Facts You Never Knew about India

Many interesting facts about India are well known: it is the world’s largest democracy and federal republic, the second largest country in population and on track to become the largest, has the world’s largest filmmaking industry, etc. But there are many interesting facts that are less commonly known.

Foreign Influence in India
Many well known foreign cultures throughout history have traveled to India. Below I describe some of the ways in which various groups interacted with India, and in particular, the state of Kerala on the southwestern coast of India.

The Phoenicians are said to have traded with Kerala as early as 3000 BC for ivory, sandalwood, and spices. However their presence decreased as Arabs, Assyrians, and Greeks became more powerful.

Egyptian trade also dates as far back as the third millenium BC. Cinnamon from Kerala was used to embalm the dead bodies of the pharaohs, and also in the manufacturing of perfumes and holy oils.


The Nestorian Christians in Alexandria, Egypt, may have been the first Christians to trade with Kerala and spread the religion into the region. Like all Assyrians, they were skilled in trade as well.

Around 1000 B.C., Jewish King Solomon sent ships to the port of Ophir to buy timber, sandalwood, ivory, and other things for the construction of his temple in Jerusalem. Many historians believe Ophir is a city on the Kerala coast: either it is Bepur near Kozhikode, or it is Puvar near Thiruvananthapuram.

There are a number of theories about when the Jews first arrived in India.

> In 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon captured Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s Temple. Cyrus II of Persia conquered Babylon and released the Jews in 536 BC, although according to tradition, the “Babylonian Captivity” lasted 70 years. Some Jews are said to have come to Kerala after Cyrus released them.
>Following the “Great Revolt” of the Jews against the Roman Empire, Roman troops destroyed the Second Temple of Jerusalem (rebuilt on the site of Solomon’s Temple after the end of Babylonian rule) in 70 AD. To escape Roman rule, 10,000 Jews are said to have migrated to Kerala in 72 AD.
>Another theory says Jews came to Kerala after being exiled from the island of Majorca in Spain by the Roman emperor Vespasian in the year 370. Unfortunately, the emperor of Rome in 370 was Gratian, and he did nothing notable in Majorca and never dealt with Jews. Vespasian was actually emperor from 69 to 79 AD, during the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He and his son Titus did launch military campaigns against Judea however, and I believe it is possible that out of many Jews who fled the area during this time, some may have ended up in Kerala.

Verifiable historical evidence about Kerala Jews goes back to the Jewish Copper Plate granted by Bhaskara Ravi Varman to Jewish Chief Joseph Rabban of Anjuvannam in 1000 AD.

Jews also came from Baghdad and the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in the sixteenth century. The Bene Israel and Cochini Jews became absorbed into the caste system in India. The Iraqi Jews tended to be more strictly adhering to their religious laws and viewed the Bene Israel Jews as being too secular. The Cochini Jews had a higher status in the caste system than the Bene Israel Jews. Thus Jewish communities were divided into various classes, and not existing as one united cultural group in India. Click here for more information on Jews in India.

Some say that many Kerala Christians were originally Jews who were converted by Syrian Christians. Jews lived peacefully in Kerala until the Catholic Portuguese arrived and persecuted both Jews and Syrian Christians during the Inquisition. The Portuguese destroyed the Jewish settlement in Kodungallor, sacked the Jewish community in Kochi and partially destroyed the famous synagogue there in 1661. After the Portuguese left, the Kerala Jews enjoyed normal life under the rule of the more tolerant Dutch and later the British. According to the Dutch Jew Moses Pereya de Paiva, in 1686 there were 10 synagogues and almost 500 Jewish families in Kochi. The state of Israel was created in 1948, and between 1948 and 1955, all of the “Black” and “Brown” Jews (about 3,000) went to Israel, where they are now known as “Cochini” Jews. In 1961 there were only 359 Jews left in Kerala and they were all “White” Jews. By then only two synagogues were open for service: the Pardesi Synagogue in Mattancherry built in 1567 and the synagogue in Parur. Today only about 50 Jews remain in Kerala.

Interestingly, the tiles on the floor of the synagogue in Kochi are Chinese, not Jewish. The king of Kochi originally received the tiles from Chinese traders, who frequently visited the ports of Kerala. A Jewish merchant concocted a story that the Chinese bleed cows in order to construct tiles, and thus persuaded the king to sell him the tiles cheap. Then the tiles were used in the construction of the synagogue.

The Danish East India Company also had some settlements in India, primarily on the eastern coast. The most notable settlements are Serampore in West Bengal and Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu. See this page and this page for pictures from these areas and some information on them and other colonies.
The Svenska Ostindiska Companiet (SOIC, or Swedish East India Company), despite its name, had little to do with India. It was founded in 1731 in Gothenburg, Sweden, to conduct trade mainly with China. Inspired by the British East India Company, it became the largest Swedish trading company until it was folded in 1831. The Danish and Swedish East India companies at one point were more successful in the tea trade than the British, and would smuggle tea into Britain for huge profits.


Portuguese power in Asia began to decline after its union with Spain in 1580. Catholic Spain at the time also controlled the area of northern Europe called the Low Countries, which today consists of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The Germanic people of the northern area of the Low Countries were Protestant and developed a powerful navy. They declared themselves independent in 1581 and called themselves the Dutch Republic or Netherlands. In 1588, Queen Elizabeth I’s navy defeated the Spanish Armada, thereby weakening the Spanish navy. This encouraged the Dutch to use their navy to explore the seas in the early 1600s. They formed the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, or Dutch East India Company), in 1602. The VOC is said to be the world’s first publicly traded company. The Dutch East India Company successfully pushed the Portuguese out of most of Indonesia and set up a headquarters in Batavia (Jakarta). The Dutch also wrested Sri Lanka from the Portuguese and began to make trade agreements with the kings of Kerala.
The Dutch effectively controlled the major kingdoms of Kerala with the exception of Thiruvithamkode (Travancore) in southern Kerala. However they met strong resistance from the Samuthiri of Kozhikode, even though they had defeated his kingdom in battle many times. In addition the Dutch in Kerala received little assistance from the headquarters in Batavia as time wore on. Although the Dutch forcefully controlled their trade with Kerala (getting large quantities of pepper, cinnamon, etc. cheap and selling it expensively in Europe), the cost of warring with the Samuthiri and also competing with the rising French and British powers in India made things difficult. In 1741, the Dutch suffered a crushing defeat in a naval battle at Kolachel with the powerful king Marthanda Varma of Thiruvithamkode. This is said to be the first defeat of a European naval power at the hands of an Asian nation, although many history books wrongly give this credit to the 1905 victory of Admiral Tojo of Japan against Czar Nicholas II’s Russian navy. Eventually the weakened Dutch were ousted from Kerala by the British. However the Dutch did control Indonesia until after World War II.

Indian Influence in Asia

Throughout history Indian people and ideas have spread throughout Asia. Indians settled and ruled in Indonesia and Indochina, and Buddhism and certain martial arts spread as far as Afghanistan, China, Japan, and Indonesia. Here I will describe the influences of Indians on different parts of East and Southeast Asia. This page contains detailed lists of rulers of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and Tibet. This page contains detailed information about the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of Indonesia.
Initially, Southeast Asia was inhabited by short, dark-skinned, hairy people known as Negritos, related to the Australian Aborigines. Eventually they were pushed out by Malayo-Polynesian people who colonized Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island, and even Madagascar, with their mastery of the outrigger canoe, by 500 CE. It appears they may have, over the years, developed a lot of technology on their own, including using their abundant supply of tin to make bronze, and mastering metallurgy as well as agriculture (rice in particular). By 300 BCE, the Vietnamese, Mon-Khmers, Tibeto-Burmans and Thais settled in the region, after being forced out of southern China. The Mon-Khmers split into the Mon, who settled Burma and parts of Thailand and Malaya, and the Khmer, ancestors of today’s Cambodians.
The Mon made contact with India during Asoka’s rule. Asoka sent Buddhist missionaries to Burma to convert the Mons in the mid-third century BCE, leading to Burma’s perpetual Buddhism that lasts to this day. The Mons traded with India and Sri Lanka. In the second century BCE, India and China began to trade. The land routes were riddled with moutains, jungles, or warlike Central Asians. Indian merchants found water routes through Southeast Asia, where pirates were the only problem. Because of seasonal wind patterns in the Indian Ocean, Indian ships would often wait in Southeast Asia for months until favorable winds came, giving them plenty of time to mingle in society. Indian missonaries converted people to Hinduism and Buddhism, and local rulers began to call themselves maharajahs and precisely mimick Indian courts. Indian-style city-states flourished on the coasts of Burma, Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia, and southern Vietnam by the first century CE. See this page for more information.This site has a great presentation of information about the history of Southeast Asia, including the vast Indian influence on the region. I will give generalizations and interesting snippets of that history here.

The first kingdom of Southeast Asia was Phnom (the Cambodian word for “mountain”), or Funan (the Chinese name for the region). Both names refer to Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hinduism. The kingdom formed when the lower Mekong delta was united under a city called Vyadhapura (“hunter city” in Sanskrit). A Cambodian legend tells a story about how the kingdom formed. An Indian Brahmin was told to sail east by a spirit. He reached Cambodia where a beautiful woman sailed out to meet him. Soon he realized she was Queen Willow Leaf, ruler of Cambodia and daughter of a serpent god who is his enemy. She threatened to destroy him, but he shot a magic arrow into her boat. She realized she was no match for him, so they made peace, got married, and had a child who became the first king of Funan.
Funan was a great trade center, and not just between Indians and Chinese. A Roman coin dated 152 CE was found there. Funan had a Malay upper class, but most of the population was Negrito. A Chinese ambassador was offended by Negritos who were “ugly and black” with frizzy hair, who walked around naked. He told this to the king of Funan, who passed a law requiring everyone to be clothed in public. This led to the invention of the traditional Cambodian “sampot” loincloth. King Jayavarman I (478-514) ruled at the peak of Funan’s power, and then the kingdom fell apart. Internal disarray and raids by Khmers and Laos weakened Funan. By 627, Khmers completely conquered Funan. However, the civilization of Funan established a trend for Southeast Asian states to follow.

Between the Irrawaddy delta and the border of modern Bangladesh, a kingdom called Arakan, likely founded by Indians, existed. Arakan is separated from the rest of Burma by the Arakan Yoma mountain range, isolating them culturally from the changes that took place in the rest of Burma. Today they still speak an old dialect of Burmese. They were interested more in sea trade with India due to the difficulty of traveling through the mountains. Sanskrit inscriptions describe an old kingdom in the area. The Arakanese people may have been Pyu from northern Burma who were expelled during Thai invasions. The Arakanese tolerated other religions when they sought trade with India, and today there is a community of Bengali Muslims in Arakan.

The islands of Sumatra and Java in Indonesia got their names from the original Indian names: Swarna-Dwipa (“gold island”) and Yava-Dwipa (“rice island”; “yava” is barley in Sanskrit). After the fall of Funan, a powerful Buddhist kingdom called Srivijaya rose to power on the southeastern coast of Sumatra Island in Indonesia. Srivijaya became a center of Buddhist learning and practice, as well as the main controller of naval trade with Indochina. They kept good trade relations with the Tang dynasty in China and the Islamic caliphates in the Middle East. They had competition from the Hindu Mataram kingdom in central and eastern Java. But another Buddhist kingdom, the Sailendras, arose in Java. In 775, the Saliendras overthrew the Hindu kings of Mataram. The then Buddhist kindgom of Mataram is known for building the gargantuan Borobudur temple in central Java.
But Buddhism was on the decline in Champa (Vietnam), Cambodia, and post-Gupta India. By 850, the Sailendra rulers of Mataram had converted to Hinduism and built Hindu temples to match Borobudur. Eventually Mataram was overthrown and Javanese pirates began raiding Srivijayan ships. The Srivijayans failed in getting help from China to fight the pirates. In the tenth century, both China and the Abbasid Caliphate crumpled, causing more economic problems for Srivijaya. In 1030, the Chola Empire of South India devastated Srivijaya and forced them to pay tribute until 1190. Srivijaya never recovered and the kingdoms of Sumatra and Java had limited power.
A new kingdom called Singosari arose in 1222 in Java. King Kertanagara extended his rule to nearby islands: Madura, Bali, the lesser Sundas, and southern Sumatra. But in 1289, he mistreated an envoy of Kublai Khan who was coming to demand submission to China, and the Mongols sent an army in response. Kertanagara was killed by a rival, Jayakatwang, of the Kediri kingdom, before the Mongols arrived. Kertanagara’s son-in-law, Kertarajasa, used the Mongols to defeat Jayakatwang and then drove the Mongols back out of Indonesia. A new capital was established at Majapahit. During the reign of Kertarajasa’s daughter (1329-1350), Majapahit became the center of what may have been the most powerful kingdom in Indonesian history, with the help of a skilled general named Gajah Mada. Gajah Mada continued to help the next ruler, Hayam Wuruk (1350-1389) rule the most glorious period of Javanese history. Java traded with everyone in Asia except for Sumatra, which rebelled briefly in 1377 to try to restore Srivijaya. The rebellion was crushed. But Java was in decline after Hayam Wuruk, who divided Java among his sons of concubines. Civil war broke out and in the early 1400s, a Chinese pirate captured Palembang (the capital of Srivijaya) and raided local ships until a Chinese fleet removed him and returned Palembang to Majapahit. Over the next century, Muslim influence increased in Indonesia, although it is known that a Hindu king named Ranavijaya ruled in Java as late as 1486. The rule of a non-Muslim ended around 1520 or 1530 according to Portuguese records, and the pre-Muslim era of Indonesia ended. Majapahit’s culture has survived however: the island of Bali is now a haven for Indonesian Hinduism.

Chenla, the first Khmer kingdom, grew in the 7th century but split into Land Chenla (Laos) and Water Chenla (Cambodia). At the end of the 8th century, Java’s Sailendra kings conquered Water Chenla. The new king of Water Chenla under Javanese domination was Jayavarman II, who ruled for roughly 50 years. He gave the name Kambujadesa to Water Chenla (leading to later names Kampuchea and Cambodia).

Vietnam was originally two states: Annam (a.k.a. Nam Viet, or Dai Viet) in the north, and Champa in the south. Annam was part of China for a long time, while Champa was largely controlled by Indians. The rulers of Champa are divided into fifteen periods: fourteen dynasties and a Cambodian period. All except the twelfth and fourteenth dynasty contain rulers with Indian names. From late in the third dynasty (510 CE) through the Cambodian period (1220), only two rulers were non-Indian: one was an Annamese king who ruled for three years, and another was an Annamese vassal who ruled during the last six years of the Cambodian period. The thirteenth dynasty also saw two Indian rulers, Jaya Sinhavarman V and Maija Vijaya, who ruled from 1400 to 1446. After winning freedom from China, Annam eventually conquered Champa and the Chinese culture of the north overwhelmed the Indian culture of the south.

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