This sucks in the cooler moisture-laden air from the Indian Ocean, deluging the south and east of the continent in rain. Asia’s subsequent cooling in winter then causes the process to reverse. These winds have blown for six months northeasterly then six months southwesterly since time immemorial.
Indian and particularly Malay mariners learned the rhythm of these monsoon winds at least four thousand years ago. They realised they could trade on these faraway coasts, wait until the monsoon winds changed and then make the same trip in reverse.
These predictable monsoon winds allowed trade and communication to develop between India and the Malay Peninsula as early as 2000BC or before. Both Malay and Indian sailors began making this crossing eastwards carrying goods such as textiles and cottons, and westwards with goods such as tin, aromatic woods or other forest products.
The earliest Hindu text, the Rig Veda, written around 700BC, alludes to such voyages, stating: “Merchants, under the influence of greed, send out ships to foreign countries… merchants go everywhere in pursuit of gain and frequent every part of the sea.”
Other Indians crossed to the more sparsely populated Malay Peninsula to hunt or to live as aesthetic hermits in the remote caves and forests. After 500BC, during what is now called the “Early Kingdoms Period”, India was ravaged by frequent and brutal wars between the smaller kingdoms developing there and some Indian lords and their followers fled their enemies or defeat by crossing over to the Peninsula to set up new fiefdoms there.
The Serajah Keddah, the historical annals of the northwestern Malaysian state of Keddah, to the south of Phuket, gives an account of one such Hindu warrior prince, Marong Mahawangsa, who it claims founded the early kingdom known as Langkasuka in the central peninsula region in the first century AD.
These rather mythical annals tell us that in between fighting off a giant bird attempting to steal his ships in its claws and shooting off huge flaming arrows and the like, Marong crossed the Bay of Bengal and “The ships came in sight of Salang Island [Phuket] in the sea called Tappan [now Andaman]”, where he anchored off the island and sent a party onshore “to ask permission of the raja to wood and water.”
Marong’s fleet then left Phuket and sailed southeast for another “day and a night” until they were caught in a bad storm off “Pulau Lada” (probably Koh Lanta) which wrecked several ships. They eventually landed further south on an island they called “Lankapuri” (Langkawi?):
“The coastline was hilly and jungled. The bays had an abundance of fishes. Berries and fruits could be picked easily and jungle fowl were plenty. No people were seen. Shelters were built and stockades fixed to keep out prowling wild animals. At nights the vessel and the camp were lit up.
“These lights drew the Girgassi [local tribal] pirates and they pressed on the camp to loot, but their savage mode of approach could not prevail against organised fighters and the Girgassis submitted and invited Marong to be their chief.”
He accepted their offer and became the monarch of all the forested lands that lay before him. He named the island “Lankasuka” (Island of Health), “a fitting name, as there prevailed from dawn to dusk a cool breeze that was found vivifying and suitable for human health.
He took possession of all the pirate haunts and so removed piracy. Indian and Chinese traders thereafter came and went without fear. He built Hindu shrines and returned to India and brought craftsmen, priests and teachers with him and encouraged trade”.
This folkloric tale gives us some idea of how early Indian strongmen founded kingdoms on the peninsula. In Sanskrit, the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra came to be known as “Suvarnabhumi” or “Land of Gold”.
In these small river-mouth communities on the peninsular west coast, Indian (mainly Tamil) and then later Arab and Persian mariners and traders developed trade connections and friendships with the local communities and rulers.
These traders would often return to the same communities year after year and often stayed for months to trade and waiting for the monsoon winds to turn. They would be allocated a home and a wife for their stay and they begat mixed-race children and just as with foreigners today, many decided to stay on and live there permanently.
These Indian traders also brought with them their holy men who spread Hindu, Buddhist and Brahmanist beliefs.
These local Malay, Mon and Tamil leaders gained both economically and in prestige and power from associating with these foreign traders and their holy men. In this way, the Indian religions, or at least modified versions of them, merged with the existing animistic beliefs of the locals, were adopted in much of the peninsula from around 500BC onwards.
Hinduism appears to have been dominant in and around Phuket for over a thousand years between about 500BC and around AD700. In the foyer of the Phuket History Museum in Thalang stands a large and ancient (possibly ninth-century) stone statue of the Hindu god Vishnu. It was found in 1900 in thick forest overgrowth on the Phang Nga coast and confirms the early presence of Hinduism in the area.
Several other ancient Hindu stone carvings and temple remains have been recovered from sites surrounding Phuket – Takua Pa, Chaiya, Surat Thani, Krabi and Keddah. Analysis of the stone in these statues shows that some were carved in India and transported over while others were sculpted on the peninsula.
Evidence of this ancient Hindu heritage can also be seen in the important place Sanskrit and Pali words occupy in the Siamese language, also in the many Indian names still used by Thais and more commonly in the Thai greeting “Sawasdee ka”, which probably derives from the Sanskrit word “swastika”, meaning “well-being”.
Additionally, the traditional bowed head and wai hands greeting of Thais is said to have originally been a greeting between Hindu warrior lords to show mutual respect (and that they had no weapon in their hands ready to kill one another).
Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Amazon.com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: historyofphuket.com