Amidst its vast collection of Buddhist images and Hindu sculptures, India gets several mentions in the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum in Sukhothai, Thailand. The Indian influence is clearly visible across the vast Sukhothai Historical Park, which houses the museum and comprises of the ruins of 13th and 14th century temples, monasteries and other structures of the Sukhothai Kingdom.

Thais revere this kingdom and King Ramkhamhaeng, who is believed to have invented the Sukhothai script, which was derived from Old Khmer, itself derived from the Pallava script. From Thailand and Laos in the north to the Malay peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago to the south, traditional scripts across South East Asia were derived from the Pallava writing system, named after the Pallava dynasty (3rd Century BCE to 9th Century CE).

The journey of the Pallava script to South East Asia is an interesting, even if not fully understood, part of history. Old temples and archaeological ruins in South India and South East Asia have inscriptions that leave behind clues on the Indian influence in the kingdoms east of the subcontinent, but the movement of the script is not properly documented.

In a 1998 paper for the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Jan Wisseman Christie wrote that the import of Hinduism and Buddhism by local rulers brought Sanskrit and Pali to South East Asia and deeply influenced the linguistic and intellectual cultures of the region, but the religions came via southern India. This is reflected in the fact that the South East Asian scripts evolved from the Pallava script.

“The script in which the earliest Southeast Asian inscriptions were written suggests that these religious texts and ideas were transmitted to Southeast Asians via the southeast coast of India, where the religious use of Sanskrit and Pali sat alongside the more mundane use of very different indigenous local languages,” Wisseman wrote. “The fact that the southern Indian languages did not travel eastward along with the script further suggests that the main carriers of ideas from the southeast coast of India to the east – and the main users in Southeast Asia of religious texts written in Sanskrit and Pali – were Southeast Asians themselves.”

History books in South East Asian countries say that the script spread to the region through traders, priests, monks and scholars who went to South East Asia during the reign of the Pallavas.

Origins of Pallava script

The earliest inscriptions of the Pallava dynasty are in Sanskrit and Prakrit. These Sanskrit inscriptions were found not just in several parts of southern India, but also in Myanmar and Cambodia. The Pallava script, which evolved from Tamil-Brahmi, can be traced back to the 4th century CE.

In a 1969 paper for Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, a peer reviewed academic journal on South East Asia and Indonesia, Indian scholar Himansu Bhanu Sarkar argued that the script may not have been necessarily introduced by the Pallavas but got its name because it was used in the region dominated by the dynasty. The latter inscriptions of the dynasty were in Sanskrit and Tamil in the Pallava script.

The export of the script to South East Asia is believed to have commenced during the reign of Mahendravarman I (600 CE to 630 CE), who was a major patron of the Tamil language.

This “two-language” policy was adopted by the Khmer Empire. “The Indic inscriptions of Cambodia constitute the largest and most important corpus among the extra-Indian inscriptions in Sanskrit,” Richard Salomon wrote in his book Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the Other Indo-Aryan Languages. “They number in the hundreds, including several of great length and range in date from about the fifth or sixth to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. The great majority are in Sanskrit, including many Sanskrit and Khmer bilinguals, besides the numerous inscriptions in Khmer alone; a few late inscriptions are in Pali.”

The oldest inscription in the Khmer script that has been found in Cambodia dates back to 611 CE. The script, which was developed from Pallava, then spread across the Khmer Empire to the Mekong Delta, to parts of modern-day Laos and Thailand. Sanskrit and Lao inscriptions in Laos detail incidents from the country’s Khmer past. “An interesting early record (5th century CE) is the Vat Luong Kau inscription of King Devanika, recording the foundation of a new Kurukshetra tirtha,” Salomon wrote.

The Khmer script was used in central and northern Thailand until it was replaced by the Sukhothai script, which later evolved into the modern Thai script. Some of the famous Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions of the Khmer Empire are found in archaeological sites in Thailand. “A particularly important record of this class is the bilingual (Sanskrit and Khmer) Sdok Kak Thom inscription of Udayaditya Varman, which relates in detail the history of a prominent priestly family and their relations with contemporary kings over two and a half centuries,” according to Salomon.

Malay peninsula and Indonesia

The Pallava script also reached the Malay peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago in the 8th century CE. The Sojomerto inscription (9th century CE) in Central Java is the oldest discovered specimen of Old Malay, a language that was deeply influenced by Sanskrit and had several Dravidian words. At that point of time, most of modern-day Malaysia and Indonesia were Hindu and Buddhist. The Sojomerto inscription was written in Old Javanese (Kawi) script, which was also derived from the Pallava script.

The inscription, believed to be the work of Shaivites, talks of the head of a noble family called Dapunta Selendra, who is considered the progenitor of the powerful Shailendra Dynasty which ruled Medang and Srivijaya.

The Ciaruteun inscription, a 5th-century Pallava stone inscription discovered in Indonesia. Credit: Georg Friedrich Johannes/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License].

Several languages of the Indonesian peninsula such as Javanese, Balinese and Sundanese used scripts that evolved from the Pallava script. The oldest surviving Javanese inscription dates back to 760 CE, according Himansu Bhanu Sarkar. “It is a developed form of the Pallava script and it came to be known in native parlance as Aksara Buddha or Buddhist writing,” Sarkar wrote in the 1969 paper.

From Java, the script spread to other parts of the Indonesia archipelago. “The Palllava-Grantha character, as adapted in Java, led I believe to the evolution of national scripts in several islands in the vicinity of Java,” Sarkar wrote. “Such for instance was the case in regard to Sundanese, Madurese and Balinese scripts. The Sumatran script of the Middle Ages is also believed to have developed out of this script.”

Even the Philippines had a writing system that was a variant of the Pallava script.

Regional interactions

Despite the logistical difficulties and the time taken for the movement of people and ideas in the 7th century, southern India and South East Asia seemed to be better connected at that time. Asia was not plagued then by the ideas of national identity cards, passports and the modern nation state. India welcomed pilgrims and travellers from other parts of Asia, some of whom stayed behind and became Indians. The exchange worked both ways, with Indians settling in East and South East Asia in small numbers.

The sheer magnitude of the interaction between southern India and South East Asia before the towering rise of the Chola Empire (in the latter part of 9th century CE) can only be fully understood if more inscriptions are found and deciphered. Unfortunately, many temples in southern India have destroyed old inscriptions under the guise of renovation.

The best effort to decipher and document Indian inscriptions in South East Asia was made by BC Chhabra, whose PhD thesis at the State University of Leyden, Holland, was republished as a book titled Expansion of Indo-Aryan Culture during Pallava Rule (as evidenced by inscriptions). Dr Chhabra served as the Joint Director General of Archaeology in India in the 1960s.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.