Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, Middle Bengali became a major idiom of literary expression in the kingdom of Arakan. It is within the domain of this coastal kingdom, which then comprised the region of Chittagong in today’s Bangladesh, that Muslim subjects of the Buddhist kings started using the courtly vernacular that was previously cultivated by Hindu dignitaries of the Ḥusayn Shāhī sultans of Bengal. By the mid-17th century, which constituted a moment of economic prosperity and maximum territorial expansion, all genres of Middle Bengali poetry were represented in the corpus of texts written by authors living in the urban and rural areas of the kingdom. The many treatises on Muslim beliefs and meditative practices, the hagiographic literature, and the courtly romances testify to the formation of a local Islamic cultural ethos. After the Mughal conquest of Chittagong in 1666, local literacy was still cultivating standards set by authors of the Arakanese period such as Saiẏad Sultān and Ālāol. In Arakan itself, Bengali Muslim literature continued to be produced and transmitted until at least the first half of the twentieth century. A large number of manuscripts was collected in the first decades of the twentieth century and these are preserved in various institutions in Bangladesh. The Bengali literature of Arakan is characterized by its Indic religious idiom and Sanskritized poetics, but also by its complex intertextuality that reflects the region’s connections with north India and the Persianate trading networks of the Bay of Bengal. Up to the 2000s, the Bengali literature of Arakan has mostly been discussed within the framework of the national literary history of Bangladesh, but subsequently scholars have relocated this corpus within the cultural domain of the Bay of Bengal and the Islamicate literary traditions of South and Southeast Asia.
Geok Yian Goh
Theravada Buddhist polities in ancient Southeast Asia comprised kingdoms located in present-day Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Theravada Buddhism became influential in mainland Southeast Asia in the 11th century. Little information exists on the economy of daily life during that period; existing records from 1100 until 1600 mainly deal with administrative and religious affairs, from which some information about the economy can be extracted. These mainland Buddhist polities are typically described as practicing “redistributive economic systems,” a term that Karl Polanyi used to refer to geopolitical entities in which the primary source of subsistence is agriculture, and an administrative center, usually located in the capital, collects revenue from taxes on agricultural production, trade, and other specialized activities that are owned or controlled by the central government or other designated authorities, such as religious orders. The redistributive model is contrasted with the market economies of maritime port polities such as those in insular Southeast Asia. This binary opposition is, however, overstated, as demonstrated by diversity found in mainland Southeast Asia, where some polities relied both on agriculture and maritime trade. Polanyi’s model does not satisfactorily account for the diversity of the Theravada Buddhist polities of Myanmar and Thailand. Some scholars from Redfield and Singer to Miksic have constructed more elaborate models including the orthogenetic versus heterogenetic spectrum, on the basis of Polanyi’s thought but which attempt to utilize polythetic rather than monothetic concepts and scalar rather than stadial classifications.
R. Michael Feener
Southeast Asia has been a historical crossroads of major world civilizations for nearly two millennia. Muslim traders were sojourning along the shores of the Indonesian archipelago from at least the 8th century, and by the turn of the 14th century local Muslim communities had taken root, and the region’s first sultanate was established in northern Sumatra. Since then, Muslim communities had been established across many other parts of Southeast Asia, where in the 21st century they comprise demographic majorities in the nation-states of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei and significant minority populations in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Singapore. The Islamization of these societies, and their inclusion into an expanding constellation of Muslim societies in the medieval and early modern periods, was facilitated by intensifications of activity along the maritime trading routes linking Southeast Asia to ports on the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Swahili Coasts with those of India and China over the medieval and early modern periods. Over the course of this history, the expansion of Islam in the region was not dominantly directed from any single source but rather the result of diverse, interlaced strands of commercial and cultural circulations that connected the region to multiple points in an expanding Muslim world—adopting local traditions to produce diverse and dynamic vernacular forms of Islamic cultural expression.
Paul Buell and Francesca Fiaschetti
The Mongols, creators of the largest continuous land empire in history, who initiated an unprecedented era of international exchange, are mostly known for their land conquests and contacts, but, they also actively participated in maritime and land trade. The key event in this development was a Mongol commercialization ongoing with the Mongol conquest of key coastal areas in China and Iran that brought them face to face with the trading world of the South Seas and Indian Ocean. There was a military aspect of this, starting in Japan, Southeast Asia, and Java, and there was the diplomatic and informal initiatives of Qubilai-qan to expand Mongol influence over the seas as far as the Red Sea and Africa, in ways not achievable with military means alone. A thesis is that the Mongols in China ended by creating, with the help of the Mongols in Iran, a first maritime age, paralleling those established by the Portuguese and others that came later.
Barbara Watson Andaya
Southeast Asia includes eleven countries, although this contemporary configuration disguises significant differences, especially in regard to religion and economic status. Theravada Buddhism is dominant in the “mainland” countries of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, while Vietnam is influenced by the religious and intellectual traditions of China, including Mahayana Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. In the “island” areas (Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, and Timor Leste/Timor Lorosae), the dominant faiths are Islam and Christianity (the latter a majority in the Philippines, Timor Leste, and parts of the eastern Indonesian archipelago), with Bali retaining a localized form of Hinduism. There are also marked economic differences. Singapore and Brunei are among the world’s richest countries, with Laos and Timor Leste among the poorest. Despite this diversity, a regional theme concerns the interaction between religious change and commerce. A chronological and comparative approach that moves from early times to the present day shows that ideas about relationships to the cosmos have developed in tandem with expanding commerce. Although this relationship has never been static, the aim of establishing a beneficial interaction with the supranatural world remains a basic human goal. During the 1st millennium ce the rise of new polities, combined with increasing overland and maritime trade, encouraged the adoption and adaption of incoming religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. The 13th century marks the beginning of a new phase with the spread of Theravada Buddhism on the mainland and Islam and subsequently Christianity in the island world. The commerce-religion nexus, though still present, is less evident from the mid-19th century to World War II, when all of Southeast Asia except for Thailand was under colonial control. From the late 20th century transnational trade has allied with religious resurgence, generating new and dynamic forms of engaging with nonhuman forces.
Southeast Asia has been a critical nexus of the economic interactions between the Indian Ocean, China Seas, and the Pacific Ocean littoral. Trade and commerce developed from the early first to late second millennia involving shipping and commercial networks both within Southeast Asia and from further afield. Accompanying these networks were the region’s port cities, which held these networks together, pulling the subregional networks of trade and commerce into one regional economic sphere. The nature of trade and commerce was affected by the different ecological and economic zones of Southeast Asia. This in turn affected the types of products that were traded and the communications links that connected the different subregions to the outside world. In addition, economic interactions with regions further afield and the geopolitical changes that these regions underwent also determined the types of products that flowed into and through Southeast Asia, as well as the way in which commerce was conducted.
The history of the “Spice Trade,” much like that of its overland counterpart, the “Silk Road,” has long been imbued with an aura of romance. It has evoked fantasies of dhows, junks, and East Indiamen plying monsoon seas, tropical islands with swaying palms and coastal forts, swaggering pirates, and ports brimming with fragrant exotica—the maritime versions of camel caravans crossing deserts, menacing bandits, distant cities graced with minarets and pagodas, and merchants haggling for silks in bazaars. In the case of the spice trade, these exotic images are haunted at times by less agreeable visions of unbridled princely and corporate greed, ruthless exploitation, and emerging colonial empires. Beyond fantasy, these visions of the spice trade have their roots in very real and complex historical phenomena, whose importance to Southeast Asia’s economic, political, and cultural history, and indeed to global history, are difficult to understate. Until their gradual early modern diffusion to other regions of the planet, the trees which produced Southeast Asia’s most coveted spices and aromatics, especially the cloves, nutmeg, mace, and white sandalwood of eastern Indonesia, were largely confined to the unique tropical ecoregions in which they had evolved, and were effectively unavailable anywhere else. This fact, combined with their unique and powerful aromas and flavors, ensured that Southeast Asia would remain a nexus of the spice trade for the better part of two millennia. Following their discovery and cultivation by Indigenous peoples, Southeast Asian spices and aromatics began to circulate in the trade networks of the Indo-Malay archipelago in pre- and protohistoric times. By the 4th and 5th centuries ce, seafaring merchants were regularly carrying them to emporia across the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Rim, and they became coveted luxuries in India, China, West Asia, the Mediterranean, and northern Europe. By the 14th century, peoples across much of the Eastern Hemisphere had become regular and avid consumers of Southeast Asian spices and aromatics. Their popularity in India, West Asia, and China was a major factor in the development of permanent commercial ties between the three regions, which in turn helped to facilitate the diffusion of Hinduism, Buddhism, and subsequently Islam to Southeast Asia. Conversely, the relatively peripheral position of Europe in the lucrative Southeast Asian spice trade was a major factor in prompting the Iberian maritime voyages of exploration beginning in the 15th century. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, a range of European and Indigenous polities engaged in a complex and often violent series of struggles for control of the spice trade. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English armed trading expeditions lay the groundwork for their respective colonial empires in Southeast Asia, while regional peoples and polities adopted and adapted elements of European technology, culture, and in some regions, Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Over time, changing tastes in Europe and the transplantation of nutmeg, cloves, and white sandalwood to the Caribbean, East Africa, and India, respectively, diminished the relative importance of the traditional Southeast Asian spice trade, while new aromatic crops introduced from elsewhere, such as black pepper and later coffee, became increasingly important to the region.