections with Southeast Asia, which was traditionally known as Greater India. Invited to join ASEAN at its founding, India haughtily declined to: yet another Himalayan blunder. The cultural legacy is a link that India should use to engage with increasingly SE Asia. Going by the rapid rise of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, this region is where the future is. It may yet be the century not of the Pacific, but of the Indian Ocean. A Pax Indica or an Indian Ocean Rim Community is a possible dream.


820 words, 12 November 2010



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