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South East Asian Culture

South East Asian Culture


Culture plays an integral role in defining the South East Asian identity. The geographical proximity among nations has resulted in a lot of overlapping cultural practices that gives rise to an entity called the South East Asian culture. While discussing the culture of the region, it is important to focus on the religion, language, performing arts such as dance and music and the heritage sites of the region that bring out the syncretism in the South East Asian culture. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) forms the political wing of the region and it is instrumental in ensuring the economic, cultural and social development of the community. The ASEAN motto ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Culture’ illustrates the cultural coherence among the member states. India shares an important relationship with ASEAN and both are working towards building their partnership in political, economic and cultural spheres.


Culture is often defined as the complex totality of human experience that includes ideas, beliefs, knowledge, customs and other important aspects of human existence that enables us to live a meaningful life in society. While discussing South East Asian culture, one can look at the dimensions of religion, language, performing arts and heritage sites along with the political and cultural ties of the region that shape its identity. South East Asia consists of eleven countries – Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and East Timor. Since a large part of South East Asia is situated between the tropics, there  is a lot of similarities among the countries in terms of flora and fauna. However, life in the islands  is different from life in the mainland. The mainland region, known as Indochina, a term coined by the French, consists of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The island region, consisting the ‘Insular’ part of the region includes Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore. Laos is the only landlocked country in the region bordering China, Vietnam and Thailand. The region is culturally rich. There is a lot of similarities found in the cultures of 11 countries, which makes it possible for there to exist an entity called the South East Asian Culture. The countries have similar values and practices such as respecting and worshipping nature. Indigenous communities live in the forests. They worship trees. Since the countries are geographically closely located and face a similar climate, there is enormous similarities seen in architecture. All houses have slanting roofs that have become a common cultural symbol in the region. The South East Asian culture has a strong influence of China and India in areas of faith, language, art, architecture and folk tradition.


South East Asia has strong religious roots. The region is heavily influenced by Buddhism. Buddhism emerged in the South East Asia through trade contact with Indian merchants. The local people thus began to practice Buddhism and Hinduism along with their old religious and cultural practices. Each country had a different encounter with the Buddhist philosophy; for instance, in Myanmar, during the time of King Ashoka, monks were sent to Thaton, the trading centre of the southern part of Myanmar to spread Buddhist teachings there. While in Thailand, Buddhism flourished only with the support of Thai King Ramkham-haeng. He sent monks to Sri Lanka for education and also invited many Buddhist scholars to the capital city of Sukothai. Other than Buddhism, Islam is also an important religion in the region. In fact, Indonesia is home to the largest population of Muslims in the world. Not only this, Philippines has the largest number of Roman Catholics in the world after Latin America while Thailand is home to the largest number of Buddhist population globally. Thus one can see a mosaic of religious affiliations in the region. The diversity in the region’s demography is not always affiliated to religion. Another source of cultural diversity is the millions of overseas Chinese that migrated to South East Asia under the Qing dynasty and the colonial period. Overseas Chinese play an important role in the economy of the region. However, this religious diversity also gives rise to a large number of conflicts and challenges for the region. For instance, Ahmadi Muslims face persecution in the Sunni Muslim majority Indonesia, Muslim separatist movements operate in Thailand and Philippines, Buddhists and other religious group face strong regulation by the Vietnamese State, the indigenous population of the region also faces oppression from time to time. The Rohingya Muslims are perhaps the worst affected minority, not just regionally but globally. They continue to face threat and human rights violations in the Buddhist majority country of Myanmar.





The linguistic diversity of the region is such that a native person is fluent in more than one language. There are thousands of languages spoken in South East Asia. Some of the languages do not have a written script and are thus preserved orally; consequently, they face the threat of extinction. Linguistically, the mainland is divided into 3 important families- the Austrio Asiatic,  Tai and Tibeto Burmese. Languages belonging to these families can also be found in northeastern India and south western China. Around 4,000 years ago, people speaking languages belonging to Austronesian family (that originates from China and Taiwan) began to enter the islands of South East Asia. Most of the languages spoken in insular South East Asia are actually belonging to the Austronesian family. The languages recognized as national language have a literary tradition with a history that can be well traced.


The Arts


South East Asia has a rich repertoire of traditional music as seen in the form of court music, folk music    and     music     styles     of     smaller     indigenous     peoples.     Gamelan orchestras from Indonesia, Piphat/Pinpeat ensembles of Thailand & Cambodia and the Kulintang ensembles of the southern Philippines, Borneo, Sulawesi, and Timor comprise the three main distinct styles of musical genres that have influenced other traditional musical styles in the region.  String instruments also are popular among music lovers.Puppetry and shadow plays are widely enjoyed by people. One can find the presence of Hindu Gods, Shadow puppetry across Thai, Khmer, Lao and Burmese culture. Water Puppet shows are popular in Vietnam. The dance forms in the region focus on intricate hand movements. There are some 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, each having its own traditional dance. Javanese dance can be of 3 kinds- Beksan putra (dances for men), Beksan putri (dances for women) and Boksan Wayang (depictions of poems/folks). Fan Leb, the Fingernail Dance and Fon Tien, the Candle Dance originated in Thailand. The Legong Dance is famous in Bali. Traditional Cambodian Dances include the Kymer or Apsara dance that has generally an inbuilt narrative to it. There are four genres of this dance- Classical, Shadow, Lakhon Khol (the dance of masked men) and Folk Dance. Hinduism has a strong influence on the arts and literature of South East Asia. This cultural influence has only been possible because of the trade network of that period. South East Asia has always been a critical part of the world trading system. The region traded in spices, first with India and Arab countries and then with European merchants. This cultural contact has resulted in many literary works found in the region that are based on the Hindu epic of Ramayana. Music is an important medium for disseminating the teachings and also modifying it to suit the local context. Seri Rama is the Malaysian adaption of Ramayana while Ram Kher is the Cambodian version of the epic.


Cultural Heritage Sites

 The UNESCO has designated thirty eight world heritage sites in South East Asia. There is a lot of Indian influence on the architecture of most of the heritage sites in the region. Temples of Angkor Wat, the Borobudur Temple and the Prambanan temples are fine examples that illustrate this. During the medieval period, artists from Kalinga (present day Odisha) travelled to South East Asia to work in the temples in Java and Sumatra. Thus, one can find a lot of semblance in the art motifs of the temples in the region and those in South India. In Cambodia, Angkor is a popular site. It contains the remains of the Khmer Empire such as the Temple of Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple. The Temple of Preah that was built to honour the Hindu God Shiva in the early part of 11th century is an important site. Indonesia is home to the famous Borobudur Temple  Compounds which is one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world. It was built in the eighth and ninth centuries AD under the Sailendra Dynasty. The Prambanan Temple Compounds, another world heritage site in Indonesia is complex of 240 temples. It consists of Prambanan Temple (also known as Loro Jonggroung) Sewu Temple, Bubrah Temple and Lumbung Temple. The Prambanan Temple is a brilliant example of Hindu Religious beliefs. The Hindu temples in the complex have stone carvings that depict scenes from the Ramayana. In Laos, the old town of Luang Prabang and


Vat Phou and the Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape become important cultural heritage cities. On the other hand,.Malaka and George Town in Malaysia are examples of cultural cohabitation of elements from Malay Archipelago, India, China and Europe. These towns were earlier trading ports that connected the East with the West. Myanmar is home to the Pyu Ancient Cities- Mandalay that are a part of the Pyu Kingdom that dates back to over athousand years ago. South East Asia attracts large scores of tourists because of its rich culture, fantastic monuments and vibrant social life. The countries take pride in their cultural heritage and work for the promotion of tourism industry. In fact, Tourism is a flourishing industry in the region. The number of visitors to this part of the world soared from 49 per cent between 2010 and 2015 to more than 109 million.



South East Asia’s Political Wing- the Association of South East Asian States (ASEAN)


The Association of South East Asian States (ASEAN) was created on 8th August 1967 with the Bangkok Declaration. The organization comprises of ten member states (amounting to ten per cent of the global population). The founding members of ASEAN are Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Brunei Darusslam joined later on 7th January 1984, Vietnam on 28th July 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar on 23rdJuly 1997 and Cambodia on 30thApril 1999. ASEAN was set up with the objective to accelerate economic growth and social progress in the region while also starting a new chapter of peace and security for South East Asia. In 1997, the ASEAN leaders adopted ASEAN Vision 2020 to create a stable, prospective partnership in a community of caring societies. Six years later, with the Bali Concord II, the ASEAN Community was conceptualized. Its three pillars include Political Security Community, Economic Community and Socio-Cultural Community. The ASEAN Community was established on 31st December 2015. The motto of ASEAN is ‘One Vision, One Identity, and One Community’. The idea of community living is at the heart of the conceptualization of ASEAN. There is a strong emphasis in promoting their culture in the region. The goal of ASEAN Community is to be people oriented and socially responsible while also meticulously working for strengthening the economy of the region.



India and ASEAN relations


There has been a lot of cultural interaction and influence between India and South East Asia due to expansion of trade between the two regions. The best part about this interaction is that India never resorted to violence or forceful means to perpetuate its soft power over the region. The people of South East Asia were naturally drawn towards India’s culture. Buddhist monks and Hindu Brahmans accompanied the merchants to the kingdoms in the region. They became ambassadors of India’s culture and soft power. India’s close relations with ASEAN member states is evident from the fact that India invited the leaders of the ten ASEAN nations for its 69th Republic Day in 2018. India’s current Act East Policy (AEP) has its origins in the Look East Policy of 1992 which focused on economic and cultural relations of the two regions. Even though the two nations share a lot of similar cultural traits, the need for consolidating their unity arose only recently. One factor behind  it could be China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea. India signed a Free Trade


Agreement with ASEAN in 2009 that aims to renew their economic and cultural partnership with the region. Attempts have been made in the direction of closing the physical proximity through the trilateral highway project and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit that will link India with Myanmar and Thailand. There are 30 Dialogue Mechanisms between India and ASEAN, covering various actors. Indian’s relationship with ASEAN is an important component of our foreign policy. The year 2017 witnessed 25 years of ASEAN India Dialogue which resulted in a wide range  of activities in India and South East Asia; it also led to a Commemorative Summit on the theme ‘Shared Values, Common Destiny’.


In conclusion, the South East Asian Culture embodies the spirit of unity in diversity. The existence of multiple faiths in the region, especially the coexistence of Hinduism and Islam, illustrates how diversity is not antithetical to peace and that we can actually live and flourish with our differences provided we have the support from the people and the political elite. ASEAN has been a driving force to achieve the goal of cultural harmony for its member states. The myriad challenges to cultural unity continue to threaten the stability of South East Asia but with a dedicated organization like the ASEAN, one can hope for a better and brighter future for the region.



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