The summer monsoon has been dubbed India’s true finance minister. The monsoon winds blow, blow, blow. The winds begin their journey in the cold regions. They build momentum as they seek to arrive upon the greener pastures that await them on warmer shores. The summer and winter monsoons blow their winds of change across India and most of Southeast Asia. They cause the wet and dry seasons that define the region’s agricultural bounty. The winds also carry traders who bring their goods and their cultures to these foreign shores only to return home with new wares.

Industrial output in India and Southeast Asia are heavily reliant on the sessional patterns of the summer monsoon. A significant amount of electricity in the region is produced by hydroelectric power plants, which are driven by water collected during the monsoons. This electricity then goes on to power hospitals, schools, and businesses that help the economies of these areas develop.

In the event that the summer monsoon is late or weak, the economy as a whole suffers. Fewer people can grow their own food and large agribusinesses do not have produce to sell. Governments grow increasingly reliant on imports and electricity prices see a steep hike.

The monsoon is both a life giver and a life taker. When it is too strong, it causes floods that can devastate entire regions and communities. In 2005, a strong monsoon devastated western India, killing more than 1,000 people.

Geographically, Southeast Asia is located in the monsoon belt–save for a small portion of Myanmar, which is located between the tropics. Except for equatorial latitudes, where rainfall is well distributed throughout the year, most of India and Southeast Asia are routinely affected by the monsoons. It is a force of nature that the region’s inhabitants need for both crop cultivation as well as maritime trade.

Before Indian cultural influence became widespread, Southeast Asia was home to numerous diverse indigenous cultures. Long before any era of history officially began, they had organised their societies based on irrigation–sharing the benefits and problems of those who found their destinies entwined with the monsoon.

Geographically, India and Southeast Asia share the monsoon climate and thus share a way of life based on irrigated agriculture. Apart from the Srivijaya Kingdom led by Rajendra Chola, Indian kings did not have any political ambitions or expansionist tendencies in the region. Their interest in the region was largely commercial, propelled forward by the winds of trade.

Even the geopolitical term Southeast Asia is of relatively recent origin. It became commonplace during WWII during Mountbatten’s command. Even within this region, which is now bound together by geopolitics, there are two geographical factions. The mainland which includes: Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam; as well as the peninsula states of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines and East Timor.

The vagaries of the monsoons and the physical characteristics of the land provided a challenge to people’s ingenuity and skill in creating irrigation systems as well as soil conservation. When this was envisioned and actualised, agriculture flourished. In ages of old, the relationship between agricultural prosperity and the rise of the state went hand-in-hand. On the other hand, lands that were ‘infertile’ benefited from trade due to their location.

The earliest kingdoms known to have existed in Southeast Asia were of the Malay people, who profited due to their role as middlemen and as intermediaries. Many small states came into being along the Malay Peninsula–some established by Indian explorers and others by indigenous Malays with Indian encouragement and guidance.

The two of the most notable kingdoms that arose were Langkasuka and Tambralinga. The prosperity of these kingdoms, however, was short-lived. Although strategically important for navigation and commerce, the region’s infertile soil could not sustain the needs of a large population. Larger and more prosperous kingdoms thus emerged not too far away.

The author at The Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore

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