Indo-Lao Cultural Rapprochement in
Ancient and Medieval Times
Patit Paban Mishra, Ph.D.
Department of History Sambalpur University
Beginning from prehistoric times, Indian culture flowed to Southeast Asia in gush and sometimes in tickles until the western hegemony was established in both the regions. India's relations with Southeast Asia passed through many vicissitudes. In the new millennium, India is trying its best to be a major power in the region with its 'look east' policy. A region of ethnic, cultural, linguistic, historical and physical mosaic; external influences like Indian, Chinese, Islamic and European civilizations have left deep imprints on the indigenous culture of Southeast Asian countries. Although it has received transfusion of these cultures adding nuances and shades of meaning through centuries, the region has not lost its idiom. The data from India and Southeast Asia is inseparably linked and a comprehensive study of one is meaningless without a thorough knowledge of the other.
The material and cultural base of autochthonous societies of Southeast Asia was already developed at the time of contact with external forces. On this base was raised a superstructure, the materials of which was largely contributed by the Indians. An interaction between local and external cultures went on. A rapport was established and as acculturation proceeded, elements of Indian culture were absorbed. In course of time, its origin was forgotten. Some of the indigenous beliefs were in harmony with Indian traditions like worship of mountains, rivers and serpents. In fact, the pre-Aryan India and Southeast Asia shared many cultural traits that were similar. Many facets of life in India and Southeast Asia looked alike. They are interwined to such a degree that sometimes it becomes difficult to differentiate between them.
The present article would focus on India's cultural contact with Laos in ancient and medieval times with special reference to literature. As far as Indian influence was concerned, Hindu and Buddhist practices came to Laos in the early centuries of present era through Chinese, Khmers and Thais. It is difficult to have an exact idea of the period of beginning of cultural contact between India and Laos due to absence of historical records. According to local tradition, a Buddhist shrine (That) was built in Laos during Asoka's time in about middle of third century before Common Era. The Ourangkharittan chronicle mentions that That Luang of Vientiane was earlier built by a Buddhist monk Phra Chao Chanthaburi Pasithisak to keep Buddhist relic brought from Rajgir in India
The prevalence of Hinduism also could be known from the numerous inscriptions found in Laos. On the top of Phou Lokan hill, a Sanskrit inscription mentions the erection of Siva linga by king Mahendravarman. Another inscription of second half of fifth century compares the King Sri-Devanika with Yudhisthira, Indra, and Dhananjay and with Indradyumna. In art and architecture, the impact of various Indian styles is clearly marked. The concept is Indian, but in the choice of pattern and other details, indigenous touch is given. The different types of Buddhist icons found in Laos were in conformity with Indian canons.
Sanskrit and Pali made deep inroads into the script, language and literature of Laos. Majority of the Lao inscriptions had been in Sanskrit. The wide prevalence of Sanskrit influenced immensely the classical Lao script, language and literature. Lao script was introduced by King Rama Kampheng of Sukhodaya in 1283 C.E., which marked the common origin of Thai and Lao alphabets. In the same year, Pali scriptures from Sri Lanka were introduced resulting in greater influence of Pali. One type of Lao script known as Toua-Lam is considered sacred and it is used for transcribing Pali. In Lao language, there are about sixty percent of words having Sanskrit and Pali origin. There are many Lao words having Indian origin like: Kumara (Kumara), Pativat (Prativada), Pathet (Pradesh), Prom (Brahma), Pranam (Pranam), Rusi (Rsi), Shanti (Santi), Sri (Sri), Sut (Sutra), Setthi (Sresthi), Youvatnari (Yuvanari), Sabha (Sabha), Champa (Campa), Nang Mekhala (Mani Mekhala), Nang Thorani (Devi Dharani), Praya Nak (Nagaraja) etc. The true classical Lao poetry is formed by translation of Indian poems, and Lao verses follow the metrics of Indian prosody. In folk songs, dramas and theatres, themes from Indian literature are in abundance. The Lao folklore had been influenced by Indian themes. Development of religious song of Buddhist monks encouraged many stories becoming popular in both prose and poetry. In the classical Lao dance, one can find gestures and movements showing strong influence of various Indian dance forms.
The Ramayana is very popular in Laos. The country was earlier known as Lava, the son of Rama. The stories of Rama or Phra Lak Phra Lam with its fundamental human value and social idea has contributed to the cultural life of people. The Lao have adopted the stories of Ramayana as if it had happened in Laos. Names, titles and geographical settings were given local colour. The majority of Lao stories were derived from the Pancatantra. It was translated into Lao language by Phra Samgharaja Vixula Mahaviharathipati in 1507 C.E. of Wat Vixula Mahavihan. The Pancatantra stories written by Visnu Sarma of Orissa became very popular in Laos. The Lao version consisted of five Pakon (Prakarana); Nanda, Manduka, Pisaca, Sakuna and Samgha.
Indian culture was diffused through the autochthonous societies of Laos and other areas of Southeast Asia, whose material base was of such a standard that it could assimilate elements of that culture. The people of the region had knowledge of metal industry, long-established contact with outside world, acquaintance with marine technology and a developed agriculture. An attempt to assign greater role either to India or to Southeast Asia would be futile. Moreover, giving importance to terminologies like Indic, Indianization, Classical or Indigenization would result into semantic controversy. The whole process of Indian cultural influence was interaction between culture of India and Southeast Asia.