New Year Epitomize India’s Rebuilding of Asian Cultural Pathways
Posted on April 18th, 2018

By Kalinga Seneviratne

April 14th marked the dawn of a New Year to most communities in South and Southeast Asia, especially those along the two great Gangas (rivers) of Asia, the Ganges and the Mekong. It is based not on any religious scriptures but on astrology and the harvesting cycle. So we could say it is pre-Buddhist in origin.

Last month I attended a two-day conference at Thammasat University in Bangkok that brought together Indian and Southeast Asian scholars to discuss re-building cultural links along the two great rivers that have in ancient times provided transport links to build rich civilizations influenced by Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. Thus the celebration of the New Year this week in the region epitomizes these cultural links. But, Sri Lanka, which has played an important role in taking Buddhism to the Mekong region was absent from the proceedings. When I raised this at one of the roundtable discussions many Indian Buddhist scholars agreed that Sri Lanka should be part of the process, but some of the other participants said it is an issue of geography because Mekong (nor Ganges) flow through Sri Lanka.

In welcoming the invited guests, Prof NitinantWisaweisuan, Dean of PridiBanomyong International College (PBIC) of Thammasat University, which hosted the conference, said this conference is a realization of the need to provide a cultural platform for more cooperation in the region”.

While China has been promoting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to rebuild the ancient Silk Routes” trading corridors pouring billions of dollars to build railway, ports and industrial parks across the Southeast Asian region focusing mainly on economic issues, India is slowly building cultural pathways through Indian Prime Minister NarendraModi’s Look East” policy spending modest funds in comparison in developing river and road links.

They are doing it through the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) grouping that includes India, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. MGC was formally established on 10th November 2001 at a meeting in Vientiane, Laos, and has been somewhat slow in progressing. Nevertheless, India has been spending millions of dollars in developing so-called ‘East-West Corridor” and the ‘TransAsian Highway” which would link Delhi via Kolkata, Dhaka, Mandalay, Yangon, Chiang Mai, Vientiane, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.

The cultural focus India is giving to this project has attracted the attention of tourism authorities in the region who see great potential in developing community based cultural tourism projects and they are also talking about developing Buddhist circuit tourism as a common thread that links most of the Ganga communities is Buddhism. Again Sri Lanka could be left out of this circuit.

Indian scholars taking part in the conference repeatedly emphasized that India’s ancient cultural links to the region were not of an invading resource grabbing nature like the European colonialism that came to the region later.

Pointing out that Indians have been travelling as far as China since at least 1st century AD marrying princesses and establishing communities influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, keynote speaker, Prof Ram Madhav, General Secretary of the ruling BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) and Director, India Foundation said from Cambodia to Bali Indian influence was not seen as colonizing” and he added that though Indians saw the region as greater India or further India traders, monks and travellers did not come across ‘savages’ in the lands they encountered. They came across people living in similar civilized societies like them”.

Prof Madhav argued further that people in these regions saw the Indian infiltration as offering a framework from India which could be used to develop their own societies”.

There is no doubt that the Mekong basin was the bridge between India’s and China’s dominions and its economic activities flourished” noted DrSupruetThavornyutikarn of the India Studies Centre at Thammasat University. He argues that China’s BRI and India’sMGC have economic potentials for the betterment of respective peoples. But, he warned that both basins must overcome the invisible, but mutual obstacles”.

These obstacles DrSupruet explained were implanted – perhaps unintentionally – by Europeancolonizers who separated different nationalities, established diverse political and legal systems making closely linked neighbours estranged. This estrangement intensified when they need to gain their own independence. In trying to do so and repulsing colonizers, they started to fear their own neighbours too” he noted. To realize the potential for MGC cooperation, he argues that such colonial ghosts” have to be overcome.

Prof S.RBhat, Chairman of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research agrees that these strong cultural bonds have become weak in modern times because of centuries of European colonial rule. Thus, India has to take the initiative to strengthen and revitalize these relationships. River Ganga and River Mekong are the two arteries of Asia through which culture flows in different parts of Asia,” he argues. Ramayana and Mahabharata have been adopted by the societies of Ganga-Mekong valley as their own creations”.

He presented a paper where he looked at how Myanmar adopted both Hinduism and Buddhism without any confrontation with each complimenting the other. It has also led to a strong linguistic interface between Pali and the Myanmar language of today. Similar adaptations have taken place in Thailand where the Thai version of Ramayana is recognized as an excellent literary piece of Asia” and where all kings of Thailand have declared themselves as reincarnations of Rama” and loved to be called as Rama One, Rama Two, Rama Three, etc. And Cambodia, Prof Bhat noted is a centreof  wonderful architectural specimen (that is) the best example of Indo-Cambodian Hindu-Buddhist Art”.

To overcome what DrSupruetdescribes as colonial ghosts”, the April 14th New Year would be a good occasion for Asians to reinvent common cultural bonds. Even Sri Lanka could play a role in joining this process in building such cultural pathways in the region by introducing an Asian cultural festival to coincide with the April 14th New Year that could be rotated around the region each year.

While the Chinese New Year is basically for the ethnic Chinese this New Year could encompass a wide range of Asians and their cultural expressions (not necessarily water flashing). A major component of this New Year across Asia is paying respect to our elders on the day. We could get rid of the western consumerist cultural imposition of Fathers Day and Mothers Day and instead celebrate both these together on this New Years day.

Prof Madhav argues that the Ganga-Mekong cultural flows (in ancient times) was interplay of cultures and history of India has shown how culture has helped to prosper others”. Perhaps we can learn from history in crafting an Asian Cultural Renaissance.


( Dr Kalinga Seneviratne was a speaker at the Mekong Ganga Conference where he presented a paper titled ‘Linking the Ganga with the Road and Belt”.) 

2 Responses to “New Year Epitomize India’s Rebuilding of Asian Cultural Pathways”

  1. aloy Says:

    Dr. Kalinga,
    Thank you for this article
    I have read several articles in this forum by Waruna Chnadrakeethi who seem to have done a lot of research work by going to Thailand, China etc. in this region and have found that the Thais in Chiang Mai area considers Sri lanka as their Mahagethera. Also I have come across a write up by Kamalika Peiris in this forum, that our monks in Kandy Malwathu chaper tried to bring in a Thai prince secretly to be made SL’s king (probably to avert a south Indian becoming the king). Sri lanka also seems to have had a close association with the Sri Vijaya empire of Malays. And it appears to be the Cholas who plundered that region and ended that empire. Perhaps you can verify them and put these facts forward when you are in a position to do so. The article in the following link also shed some light in this connection:

  2. Christie Says:

    Linking Lingams.

    Well well well it is theproblem we have.

    Ganga and Indus have Castes and Mekong has no castes.

    It is time we Sinhalese stand up with our own culture not suck to Indian hegemony.

    The problem we have is not Colonial Ghosts.

    Our problem is real Indian Colonial Parasites in the Indian Empire.

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