Though people from India have been stereotyped as “stay-at-home” in several literatures (British colonial censuses, anthropological, writing on caste), there is serious, deep evidence to the contrary. The great Buddhist ekumene of the 5th to perhaps the 10th centuries connected India, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan. Xuanzang, for example, found both Indian Buddhist monks and Hindu holy men at courts along the Silk Road to India in 674. After Xuanzang, the ties between China and India were particularly close until the middle of the ninth century. Indian Buddhist monks regularly traveled to China. Tansen Sen is the best current writing on this post-Xuanzang activity.
India people were equally active in Buddhist and Hindu influence in Southeast Asia at the same time. We have been intellectually hampered by seeing this influence as either “colonization” by India or not colonization. The argument devolves to whether there is hard evidence of large numbers of people from India in Southeast Asia. I see this as the wrong question. If, as I believe, there was a broad Buddhist network, and ekumene, that extended across much of India, west to Persia, north to Central Asia, and east to Southeast Asia, Japan, Korea, and China, then we should expect all sorts of mixing, matching, and exchange in ideas, institutions, and imagery across the ekumene. We can unburden ourselves of the unproductive question of whether change was “external’ or “internal”. And what were the “centers”. Contact and interchange were happening all over the ekumene, as seen in the various contemporaneous styles of Buddhist sculpture in China or styles of kingship in Southeast Asia. It is no longer “surprising” that we find evidence of Buddhist monks from Bengal headed to Java in the tenth century (the Intan shipwreck) or a regular circulation of Buddhist monks, in times of distress, between Bengal, Burma, and Sri Lanka. It is only in the context of this continuing circulation that the Chola invasions of Sri Lanka and island Southeast Asia makes sense. These attacks were in no sense explorations. They were attempts to dominate known areas of immediate contact and wealth. The ships and men of the attacks were part of a maritime strategy of the kingdom.
On the Western coast of India, there is considerable evidence of Indian Ocean trade in the Roman era but it is not clear who the traders were. The active trade to Rome dropped off steeply after the 4th century, but Constantinople soon after became a great demand center. It is likely that Sassanians were the predominant in this trade during the 5th-7th centuries and Arabs in the following three centuries. There has been less consideration of the possible overseas role for traders from India. There was until the 1990’s a very old dhow trade from India to the coast of Africa. The ship captains were Muslims from Gujarat. We should consider the possibility that “Muslim” traders and ship captains were predominantly Hindu converts. Conversion provided easier access to the larger Muslim trading world.
The Geniza documents of the 12th an 13th centuries mention a variety of traders on India’s Western coast, including, of course, Jews, but also Tamils and local Hindus. Some of those Indian traders were resident at Aden, then the largest entrepót in the Indian Ocean.
On the Western coast, which I know better than the eastern, there was considerable intermarriage between Arab merchants and local women, plus male converts to Islam. So, how do we characterize these groups? Certainly, they continued the tradition of overseas trade and were not bound by any strictures on being “Indian”. Also on the Western coast, the Marathas in the seventeenth century had a navy and engaged other powers along the coast. There is no indication that any of the Maratha soldiers refused service in these ocean-based ventures.
All of this is the background to the large-scale circulations of the colonial period. The Portuguese used troops from India in many early sea adventures. Many of them were mixed-blood and Christian converts, but this may be the same process as converts to Islam at an earlier time. People converted to get access to the wider world offered by the Portuguese. By the eighteenth century armies large numbers of Indian troops routinely moved by sea. Tamil merchants exploited opportunities in Southeast Asia. Indian merchants who were centered in Multan sent representatives all the way into central Russia. (The research supporting on this topic includes older work by Stephen Blake and more recent work by Scott Levi.)
By the nineteenth century Indians were all across the British Empire – as soldiers, administrators, and laborers. They were found throughout East Africa, Malaya, Jamaica and Fiji. The recent research on these circulations includes books by Sugata Bose and Thomas Metcalf.
These circulations of the nineteenth century have been, quite correctly, connected to the massive immigrations of Indians, both before and after Independence – to England, Canada, and the United States. The scholarly literature on this out-migration is so large that it constitutes a sub-field, that of “Indian diasporic” studies. It has, of course, also spawned a large and widely read output of fiction about the experience
It is perhaps time to purge the whole notion of stay-at-home Indians, connect the various periods of overseas Indians, and treat them as part of the long-term history of people from India.