India's influence on Southeast Asian music

Update : June 18, 2024

The music of Southeast Asia is highly diverse. It encompasses musical traditions now considered indigenous due to their antiquity—although always intermixed—but also more recent influences spanning the last two millennia: Indian, Middle Eastern, and Western among the most notable. The latter two arose from hegemonic ambitions: Islamization for the Middle East, Christianization and economic domination for the West. But what about the Indian influence?

L’influence indienne

Outrigger ship. Borobudur 9th c. Indonesia.
Outrigger ship. Borobudur 9th c. Indonesia.

The diffusion of Indian culture across Southeast Asia, both continental and insular, profoundly and durably impacted the historical trajectory of most nations in the region. This adventure began for some as early as the beginning of the first millennium CE. At that time, Indian sailors sought to establish maritime trade outposts, guided not by any hegemonic will but commercial interests. Indian culture then gradually and peacefully permeated areas populated by small groups of hunter-gatherers or rice cultivators holding animist beliefs and maintaining relationships with the protective spirits of nature and likely also everyday objects: houses, rice barns, stairs, furniture, etc.

Reclining Buddha. Southeast Asia. Patrick Kersalé 2022.
Reclining Buddha. Southeast Asia. Patrick Kersalé 2022.

The existence of archaeological remains and Hindu-Buddhist religious practices constitute undeniable evidence of this influence. Scholars, thinkers, Hindu priests, and Buddhist monks disseminated new knowledge, conveyed technological expertise, and transmitted skills. The great epics of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata were adopted and adapted. While some teachings imbued with religious and philosophical substance were transmitted orally, others necessitated "stagings." To this end, Hindus and Buddhists brought tools beyond sacred texts to communicate with their respective deities. Foremost among them was dance, or more precisely a "total theater" combining multiple elements: dance proper, singing, music with costumes, jewelry, masks, etc. In the animist system of thought, still present in certain regions of Southeast Asia, there exists a system of gift and counter-gift: people make offerings and sacrifices to spiritual entities both to protect themselves from potential harm, but also to attract their graces. The Hindu belief system functions on similar foundations: acquired goods are a divine grace and a portion must be rendered back to the deities. It is unknown whether, in the societies contacted by Indians, dance was already part of the offerings to spiritual entities, but some animist populations, unconverted to Hinduism, have danced for centuries during their religious ceremonies. The animist bedrock thus seems to have been fertile ground for the development of Hinduism and a Buddhism close to Hindu practices; such a Buddhism notably existed in the Khmer Empire in the late 12th–early 13th century, under the reign of King Jayavarman VII.

The importance of these new paradigms was such that it was no longer possible to revert, except to adapt the acquisitions to contemporary fashions while seizing innovative technological contributions. Speaking solely of music, the religious and palatine string orchestras evolved towards greater sound power in order to broaden the auditory reception area, without modifying their basic structure so as not to alter their symbolism.


There are four tangible sources attesting to Indian influences in Southeast Asia:

Ethnography. The most visible is the presence of Buddhism, a pure Indian creation, present in all countries of this part of the world, with direct influences from India and Sri Lanka, or sometimes indirect, with long periods of maturation-transformation in other regions, notably China. The influences of Hinduism remain tangible in Bali and, to a lesser extent, in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

Iconography. Cambodia and central Vietnam, the former Champa (7th-13th centuries), and central Java (9th century) offer the greatest stone imagery of Southeast Asia. Instruments of Indian origin, adapted to local cultures, are deployed over hundreds of linear meters of sculpture.

Epigraphy. Texts engraved in stone, in Sanskrit or a local language, the oldest of which date back to the 7th century in Cambodia, attest to religious musical practices. The terms naming the musical instruments are clearly of Indian origin.

Objects. All countries of Southeast Asia are subject to the monsoon climate. As such, objects from archaeological excavations or fortuitous discoveries are essentially in bronze, ceramic and stone for what concerns musical instruments or more precisely sound communication objects (bells, bell trees, conches, rattles).

The routes of Buddhist influence

Theravada Buddhism, predominant in mainland Southeast Asia, does not employ any musical instruments to accompany the chanting of monks. The earliest accounts of a cappella chanting are reported by the Chinese chronicler Zhou Daguan (周達觀) in the late 13th century in Cambodia.

Gathering of 5,000 monks at Angkor Wat on December 5, 2017. © Patrick Kersalé 2017-2024.
Gathering of 5,000 monks at Angkor Wat on December 5, 2017. © Patrick Kersalé 2017-2024.

To this day, the only sound instruments employed within Buddhist monasteries serve a purely utilitarian function of communication, used to summon monks for waking, prayer and meals, or to alert the faithful in case of a ceremony or imminent danger (enemy threat, fire, pandemic). The rhythmic sequences struck on drums for these purposes remain, with some variations, common to all monastic establishments in Southeast Asia, suggesting that they could be as ancient as their very principle. As for the a cappella recitation of Buddhist texts, of which there are various forms, it originates from ancestral practices of ancient India. The transmission of these texts takes place within monastic schools hosting from a few dozen to sometimes thousands of monks of all ages. While the textual corpus, immutable in theory, is recorded in writing, the modalities of its recitation (recitation, chants, polyphonies...) stem from a stable oral tradition thanks to its multigenerational perpetuation—monastic ordination being accessible at any age—and the significant circulation of students, who then depart for various monasteries to transmit in turn this corpus and these forms. This mode of transmission dates back to the time when the Buddha promulgated the monastic rules, two and a half millennia ago.

The routes of Hindu influence

Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple outside India. 12th c. © Dimitri Meas 2017-2024.
Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple outside India. 12th c. © Dimitri Meas 2017-2024.

The diffusion of Hinduism across Southeast Asia led to the emergence of numerous small-scale polities. In Cambodia, the progressive unification of these Hinduized principalities gave rise to the Khmer Empire, whose territory encompassed the regions corresponding to present-day Cambodia as well as portions of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. An analogous process occurred with the advent of the Champa kingdom in the central Vietnamese province of Đà Nẵng, and the Majapahit kingdom in the eastern part of the island of Java in Indonesia. Beyond the ubiquitous archaeological remains in these different lands, an intangible heritage of Hindu origin endures (prayers, cosmology, numerology...). The island of Bali today constitutes the last bastion of religious practices derived from Hinduism, albeit deeply syncretized with local animist beliefs. There one finds, notably, the use by Brahmins of the ceremonial bell with a half-vajra, whose origins date back to ancient India.

Indian instruments in Southeast Asian music

The conch shell is a tangible marker of India's Brahmanic influence in Southeast Asia. It is the attribute of the god Vishnu. Here, eight baku from the Royal Palace of Cambodia during the funeral of King Norodom Sihanouk in February 2013. © Socheat Chea.
The conch shell is a tangible marker of India's Brahmanic influence in Southeast Asia. It is the attribute of the god Vishnu. Here, eight baku from the Royal Palace of Cambodia during the funeral of King Norodom Sihanouk in February 2013. © Socheat Chea.

During the period spanning the 7th to 10th centuries, the iconography of temples and epigraphic inscriptions allow us to distinguish three categories of usage for musical instruments—or sound communication devices:

Sound tools used by Hindu officiants: hand bells with or without a half-vajra, bell trees, conch shells or their terracotta replicas.

String orchestras performing in Hindu and Buddhist temples (before the advent of Theravada Buddhism), as well as in royal and princely courts.

Martial ensembles: trumpets, conches, drums, and cymbals.

For religious uses, there is a perfect coherence in the musical instrumentarium of the Khmer Empire, Champa, and central Java, whether they were adherents of Hinduism or Buddhism, with the presence of the same lutes, zithers, harps, flutes, drums, cymbals, and scrapers. If we rely on iconography and epigraphy, there existed a finite number of instruments in the service of temples. The popular music of Southeast Asian countries continues today to use these instruments of Indian origin, some almost unchanged, others adapted over time.

We have, however, little information on ancient popular musical instruments, as they have disappeared and sculpture and literature offer scant information about them.

In Cambodia, the oldest representations of musical instruments and stone inscriptions referring to religious music date back to the 7th century. Among these are the monochord zither (kañjaṅ, vīṇa — present-day kse diev ខ្សែដៀវ*) depicted on a bas-relief at the archaeological site of Sambor Prei Kuk. This instrument is also known in Thailand, originating from the Khmer source. The other most ancient and widespread instrument, also of Indian origin, is the small cymbals chhing ឈិង* present in all string orchestras, without interruption until the present day. 

The harp

We will now address the case of the harp, whose organological structure constitutes an essential marker for understanding the evolution of music itself.

The Sāmaveda (c. 1800-1500 BCE) is the first written work mentioning the term vīṇa, a generic term designating chordophones for ritual use, without specifying whether they were harps, zithers, or lutes. Later, around 500 BCE, Indian classical literature evokes it as an instrument of court entertainment. This latter role is confirmed through Buddhist art from the 2nd century BCE to around the 6th century CE, where kings, nobles, minor deities, and courtesans are depicted playing the harp, either solo or accompanying singing and dance. The harp continues to appear sporadically in iconography until the end of the first millennium, before gradually disappearing from South Asia, with the exception of the waji of Nuristan, the bin-baja of the Pardhan people of Madhya Pradesh, and in Southeast Asia, the t'na or nade of the Karen people of Myanmar and Thailand, as well as the Burmese saùng-gauk.

In India, the harp disappears from iconography between the 10th and 12th centuries, a period during which, conversely, its iconographic representation explodes in the Buddhist temples of Cambodia erected under the reign of King Jayavarman VII, particularly Bayon and Banteay Chhmar. We have recently learned that the harp was known in Cambodia as early as the 2nd century CE thanks to a medallion found in 2020 in a cemetery, depicting a harp with outlines similar to instruments from the Shunga dynasty. Its presence can then be traced between the 7th and the early 13th centuries. After that, its trace is lost following the death of King Jayavarman VII (c. 1150-1218 or 1219 CE), as very few durable constructions were built on which it could have been sculpted. Moreover, no epigraphy mentions the instrument beyond the 9th century.

However, thanks to science and the possible cross-referencing of various sources, we have been able to retrace part of its odyssey, from southern India to northern China (Mogao Caves), passing through central Java (Borobudur) and Champa. In Cambodia, its name has not been forgotten and is still associated today with typically Khmer string instruments. Its form itself has been preserved in the decorations of Buddhist monasteries, exclusively in the scene known as the "lesson of the three strings" where Indra explains to the Buddha the notion of the Middle Way. The modern Khmer term designating the harp is pin ពិណ; it derives from the Sanskrit word vīṇā वीणा which designated, in India, all sorts of chordophones. In Old Khmer, the harp was always called viṇā.

We are unaware of the reasons for the disappearance of this instrument in India, but it could be due to its functional constraints. Indeed, its technology—one string, one note—does not allow it to follow the inflections of the voice, unlike zithers and lutes. Contrary to India, the path chosen by most Southeast Asian countries, in line with this technological constraint of the harp, was to adopt xylophones and gong chimes, fixed-note instruments constraining musical performance to pentatonic or heptatonic melodies, while India simultaneously took the path of microtonal melodies made possible by zithers and lutes, a constraint however mitigated by the oboe whose melodic line can be modulated and imitate the voice.

Southeast Asia, a conservatory for musical practices that have disappeared in India?

The musicologist Alain Daniélou* writes: "It is difficult to determine with certainty to what extent the classical Cambodian system, based on fixed-pitch instruments, is related to one of the ancient Indian systems or represents an independent tradition. Certain melodic percussions have existed in India since time immemorial, and it seems highly probable that the system of the Gândhâra-grâma (a seven-equal-tone scale called the 'celestial scale'), already considered lost by Sanskrit authors of the classical period, refers to a melodic scale that is found today only in Indochina and Siam."

Given the elements presented concerning the harp, Southeast Asia could indeed constitute a kind of conservatory of the scalar modes of ancient India. The constraints of the equal heptatonic scale were circumvented through a search for polyphonic performance in which each instrument plays the same piece, but differently.

We have no information on the scalar system existing before the Hinduization and Buddhistization of Cambodia. However, we can posit the predominance of a pentatonic system still present among the Khmer for certain repertoires. This scalar system is dominant, even exclusive, among the forest populations of the border regions of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In Java, two scalar systems coexisting within the same orchestra are also used, one pentatonic (slendro), the other heptatonic (pelog), which could suggest a desire to preserve an ancient musical heritage (pentatonic) while adopting a new one (heptatonic) from India.

This hypothesis of a preservation of ancient musical scales in Southeast Asia, while India evolved towards more complex microtonal systems, seems corroborated by the persistent use of fixed-pitch instruments such as xylophones and gong chimes, constraining musical performance to pentatonic or heptatonic modes. Polyphony then appears as an elaborate solution to circumvent these inherent limitations of the instruments.


*English translation from : Danielou, Alain. La musique du Cambodge et du Laos. Pondichéry : Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1957.

Orchestral structures

Another marker of Indian influence on the musical culture of Southeast Asia lies in the structure of religious and palatine string orchestras. The iconography of Khmer, Cham, and central Javanese temples depicts orchestras whose structure is similar to the earliest iconographic representations from southern India. It is appropriate to focus not on the details of each instrument, but rather on their general organology (zithers, lutes, harps, drums, cymbals).

We present here a summary table based on the lists from the Lolei temple in the ancient city of Hariharalaya (Cambodia, 9th century). We have chosen this list as it is the most comprehensive we know of in Southeast Asia for ancient periods. It does not directly mention musical instruments, but rather instrumentalists. For practical reasons, we have chosen to cite only the names of the instruments. There even exists a functional hierarchy preserved to this day at the courts of Cambodia and Thailand. For various reasons (opportunities, fashion, increased sound power...), certain instruments have changed over time, but the initial Indian structure of the orchestras has been preserved. Certain less important instruments are mentioned in the list beyond the harp. Although they found continuity in the Angkorian period, they were never represented or cited. Some seem to be lutes, judging by the etymology of the terms. This is notably the case for the trisarī, which would be a three-stringed lute of Indian origin depicted in the iconography of the same period at Borobudur, Champa, and Siam.


What future for India's ancient heritage in Southeast Asia?

The major constraint of ancient Indian orchestras lay in the low sound power of chordophones. A number of them were supplanted several centuries ago by instruments originating from the Middle East, brought during Muslim conquests (Java, Malaysia, Bali, Cambodia, Siam), perhaps due to the fact that ideological revolutions require amplification. Indeed, to seize power, whether political or religious, one must make oneself heard. Before the advent of the microphone and loudspeaker, humans constructed edifices with acoustics allowing the voice to carry further. But they also chose powerful musical instruments (oboes, bagpipes, xylophones, gong chimes...) which have endured, setting aside string instruments. The gradual disappearance of royal and princely courts also led to the dissolution of string orchestras of Indian origin. Fortunately, as most chordophones can be inexpensively crafted by the poor, they persisted outside circles of power. Moreover, certain nation-states have become aware of the richness of this heritage, such as Myanmar which has preserved the saùng-gauk harp from inevitable disappearance by elevating it to a "national instrument." Reconstitution programs, like Sounds of Angkor in Cambodia, have enabled the reconstruction of all the instruments of ancient India represented in the iconography of Khmer temples. Today, all these treasures of the past benefit from electronic amplification during live performances and on the Internet for global dissemination and promotion.