27. Southeast Asia's Ocean Geography
& International Entrepôts


A Succession of International Entrepôts

What factors led to the Khmer tidal wave? Why did Funan become a kingdom, and then a small empire? Which tides coalesced to produce this efflorescence of humanity? Which fields coincided to create this emergence? They certainly did not spontaneously arise from emptiness. We've mentioned Southeast Asia’s neighbors with their immense cultural gravity – India and China. But what attracted the Indian and Chinese peoples to this part of the planet?

Trade was huge in this regard. Although there were some overland routes, the main paths to Southeast Asia from India and China were across the water. Entrepôts are the focal point for ocean trading. To uncover the secret of the area’s cultural flowering, let us examine the succession of entrepôts that have dominated trade in Southeast Asia.

Entrepôt is a French word that literally means ‘put between’. The definition is ‘an intermediary center of trade and transshipment’. We are going to be introduced to many entrepôts in the course of our exploration. All the entrepôts that we will examine in this paper are international ports. However, they are not just any old port. These ports are the nexus point between two worlds. Roughly speaking, all of our entrepôts are trading centers between the East, which includes China and Japan, and the West, which would include India, Europe, Arabia, Africa and most recently the US.

The Southeast Asian entrepôts act as the middlemen between these two enormous geographies. Remember, the middleman always makes the real money. As such, these international ports have created enormous wealth. Because these entrepôts are the center between two worlds, there is never more than one. In other words, the nation that controls these international trading centers also controls the wealth. This wealth has been the foundation of Empires.

This historical exploration concerns the succession of entrepôts that link the East and West.

Southeast Asia's ocean geography

To truly understand the importance of these successions of entrepôts and their Empires, we must start with a little geography lesson. The Himalayas essentially define the continent of Asia. This enormous uplift divides the southeastern section of the landmass into 3 parts: China with her satellites in the East; India with her satellites in the South; and Southeast Asia between the two.

Sometimes Southeast Asia is considered a cultural fracture zone between India and China, as indicated by her nickname, Indochina. However, as we’ve seen and will see, Southeast Asia has given birth to many unique civilizations, in addition to the Khmer at Angkor.

We’ve examined her mainland empires. It is now time to explore her maritime empires. They are real empires, with their own vassal states, their own culture and arts, and their own way of being. As we will see, they are quite unique from their gigantic neighbors.

Although Southeast Asians have definitely been influenced by India and China, they have acted more as a middleman than as an obsequious servant. Located between India-dominated Southern Asia and China-dominated Eastern Asia, Southeast Asia became the generalized trading center, the entrepôt, between the two cultures. Because the Himalayan ridges are rugged and very tall, a land journey between these distinctive areas is prohibitive. Indeed this is why Southeast Asia’s diverse cultures have developed with their own unique language and customs.

Because of the difficulty of land travel most of the trade between the cultures has occurred by sea. To understand why the specific entrepôts emerged when and where they did, we need to know a little about her ocean geography.

In the west, a finger of the Himalayan mountain range separates Southeast Asia from India. The next finger turns into the Malay Peninsula in the west. The river valley between these two fingers is the country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. In the east, another finger of the Himalayas with mountains up to 10,000 feet high separates Vietnam from the rest of Southeast Asia. Between these two ridges is a huge delta area, which includes the present day countries of Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. This delta drains into the Gulf of Thailand.

The body of water on the eastern, or Vietnamese side, of Southeast Asia is called the South China Sea. This sea is defined by the landmasses of Taiwan and Hong Kong in the north, the islands of the Philippines in the east, and islands of Borneo in the south.

The body of water on the western side of the Malay Peninsula is called the Bay of Bengal, which is part of the Indian Ocean. The western border of the Bay of Bengal is the Indian Peninsula. Sri Lanka, also known by her colonial name Ceylon, is a significant island in the Bay of Bengal.

The international trade that creates the Southeast Asian entrepôts comes from two directions. In the west the ships begin in the ports of Africa or Arabia, then proceed through the Arabian Sea to India. After restocking and trading in India, they proceed through the Bay of Bengal, perhaps making a stop in Sri Lanka to do a little more shopping. They then proceed on to the Bay of Thailand to do more shopping with the Thais or Cambodians. Simultaneously, the Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos sail through the East and South China Seas to meet in the middle. The Western traders meet the Eastern traders in Southeast Asia. They exchange goods in the middle and then go back home.

Here is a map with the names of the territories and bodies of water that surround Southeast Asia.

Following is a topological map of the same area. There are no names as they distract from the beautiful curves. Notice how shallow the waters are. This is why the fish are so abundant.

Funan: Southeast Asia’s first international entrepôt

In the beginning, sea travel was perilous. Hence the distances traveled were short. Initially there were just fishing trips - perhaps a day - out in the morning and then back at night. As boating technology advanced, the trips became longer with the time gone from the home base extended into days, weeks, and months. With increased sophistication these fishing trips became trading trips between cultures and even empires.

By the modern era, India became the entrepôt between the East and West. Her sailors would travel eastward to obtain spices, gold, gems and even silks. Simultaneously, Arab merchants would travel across the Arabian Sea to India to trade for similar goods to bring back to the Mediterranean. This trade expanded as the Roman Empire grew. The wealth of Rome demanded exotic specialties from the East. India provided the Arab traders with everything necessary to supply Roman needs. With the growing appetite of the Roman and Indian aristocracies for exotic Eastern delicacies, Indian traders traveled ever further east. In the meantime, traders with goods from the coast of China were traveling south. Traders from India and China met in the middle to exchange goods and return back home to their native lands.

Initially, a primary center for these activities was in the Gulf of Thailand on a protected port on the coast of present day Cambodia. This was Vyadhapura, the capital of Funan, which we’ve already examined. This trade from East and West provided the necessary capital to set up the first Khmer kingdom of Funan. As mentioned this exchange of goods occurred in the early centuries of the present era. This trade turned Funan into a wealthy country.

India - entrepôt between Mediterranean and China

At this time, traders from the West still got most of their Oriental goods on trading trips to India. These early sailors and traders hugged the coast, or stayed close to the charted islands. They went from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal without ever losing sight of land. Simultaneously, Indian traders sailed from the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Thailand to exchange goods with Chinese traders, who sailed into the Gulf from the South China Sea.

During this historical period, Indian traders acted as the middleman between China and the West. The West included the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean kingdoms, and then eventually Europe. As far as these Western nation/empires were concerned, all the exotic goods that arrived in their ports via the sea from the East came from India. This was the case up until the time of Columbus.

This perspective changed as sailing technology improved and simultaneously the routes became more completely mapped. However this took a long time because information was not free flowing - because, as always, knowledge was power. Trade meant money and riches beyond imagining. Hence, each culture and each ship captain kept their particular discoveries to themselves. If they revealed their route to unscrupulous merchants, they might lose their lucrative trade and subsequent wealth to these intruders.

Trade Winds link India, China, & Southeast Asia
or Alternation of Monsoons

A discovery of great importance for sea trade and the subsequent development of Southeast Asian empires was the understanding of the alternation of monsoons that occurs in the oceans of Asia. This was a great advance in sailing technology that was independent of ship design. In fact, this is a primary reason why there are multiple cultures and religions in my part of the world.

Basically, the monsoon wind cycle blows one way for six months and then the other way for the next six months. From October through April, the winds blow from the northeast; the rest of the year from May to September, they blow from the southwest. Sailors in the West used this regularity as early as the 1st century CE, when Hippalus sailed from Oman at the tip of the Persian Gulf to India and back using these winds. This feat was so remarkable that these winds were initially named after him. Because of their economic importance, they came to be called trade winds.

These winds had another function besides sea commerce. Their annual cycle forced sailors to remain for extended times in the Eastern ports. They couldn’t sail home until the trade winds turned. This enforced stay encouraged the Hindu traders from India and Buddhist traders from China to set up communities in the areas they traded in. The territory of Southeast Asia has always provided the maritime division between the Indian West and the Chinese East. It was natural that foreign cultures established their own communities here.

Because Southeast Asia was an international trading zone, there were no forced conversions. The Indians and the Chinese come from very tolerant cultures in terms of religion, especially as compared with the intolerance of the Biblical religions of the West. Instead of attempting to convert indigenous populations, or Nagas, they allowed the local traditions to persist. This included the cultures on the mainland, as well as those on Southeast Asian islands.

Overall the religions of the region have been incredibly tolerant. While this tolerance could be attributed to the nature of the mixing cultures, it might have more to do with the desire to conduct business. For Southeast Asians trade is of far more importance than the correctness of religious dogma. The most essential factor for merchant traders of all nationalities is the peaceful exchange of goods and services. This is contrasted with warrior cultures that take what they want by military force.

Buddhism allows Indians to trade

Initially, neither the Indians nor the Chinese engaged in  international trade. Both were warrior cultures. This meant that the ruling classes were warriors. The traders and craftsman were definitely lower class. As we mentioned earlier, in India this changed with the advent of Buddhism. In the caste system of Hinduism, it was beneath the military and priestly class to trade. In the early Vedic days, this worked quite well as the military class exploited the agricultural class and the religious class attempted to convince everyone that this was God's will.

With the growth of cities and the emergent business class, a new religious conception was needed to address the needs of the merchants, who were relegated to the lower castes in Hinduism. Enter Buddhism, which didn’t believe in the caste system of the Hindus. In the 3rd century BCE, Asoka encouraged the spread of Buddhism throughout the entire subcontinent of India and the surrounding  territories. From this point, it became acceptable for the wealthy merchant classes to trade and explore overseas. This new openness combined with the growing market of Rome sent Indian traders traipsing and sailing all over the world in search of exotic goods with which to supply the voracious appetites of the wealthy.

As well as trade, the Indians brought their culture, both political and religious, to Southeast Asia. Because of the pervasive Indianization of these cultures, historians initially thought that Indian kings had probably conquered the indigenous tribes. Scholars probably based their theories on historical examples from the West. However, there is no evidence of a military takeover. It is more probable that the Indian influence was based upon assimilation rather than force.

Chinese Mahayana meets Hindu-Buddhism

While impressed by India’s wealth and water technology, Southeast Asia’s native populations were equally overwhelmed by the complexity and sophistication of their mythology combined with the universality of their theology. When these factors were combined with their religious tolerance, Indian culture was easily placed as a unifying blanket on top of the diversity of local traditions.

Indian religion consisted of both Hinduism and Buddhism. In these early times, Buddhism hadn’t really been clearly differentiated from Hindusim. The Theravada purification was yet to come. Indeed, Buddha was considered by many to be simply one of many incarnations of Vishnu, a primary god of Hinduism. As such, the Buddhism of India included Hindu gods..

As mentioned earlier, the Chinese had adopted Mahayana Buddhism many centuries earlier. Thus religious travelers from China were bringing this version of Buddhism from the eastern side of the continent. The Chinese were also making pilgrimages to India overland and by sea to experience Buddhist doctrine first hand. Indeed the Chinese novel, Journey to the West, is loosely based upon the adventures of a real Chinese Buddhist monk as he traveled overland from China to India to obtain the Buddhist scriptures to bring back to his emperor and his people.

During this period Hindu and Chinese travelers brought their religious background to Southeast Asia. Impressed with the complexity and universality of the common belief system combined with tolerance, the indigenous population simply overlaid these beliefs upon their native religion without missing a step. This is yet another example of the inclusive both/and mentality of the Eastern civilizations, as contrasted with the exclusive either/or mentality of the Bible-based religions.

Maharaja political system of India

In addition to the religious beliefs of India, Southeast Asian culture also incorporated their political institutions. With trade going to and fro the local chieftains were exposed to India’s maharajah system.

The maharajah system is a basic hierarchical system. The Kushans, who were influenced by the Scythians and Persian/Mongol rulers of Northwest India, first used the title ‘maharajah’ in the 1st century BCE. ‘Mahat’ means great and ‘rajah’ means king in Sanskrit. So maharajah means ‘great king’. Maharajah refers to an Indian king with a ranking above a raja or prince. It morphed to mean the ruler of an Indian state, perhaps similar to a governor. There is another title that means great maharajah, which refers to the ruler of the kings - the Emperor. The Sanskrit term was borrowed from the Persian, shahanshah - king of kings.

The maharajah system derived from military cultures, where the warrior class are rulers. The patriarchal culture is based upon a class system with a clearly delineated hierarchy. Men dominate women; the rich dominate the poor; and the powerful dominate the weak. A complex religious mythology supported this domination mentality. The religion generally by ratified the class structure/caste system as divinely inspired and men’s dominance of women as the natural way. This elitist mentality inspired Hitler and the Germans in the last century.

In contrast to this hierarchical system, everyone was on relatively equal footing in the prior egalitarian tribal system of the indigenous tribes. The class structure of the tribe is minimal compared to that of kingdom. The hierarchical maharajah system that spread from India was overlaid upon the egalitarianism of the tribal system .

Despite the erosion of the equality of the tribal system, India's maharajah system enabled Southeast Asian cultures to build their magnificent works of art. If the indigenous population had remained in a fragmented tribal state, they would have continued producing their relatively small, perishable, wooden sculptures. In the first millennium of the Common Era, the maharajah system unified the small tribal units behind a common goal. The hierarchy motivated them to great artistic accomplishments. Without it, human culture would not have experienced the glory of Angkor or Borobudur.

Even though they have common foundations, there are many differences between the political systems of the typical military cultures of Eurasia and the trade-based cultures of Southeast Asia. The hierarchical warrior cultures are typically based upon the military domination of the preceding egalitarian agri-cultures. However, there is no evidence that a foreign army conquered the indigenous populations of Southeast Asia, at least at this point in time. (This didn't occur until the arrival of the Europeans, another military culture.) Instead, there was a merger, a marriage, of the indigenous population with the Indian immigrants, genetically and culturally. Further, there is very little evidence of any kind of caste system and women seem to be on a par with men for the most part. Although catalyzed by the Indian migrations, it seems that the emergence of kings with their kingdoms was an effective way of organizing society.

Eurasia's Exclusive Military Cultures

Another typical feature of the Eurasian military culture was their exclusionary religious propaganda.

Ruling military cultures regularly developed a mythology supporting their divine right to rule. This included a vilification of the gods and/or goddesses of the subjugated indigenous populations. The most famous example of this is the story of Adam and Eve, where Eve and the Serpent are turned into Adam’s corrupters and the cause of his banishment from the Garden of Eden. They vilified the serpent because in many of the indigenous fertility cultures across the Eurasian landmass, the serpent was worshipped as the symbol of knowledge and representative of the earth.

Military cultures typically worshipped a sky god, who was also the god of war - armed as always with his lightening bolt. Zeus/Jupiter of Greco-Roman culture, the Norse god Thor, the Jewish Yahweh, and the Indian God Indra are examples of this type. Military societies dominated other cultures by virtue of their military technology, not by the sophistication of their culture. Their primary question was: ‘Who has the most powerful war god.’

While the military cultures tend to worship a male sky god of war, the fertility cultures tend to worship an earth goddess. Frequently, the sky god culture attempts to eradicate or at least vilify the earth goddess culture of the subjugated population. The story of Adam and Eve is typical sky god propaganda - “Worship me and forget her - If you know what’s good for you.”

Indra battles for reversal of wind

The Hindu story of Indra and the Dragon is another example of this type of religious propaganda. India was named after Indra, the supreme war god of the Hindus. Indra was the main god of the Hindus in Vedic times, circa 1000 BCE.

The aforementioned trade winds created by the alternation of monsoons were essential to farming in India. They blew the rain in one half of the year and blew the rain out in the second half, creating an alternation of wet and dry. This annual cycle was manifested in Hindu mythology through their trio of primary Vedic gods: Indra, Agni, and Soma.

The Aryans of Northern India turned this natural event into a cosmic battle. Annually, Indra, the Zeus-like God of War, would defeat Urta, the cosmic Serpent or Dragon, at which time the winds would turn to bring moisture to their crops. Indra needed the Fire Sacrifice symbolized by Agni and the hallucinogen represented by Soma to defeat the Serpent and turn the winds around. The Vedic sacrifice came to have paramount importance as it provided Indra with the extra energy he needed to defeat the cosmic serpent. This is akin to the idea in the story of Peter Pan where the children’s belief in fairies is necessary to keep Tinker Bell alive.

Like Zeus, Indra was also the god of thunder and lightening associated with rain. Because the rains came after his battle to turn the winds around, Indra is also essential to the ordering of the Universe. The Serpent represents the Chaos, the unpredictable chthonic forces, that are defeated by the forces of Order. Hence the Sacrifices to Indra establish the Order of the Universe. The subtext of the story is clear. Indra, the bringer of Order vanquishes Urta, the dragon/serpent of Chaos.

To control the subjugated population, the sky god- worshipping Eurasian rulers combined military domination with cultural propaganda that minimized, excluded, or vilified the deities of the indigenous agrarian societies.

Southeast Asia’s Inclusive Trade-based Culture

Although Hindu mythology derived in part from the Aryan military culture of Northern India, Southeast Asians embraced an inclusive, rather than exclusive, religious stance. There were multiple reasons for this shift.

The underlying political structure of Southeast Asia’s Indianized kingdoms was very different from the typical Eurasian political system. Instead of warriors initiating a military invasion, merchants initiated a trade-based migration. This Indian migration transformed the indigenous population with the Hindu religious novels, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Indra just appears as a supporting figure in these dramas. Indeed, Vishnu channels Indra’s war-like nature, as exhibited by the relationship Krishna and Arjuna. Even in India, Indra’s influence was fading. He was most popular about a 1000 years before the Khmer were born from the union of the Naga Princess Soma and Tamil the Indian. Plus one the Mahabharata’s themes is the assimilation of the Naga/serpent. As such, there was no need for religious propaganda.Southeast Asia's Indianized kingdoms incorporated the Naga tribes rather than vilifying, exterminating or enslaving them. The indigenous agri-cultures worshipped the fertility of the earth, as in the rice goddess. They emphasized arts, crafts, trade and agriculture. Instead of enslavement, Southeast Asia's devarajas, the god-kings, inspired the local population to achieve merit through a collective effort for the common good, not by conquering neighboring kingdoms. Kings are revered for good works, not because of their military prowess.

More importantly, the Southeast Asian cultures embraced the anti-war theme expounded by the Mahabharata. As an example, a bas–relief in Angkor War prominently features Bishma lying on a bed of arrows. Bishma, a significant military hero of the Mahabharata, curses the destructive warrior code and his role in the war as he is dying. Such a representation of Bishma is uncommon in Indian art. Stressing this crucial scene indicates a rejection of the glorification of the warrior ethic that permeates military cultures everywhere.  

As we shall see, Southeast Asians participated in a trading culture based in peace, rather than a war-like culture based in accumulating slaves and property. Their temples and statuary indicate that they worshipped Vishnu, Shiva, and Buddha, rather than Indra or even Krishna, the warrior god. They also worshipped their devaraja as Vishnu's incarnation. The duty of the devaraja/god-king of both religious novels is to preserve the peace and inspire the population.


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