India’s Cultural Legacy Beyond Its Borders

A medium other than invasion and colonization did exist in the world through which trade, exchanges and cultures mingled centuries ago. It was through peaceful means that India’s culture was transmitted and assimilated in the local cultures of Southeast Asia. On this World Heritage Day, I explore India’s cultural heritage beyond its nation-state boundaries. These heritage sites across Southeast Asian countries display India’s cultural legacy in most tangible ways. Staying true to its heritage, India has undertaken restoration projects in Southeast Asia. This can play a role in India’s soft power diplomacy in Southeast Asia. All the sites undertaken by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), for restoration are UNESCO World Heritage Sites that depict the inquisitive and nuanced architectural know-how.


‘Angkor Wat’, one of the UNESCO Heritage Sites of Cambodia, stands as the greatest testimonies, to the Indian cultural legacy in the country. In archeologist R. Nagaswamy’s opinion, to understand Indian culture completely, one must visit Angkor Wat.

It’s not only the biggest Hindu temple complex but also the largest religious monument in the world. With a distinctive Khmer architecture, its inspiration is essentially Indian. The ‘Ta Prohm’ and ‘Bayon Temple’ part of the larger Angkor Wat temple complex, together represent Khmer’s architecture and an overall physical remains of Southeast Asia’s Hindu past. The temple Preah Vihear, dedicated to Lord Shiva, at the Angkor Wat has also been an important site for ASI’s restoration project. The documentation of this restoration by MEA is rightly termed as ‘Labor of Love’.

Today the majority faith in Cambodia and India is Buddhism and Hinduism respectively. Yet their national symbols as nation-states have a cultural and civilizational underpinning to it. Cambodia is the only country in the world to depict ruin on its flag. The structure in the center of Cambodian flag represents ‘Angkor Wat’. It is a crucial component of Cambodian identity.

On the other hand, Indian flag at its center has a blue wheel referred to as ‘Ashoka Chakra’. King Ashoka was the pioneer of spread of Buddhism beyond Indian subcontinent especially in South and Southeast Asia. He built pillars to showcase the spread of Buddhism in that region. On top of each pillar were four lions mounted back-to-back on a disc with a galloping horse, a bullock on the sides and Ashoka Chakra in the center. This is India’s national emblem since independence. It also features on Indian state stationary. The Ashoka Chakra has a Buddhist underpinning to it. Thus, although Hinduism in Cambodia and Buddhism in India are minority faiths, the cultural, historic, and civilizational links are visible in their respective nation-state today.


Shiva temple in Lao, ‘Vat Phou’, is UNESCO World Heritage Site which is being restored by India. It has close resemblance to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear. There is a rare linear layout that one finds between Cambodia and Lao Khmer temples. Moreover, there are archeological evidence from around 10th-11th century showcasing road and transport between Angkor Wat and Vat Phou. Lao’s Vat Phou temple, to a large extent is also considered pre-Angkor and thus can provide evidence to the origins of the vast Khmer empire. Lao PDR’s UNESCO documents for Vat Phou nomination reads, ‘it represents an outstanding testimony of a symbolic landscape of great spiritual significance embedded in stunning natural surroundings and expressing Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity’.

Like in the case of Cambodia, one finds national symbols in Lao PDR to represent its culture. The national emblem of Lao PDR features the ‘That Luang’ stupa.

A country’s national emblem has a specific meaning attached to it. It is what the country considers it to be represented by. A popular myth around the origins of ‘That Luang’ stupa, is that the missionary monks of King Ashoka from India, brought with them relics of Lord Buddha, which is believed to be his breastbone. It is said that monks erected the stupa to enshrine the bone. This although has no evidence, in the 21st-century sense of the term, it is a story, a myth that people and communities in Lao PDR believe in. Myths are essentially widely held believes or idea. Thus making ‘That Luang’ a part of their everyday life and cultural narrative. Architecturally, one can find significant similarities between ‘That Luang’ stupa which is on the emblem of Lao PDR and medieval temples from Odisha, India.


Anand Temple in Bagan in Myanmar stands as a patronage of Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar. The entire city of Bagan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and at its core lies the Anand temple. In 2016, it was devastated by a 6.8 magnitude earthquake. Two years later, India and Myanmar signed a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding), wherein India pledged to provide financial and technical help for the conservation of the temple. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has undertaken the restoration project in a specific way.

They have identified 12 pagodas for restoration in the first phase of the restoration. ASI is carrying out a ‘structural conservation and chemical preservation work’ at the temple which is being fully funded by the Ministry of External Affairs of India.

The influence of Indian ideas is visible in many design elements, from its northern Indian style ‘Shikara’ to the use of Hindu motifs like ‘dwarapalas’ (gatekeepers), kumbhas (pots), chinthe (lion) and makaras (mythical sea creature). These Indian architectural underpinnings give us a glimpse into the origins of the structure in Myanmar.

While preserving tangible cultural heritage is important, India also has a huge legacy of intangible cultural heritage in Southeast Asia. One that needs a mention is Ramayana, the great Indian epic. One can find Raemker in Cambodia, Ramayana in Indonesia, Ramakien in Thailand, among others. They have different names, versions, and forms all of which trace their origins to Ramayana from India. Each version is a combination of local culture with Hindu mythology. This diverse nature of Ramayana lies in the non-rigidity of Hindu cultural transmissions (like Buddhism), which guaranteed its survival over centuries. One of the greatest legacies of Ramayana has been maintained by Indonesia. In 2012, Indonesia’s Ramayana ballet made a Guinness World record of ‘most continuously staged performance in the world’. For a Muslim majority country to make a world record of such a nature showcases the importance of intangible culture for the people and the nation.

India as a nation-state has great potential to rebuild its relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours, that already have a way of life closer to Indian culture. Thus, India’s cultural legacy beyond its borders represents itself in Southeast Asia, a region which today dominates India’s Act East Policy.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Brief Bulletin.


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