Hindus attend prayers at a temple during the festival of Galungan and Kuningan in Bali. The strongly localised culture of South-east Asia’s 600 million people preserves a cherished religious diversity.
YEARS ago, while among a throng of foreign tourists milling around a Balinese temple, I watched a sari-clad Indian standing before me.
She wanted to pray in the temple’s inner sanctum, although it apparently was off-limits to non-locals. A guard blocked her way. “I am Hindu,” she said gently. “You not Hindu,” he replied without rancour. “You Indian.” Although Hinduism had come from India, to him Hinduism meant Balinese Hinduism.
The guard registered an essential point about the identity of South-east Asia: It is distinctive because of its intensely local character.
True, South-east Asia lies south of China and east of India. Visualised historically as the “Nanyang” in the Chinese mind and as “Suvarnabhumi” in the Indian worldview, it formed the crossroads of Sinic and Indic civilisations. But the crossroads developed its own character, an inclusive one that produced syncretistic and eclectic national cultures from Thailand and Indonesia to Singapore and Vietnam.