Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

South Indian Culture Contacts in Nusantara

Joseph Minattur

LL. D. (Nimeguen), D. C. L. (F. I. E. D. C., Strasbourg)
Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, London

It is common knowledge that India played a prominent role in moulding the culture patterns of South-east Asia. There is also considerable acceptance accorded to the view that it was the southern regions of India that exercised the most significant influence upon Nusantara and Malay Peninsula, if not upon the whole of South-east Asia. It is attempted here to spotlight certain aspects of culture in Nusantara which appear to indicate the impress of South India, and particularly of the Malabar coast. It is the Malabar coast that appears to have been neglected in the various studies dealing with Indian cultural influences in South-east Asia; hence the emphasis in this paper on the Malabar coast. While dealing with Nusantara occasional references will be made to the Malay Peninsula.


One may start with an institution in which most scholars in the field of South-east Asian social studies appear to have evinced some interest. Matriliny in Minangkabau in Sumatra may be an indigenous institution. But a study of its details will not fail to impress one with the striking similarity between Malabar matriliny and this institution which has its off-shoot in Negri Sembilan in Malaysia. The very name Minangkabau where the institution flourished and continues to retain its influence appears to have been derived from Malabar. In spite of the various legends one hears about the origin of the name, it is not unlikely that it originally meant the portion or division of land allotted to Meenooki(Malayalam, a superintendent). Meenookiwas a1so a baronial title in North Kerala. Meenookibhaagam(the chief’s or superintendent’s portion) may have been corrupted to Minangkabau.1

Descent by the female line may be regarded as one of the characteristics of Austro-asiatic civilization. 2 It is found among the Khasis of Assam, an Austro-asiatic community. 3 The Garos of Assam as well as the Jaintias who are closely related to the Khasis also follow matriliny. Considering that matriliny was not unknown to the Austro-asians, it is not suggested that this social institution was introduced into Minangkabau from South India, where it was prevalent in the area now comprised in the State of Kerala; but the probabilities of such introduction cannot be ruled out when one recollects that in various parts of Sumatra, Malayalis settled down along with other South Indian immigrants. This may be seen from the old clan names in Sumatra. One comes across in the subdivision of Marga Simbiring of the Karo Batak names like Colija, Pandija, Melijala, Pelavi and Tekang. In this company it is not difficult to recognize Melijala for Malayalam, 4 corresponding to the present day Kerala, Pelavi for Pallav and Tekang for Dekhan. But it has to be admitted that there is no proof that these South Indian settlements preceded the institution of matriliny in Minangkabau.

The proximity of Melayu to Minangkabau may be a more relevant factor in indicating the relationship between Malabar matriliny and the Minangkabau institution. It appears that the name Melayu was derived from Malaya, the Sanskrit name for the range of mountains bordering the eastern districts of Kerala. 5 Melayu is generally regarded as one of the oldest Indianized States in Sumatra. If the settlers could give a name of their choice to the region, their influence may have been considerable. This again does not tend to prove that they were instrumental in introducing matriliny in Minangkabau.

Their influence on the institution, however, is easily recognizable. The people of Minangkabau and Negri Sembilan refer to a number of features of their matrilineal system by Indian words, some of which are the very words used by the people of Kerala to denote their own institutions. For instance, Minangkabau bakodenoting patrilineal relationship is heard in Negri Sembilan as bakaand in Kerala as vaka. Harlo-pusako of Minangkabau and haria pesaka of Negri Sembilan have in them saka, Sanskrit saakha, meaning branch, used in relation to the branch of a matrilineal family group in all the three areas under consideration. The same sakaappears in Minangkabau in the phrase kata saka or kata pesaka in the sense of sayings. Some names denoting certain institutions and territorial units in Minangkabau and Negri Sembilan appear to be exact translations either into the locallanguage or Sanskrit of Dravidian names used in Kerala. For instance, one comes across the strange expression ebu bapa, whichmeans father-mother, and which appears to be a translation or, adaptation of Malayalam ammaavan, meaning “he-mother,” Negri6is given a specialised meaning in Minangkabau and Negri Sembilan and stands for Malayalam naadu. 7 In Kerala one is familiar with such phrases as naadum nagariyum, literally country and town, but used indiscriminately in the sense of territorial units.

The word peeruis of special interest. It means name in Kerala and may include the name of the family by which a person is identified as the member of that family in the same way as a surname in the west helps to identify a person. Parui(womb) in Minangkabau and perut8in Negri Sembilan stand for the matrilineal clan to which one belongs.

The expression orang semenda used in Negri Sembilan may be a derivative from Malayalam sambandhakaaran, the expression used in relation to a man who has entered into a marriage relationship in the Kerala matrilineal society. Samhandhamis from Sanskrit and means bond or tie and hence marriage. Kaaran, formed of two Dravidian suffixes, indicates a person who belongs to or possesses what is connoted bythe preceding part of the word. Hence sambandhakaarais one who isbound or wedded. Applying the usual rules of Malay grammar, one would have kaaran samhandha. It is not unlikely that instead of accepting kaaran samhandha, the Malay adopted a semi-articulated k at the end of sambandhaand assumed that aranwas the substantive. Later k may have been dropped and aranaltered into orang. It may be observed that the g in orang is seldom distinctly heard. Wilkinson commenting on the word orangin his dictionary writes: “It isalso used in national, descriptive or tribal names like ‘man’ in Englishman.”9 Kaaranin Malayalam serves the same purpose.

The most commonly used word to denote a woman in the Indonesian and Malay languages is perempuan, which appears to be a Dravidian derivative, from the Dravidian Penpirannavar, meaning one who is born a woman as distinguished from anpirannavan, one born as a man. If one applied the usual rules of Malay or Indonesian grammar to the Dravidian compound penpirannavarand also dropped the last two syllables inthe compound, it would not be hard to come by perempuan.

If it is assumed that matriliny was indigenous to Minangkabau, it is probable that this local institution was influenced by South Indian settlers who were familiar witha similar system and who, when in Minangkabau took wives from there and adopted certain local customs, were interested increating a synthesis of the local institution with their own. Even if no conscious attempt at synthesis was made either by the settler or bythe local community or by both, the Minangkabau and the Kerala institutions appear to have acquired and retained many points of similarity which may not be due to chance coincidence. The fact that the same words are used in both the countries to connote some of the characteristics of this social structure points to a relationship that cannot be dismissed as purely accidental. It is not likely that old indigenous institutions would be fascinated by foreign names at first sight. To adopt a foreign name for an institution, the institution must have been introduced by foreigners, or thoroughly sublect to their influence or at least so often mentioned by the local people when speaking to the foreigners that the former found it easy to refer to it by its foreign name. When one knows from one’s understanding of South-east Asian history that South Indians settled in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula and that some sections of the South Indians followed matriliny and some of the features of the matrilineal institutions in Sumatra and Negri Sembilan are called by names of Indian origin, it is difficult to rule out South Indian influence on these institutions.  10

Women’s Position in Society

The social position and freedom enjoyed by women in Minangkabau may be attributed to the matrilineal system. In other parts of Nusantara also women have much greater freedom than is accorded to their Muslim sisters in Arab countries. Even in Malabar where they do not observe purdah, Muslim women do not enjoy as much social freedom as in Nusantara. In Malabar, the Muslim woman wears a head cover which may conceal a multitude of attractive facial features. In Nusantara and Malaysia the Muslim woman’s selendang, a filmy scarf adjusted over head and shoulders, does not appear to be assumed for any concealment. It may be that while the restriction’s on women’s freedom which appear to have been part of the Islamic tradition were in part accepted by the Mapillas of Kerala, these failed to permeate the Nusantara society when they came secondhand to these islands through the Mapillas. 11 The Dravidiam tradition of freedom for women seemed to have prevailed over the Islamic, in exactly the same way as matriliny, a non-Islamic institution continued to in spite of the onslaughts made on it by the newly-accepted religion. It may be remarked that the Mapillas most of were originally converts from Hinduism, did not consider it un-Islamic to cherish their matrilineal system.

One may in passing refer to a hair style which is not on in Nusantara. The hair style and its name appear to have been adopted from South India. An Indonesian woman may choose to put her hair up in a bun and she calls the coiffure konde, the name by which her South Indian sister refers to an identical hair style.


There are a few aspects of religion in Nusantara which appear to suggest unmistakable South Indian characteristics. It is not easy to discover who introduced Hinduism and Buddhism into Nusantara. But one wonders why Agastya who had his abode on the mountain Kunjara in South India and who is not regarded as so important as Siva or Vishnu should have been chosen for worship in South-east Asia and particularly in Java. Whether Batara Guru represents Agastya or not, the popularity of the cult of Agastya is reminiscent of the place assigned to him in South India.

One may also refer to a few words used in relation to religion in Nusantara. In Sundanese santriis a term applied to a pious person who observes all the requirements of Islam.12 In Malayalam tantri  is used in the sense of hereditary priest and particularly in the sense of temple administrator. 13 Though the word appears to have been derived from tantra, it is of interest to note that it does not seem to have been used in the above sense anywhere else in India. When a modern Sundanese half-jokingly refers to a pious man as a santri, what is probably suggested is that the man appears to be as pious as a priest is expected to be. This may point to the meaning the word may have had in Sundanese in olden days. Lebbai, a name familiar to people in Nusantara and the Malay Peninsula, is heard as lebbain Tamil and Malayalam. Lebbain these two languages stands for a Muslim colonist on the southern coast of the Tamilnad. 14 It may also mean a Muslim weaver.

Art and Literature

One need not emphasise the importance wayang, shadow play, has attained in Nusantara. The word may be a corruption of paavacchaaya, puppet shadow. In Malabar an identical entertainment is known by the name paavakoottu. In the Kerala entertainment, puppets made of leather or light pieces of wood representing figures of heroes and heroines from the Raamaayanaare manipulated to the accompaniment of vocal music, drums and cymbals. 15 As early as the twelfth century A. D., shadow play with leather figures existed in South India and Ceylon.16 If people from Malabar settled down in Nusantara it is probable that they brought with them the entertainment they were familiar within their homeland and introduced it in the country of their settlement. The more sophisticated or the highly cultivated among the settlers may have preferred to call the entertainment paavacchaayarather than paavakoottu, thus avoiding the obvious lightheartedness suggested in the use of the word koottu. They may have also avoided the name chaayaanaatakam, even if the name was known to them, because there was no play-acting involved in wayang.

A passing reference only is intended to be made to literature as pointing to South Indian influence. It strikes one as very significant that at the commencement of his manuscript the scribe of the Land MS refers to Raamaayanaas “the tale of Maharaja Ravana of the ten heads and twenty hands, a ruler exceedingly great on whom Allah Most High bestowed four kingdoms.” One would expect Raamaayanato be referred to as the tale of Sri Rama rather than that of Sri Ravana. A plausible reason for this departure is that either the scribe or the author of this version of the Raamaayanawas inclined to regard Ravana, the king of the Dravidas, as a great ruler and warrior of the ethnic and cultural group to which he himself belonged. One recollects in this connection that a few years ago an Izhava author in Kerala wrote a long poem called Raavanaayanaextolling the virtues and greatness of Sri Ravana.

One may also call attention to a piece of historical writing. The Portuguese historian Joao de Barros in Da Asia mentions one Falatehan from Pasai. Dr. Hoesein Djajadiningrat speculates that the name Falatehan originated from the Arabic word Fathanwhich is used in Lava as a personal name.17 It is unlikely that Fathan takes on two additional syllables and gets changed to Falatehan. If one may indulge in speculation, it is not improbable that Falatehan was a convert who retained his former Hindu name Baladevan. His pilgrimage to Mecca, his enthusiasm to propagate Islam and the honour bestowed on him by the king of Demak who offered one of his sisters in marriage to him may all be viewed as keeping with the position and inclinations of a prominent convert. If Falatehan and Tagaril were one and the same person, it is probable that Tagaril was his family name. He was probably known before his conversion as Tagaril Baladevan. Tagaril may have been a corruption of Tarakilor Tara il, a not uncommon family name in Malabar. It may also be noted that certain place names in Java have a Dravidian ring about them. Parambanan, for instance, reminds one of Malayalam, parampu(compound), a common ending in family names with an iladded (parampil) to convey the sense of ‘living at.’ Occasionally the ending will appear as an (parampan, of the compound), Panataranin Java suggests to one a family name like panattara(the piece of earth on which pana, a palmyra palm, stands), Panatarayan could be the person who occupied the land around or adjacent to the panattara. The name which denoted the person may have been later used to indicate the whole area he occupied or over which he held sway. Tara means the foundation or site of a house. It may be used to mean a village, a parish or a small district.18 It is also of some interest to note that the capital of the Javanese King Purnavarman was called Taruma, and the name Tarumapura occurs in a southIndianinscription. 19

Name and Inscriptions

The early inscriptions discovered in South-east Asia are all written in a script identical with the Grantha character used by about the fifth century on the coromandel coast. 20 Mahendravarman’s stone inscription kept in Bangkok Museum and Purnavarman’s Tugu stone inscription, Jambu rock inscription and Ciarutan rock inscription are all in Pallava Grantha characters. Whenever a date appears in the early records of Nusantara it is the Saka era that is used. It is known that while the Vikrama era was generally employed in the north it was in the southern regions of India that Saka era acquired popular acceptance. 20

The references to Kunjarakunjadesain the Changal inscription serves to indicate the association between Nusantara and the Dekhan. Kunjarakunjadesais generally identified with the Kunjaradariof Varahamihira’s Brihatsamhitaand is believed to be near Tirunalveli in South India.

In the Kawi inscription of King Balitung, discovered at Kedoe the name of the king deserves attention. The name appears to suggest some association with South India. Bali or Mahabali is the legendary king of the Dravidas, who ruled over Kerala in the golden days of old. Lord Vishnu had to assume an avatar to discomfit him. Tungundoubtedly stands for tunga. A king of Dravidian origin or associations may have elected to adopt the ancient glorious ruler’s name.

Vaprakesvarain the Kutei inscription of East Borneo suggests the name Kutei itself. Kottaiin Tamil means a fortress and vaprakaalso means a fortress. Vaprakesvaraprobably referred to the capital city which was the most important fortified area where the sacrificial post was erected. 21

While the reference in a Sumatran inscription to a guild of South Indian merchants, Ainnurruvar (the Five Hundred)22 may point to the prominence and influence of the community in the area, the recognition of an area as Seema, commemorated in various inscriptions may remind one of seema, a word used in Malayalam to convey the sense of separate territory. The seemaceremony appeared to have attributed to the territory concerned a certain degree of autonomy, if not sovereignty.

If the end of the last line in No.4 of the rock inscription found by springs of Sungei Tekarek in Batu Pahat is read as baudha udakhasstapitah, asDr. Chhabra suggests, it is probable that udakha, which may be a misspelling for udaka, refers to udakadaanamwhich in Malayalam means, among other things, gift of water to travellers.23 The name of the river near which the inscription was found also deserves notice. Tekarek is not very dissimilar in sound to tekkaar, especially if one considers that the final k is seldom distinctly heard in the Malay and Indonesian tongues. Tekkaarin Dravidian speech would mean southern river.

Food and Drinks

It may not be in bad taste to end this paper with a lingering look at certain tasty dishes. Many dishes in Nusantara have a Dravidian flavour about them; The Indonesian acharmay not taste exactly like its South Indian Counterpart, but one can easily recognize the name and may recollect that achardoes not taste the same in different parts of South India. Kachang bendi and merungai24may be seen as side dishes. Their names and their taste remind one of their Dravidian associations. Not only ketumbar,25 but also coconut milkgoes into the preparation of some of the dishes, a practice which the Indonesian and the Malay share with theirkinsmen in the Dekhan. Kelappa,26the name for coconut in Nusantara and the Malay Peninsula, may remind one, by the sound of the word, not only of kerappal, coconut milk, but also of the land lying between the range of mountains called Malaya and the Arabian Sea, where the palms wing their heads in breezy symphony.

1 The bauand buendings in place names like Rembau, Lelebu may have once been bhaaga; Rem (Rama?) bhaaga, Lela (Lala) bhaaga. Lembaga originally appears to have meant territorial division. Bahagianin Indonesian and Malay vocabulary indicates that the Sanskrit bhaagawas not an unfamiliar word in the region. It is uncommon in some Dravidian languages to form compounds from Sanskrit and Dravidian words: For instance, in Malayalam one comes across a compound like manalaranyamwhere Malayalam manal(sand) is combined with Sanskrit aranya(forest) to mean a desert (literally a wilderness of sand ).
2 George Coedes, Les Etats hindouises d’Indochine et d’Indonesie, P. 25 et. sec.
3 See L. Minattur, “The Khasis”, The Modern Review, Calcutta, May 1955
4 Malayalam usually denotes the language of Kerala, but with the addition of naaduand the resultant dropping of the final m in the first word, (i.e., Malayaalanaadu, but more often, Malanaadu, the land of hills) it may stand for the State of Kerala.
5 See L. Minattur, “Malaya–What’s in the Name?” Revue du Sudest Asiatique, Brussels, 1965, No.3.
6 Nagarain Sanskrit means a city. In Malay negriwould usually connote a country or settlement. Negri Sembilan appears to denote nine settlements.
7 Naaduis usually used in the sense of principality or province but sometimes used to specify a district; also used to connote the country as opposed to town.
8 Peer in Malayalam means giving birth.
9 Wilkinson, A Malay-English Dictionary, p. 821. Kaarin Kaaranmay have been originally adapted from Sanskrit kaaran, though its use in certain contexts does not appear to support this view; see for instance Vellakaaran, white-man.
10 See for more details, J. Minattur, “Indian Influence on Malay Customary Law”, Journal of Indian History, XIII, iii (l964) p. 783
11 R. L. Wilkinson says that the purely Muhammadan elements in the religious beliefs of the Malays were “mainly introduced from South India” (Malay Beliefs, London and London, 1906, p.2) If this view be correct, there is no reason to assume that the introduction of these religious beliefs was confined to the Malay Peninsula. As he writes about Malay beliefs, he emphasizes the introduction of such beliefs among the Malays.
12 A. W. Palmer, “The Sundanese Village”, in G. W. Skinner (Ed.) Local, Ethic and National Loyalties in Village of Indonesia, p. 50
13 H. Gundert, A Malaya/am-English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1962, p. 418
14 Ibid. p. 807
15 See S. V. Viswanatba in Indian Historical Quarterly, Vol. X, p. 144
16 R. C. Majumdar, Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East, Vol. II, Part II (Calcutta 1938,) p. 59
17 Hoesein Djajadiningrat, “Local Traditions and the Study of Indonesian history”, in Soedjatmoko and others (Editors), An Introduction to Indonesian Historiography, p. 79
18 H. Gundert, A Malayalam-English Dictionary, p. 424
See for other Dravidian names found in Indonesian history, J. Minattur, “Gaja Mada’s Palapa,” Revue du Sud-est Asiatique, 1966, No.2.
20 See B. Ch. Chhabra, Expansion of Indo-Aryan Culture, p. 72 et. sec.
21 See L. Minattur, “King Kundungga of the East Borneo Inscriptions”, Journal of South-East Asian History, Vol. 5, No. 2, p. 181.
22 V. R. Ayyar, “Further Light on Chola-Sailendra Relations from Tamil Inscriptions’, in B. C. Law Volume, Part II, p. 421.
23 Udakamalso means obsequies; it may connote a freehold property, too.
24 See J. Minattur, “Dravidian Words in the Malay Language”, The Phoenix, University of Singapore, 1964. p. 36.
25 The name approximates to kottumhariin Tulu.
26 Keelappamay have been derived from kerappaal. See Keelanwhich appears to be an abbreviation of Keralan, man from Kerala.

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