Hindu Civilizations of South East Asia
Global Influence of Hinduism

Hindu Civilizations of South East Asia

In a not too distant past Hindu culture stretched from the Philippines to Madagascar. Hindu merchants dominated trade, Hindu kings ruled over vast territories and the Hindu religion was practiced by millions of Malays, Indonesians, Thais, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese, Burmese, Filipinos and Africans. 

Today, as we make a brief overview of the world, we find that the Hindu tradition and way of life is, in general, an Indian phenomenon. Mention of the word Hindu automatically brings to mind the religion and civilization confined to the borders of modern India. However, it was not too long ago that Hindu civilization was the dominant culture of most of South East Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Today the only reminders of this ancient legacy can be found in the Indonesian island of Bali and amongst the many ancient ruins scattered across this part of the globe. From Vietnam’s My Son Shiva Temples, Philippines ancient Sanskrit “Laguna Copperplate Inscription” and Hindu gold discoveries, Laos’ Wat Phou Hindu Temple, Vietnam’s Hindu Cham Balamon (Brahmin) peoples, the Ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya it is obvious that the imprint of Hindu/Vedic civilization on the region runs deep.

Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is famously the world’s largest Hindu temple and recent evidence shows that it is much more extensive than previously believed. The same can be said regarding the widespread influence of Hinduism. Its historic footprint is much larger and widespread than most believe and the influence of Hinduism is impacting us all to this very day.


gold statue
13th C. Gold statue

A case in point can be made when we look at the Philippines. Today the Philippines are predominantly Christian. Yet upon a closer look we find some startling evidences of Hindu culture still flourishing amongst the Filipinos. Most Filipinos themselves have forgotten their ancient history and are unfamiliar with their connections to India.

However these connections are obvious once highlighted.

According to the work of the Vatican Scholar Father Josemaria S. Luengo, PhD, in “A History of the Philippines: A Focus on the Christianization of Bohol (1521-1991)”, the Philippines were ruled over by Hindu Kings from the year 638 AD till 1565 AD with a brief period of Buddhist rule from 1389 – 1424 AD.(i) Therefore it is not surprising to find many common features between the Indian and Filipino cultures and languages.

The ancient Filipino alphabet originated from India. Its script is an offshoot of the Vatteluttu alphabet officially classified as a member of the Southern Brahmic language family.(ii) The Brahmic family refers to writing styles descended from the Brāhmī script dated to India’s Mauryan period of 322 BC – 188BC. Brahmi may actually be much more ancient. Orissa’s Vikramkhol inscriptions, dated 3000 BC, are a hybrid of Brahmi and the Mohenjodaro script. (iii)

Brahmi’s widespread use throughout Asia, in areas that included Mongolia, Tibet, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Manchuria is many times attributed to Buddhist monks. However the evidence suggests that Sanskrit based languages were indigenous to all these regions. We find that the words used for basic social structural and foundational aspects of society are many times pure Sanskrit. (iv) This is the case with the Philippines as well.

Many words in the Filipino languages are indeed pure Sanskrit. Among such words are:

  • Budhi: conscience
  • Dukha: one who suffers
  • Guro: teacher
  • Sampalataya: faith, Sanskrit – sampratyaya
  • Mukha: face
  • Laho: eclipse, Sanskrit – rahu
  • Kalma: fate
  • Damla: Dharma
  • Mantala: mantra
  • Upaya: power
  • Lupa: face
  • Salbe: sarva
  • Galura: Garuda
  • Lakshmana: admiral
  • Seurga: heaven
  • Neraka: hell
  • Tamad: lazy
  • Agama: religion and
  • Naga: serpent

The chiefs of many Philippine islands were called Rajas, as in the Filipino King Raja Siaui of Butuan encountered by the crew on Magellen’s famous voyage. (v) To this day teachers are called Guro and the traditional martial art of the Philippines is called Kali and is widely recognized as an Indian rooted tradition.

The Moros of the Sulu archipelago would often go into battle dressed like Kali the Goddess of Destruction. (vi) Such a tribal based tradition bespeaks of a very deep indigenous Filipino Hindu based culture. The Hindu concept of Karma is understood culturally and recognized as a fact by Filipinos. The Philippines even have their own version of the Ramayana known as “Raja Mangandiri”. In 1953 the Philippine Government instituted a medal of honor called the “Order of Sikatuna-Raja” (Commander Laureate).

The 1989 discovery of the “Laguna Copperplate Inscription” dated to 900 AD is in a form of Kavi written in the Sanskrit language. It begins with the Vedic calendar day of Saka-year 822; the month of March-April, 4th day of the dark half of the moon. swasti shaka warshatita 822 waisakha masa ding jyotisha, chaturthi krishnapaksha’.

This discovery has pushed back Philippine history by 621 years and it gives the Philippines a documented existence among the other ancient kingdoms of the world.

The repeated discoveries of Vedic Golden ornaments and Hindu deities also testify to the Indic influences on Filipino culture. Golden images of Garuda, known as Sulu Galura the eagle-mount of Vishnu, have been found in the Philippine island of Palawan. A 4 lb, 1 foot-high, gold Hindu deity of a goddess, now resting in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, IL, USA, was discovered on the island of Mindanao, in 1917. Ancient examples of Hindu Filipino craftsmanship are stored in the Philippine Central Bank (Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas BSP). Golden Sri Yantras, Mt Meru replicas and Vedic Mandalas are among some of the artifacts as revealed in Laszlo Legeza’s “Tantric elements in pre-Hispanic Philippine Gold Art,” Arts of Asia, Jul-Aug 1988


ancient hindu temples vietnamMoving on to Vietnam, we once again find an incredibly rich Hindu heritage still existing to this day. Ancient Vietnam was home to a vibrant Hindu kingdom known as Champa. Today their descendants, the Cham people continue to exist but in two communities, the Cham Balamon and the Cham Bani.

The Balamon (Vietnamese for Brahman) are Hindus to this day and the Bani are Muslim. Muslim or Cham Bani constitute about 80-85% of the Cham, and Hindu or Balamon constitutes about 15-20%. It is claimed that the Balamon Hindu Cham people of Vietnam consist of 70% Kshatriyas (pronounced in Vietnamese as “Satrias”)

Vietnam has a very ancient Hindu past. The first Cham king mentioned in ancient inscriptions is named Bhadravarman. He reigned from 349 to 361 A.D. at My Son. The capital at the time of Bhadravarman was the citadel of Simhapura or “Lion City”. We know that India was important to the Cham because they named the five regions of their Kingdom after historic places in India. Historic Champa was divided into the following five areas:

  • Indrapura: The city of Indrapura is now called Dong Duong.
  • Amaravati: present-day Quảng Nam
  • Vijaya: The city of Vijaya is nowcalled Cha Ban.
  • Kauthara: The city of Kauthara isnow called Nha Trang.
  • Panduranga: The city ofPanduranga is now called PhanPanduranga and was the last of the Cham territories to be annexed by the Sino-Vietnamese.


LaosWat Xieng Thong is one of the most important temples in the country of Laos and it is covered with gold carvings with scenes from the Ramayana. Laos is another forgotten chapter in the history of Hindu SE Asia. Like the Philippines, Laos has its own version of the Ramayana. It is called Phra Lak Phra La. The title comes from the Lao names for Lakshmana and Rama.


Modern Indonesia, sometimes called Nusantara, is yet another ancient center of Hindu culture and civilization.

Today only the island of Bali remains officially Hindu in identity. As Hinduism declined throughout Indonesia, the Balinese responded in an effective manner. With great foresight, Bali’s Hindu leadership redesigned the temple system so that each village would have its own temples. Thus a closer bond between the people and their Hindu gods was forged. This was a bond unlike that of any other Hindu Kingdom and it was a bond Islam would find difficult to sever. Thus in Bali, the world has a sample of the Indonesian Hinduism of the past. It is a microcosm of a flourishing Hindu world that has been long forgotten.

For thousands of years high advanced civilizations were present on the Indonesian archipelago. Wealthy and prosperous, ancient Indonesian Hindus traveled and traded far and wide. Over two thousand years ago the gold from Hindu Sumatra reached as far west as Rome. The Indian Ocean trade controlled by the Hindus stretched from the shores of East Africa to the islands of Japan.

“Between the fifth and tenth centuries AD, the Vijaynagaram and Kalinga kingdoms of Southern and Eastern India had established their rules over Malaya, Sumatra and Western Java. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands then served as an important midway for trade between the Indian peninsula and these kingdoms, as also with China.”

The naval expertise and experience of the ancient Hindu mariners was incredible.

“A fourteenth century description of an Indian ship credits it with a carrying capacity of over 700 people giving a fair idea of both ship building skills and maritime ability of seamen who could successfully man such large vessels. (vii)

BaliIndonesia’s Majapahit Empire was the last of the major Hindu empires of the Malay Archipelago and is considered one of the greatest states in Indonesian history. It was based in eastern Java from 1293 AD to around 1500 AD. Its greatest King was named Hayam Wuruk. He was also known as Rajasanagara and he ruled Majapahit in AD 1350–1389. During his period, Majapahit Empire reached its zenith with the help of Hayam Wuruk’s Prime Minister, Gajah Mada.

Many other Hindu Kingdoms rose and fell. Despite sharing a common heritage, Indonesia’s ancient Hindus competed and battled each other. Often at war with one another, trade routes and commodities were fiercely contended. As Islamic merchants from Gujarat and Arabia began to dominate the trade in the Eastern seas, the Hindu kingdoms began to lose their ability to compete.

The Indonesian Hindu Kingdom of Wak Wak decided to do something in order to counter the threat posed by the expansion of Islam. Wak Wak responded in a manner that is no doubt an extraordinary effort rare in the annals of Hindu history. Severely challenged by the loss of the East African trade routes the Kingdom of Wak Wak responded by assembling an immense naval fleet. They sailed across the Indian Ocean for one year and attacked several important East African trading ports in an effort to regain control of the lucrative African trade.

“Ibn Lakis has imparted to me some extraordinary pieces of information concerning them. It is thus that in 334 AH (945-6 CE) they came upon Qanbalu in a thousand ships and fought them with the utmost vigor, without however achieving their end, as Qanbalu is surrounded by a strong defensive wall around which stretches the water-filled estuary of the sea, so that Qanbalu is at the center of this estuary, like a fortified citadel.”- Kitab aja’ib al-Hind of Buzurg ibn Shahriyar (955 CE)

Unfortunately for the people of Wak Wak, this effort, as reported on above by Arabic historians, was none too successful and the Kingdom collapsed shortly thereafter. Another Hindu Kingdom and rival of Wak Wak, was known as Zabag or Suvarnadwip. Zabag faced the same challenges and threats as Wak Wak. The loss of the African trade was crippling their Kingdom as well. The response of Zabag was to send ambassadors to India and Tibet and make grants for temples there. (viii)

Zabag attempted to counter the growing threat of Islamic domination of the regional trade by building alliances with the Hindu and Buddhist Kings of India and Tibet. In this regard it is said that some of these Javanese kings personally traveled to India for both political and spiritual purposes.

As we look at all the evidence regarding Hinduism in South East Asia, the picture that emerges is one of fluid interactions with the wide spread growth of extremely advanced and flourishing civilizations. The impact of this dynamic past is felt even today.


Currently outside of Bali, the condition of Hinduism in South East Asia is but a shadow of its former glory. Yet still the influence of Indonesia’s Hindu past is profound. As an example, the impact and history of the Hindu Majapahit era on Indonesian consciousness is at the heart of the modern Indonesian experience.

Indonesian Nationalists and Freedom Fighters, have frequently invoked the Majapahit Empire. Many of modern Indonesian national symbols are based on Hindu elements from the Majapahit era. The Indonesian national flag “Red and White” is called “Dwiwarna” (“The bicolor”), derived from Majapahit royal color. The Indonesian Navy flag of red and white stripes also has Majapahit origin. The Indonesian coat of arms, Garuda Pancasila, is also derived from Javanese Hindu elements. Indonesia’s National airline is named Garuda Airlines in keeping with the commitment to Hindu emblems and symbology.

cham-danangRecognizing their ancient links with Mother India, the National leadership choose Indonesia to be the name for their new Nation over the native name of Nusantara (Entire Islands.) The modern capital of Indonesia, Jakarta features a magnificent sculpture of Partha Sarathi Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield of the Mahabharat War. This is a testament to the immense popularity and respect for Hindu culture that can be found amongst the people of Indonesia.

Hindu revival movements are also taking place in Indonesia. Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia was started in 1960 by D.R. Ida Bagus Mantra and led by Gedong Bagus Oka. According to the Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia the Indonesian Hindu population is closer to 18 million rather than the 6 million claimed by the Government.

According to an article in Hinduism Today magazine it is Java rather than Bali that is the home to most of the Nation’s Hindus.

“Most recently, a back-to-Hinduism movement which first emerged in Java in the 1960s has gathered new momentum in the turmoil of Indonesia’s economic and political crisis. Some of its members are prophesying that a natural cataclysm or final battle is at hand, in which Islam will be swept from the island and Hindu civilization restored to its past glory. Or as the Jayabaya prophesies put it, the time “when iron wagons drive without horses and ships sail through the sky.”

The movement in Java is part of a wider national phenomenon of reconversion to Hinduism. In part, this is a reflection of the rapid Islamization of Indonesian society in recent decades, and especially after the fall of Suharto in 1998, which has made it difficult for many Javanese to carry on their Hindu traditions and retain a nominal Muslim identity. As a result, the Hindu community of Java is now the largest in Indonesia.”

Vietnam’s Hindus have yet to receive official recognition for their government but major efforts have been made to highlight the history and art of the Cham. The ancient Shiva temples of My Son have been selected by UNESCO as a world heritage listed site. My Son’s Hindu ruins are recognized as an example displaying the evolution and change in culture, and as a foremost evidence of an Asian civilization which is now extinct. The Cham Museum in Danang houses one of the world’s greatest collections of South East Asian Hindu art.

Annual Cham festivals such as the Hindu Cham Kate festival are held and Cham cultural displays are frequently subsidized by the Vietnamese government. Some expatriate Cham communities are also maintaining and continuing to practice their traditions and culture. A Cham youth magazine published in California is named Vijaya in honor of the ancient Champa capital of the same name.


GaneshaThe future of Hinduism in South East Asia is not clear. Currently many aspects of Hindu culture in the region are at best protected ruins, visited by tourists and researchers. Folk traditions and customs are rapidly becoming nothing more than entertainment. Many young people are turning away from the past and are out of touch with their own roots and heritage. As knowledge is lost and the wisdom of the ancients labeled as superstition, it is humanity itself that suffers.

Buried within this very same wisdom of the ancients are many solutions and remedies to our modern traumas and tragedies. It is imperative to discover ways to reinforce humanity’s connection to the past. Perhaps with the rise of the Indian middle class, Hindu pilgrims and tourists can begin to facilitate and empower a new awakening of Hindu culture in the region. India’s new economic might is a great asset that could be dovetailed towards the restoration and revival of Hinduism amongst the countries of South East Asia. Efforts such as education, multi-media and cultural tourism can go a long way towards re-awakening the dormant Hindu culture of the region.

The world has a great boon in Hinduism. It is the world’s largest and continuous cultural paradigm. Its very longevity is a testament to its sustainability. Its history is a hopeful reminder of a time when humanity actually lived in balance with itself, with Nature and with the Gods. It is a reminder that humanity is truly capable of greatness built on compassion and a sense of genuine gratitude. Looking back at the dynamic Hindu Kingdoms of yesteryear we see human civilization at its best. If Nature in all her bounty harnessed by mankind’s tremendous genius ever reached its fullest potential, surely it was in the magnificent Hindu kingdoms of the ancient world. These Hindu civilizations represent much more than mere histories.

They are testaments to the fact that humanity truly is capable of creating Heaven right here on Earth.

~ Bhaktivejanyana Swami


(i)  A History of the Philippines: A Focus on the Christianization of Bohol (1521-1991), Josemaria S. Luengo, Ph.D Copiague, NY: Mater Dei Publications, Tubigon, Bohol, Oct 1991, 2nd Ed, Nov 1992, IMPRIMATUR, NIHIL OBSTAT, CENSOR LIBRORUM
(ii) The Dravidian Languages. Steever, Sanford B. (1998). London; New York: Routledge
(iii) History of Library Development B. D. Panda 1992 Anmol Publications
(iv) El Sanscrito en la lengua Tagalog – T H Pardo de Tavera, Paris 1887
(v) First Voyage Around the World (1519-1522)” by Antonio Pigafetta in Gregorio F. Zaide, Documentary Sources of Philippine History. Manila: National Bookstore, 1990
(vi) History of Filipino Martial Arts Center for Southeast Asian Studies Northern Illinois University
(vii) Maritime History Of India 
(viii) Sailing the Black Current: Secret History of Ancient Philippine Argonauts in Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Beyond Paul Kekai Manansala BookSurge Publishing 2007

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  • During my resent visit to the Island of Java in Indonesia,I had the opportunity to visit the famous Chandi of
    Borobudur(of Buddhist origin)Prambanan,Sambisari,Sukuh Temples(of Hindu origin) also had the oppo
    rtunity to visit the recent find of a Ganesha Temple in the grounds of University Islam Indonesia.There are said to exist ruins of over 240 Temples and Chandis in central and Eastern part of the Island of Java.Some of the
    Temples are in the process of restoration.It would be marvelous to visit much of this Temples.