Cultural And Historical Linkage of NE India with the South East Asian Countries- Madhusmita Goswami

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Cultural And Historical Linkage of NE India with the South East Asian Countries

Madhusmita Goswami 


North-East, naturally given the advantage of its location, has become the hub of cultural globalization compared to other states in India. It has successfully established flourishing cross-border relationships with other South-East Asian countries, by showcasing the strength of unity. Collaboratively, all the eight states of North-East India has joined hands to prosper its glory throughout Asia.

Today, North-East India is considered to be the only exclusive gateway to South East Asian countries and therefore, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has focused on the development of the region by being attentive towards the Look East Policy under New Delhi.It is obvious that with the passing of time, people have stopped perceiving North-East India as a barrier or an obstacle, rather now it is being perceived as a bridge between India and South-East Asia.

The cultural and traditional heritage of North-East India has immense share in the cultural history of South-East Asian countries as there had been many cross-border relations established by the people from both sides on various grounds. These historical and cultural linkages between the two regions are required to be explored in order to strengthen the bonding between them. The common physical features, similarities in art and dance forms, social structures, food habits, weaving styles, colour patterns, hunting practices and cultural practices makes North-East region as the second self of south-East Asian nations.

Thus, the diffusion of Indian culture through the medium of North-East India into the culture and tradition of South-East Asian countries is certainly the greatest development of indianized culture.

The influx of people in North-East India from different countries of South-East Asia, marks the base for cultural similarity amongst both the regions. There has been the advent of ancestral and traditional folks from India to Myanmar and vice-versa since ancient times. The Singhpos and the Tai groups such as the Ahoms, Khamtis, Phakes, Aitons, Turungs, and Khanyangs relocated themselves in North-East India from shan state of Yunan and Myanmar. Similarly, Nagas, Kukis, Mizos and the Lushais entered North-East India from Burma. Thus, there has been continuous arrival and departure of various tribes of people from and to both the regions. Therefore, the cultural forms of both the regions are interrelated with each other due to which there has been a strong sense of cultural unity amongst them.

The history, culture and unrevealed mysteries of North-East India have made it a peculiar place full of varied ethnic tribes and their unity amidst the cultural and linguistic differences. From Tirap (a district in Arunachal Pradesh) to Terai (marshy jungle in the foothills of Himalayas and the plains) or from Brahmaputra to Himalayas, there is the unique mixture of mysteries and histories of this paradise on Earth. Under the North-Eastern Council that was formed in 1971, the eight states of the North-eastern Region were officially recognized. Initially, there were seven states that collectively formed the whole region, but later on, Sikkim joined as the eight state of this region in 2002.

There have been many controversies regarding the looks of the people with that of the rest of Indians. The people of North-East finds more cultural similarities and similar physical identities with the people of South East Asia than that of the other Indians in the northern, western, and southern India. Some North-Eastern communities share similar looks to Southern Han Chinese, Zhuang, Hmong, and Tibetans because their descendants mostly migrated from Yunnan/Tibet/Sichuan provinces of China thousands of years ago. Majority of North-Eastern people looks like Thai, Burmese or Khmers. Our languages, cultures and traditions are very close to our ASEAN brothers.

There has been abundance of influx of people in between the two magnificence : The North-East India and The South East Asia. The Ahoms (a popular tribe in Assam who ruled for many years in that place) entered Assam from Burma through the Pangchou Pass over the Patkai Range via the Nongyang Lake and the Tirap Frontier Division of NEFA and throughout the entire period of their reign in Assam they maintained their communications with their brothers in Burma through this Pass.

The main objective of this paper is to disclose the cultural and historical linkage between the two trending parties in the recent years. This paper tries to venture the cultural bond that existed in the ancient times and still continuing in the present between the people of North-East India and that of the South East Asia.


North-East India is the only unique region that is surrounded by five countries: Bhutan, Nepal and China borders this region in the north, Myanmar to its east, and Bangladesh serves as the western and southern border of this region. Approximately, 483 ethnic tribes dwell in this part of India with similar numbers of languages and dialects. These five countries that embrace the North-east India, is inter-linked with each other for their economy, trade, culture and religion.  Kolkata port serves as the focal trading point for Nepal, while Bhutan and India’s economy are interconnected through Assam and West Bengal. Myanmar (initially Burma) is the entrance for India to South East Asia  through Bhutan , and Bangladesh is a prominent passage for India to reach its North-Eastern States. The people of mainland India reach South East Asian countries through North-East India with the help of a narrow Corridor, flanked by Nepal and Bangladesh, called the Siliguri Corridor.

The Indo-Bangladesh border is a transparent border that allows penetration of illegal immigration and anti-national activities from Bangladesh. To avoid this, the Government of India has sanctioned the construction of border roads and fencing in two phases.


South East Asian countries share a deep-rooted natural connection with India that dates back to centuries. South East Asia, unique in itself, consists of the following countries: Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaya (Malaysia), Indonesia and Philippines. The whole area has been under the influence of two ancient civilizations: India and China. The inward and outward migration of the population of these nations with India and China has been persisting since many centuries. South East Asia’s relation with India can be seen in the excavations of the Pyu settlements in present day Myanmar, where one of the place is called ‘Beikthano’ that means ‘the city of Vishnu.’ The Pyu architecture displays the Indian influence.

Earlier, in the 19th century, the Ahom and Manipur kingdoms of the North-Eastern region were colonized by the Burmese invaders. This colonization led to the first Anglo-Burmese war that resulted in the full area of North-East falling under the British rule. During the British Rule (1826-1947), North-East India was made a part of Bengal province. Later, the North-Eastern region became a part of the whole Indian subcontinent after India’s independence and was attached to the mainland only through the Siliguri Corridor.

In the books of History, one can find that the earliest settlers in North-Eastern states of India might have been that of Austro-Asiatic speakers from South East Asia, followed by Tibeto-Burmese from China in around 500 BC. Through the writings of an ancient Chinese explorer, Zhang Qian, it has been brought into knowledge that there has been an early trade route via North Eastern India with the South East Asian countries since 100 BC. Many communities in North East India has their origin in the South of the Yarlung Zangbo, which is the source of  the Brahmaputra river, comprising the Tai Ahoms or Ahoms, descendants of the Tai people who are named as Shan in Myanmar, Thai in Thailand, Lao in Laos, Dian ad Zhuang in China and Tay-Thai in Vietnam. These groups of people share similar customs and traditions.

Above all, the Neolithic tools of the North-Eastern region have a strong connection with the tools of South East Asia. The use of shouldered axes and also cord-impressed pottery are two of the examples. These links can be dated between 2500-1500 BC.


The cultural and traditional history of North-East India dates back to the early centuries when there had been surplus exchange of population amidst China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh and settling down in the North-Eastern region. This region became the centre of transformation for the people who migrated from the neighbouring countries and settled down here. The group of people that came to Assam marched towards Dhubri and another part moved southward and occupied the Garo Hills and the state of Hill Tippera (Tripura). Other members of the Tibeto-Burman origin captured the Naga Hills, whereas, some groups settled in Manipur. These people followed their original cultural festivals and religious rituals. This was the reason that even in the present times, the culture and tradition of the people of North East India varies greatly with the culture of the rest of Indians.

The history of language amongst the Chin, Kuki and Mizo communities has their base in Sinlung/ Chinlung or closed cave, in China. Thus, there have been similarities in the nouns between Chinese Languages and Speeches used among the communities in North East India. This region of India has approximately 220 languages that has been contributed by different Ethnic groups entering this region from the neighbouring areas. The Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Tai-Kadai, Austro-Asiatic language groups has similar structural features. Assamese language, originally formed in the Brahmaputra valley through the Indo-Aryan language, has now become the Lingua-Franca for many speech communities in the North-Eastern region of India. The Austro-Asiatic family is represented by the Khasi, Jaintia and War languages of Meghalaya. Sino-Tibetan language is expressed through the languages that differs variably : Bodo, Rabha, Karbi, Mising, Tiwa, Deori (Assam), Garo, Biate (Meghalaya), Ao, Angami, etc (Nagaland), Hmar, Chakma (Mizoram), Apatani, Misimi, etc (Arunachal).

The Agricultural and Architectural similarities can also be seen between the two regions. Rice paddy agriculture famous in the states of North-East, has also found its base in South East Asia since thousands of years ranging across the sub regions. Even the Stilt houses can be found all over South East Asia, from Thailand and Vietnam to Borneo, to Luzon in the Philippines that is also popular amongst the habitants of the North-Eastern region in India.

The dance forms and art of South-East Asia has a strong connection with the arts of India, particularly the North-Easter region. The Cambodian Royal Ballet that is presented before the Khmer Empire has been highly influenced by Indian Hinduism and similar to this is the Apsara Dance, famous for its strong hand and feet movements, another Hindu Dance. The indigenous music of Assam incorporates Bihu melodies, Bodo, Karbi, and Mising tunes. These are altogether grouped and sung to the pentatonic scale like the conventional music of China displaying a strong influence of Chinese music on Assamese culture.

The traditional instruments of Mizos in the state of Mizoram- Drum and gong are used for the famous Bamboo Dance. This Bamboo Dance is also a popular dance form in many parts of South-Eastern Asia, including Southern China and can be seen being done in the same way in these regions. For example, The Tinkling of Leyte in the Visayas region is a popular bamboo dance in the Philippines. This dance form imitates the movement of the Tinkling bird as they walk between grass stems, run over tree branches, or lodge bamboo traps set by rice farmers. The Bandanese from Maluku, Moluccas have a similar version of this Bamboo Dance called Tari-Gaba, to celebrate friendship.

Along with these cultural similarities, the strong influence of two religions- Hinduism and Buddhism can be seen in the South East Asian countries that has its origin in India and China. The path of Buddha can be traced from Arunachal Pradesh to Myanmar and even beyond that. Hindu influences can be seen in the temples built in Cambodia like the Angkor Wat and the Ta Prohm. The kingdoms of Cham, the southern neighbours of Vietnam, used to display a strong Hindu influence through the famous area, it has constructed, of ‘My Son’ having a complex of temples dedicated to Shiva.

Even the Hindu texts like Ramayana became the root culture for the people across the South East Asia. The text has various versions that keeps on changing from place to place. For example, in Thailand Ramayana is called as Ramakien, and the city of Ayotthaya is based on the name of Ayodhya. In Lao, the famous version of Ramayana is called Pha Lak Pha Lam. In Indonesia, Ramayana is named as the Kakawin Ramayana, while the Malay version is named as Ramayana Hiyakat Seri Rama.


ASEAN has been getting continuous support from India under the efforts for ASEAN integration, that includes projects on Training of English Language for Law Enforcement Officers in CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam) Countries and training of persons dealing with capital oriented markets in CLMV by National Institute of Securities Management Mumbai, scholarships are provided for ASEAN students for their higher education in Nalanda University, Bihar.

The central government of India has opted various measures to strengthen the bond between the two magnificence which is evident through a meeting between the heads of Singapore and India. After the meeting ended, it was concluded that the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, sought Singaporean enterprise to set up a skill development centre in North-East India. It has been announced that “Government of India had made a provision of Rs. 53,000 crores for the development of the eight North-Eastern states”. Tourism has been given more significance by the Government of India and therefore to boost the connectivity and network between the South East Asia and North-East India, the “Government has made an allocation of  Rs. 28,000 crores for starting 14 new railway lines.” Other than this, during PM Modi’s visit to the North-East India he “envisioned an economic corridor that would be established using North-East India, Myanmar and the adjoining regions. Government of India has also signed an agreement with Japan to open an economic corridor with Myanmar.”

India’s Look East Policy that was implemented in 1990, has received tremendous significance in the recent years for India has realized the vital roles of the North-Eastern states in connecting her with the rest of the Asian world. After the suggestion made by US secretary of state, Hilary Clinton on India: “not just to look East, but to engage East and act East”, the Government of India gave more attention to its eastern sides.


India’s political scenario has been changing at a rapid pace resulting in the establishment of bilateral and multilateral connections with its eastern neighbors. Various projects have been undertaken by the Government of India in order to strengthen the road and railway connectivity to easily reach the countries of South East Asia for India has now realized the benefits of such relations. Therefore, North-East India has been given the utmost attention by the Indian Government in order to establish a smooth relation with the eastern neighbors of India. An example of such an effort taken by the Government is the 1,360 km long road between Moreh-Mae Sot is to be constructed that will make its way through Mandalay and link North-East India and South East Asia. Thus cross-border relations are envisioned to get stronger in the near future as a result of various ways to sustain the linkages through various projects by the Indian Government.

Furthermore, the similarities in the culture and tradition of the people of both North-East India and South East Asia have added India in the good books of its Eastern neighbors. Since there had been extensive migration of population between the two magnificence, therefore, the exchange and practice of similar culture has been common in both the regions.

Thus, along with the easy communication provisions implemented by the Government of India, the cultural and ethnic similarities between South East Asia and India would serve the economic sphere of India, bringing prosperity and development to the region. This is evident from the importance that the Indian Government is giving on the ‘Look East Policy’ that will ultimately serve the development purpose of the North-Eastern region of India.

One can certainly conclude that North Eastern part of India has now become a bridge for India instead of becoming a barrier for its neighboring countries.

1 Madhusmita Goswami is an Assistant Professor (Contractual) in Dispur College, Guwahati. She can be contacted at The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any strong opinion against any culture or tribe.



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