Hindic-Buddhist Kingdoms - 200 AD

In the three thousand or so years that the neolithic Austronesians had spent settling and populating the Indo-Malayan archipelago, on the Asian mainland sophisticated, metal-working, literate, stratified, state civilizations had developed in China behind them and in India ahead of them. Once the east to west movement of the Austronesian cultures met the high civilization of southern India, a cultural movement of Hindic-Buddhist influences reflected back through the archipelago from west to east.

The Philippines are situated at the far northeastern end of the archipelago. They were involved in the very earliest stages of the Austronesian expansion. By the same geography, they were the last to receive the civilizational influences emanating from mainland Asia.

In the hazy transition from prehistory to recorded history, it is not absolutely clear whether it was the Austronesian seafarers who first went to India or Indian merchants who came to the Malay peninsula. In its trade with China and Rome, India imported gold. Due to Rome's economic troubles, the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD) decreed a ban on the export of bullion. At the same time, the Chinese Han dynasty, in its decline, was losing control of the Silk Road to marauding Huns. India needed new sources of gold and found them across the Bay of Bengal on the Malay Peninsula. Around 100 AD, Kedah was founded on the export of Malayan gold to India.

The court records from the Chinese Kingdom of Wu (222-280 AD) report that there were 100 kingdoms on the Southern Seas. These were small kingdoms in Malaya, Sumatra and Java engaged in trade with the Coramandel coast of southern India. They styled their kingdoms in conscious imitation of the Hindic-Buddhist states with whom they traded. The local sovereigns retained Brahman scholars at their courts so that their Sanskrit writings and Buddhist rites would add to the authority and prestige of their kingdoms.

Importantly, the Hindu and Buddhist influences from India were not imposed by conquest or foreign domination. The influence was also more apparent than real. Beneath the surface, the Indian religious symbols and rites were freely adapted to express the animist beliefs and ancestor worship of Austronesian culture. Nor did the influence of Indian civilization extend far beyond the royal courts. Outside the nobility, life went on for the general population much as it had for thousands of years. The Sanskrit script, for instance, does not appear to have been applied as an aid for commerce. Nor, with the notable exception of Bali, was the Indian caste system imported. The social organization continued to follow the traditional kinship system of Austronesian society.

Of much greater significance, it was during these early centuries of the first millennium AD that metal working, water buffalo, irrigation and wet rice field agriculture spread through the archipelago. Whether from India or mainland Indo-China, the source of these agricultural and technical innovations is not known.