A Graphic Reminder of an Intertwined History

India and Indonesia are civilisational cousins yet neither Indians nor Indonesians are cognizant of their historical closeness – in matters of language, culture, religion and world view.

comic nehru sukarnoJakarta: For an Indian, visiting Indonesia can feel like looking into a distorting mirror. Much looks and feels familiar, albeit in an off-kilter manner. On the island of Java, home to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, references to the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are embedded in the language, on street signs, in political commentary and even on bus advertisements. An enormous statue of Krishna leading Arjuna into battle dominates the roundabout in front of Monas, Jakarta’s main nationalist monument. Billboards for an energy drink, Kuku Bima, promise imbibers Bhima-like strength.

Amongst the country’s favourite forms of mass entertainment is wayang kulit, a form of shadow puppet theatre that features tales from the Hindu epics. Only the way in which characters are spelled differs: Bhima becomes Bima, Sita is Sinta, and Hanuman morphs into Hanoman. The physical form of wayang puppets is also highly stylised and distinctive of Java.

But the resonance is loud. That India and Indonesia are civilisational cousins is not a fact that is gently suggested by the environment. Rather, it whacks you on the head like a sledgehammer. Indonesians pepper ordinary conversation with words like manushya (man) and karena (because). When I was unable to find a taxi driver who knew where the national museum in Jakarta was, a local friend advised me to ask for “Museum Gajah” instead. The national museum has a statue of an elephant in the garden and it is by its nickname, elephant or gajah museum, that most citizens know the building. A large percentage of the vocabulary of Bahasa Indonesia, a standardized form of Malay, derives from Indian languages like Sanskrit, Tamil and Urdu. Indonesian has 750 loan words from Sanskrit alone.

And yet, neither Indians nor Indonesians are cognizant of their historical closeness. The conversion of large parts of the Indonesian archipelago to Islam by the 17th century, followed by European colonialism’s disruption of traditional trade routes between Asian nations, and the turn towards autarky of the region’s decolonised states, has ruptured the historical ties that intricately bound India and Indonesia together.

In his travelogue, Amongst the Believers, VS. Naipaul describes the Indonesians as a people who “remained mysterious to themselves,” given how they have simultaneously retained and lost their Hindu-Buddhist heritage. It is a description that rings true, not only for Indonesians, but Indians as well. In both nations there is much forgetting, willful and accidental. Memory is artifice as much as fact. And History is a by-product of this dual amnesia and constructed recollection.

A ‘boon’ from the embassy

comic aryaGiven this relationship to History, it is unsurprising that mythology has a significant place in both Indian and Indonesian societies. I was therefore immediately intrigued when I heard about a new Amar Chitra Katha comic book that detailed the India-Indonesia relationship through the ages. Amar Chitra Katha’s luridly illustrated comics featuring an assorted cast of demons, gods and cursing sages had been an integral part of my childhood in Delhi. By the age of eight I’d been able, thanks to them, to use “verily” in daily conversation. To have one of these comic books step out of the realm of the Gods and into that of Asian history was somehow apposite, given how much the Gods had shaped this history.

Titled, Travels Through Time: The Story of India and Indonesia, the comic is an initiative of the entrepreneurial Indian ambassador in Jakarta, Gurjit Singh. Put together by him, with the assistance of Indonesian historian and Indophile Tamalia Alisjahbana, the comic was released in Jakarta as part of a 6-month long festival of India in Indonesia, earlier this year.

The narrative is chronological and takes the reader through a quick whirl of India-Indonesia relations from the first century through till the contemporary period. As a result, it is somewhat short on detail. But it tantalizes with nuggets of information that beg for further research.

The story begins with an ambiguity. The first Indians to arrive in Indonesia might have been from Kalinga in present day Odisha, or from the Vengi region in Andhra Pradesh. What is more certain is that gradually, over the centuries, trade with India led to the travel not only of people, but also ideas, technologies and Gods.

The little mystery of Gunawarman

comic gunavarmanThe comic details the rise of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Sriwijaya, Sailendra, Sanjaya, Majapahit and Sighasari that ruled at different times over parts of the islands of Java and Sumatra between the 7th and 16th centuries. The treatment is cursory, but allowed me to unravel the mystery of Gunawarman.

For the last three years I have been a regular at a Turkish restaurant in Jakarta located on a road called Jalan Gunawarman. Thanks to the comic I learnt that Gunawarman was a prince of the royal house of Kashmir who arrived in Sumatra in the fifth century, where he introduced Buddhism. He is credited with playing a significant role in the founding of the Buddhist Sriwijaya kingdom.

That I eat middle-eastern food in present day Muslim-majority Jakarta, on a road named after a Kashmiri Buddhist, is but one testament to the involved and wonderful globalising stories that thread the comic.

comic hindu templeTravels through Time also alludes to the interesting fact that all the early information on India-Indonesian ties comes from Chinese writings, establishing how India, China and Indonesia were each woven into a tapestry stitched by sailors, pilgrims, traders and warriors. Gunawarman himself eventually went on to China after his stay on Java and Sumatra. The famous Chinese Buddhist monk Fa Hien, who is a staple of Indian middle-school history lessons, also passed through Java on his way back to China from India.

The comic talks about the building of Prambanan, a complex of Hindu temples constructed to the east of Jogjakarta in the ninth century by the Sanjaya dynasty. Prambanan, it says, was dedicated to the trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. I was put in mind of a visit to an Islamic boarding school in east Java that I made last year, where I was told that the three Muslim reformers who founded the school are referred to as the trimurti.

Influence of Gujarati Islam

comic muslimsA less well-known story relates to the Indian role in the spread of Islam to Indonesia. Today, Indonesia is a Muslim-majority nation. Amongst the first Islamic influences on the country, in the early 13th century, were Muslim traders and imams from Gujarat.

The comic details a tradition introduced by these early Indian Muslim immigrants in Padang, a city in western Sumatra, that continues to the present day. Serak Gulo is a ritual where small sachets of sugar, packed in cotton bags are scattered from the rooftops of mosques to celebrate the birth of Sahul Hamid, an Indian Islamic preacher who is credited with an influential role in introducing Islam to the Indonesian archipelago.

The Sikh connection

The story then skips forward to the early 19th century, by which time much of Indonesia had been colonised by the Dutch East India Company, underscoring once again parallels with India and its experience of colonial subjugation. In the 1870s the Dutch, in particular the tobacco growing company, Deli Maatschappij, began to import Tamils from Nagappattina, Madras, and Karrikal, as indentured labourers to work in their plantations in northern Sumatra.

comic sikhsAt the same time hundreds of Punjabi Sikhs and Bengali Muslims also immigrated to eastern Sumatra. Many of these worked as guards and dairy farmers. Reading this history gave context not only to the contemporary Indian diaspora in Indonesia, but around the world.

As a reporter based in China (2002-2009) I had written about the appearance of several Sikh hotel doormen and guards in cities across the Chinese mainland, discovering in the process how prior to the Communist accession of 1949, cities like Shanghai had once been home to hundreds of Sikhs. They had usually worked as watchmen at banks and hotels. Having them turn up again, this time in Sumatra, through the pages of Travels Through Time, was unexpected, but also, somehow, obvious. It made sense.

There was an additional resonance with my research into the Punjabi dairy farmers of present-day Italy, without whom it is said that the production of cheeses like Parmesan would come to a standstill (hence the title of my last book, Punjabi Parmesan). Until reading the comic I had not heard of Sumatra’s century-old Punjabi dairy workers. As with the hotel guards, I could hear the thwack of a piece of a puzzle falling into place in my head.

Modern encounters

comic patnaikThe comic then narrates the modern India-Indonesia encounter through an eclectic cast of characters ranging from poet Rabindranath Tagore, to politician Biju Patnaik.

Tagore visited Java in 1927, a trip that left a lasting impression on both him and the Indonesian island. The head of the Islamic boarding school founded by the “trimurti” I had visited told me that Shantineketan had been one of the inspirations for the founding of the school.

Biju Patnaik, the former Chief Minister of Odisha, who played an important role in bilateral relations in the early years of independence, in fact named the daughter of Indonesia’s first President Sukarno. He chose the name Meghawati (the spelling was later changed to Megawati) after the heavy rain that fell on the day he first met with Sukarno in January 1947. Megawati Sukarnoputri would go on to become president of Indonesia herself.

These were the days of pan-Asian solidarity and the comic narrates a series of conferences from the 1947 Asian Relations meeting to the 1955 Asia-Africa conference in Bandung. Aligned in their non-alignment, India and Indonesia extended a helping hand to each other time and again.

comic bandungIndonesia sent 500,000 tones of rice to a famine struck India in 1945 in spite of facing food shortages itself. India became the very first country to recognize an independent Indonesia. And President Sukarno was the chief guest at India’s first Republic Day parade.

However, the 50-plus-year period since Bandung – sadly Prime Minister Narendra Modi made no reference to the landmark event during the India-Africa summit in Delhi last week – is covered by the 44-page long comic in a terse couple of pages. There is silence on the long decades of diplomatic acrimony that followed, as South-South cooperation failed. The years of estrangement when military dictator Suharto was at the helm of Indonesia are passed over.

Instead, there is a quick mention of some of the high level meetings between leaders that have taken place in the twenty first century. There is an illustration of Modi and President Joko Widodo shaking hands on the sidelines of an ASEAN summit in November last year mouthing platitudes.

“Indonesia-India trade and investment ties have always been strong,” says Mr. Widodo’s speech bubble. “We have a mutual interest in peace and stability in our region for the economic development of our people,” says Mr Modi’s.

A lot is still missing

comic - modi widodIn fact neither leader has made a bilateral visit yet – a dispiriting testament to the languishing of India-Indonesia ties, despite their obvious potential – though Vice President Hamid Ansari arrived in Jakarta on November 2 for an official visit.

A list of the most fundamental challenges confronting Indonesia today could just as well be India’s list: cleaning up politics and public life, harnessing the nation’s demographic dividend to productive use, fixing creaking infrastructure, and maintaining nationalist ideals of respecting religious freedoms. Yet, there is little concrete cooperation on the ground. The maritime neighbours are not even connected by a direct flight.

It is too much to expect any comic to change this state of affairs. And this particular one suffers from several flaws. There is almost no mention in it of reverse cultural flows from Indonesia to India. And it will not be distributed commercially. The embassy is trying to get copies to several schools and colleges, but the impact is bound to be limited.

However, it is a start. It is clear that for the countries to become less mysterious to themselves they must learn about each other too. Their stories are intertwined. Long centuries of colonisation and post-colonial autarky might have obfuscated this fact, but it remains, waiting to be rediscovered.

Pallavi Aiyar is a Jakarta-based journalist and writer