From the time when Southeast Asia first rose above their horizon, Europeans—the infinitesimal number of them who cared about such matters, that is—tended to treat that vague and insubstantial region beneath the sunrise as simply a more distant part of India. This practice went back at least to Claudius Ptolemy or, possibly, one of his redactors, who subsumed a good part of the region under the rubric “Trans-Gangetic India.” Subsequently the whole area came to be identified with one of the “Three Indies,” though whether India Major or Minor, Greater or Lesser, Superior or Inferior, seems, often to have been a personal preference of the author concerned. When Europeans began to penetrate into Southeast Asia in earnest, they continued this tradition, attaching to various of the constituent territories such labels as Further India or Hinterindien, the East Indies, the Indian Archipelago, Insulinde, and, in acknowledgment of the presence of a competing culture, Indochina. As recently as 1884, a German ethnographer saw nothing incongruous in designating the archipelago as “the Indian Islands,” a term that with the cultural predilection of his age, he Hellenized as Indonesia. Although the powerful and pervasive influence of the “most divine and wise Ptolemy” furnished impeccable authority for this nomenclature in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there is no doubt that the practice also signified the recognition of South Asian cultural forms and institutions in the lands beyond the Bay of Bengal. Despite these forms differing subtly—and sometimes not so subtly—from those in India proper, they were so conspicuous that it was readily inferred, given the intellectual predisposition of the day, that they were the result of Indian colonization, if not conquest, in ancient times.

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