Indian Ocean: The maritime links of India-Malaysia

ByHindustan Times
Aug 18, 2021 01:29 PM IST

This article is authored by Dr Tharishini Krishnan, senior lecturer and research fellow at Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS), National Defence University Malaysia.

The Indian Ocean has been a site of human interaction for many millennia, enabling the development of an interactive high-seas trade between many different regions. The strong maritime bond between Southeast Asia (SEA) and the Indian subcontinent represents a special component of the maritime interception of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, historian G Coedes referred to SEA as the ‘Indianised states’, and others such as C Majumdar and HB Sarkar have called SEA Greater India or Further India. Another prominent Indian strategic thinker, KM Panikkar, referred to India as part of SEA, which he viewed as extending from India to Indonesia.

The Indian Ocean is characterised by uniformly warm and stable rainfall patterns.(Representative Photo)
The Indian Ocean is characterised by uniformly warm and stable rainfall patterns.(Representative Photo)

The India-Malaysia maritime bond especially can be observed in ancient Indian literature collections, which mention India and Malaysia’s long-distance voyages such as Ramayana and make specific references to Yaradvipa (the island of Java) and Suvarnadvipa (the Malay peninsula). Other sources include the Kathasaritsagara (or Ocean of the Streams of Stories), which has a clear reference to a great mountain named Malaya in the southern region that probably refers to Malaysia today, and the Mahajanaka Jataka (Ten Great Birth Stories of the Buddha), which recounts a specific voyage from Champa with goods for trade and export to Suvarnabhumi - Burma and the Golden Chersonese - an ancient name for Malay Peninsula, as named by the Greek geographer and astronomy Ptolemy. Another prominent connection is the sea voyages of Rajendra Chola from Southern India in the 11 th century to SEA, with Malaysia on the receiving end for trading purposes.

Geographical proximity is one underlying factor behind the strong maritime connectivity between India and Malaysia. Prior to the 18 th century, India generally acted as a bridge between east and west. Similarly, the Malay peninsula acted as a crucial haven to many vessels sailing between the Middle and the Far East. Deep oceans can be challenging for sailors, so when eastbound sailors, having passed the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, approached Sumatran waters, the west coast of the Malay peninsula allowed them to refit and repair ships damaged by storms before continuing their voyage to the Far East and China. Places like Kedah, Penang, Perak, Malacca, and Johor, which are strategically situated between the choke points of east and west, facilitated these needs, further fostering the establishment of maritime connections between these two regions. In turn, when ships from SEA sailed westwards, they tended to call into major ports like Nagapatnam, Porto Novo, and Masulipatnam on the east coast of India, as well as Cambay, Calicut, Surat, and Goa on India’s west coast before continuing to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

The high demand for natural resources and luxury goods bound both countries together as well. The Indians perceived gold as a symbol of wealth; at an early stage, Indian merchants were therefore obtaining gold from the Sumerians, the Persians, the Egyptians, and the Roman Empire. However, as the supply of gold dropped in those places, India began searching for alternative supplies of gold and eventually came to view Malaysia the transcendent Land of Gold. The abundance of spices such as cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg in Malaysia and Indonesia also attracted Indian merchants. Other areas include Karpuradvipa (probably Borneo), which produced camphor; Takkola (perhaps present-day Phuket on the north-west of the Malay peninsula), which produced cardamom; Narikeladvipa, the island of coconut palms; and Yavodvipa, the island of barley, possibly near Java. These spice islands led to the Indian merchants dominating the trading links at the Malaysian ports.

Another influencing factor is monsoon season. As Sinnappah Arasaratnam remarks, “Nowhere else on the globe is the annual reversal of wind and rainfall regimes as spectacular as in the realm of the Indian Ocean and surrounding land areas”. The mariners of the east coast of India were aware of the monsoon winds and currents and used them for maritime trade; hence the maritime trade from India to SEA was a seasonal phenomenon. During the summer (May to September) the southwest monsoon blows in a north-easterly direction over southern India, crossing Sri Lanka into the Bay of Bengal and heading for the northern part of the Malay peninsula. In winter (November to March), the northwest monsoon blows in the opposite direction, from the northern part of the Malay peninsula south-westwards, towards the Arabian Sea. Voyages between east and west were dependent on these wind conditions, and ships naturally tended to stop at certain strategic ports, such as Malacca. Thus many merchant junks stayed on that coast, and this location became a transit point; it was convenient for sailors and merchants to anchor their ships in this safe harbour as they prepared for their voyages to India or across the South China Sea.

Monsoon season was also fundamental to the beginning of the cross-cultural bonds between India and Malaysia; merchants and sailors who docked their ships from India for several months in Malaysian ports soon began building local settlements, which eventually turned the areas into cosmopolitan centres and ports. The various merchants from Coromandel, Malabar, Madras, Surat, Calicut, and Cambay at these local settlements communicated by means of a local lingua franca and intermarried with the women of the local communities.

The strong bond is thus the result of the natural conditions and proximity of the Indian Ocean, which acted as a bridge between the two countries shaping a complex trading society. This relation exists till today. Even the Indian community in Malaysia, which has strong roots in India, was shaped by the Indian Ocean – the presence of this community alone is an intriguing feature that shows the long existing and strong maritime bond between India and Malaysia.

(This article is authored by Dr Tharishini Krishnan, senior lecturer and research fellow at Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS), National Defence University Malaysia.)

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