Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home  > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography > Tamils in South East Asia And Far East - Dr. S. Arasaratnam,


Tamils in South East Asia And Far East

Dr. S. Arasaratnam,
former Senior Lecturer at the University of Ceylon
presently Professor of History, University of New England, Australia.

December 1981, Tamil Times

The historical geography of the Tamil country, with its wide coastline in the east and in the west, its numerous havens and sheltered inlets, its natural and manufactured products vendible in world markets and its strategic location on the highway of east-west commerce resulted in the development from very early times of a maritime and commercial tradition as an intrinsic part of Tamil society.

In the very earliest evidence reflecting the society and civilization of the Tamils - the literature of the Sangam period - the role of trade and of traders loomed large in many of the regions of the Tamil country. There is indication of a flourishing seaborne trade from a number of ports of the Coromandel (a western corruption of Cholamandalam) coast and the Malayalam coast, and of communities engaged in seafaring and commerce.

The evidence of trade with west Asia and the Mediterranean world is clear and unmistakeable from the first century B.C. Though not equally positive, evidence of trade eastwards, to the Malay Peninsula, Thailand, Burma and even to China begins to appear from about the first Century A.D. Subsequently this evidence strengthens and by the end of the Sangam period and the period of the twin epics it is clear that Tamil seafarers had opened up a regular commerce with the countries of Southeast Asia.


The sailings to Southeast Asia appear to have mainly departed from the ports of the Coromandel coast. With the unification of the Tamil country under the Pallavas, this eastern coast developed rapidly into major nuclear centres of agricultural and handicraft production.

The produce of these areas and the spices of the Malayalam coast seem to have been shipped by these Tamil traders. In return they brought back other aromatic spices to be found in those regions, various goods originating from China and, most importantly, gold and precious stones. The ports of departure extended northwards into the Telugu country, where under the Satavahanas a number of important ports of foreign trade developed.

These ships would generally set sail after October to take advantage of the northeast monsoon in the direction of the Nicobar Islands from where they headed for the relatively protected seas east of Sumatra, There seemed to have been a number of places on the western coast of the Malay peninsula and southern Thailand where these ships landed.

These were major places of trade at various times and also served as transit points across the peninsula and the isthmus to the Gulf of Siam and onward to Kambuja, Champa and beyond. A popular area of call for long periods was the Kedah region where sailors made landfall using the Kedah Peak visible far out at sea as a landmark.

Others sailed further north towards the narrow Isthmus of Kra where the port of Takua Pa has revealed evidence of Indian settlement. Traders from the Coromandel Coast must also have sailed through the Straits of Malacca to east Sumatran and Javanese ports. To the north there seems every evidence that traders from the Telugu and Tamil coasts sailed to different parts of the Burmese coast from the early years of the Christian era.

The trade seems to have picked up in the period of the Pallava Empire and then carried on an ever-increasing scale, under the Cholas and later the Vijayanagar Empire. This expansion of the trade to Southeast Asia was an aspect of the economic growth and increasing productivity and prosperity resulting from the creation of large political units in the Tamil country.

In the sphere of trade, this expansion is seen in the growth of large combinations of merchants operating in corporate organizations centred in large market towns of South India. These trading corporations begin to feature in Southeast Asian trade from the 9th century onwards. It is not surprising that the larger organizations among them have left inscriptional evidence in Malaya, Burma, Sumatra and Java of their presence there in trade settlements, The corporations that are thus definitely known to have traded with Southeast Asia are Manikramam, Nanadesi, Viravalanjiyar and Thisaiyayirattu Ainnurruvar.


The seasonal nature of the sailing movements and the expanding character of the operations led to the creation of what started off as merchant settlements in these various Southeast Asian centres of trade. Archaeological evidence has unmistakeably identified these settlements where Indian traders would have lived, awaiting the change of monsoon, or as agents left behind by the large and powerful corporations to conduct business in the area.

We have some idea of the nature of such a settlement in the southern Thai port of Takua Pa from excavated remains and a Tamil inscription of the middle of the 9th century. Here was a settlement of Tamil merchants in the reign of the Pallava king Nandivarman the Third (c.A.D. 844-866). It would appear that the Manikramam had established this settlement, which possessed its own regiment, with its own temple and tank and lived as a self-contained colony. It can be assumed that this would have been the pattern of many Indian trade settlements in Southeast Asia.


With the ascendency of the Cholas in south India, Tamil maritime trade and interest in Southeast Asia picked up considerably. Sailings were now more frequent and regular, and a wider area appears to have been covered. For the first time maritime trade became an instrument of royal policy and Chola navies began to make their power felt in the waters across the Bay of Bengal.

During this period, a maritime power with control over trade and trade routes had risen in the Malay/Indonesian archipelago, the Sri Vijayan Empire. There was much contact and intercourse between Tamils and the areas controlled by this empire. These relations soon extended to the political and cultural sphere. Just as Tamil traders from the Coromandel Coast traded in Sri Vijayan ports, Indonesian traders from Sumatra and Java frequented Chola ports, particularly the port of Nagapatnam.

Settlements and facilities similar to those held by Indians in Southeast Asia were provided for these Indonesians along the Coromandel Coast.

Southeast Asian trade and the trade through the Straits of Malacca eastwards to China had become so much a part of Chola interest that soon the Cholas began to deploy their navy in these waters. The Cholas desired to keep the trade to Southeast Asia and China free and open for their subjects. The expansion of the Sri Vijayan maritime empire across the Malacca Straits into the major trading ports of the Malay peninsula gave this empire a commanding position over the trade routes of the region. It seems that the empire used this position to its advantage which would have had adverse effects on the traders of the Chola empire who traded in these parts.

This seems to have led to a situation of conflict which resulted in a major invasion of the Sri Vijayan empire by the Chola emperor Rajendra I in 1025 A.D. This expedition, which was very successful, is recorded in a contemporary inscription of the reign of. Rajendra Chola. The inscription records that the Chola navy attacked a number of Sri Vijayan ports, including the capital city of Sri Vijaya (Palembang) and captured the king Sangrama-Vijayottungavarman.

The places mentioned are situated on the Sumatra coast, the Malay coast and in south Thailand. Much booty was taken from these places by the victorious navy. This expedition would have resulted in a temporary subjection of the Sri Vijayan ruler to the Cholas, for how long we are not certain. It would certainly have resulted in opening the Malacca straits to Chola traders who were then expanding their trade eastwards to the Indo-Chinese peninsula and even to the Chinese empire.


Chola relations with the Sri Vijayan kingdom and interest in these ports continued in the 11th and 12th centuries. In 1068 there was another expedition by the Chola emperor, Virarajendra, this time to Kedah which he claimed to have conquered on behalf of a king who had sought his protection. It seems that the Cholas were taking an active interest in the politics of the region. There is a contemporary Tamil inscription of a

Tamil mercantile corporation in Sumatra, showing that commercial activity and political relations were going hand-inhand during this period. The contact was not a one-way contact but was bilateral. At this time Indonesian traders were frequenting the Chola ports of Coromandel. The Chola monarchs made grants to a Buddhist temple near Nagapatnam established to serve these Indonesian traders.

Though Chinese products have been known and were available in south India from very early times and Indian exports reached China, it is not known when direct trade between ports of Tamil Nadu and China began. Some would assert, on the basis of references in Chinese annals, that this trade was as early as the first century A. D. Tamil centres of Buddhism were known to Chinese Buddhist scholars and the increase of trade to Southeast Asia seems to have led to greater direct contact. There is evidence of this direct trade from the Sung dynasty onwards.

From this period. south India becomes well-known to Chinese annalists who provide descriptions of the country, its people, its trade, ports arid trade routes. The port of Nagapatnam seems to have been the port of departure for this China trade as well as the port to which Chinese traders arrived.

There are traces of a Chinese settlement in that port. The end of the 10th century saw the rise of the Sung dynasty in China under which the country was unified. The period coincided with the expansion of the Chola empire in South India and, as seen above, the extension of its interests into Southeast Asia.

The desire to cultivate the existing trade relations and to build up diplomatic contact seems to have persuaded the Chola Emperor Rajanaja I (referred to in the Chinese annals as King Locha-Locha) to send an envoy to the Sung Emperor in 1012 A.D. The envoy Samudra arrived in the Chinese capital in 1015 A.D. with presents and was received by the Emperor. The History of the Sung Dynasty records in detail the voyage of this envoy 'Soli Samudra', Samudra died on his return journey.

Subsequently trade delegations or envoys were sent in 1033 A.D. by Rajendra I and another in 1077 A.D. Direct trade between India and China increased and later Chinese accounts talk of the port of Calicut, which in the 13th century had risen to a major port of overseas trade.


In the wake of trade there developed cultural contact and a process of cultural transmission of elements of Indian culture in many regions of Southeast Asia. This process of cultural transmission originated from a number of regions of India: Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Kalinga and Orissa. It is therefore difficult to separate the contribution of the Tamils to this process. Almost all our authorities on the study of Indian culture in Southeast Asia are agreed, however, that the Tamil country played a major role in the transmission of this culture -whether it be through Sanskrit learning, Buddhist missionary teaching, Hindu architecture and iconography, spread of the written word or other aspects of Indian culture.

One of the major areas of contribution was through the introduction of writing. The script of a number of Southeast Asian languages is based on original south Indian scripts which were first transmitted in these parts. Some of the first inscriptions in the Malay peninsula - such as for example the Buddhist prayer inscribed by a traveller in Bukit Meriam in Kedah - was in a Pallava Grantha script, as were others in Thailand and the Indo-Chinese peninsula.


Similarly, evidence from the plastic arts shows a good deal of the influence emanating from Dravidian India. The earliest temple structures excavated in the Kedah region of the Malay peninsula show distinct Pallava influences. Some of these structures and those of Kambuja and Champa have clear affinity to the monolithic temples of Mamallapuram.

Some of the sculpture is also seen to be of a clearly Pallava style and these have been found in many sites in the region. This evidence shows the Pallavas as one of the major influences in the transmission of Indian culture in Southeast Asia. The great flowering of culture under the Pallavas in south India appears to have left its mark in Southeast Asia through the merchants and colonists who migrated to various parts of Southeast Asia. The origin myth of one of the earliest Indianized kingdoms of the region, the kingdom of Funan, is very similar to the myth relating to the founding of the Pallava kingdom. SouthIndian influences have also been noted in the cultures of Javanese kingdoms, in respect of the script, the architecture, sculpture and the visual arts. In Sumatra there is in addition the adaptation of Tamil terminology such as Chola, Pallava, Pandya and Malayalam.

Evidence of the introduction of specifically Tamil ritual and the use of Tamil literature comes from Thailand where traces of this remain to the present day. Tamil brahmans who became royal priests (Rajaguru) to Thai kings appear to have introduced the use of Thevaram and Thiruvacakam in religious ritual.

These Tamil hymns were then committed to writing in the Thai language and continued to be used in that form for centuries. They are especially used at the consecration ceremony of a ruler. Other Tamil religious texts used in popular festivals were the Thiruvempavai of the Saivites and Thiruppavai of the Vaishnavites. Scholars who have made comparative studies of the Ramayana stories current in India and various parts of Southeast Asia are of the opinion that the Tamil version, Kampa Ramayanam, was known in Thailand, Malaya and Java. Its version of the various incidents in this epic have been incorporated into the local language accounts in these cultures.


In the spread of Buddhism into Southeast Asia and China the Tamils also played a part Tamil Nadu continued to have a number of strong centres of Buddhist learning long after the spread of Saivaism and Vaishnavism. Throughout this period traders of Buddhist persuasion and Buddhist monks sailed from Coromandel ports to Southeast Asia. Scholars from the Buddhist centre of Kanchipuram and Nagapatnam went abroad to found schools of learning in Indo-China, Thailand and Sri Vijaya. The links with Chinese Buddhism had been established early.

The spread of Islam across the Indian Ocean tended to extend and strengthen Indian overseas contacts and relationships and Tamil Nadu played a prominent role in this extension. Arab settlements were founded on the Malayalam and Madura coasts of south India and local seafaring communities were Islamized. Ports of southern India received a further boost in their trade as transmitting points for the east-west trade and Tamil Hindu and Muslim merchants participated vigorously in this trade. The eastwards segment of this trade was largely in their hands. In Southeast Asia in the 14th century, there is the rise of a powerful trading kingdom, the Sultanate of Malacca, dominating the trade of the region in much the same way that the Sri Vijayans had done in the preceding centuries. Malacca grew into a great entrepot of world trade and Tamil traders flocked there in large numbers sailing from Coromandel and Malabar ports.


The great corporations that dominated foreign trade in the earlier period seemed to be declining and their place was taken by Hindu Chettiyar merchants of the Tamil and Telegu clans and by Tamil Muslims generally called Chulia Muslims. Some of these merchants were trading as individuals powerful enough to own fleets of ships leaving their agents in Southeast Asian ports to do the buying and selling for them. Others, and these were by far the larger number, consisted of small scale peddling traders getting together in one voyage, sailing with their goods, carrying on their own business, and returning with the change of monsoon.

Tamil Muslim merchants also became the agents for the spread of Islam in the port-states with which they traded. The spread of Islam in these states in the 15th and 16th centuries gave them an edge over others in their trade with these parts.

Hindu and Muslim Tamil traders frequented the port-city of Malacca and established settlements there. Tamil Muslims secured considerable influence in the administration of the state. They married into the families of the Sultan and the upper ranks of the nobility. Some of them rose to high positions of Bendahara or controller of the exchequer and Shahbandar or port administrator. They carried on trade with south India, not only for themselves, but also on behalf of the Sultan. Both the Muslim and Hindu traders used Malacca as a base from which to trade with Sumatran and Javanese ports and further eastwards into the Spice Islands


Both Hindu and Muslim Tamils tended to settle permanently in Malacca and thus are the pioneers of the contemporary Tamil migrations and settlement inSouth east Asia. Their part of the city, where they tended to concentrate, together with other Indians, was known as Kampong Kling. Here they built their own mosques and their own temples. Here were settled not only merchants but also artisans and craftsmen and adventurers who had left their homelands in search of a fortune. From Malacca, these Tamils tended to shift in the course of the 16th century towards other trading centres.

Some moved to Acheh as it grew into a prominent port. Others went to the north Javanese ports and especially the port of Bantam as it element that tended to settle down, as it grew into an important port. In all these places, there was an element that tended to settle down, win the confidence of the rulers and these were appointed to administrative positions in the port. With the Portuguese conquest of Malacca this Indian settlement was disturbed, particularly the Muslims to whom the Portuguese were initially hostile. Chetty traders, however, seem to

have soon made their peace with the Portuguese and continued to operate as before and in fact increased their trade. From the Coromandel ports of Nagapatnam, San Thome, Porto Novo, Paleacatte, Maslipatnam and others, these traders sailed the Bay of Bengal with Portuguese passes and under Portuguese security. South Indian presence in Malacca increased during this period. Tamil Muslims also returned to Malacca after a time but they tended to settle in neighbouring ports outside Portuguese control such as Acheh, Johore and Perak. A Chetty merchant was made head of the Malaccan Indian community.


In time this Tamil community of Malacca became completely cut off from its homelands. Under the Dutch, its trading activity was seriously curtailed and it was restricted to some petty retail trade in the city, all kinds of handicrafts and some agriculture. Consequently the community declined from its once high position of wealth and prestige and gradually sank to impoverishment. A good deal of intermarriage took place with Malay women of the neighbourhood. It continued to practice the Hindu faith, as is seen from the grant of land by the Dutch to the Chettiyars in the 18th century for the construction of a Hindu temple. Gradually, however, their proficiency in their mother tongue declined and they increasingly used the Malay language.

The Tamil Muslims or Chulias continued to prosper. They moved away from Malacca to places outside European control and expanded their trading activities and their influence. They were welcomed by local Sultans who relied on them for the development of trade in their states. Thus the Tamil Muslims spread to the Sultanates of Johore, Perak, Kedah and Acheh in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of them were appointed 'court merchants' in these states and managed the affairs of Sultans and nobles. They married into these families. These Muslims retained their connection with their places of origin in Coromandel: Nagapatnam, Nagore, Cuddalore, Karaikal, Kayalpatnam. Their trade extended to all religions on the eastern side of the Bay of Bengal: Pegu, Arakkan, Tenasserim, Thailand and the Malay peninsula.

They were particularly well entrenched in the Sultanate of Kedah which rose in the 18th century as a trading state. Tamil

Muslims were settled in large numbers in the Kuala Kedah area and held high offices in the administration. Some of them managed the trade of the Sultan and the nobles. From Kedah, they sailed up and down the Malay coast and to Burma and Coromandel, beating the Dutch blockade and helping to trade in goods of the region in which the Dutch had declared a monopoly. The Sultan used leading Tamil Muslim merchants as intermediaries in his dealing with European powers, especially the English. Some of them took part in the negotiations with the English which led to the cession of the island of Penang to the East India Company.

When the English founded the settlement of Penang in 1786, it grew into a thriving centre of commerce and agriculture and attracted settlers from the neighbouring coasts. Among those who chose to settle there were Tamil Muslims who then, along with the Chettiyars of Malacca became the earliest of the modern Indian migrants and settlers in the Malay peninsula. In time they spread across the island to Province Wellesley and engaged in a multitude of activities such as coastal trade, peddling, farming and labouring in the docks. With the founding of the Colony of Singapore in 1819 and its rapid growth, some of these Tamil Muslims moved over to Singapore. The development of trade and enterprise in the Straits Settlements in the first half of the 19th century brought furthermigrants from Tamil Nadu, both Hindus and Muslims.


The growth of plantation enterprise in the Malay peninsula created a demand for labour which was filled by the import of labour from south India. Migrant labour was brought in under indenture contracts to work for fixed periods of time from the various districts of the province of Madras. With the boom of the plantation industry from the 1880s, this trickle of labour migration grew into a flood. Most of the recruitment was done through a kangany, sent by his European employer into the Indian village to induce others to migrate to Malaya to work in his employer's plantation.

The Colonial Government also recruited labour to work in its services both in the Settlement colonies and in the Malay states. As a result by 1901, there were 120,000 Indians in Malaya, over 80% of whom were Tamils. Tamil migration increased further in the 20th century. While the plantations and he growing state services took in the )bulk of this migration, from the 1920's, commercial, professional and other educated groups also began to come in. By 1957, there were 944,000 Indians in peninsular Malaya and Singapore, of whom about 80% were Tamils and in 1970 there were 1,081,400 Indians with a similar proportion of Tamils.


Another Southeast Asian country which saw Tamil migration in substantial numbers was Burma. Here the migration began as the migration of labour on indenture contracts to work in the paddy fields and in the milling of rice. Subsequently there was migration of commercial groups, especially Chettiyars and educated elements. At the end of the migration process, Tamils, Hindus and Muslims, constituted 10% of the total Indian population of just over a million. Unlike in Malaya and Singapore, where a number of Tamils decided to settle and plant roots, many repatriated from Burma to their homeland during and after the war. These repatriates returned destitute to their country and had to be resettled by the Tamil Nadu government in special resettlement colonies.

By contrast, Tamils in Malaysia and Singapore participated enthusiastically in the political and economic growth of these countries after they achieved independence. They took citizenship there, participated in political life and rose to positions of leadership. The Tamil element in these countries was added to by the Tamils of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) who had migrated from Jaffna in north Ceylon as professionals and clerical workers.

Tamils planted their social and cultural institutions in their countries of migration. A Tamil school system was established in Malaysia, Singapore and Burma. Saivite temples and religious societies were founded and played prominent roles in the religious life of the community. Tamil dance, music and drama were fostered. A lively Tamil press as well as creative writing in Tamil were firmly implanted. Popular Tamil religious ous and cultural festivals were enthusiastically celebrated. In all these aspects of cultural life, these migrant Tamils retained their association with their mother country and enriched their cultural experiences by this continuing association.

Thus a continuous tradition of maritime and seafaring activity has resulted in the spread of the Tamil people over a number of scattered regions. Wherever they have gone they have carried with them their love of language and their social and cultural institutions. These institutions have been somewhat transformed in the act of being transplanted in a new environment. But the continuing attachment to these traditions has kept alive the emotional loyalty to Tamil Nadu from which they originated and made them feel part of an international community linked by the bonds of Tamil culture.


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