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The Amazing History Of Southeast Asia

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Human presence in Southeast Asia dates to at least 40,000 years ago. In places like Java, Borneo, and Flores, archaeologists have found traces of prehistoric settlements. During the Ice Age, sea levels were quite lower, so all the different islands were probably part of the mainland. At the time, it would have been possible for people from all over Asia to travel and settle in different regions without encountering large bodies of water.

Almost 10,000 years ago, glaciers started to melt, and the land started partitioning into islands. No written record exists of the ancient Southeast Asian civilizations, but their archaeological traces are being discovered to this day. A major discovery in 2004 unearthed some skeletal remains that show that ancient people here were fairly similar to modern human beings, except for being short. Their maximum height was around four feet. Researchers have termed these people as Hobbits based on the famous fantasy tales of J.R.R.

Tolkien. They might have been shorter species of early Homo sapiens or even earlier species like Homo erectus. As the glaciers started to melt, water bodies started to form, and rivers started to cut through the land. As the topography changed around them, so did the people. Their ideas, lifestyles, and cultures underwent fundamental changes.

The most basic and important of these changes is the advent of agriculture. Water provided an easy source for irrigation. Around 8000 BCE, agricultural settlements started to appear in the region, as the valleys of Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam were quite fertile. Alongside these places, inhabitants in Java, Bali, and the Philippines started adapting to their surroundings as well and started farming in rice farms. The climate and the landscape were favorable for irrigation, and the farming almost had a self-sustaining nature to it.

By 6000 BCE, the environment and the landscape were diversifying. Some immigration into the region might have also taken place. But it was the evolution of local norms and communication between cultures that shaped the region. Since the climate is so wet, they innovated their housing structures allowing water to flow under them without any harm. These huts, known as stilt houses, are still in use today.

The stone tools from early settlements and hunting societies show a similarity in design. This diverse hunting and gathering lifestyle has survived well into the 21st century. Eventually, people started to use boats, making transportation much simpler across the islands. Thanks to this transportation, entire Southeast Asia became well-connected, and the civilizations informed each other in cultural matters. Similarly, somewhat advanced metalworking was being practiced by the end of the 30th century BCE.

These skills evolved locally, each developing its unique characteristics. The change in the landscape accounts for many cultural events that happened later on. For instance, naval travel helped in the expansion of Proto-Austronesian languages over 5000 years. Gradually, the language evolved into Austronesian. Today, Austronesian is spoken in Southeast Asia, Madagascar, New Guinea, Polynesia, and Taiwan.

People started to live in different outfits to cope with the increasing population, choosing not to settle in urban outfits. In ancient Southeast Asia, people left once their settlement reached a certain population limit; this initially occurred in Taiwan and then extended through the northern Philippines and central, western, and eastern Indonesia. Around the 1000 BCE mark, examples of bronze and iron production started appearing, and iron objects from this era can be traced to northern Vietnam. Spearheads for hunting, fishhooks for fishing, plowshares for plowing, and other similar items can be found in this era. The Dong Son culture in Vietnam is responsible for these innovations.

The Dong Son culture is revered for its bronze drums that they started making around 500 BCE. These were large drums, sometimes weighing around 154 pounds, and featured beautiful geometric designs. The Dong Son was among the first societies that started evolving into urban communes. They were skilled in cultivating rice, raising water buffalo and pigs, fishing, and canoe sailing. Like other ancient civilizations, as the cities started to form, a hierarchical structure started to appear.

The most interesting aspect of Southeast Asian ingenuity is that they did not have a writing script at the time, which makes their social, technological, and artistic innovations seem all the more admirable. In the 1st century, Cambodia was host to its first major civilization, the Kingdom of Hunan. From the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE, the region came under the influence of its more mature neighbors, namely China and India. Trade had been blooming in Southeast Asia, and China was worried about the expansion of Vietnamese trade. In the 1st century BCE, the Han Empire took over Vietnam. After the Chinese invasion, Vietnam survived in a feudal environment for the coming centuries.

After becoming adept at guerrilla warfare, they could overthrow the Chinese government and receive their freedom in the 10th century. The Vietnamese continued their skirmished with the Chinese over the years and even managed to repel the onslaughts of the Mongols, who took over many Chinese factions. As far as Indian influences are concerned, they are minute by comparison. The Southeast Asian societies were diverse, and many cultures flourished alongside each other. Some Indian values and their consequential effects can be seen in the region, but they might just have resulted from Indian migrations into the region.

There is no evidence of an Indian power grab in Southeast Asia, so they probably blended in like all the other cultures and contributed to the vibrant lifestyle. However, as much Chinese and Indian influence can be found in the area, it was never overpowering to the point of diminishing local values. The most important contributions of the Indian and Sing cultures were the introduction of writing systems, astronomy, and hierarchical ideologies like religion and advanced politics. The other significant impact of the two cultures is the cultivation of Hindu and Buddhist ideas. Hinduism is one of the oldest religions globally, and Buddhism was gaining ground after Ashoka push to legitimize it and have it taught to the masses.

The Southeast Asian arts evolved with Hindu and Buddhist ideas as significant influences. The visual arts, including architecture, have an Indian spirit to them. Buddhism also originated in India but never caught on with its inhabitants. In Burma, its presence can be felt as far back as the 3rd century BCE. At the time, Burma was a collection of loose cultures and would not become a collective unit until the rise of the Pagan Dynasty in the 9th century.

By the 7th century, Buddhism had a strong foothold in the area, and religious adherents of the Buddhist doctrine were visiting Indonesian lands to offer their respects. During this era, Southeast Asian societies saw a boom in urban tendencies. Their cities were centralizing, and they were constructing large structures. In the 8th century, different temples and courts started popping up in Burma, Cambodia, and Java. By far, the biggest foreign contribution to these lands was the intense religiosity and spirituality that became a staple.

The spiritual devotion quickly became a centerpiece of Southeast Asia and prompted many works of art and architecture. For instance, the Shailendra Dynasty of Java underwent a cultural renaissance and produced heavenly works of Buddhist art. In the 9th century, the Khmer Empire, also called the Agrarian Empire, started to take shape in Cambodia. At its peak, it might have supported a population of around one million. Angkor Was and the Buddhist temple, Bacon, are emblematic of the kingdoms artistic, cultural, and trading prowess.

It reached its peak during the 11th to 13th centuries and was host to various belief systems, all of which defined its unique aesthetic identity. In the 11th century, Buddhist kings started to emerge in the empire. The Khmer Empire moved away from the system of mandala states and eventually crumbled under its own weight. The decline of the Khmer Empire gave rise to the golden age of Thailand. The Tai ethnic group probably originated from China but moved around Vietnam and eventually settled in Thailand. By the 13th century, they had established good relations with their neighbors, including the Khmer, whose culture and values they cherished.

With Theravada Buddhism as their official religion, the 13th century witnessed the Sukhothai Kingdom in Thailand, based on the settlement of Sukhothai, become a beacon of peace and tranquility. Buddhism was the most potent spiritual guide of Southeast Asians during this period and spread fast as pilgrims from Sri Lanka introduced Buddhism to the Pagan Empire of Burma. In the 14th century, the Thai Ayutthaya Kingdom rose to power. For the next few centuries, Thailand became a trading powerhouse, drawing on its geographical advantages to foster trade in the region. As empires emerged, people were not content with settling in cities, so they started moving around more frequently.

Around the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries, travelers from the region reached and settled in Madagascar. They brought bananas with them the fruit had been exclusive to Southeast Asia. They even reached New Zealand and Hawaii, around 1000. As the Portuguese and the Spanish started their imperialist drives, Southeast Asia came into contact with new cultures and values. The King NARA of Ayutthaya started corresponding with the King Louis XIV of France.

In a short while, French troops were stationed in Thailand for protection and began exerting considerable influence. This led to the Siamese Revolution of 1688, in which the locals overthrew the king, and a general seized power. The 16th century witnessed the rise of the largest empire in Southeast Asian history: the Young Empire. According to European records, the Empire had a few ports that facilitated its trade. The empire sold rice and luxury goods to other states.

When the Portuguese started their imperialist frenzy in the 16th century, the empire became a strategically effective location for trade and it flourished. Guided by spiritual philosophies, Indian politics had a very different approach from the modern Western methods. The jurisdiction of a ruler extended circularly, an example of religious ideology guiding political thought. Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize the flow of the spirit, so their visual arts, including architecture, political entities started to emerge. This continued from the 2nd century BCE to the 6th century CE.

These settlements would often help with political strategy, trade, and sea and land traffic. Different mandala states started appearing in Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Java. This model had a few problems chiefly that it was too tribal. Internal politics of a province would result in shifting loyalties, civil unrest, and minor clashes while keeping in touch with the larger political advancements of the land. These states had more in the way of cultural influence than political sway.

For instance, in the 8th century, the Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya in Indonesia emerged as a powerful trading entity. It functioned as a trade route for spices between China and India. But, Srivijaya was soon attacked by the Indian state, Cola, and the kingdom waned in influence by the 13th century. Islam arrived in Southeast Asia in the 8th century, and it started to spread slowly. Then, during the Mongol conquest of the 13th and 14th centuries, many Muslims escaped to China.

Buddhism remained the major religion for a long time, but experts estimate that the trade between Arab and China might have brought Islam to Southeast Asia. There are many records of mystics, Sufi’s, and scholars who propagated the religion in Southeast Asia. Given that the Sufi brand of Islam has a lot in common with Buddhist philosophy, it is understandable why it would have appealed to the masses. Southeast Asia’s exposure to foreign cultures was increasing tenfold sometimes it came in the form of trading merchants, and sometimes it arrived in the form of invaders. The political, social, and cultural ideas were being accepted into the social structure, bringing Southeast Asia out of the shadows of ancient times.

By the time imperialist powers started to gain ground, Southeast Asians had developed into mature entities with diverse and inclusive lifestyles. Nevertheless, the Portuguese were able to topple the Malacca Sultanate, and the Spanish invaders started to colonize the Philippines. Thailand was spared a ruthless imperialist rule, but most major cities of the area were subjugated to it. Shortly after the Second World War, the region underwent a process of decolonization during which Indonesia and Burma secured their independence. The British Empire also granted independence to Singapore, Malaya, Sarawak, and Sarah.

It serves us well to remember that Southeast Asia has always been a land of diversity. Violent clashes and unexpected alliances have rendered the regions’ history colorful, turning it into a friendly and vibrant land. Full of incredible peninsulas, tropical coasts, and islands, it is the land of Brahma, Buddha, Islam, and Catholicism. With its friendly locals and unbelievable tourist infrastructure, today, Southeast Asia is one of the easiest regions to visit in the entire world. To learn more about the History of Southeast Asia, check out our book: History of Southeast Asia: A Captivating Guide to the History of a Vast Region Containing Countries Such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Burma, and More.

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