An image of Brahmin priests in conversation with Buddha, Sanskrit inscriptions left centuries ago by Tamil merchants in south China, a bowl and a dish from the Tang period of China—John Guy can draw stories out of these objects. A curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was in Mumbai recently to speak on how Tamil merchants dominated maritime trade across southeast Asia in the first millennium and commanded influence in most kingdoms of the region.
He calls himself an “objects person”. It’s a passion that began some three decades ago, when he began his studies of the culture and archaeology of the region. Old India was a land of plenty, with numerous kingdoms, and was both a supplier to and market for produce in the region. Ties had been built with Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, onward to China. Dominating this maritime trade were Tamil merchants, who, besides ferrying cargo, brought about a high degree of overlap of Tamilian culture with cultures in these countries. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call them one culture,” says Guy. “But it’s true that from mid-first millennium, there is evidence in south India—the earliest evidence—of sustained contact with kingdoms in southeast Asia.” He mentions finds in those countries of inscriptions in Sanskrit (using Brahmi script) and Tamil.
Despite having a distinct culture of its own, southeast Asia, he says, “adopted and adapted” several Indian ideas. There was cross-pollination in ideas about politics and administration, especially from the Cholas and Pallavas. Learning from them, Guy says, local rulers began to redefine their roles. “They learnt to not just be communal or tribal leaders, but to become king-like figures. With that transition, you then get embryonic state formation, little political entities emerged, which later became modern-day states,” he says, citing the example of a ruler in Malaysia using a title styled like that of a Pallava king.
The most powerful influence, of course, was of Hindu religious imagery, symbolism and mythology, pervasive in southeast Asian culture. Brahminism was exported too: Brahmin priests conducted rituals for rulers across the region.
Later, from the 10th to the 12th century, Biharis and Bengalis joined the fray. They traded with Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and expanded to the countries the south Indians were trading with.
The chief driver of this cultural exchange, however, was trade—chiefly in spices and gold. The Malabar coast, after all, was for a long time the only producer of black pepper. Equally, the traders were interested in gold. India’s gold obsession—the country is the biggest repository of privately owned gold—dates back to those times. In contrast, the Chinese traders of those times, Guy says, did not hanker so much after the yellow metal.
“The world is not black and white. It’s complex. Knowing the multi-layered nature of cultures can reduce conflict.”
The other big difference between Indians and Chinese pertained to record-keeping. Indian traders and kingdoms did not care too much for this. Says Guy, “We know there were diplomatic exchanges—documented on the Chinese side. They are wonderful record-keepers. China is unique in that—they not only kept systematic records, they wrote contemporary histories of every dynasty, even when that dynasty had come to an end, often a bloody end. And there is no history of destroying the written records—which are available from the second and third century on, almost uninterrupted.” The consolation perhaps is that in India, some religious texts from the time are available.
The challenges of conservation and preservation don’t escape him. “Every country faces the dilemma: between preservation and development! It is a constant tension, isn’t it?” he asks, aware of Mumbai’s bid to become a unesco heritage city. “It will happen one day. It is important it does happen. It places a requirement on the authorities to preserve and restore with historical credibility. You have a beautiful, attractive, historic city that the world wants to see.”
He is sympathetic to the challenges faced by the Archaeological Survey of India. “I have enormous respect for the ASI. The challenges its experts face are monumental—literally—with so many sites. Actually, India is a whole subcontinent, culturally diverse. It’s like Europe.”
The issues of raising funds and the political compulsions in collection of objects and their preservation don’t escape him either. While the museum remains his “natural habitat”, he says collecting today is very different from how it was in the past. There’s much to be done, according to him, with existing collections too. Bridges have to be built to engage with communities. He speaks of how his museum even celebrates Diwali to engage with the South Asian communities, hoping to gain insights and garner donations and support for research into objects from the region.
To find and research objects gives him the greatest joy, he says, and this kind of research is something he prefers over money-making. “There’s an enormous thrill when you see an object you have never known before or knew it existed but have never seen...it opens a series of windows to a whole world. Objects can provide insights into the past that textual studies cannot. Texts are important, but in addition to that, there is whole lot that can add further dimensions,” he says. His recent exhibition ‘Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century’ was a classic example. “Textual sources were largely limited and understanding had to be reconstructed through objects,” he says. “The trick is in reading them.”
His research is evidence of free trade and exchange of ideas—a phenomenon that is “somewhat less” today, given the recent attempts at ownership of cultures and drawing boundaries—religious or geopolitical. “It is a classic story that understanding the past, the multi-layered nature of each culture’s history has the potential to reduce conflict,” he says. “The world is not black and white; the world is much more complex.”
Guy speaks of the evolution of culture as a reaction to realities of the time. This, he says, would be “unrecognisable to those who grow in settings where multiple faiths don’t exist side by side”. “India has an incredible history of religious tolerance,” he says. “One that it should strive to maintain.”
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai