Philippines got its name in 1544, after a Spanish explorer, Ruy López de Villalobos, decided to name the archipelago after the prince of Spain, Philip II. This prompted Filipino politicians viz. Eddie Ilarde, Marcos and most recently Rodrigo Duterte, President of Philippines, who on Feb-11, 2019 triggered a proposal to rename Philippines as the “Republic of Maharlika”. The term “Maharlika” is rooted in the Sanskrit word “maharddhika” (महर्द्धिक), a title meaning “man of wealth, knowledge, or ability”. Contrary to modern definitions, it did not refer to the ruling class, but rather to a warrior class of the Tagalog people (equivalent to Indian Kshatriyas).

Indian cultural influence during pre-colonial Philippines:

The influence of Indian culture on the Philippines intensified through the sea route from the 2nd (or perhaps even before though this area requires further research) through the late 14th centuries CE. Ancient polities in Philippines were highly influenced by the Hindu-Buddhist religions, language, culture, literature, and philosophy through much trade campaigns from India including the famous South-East Asia military campaign of Rajendra Chola. Ancient India’s maritime prowess was well known and in fact the ancient Indian kings like Samudragupt and others had their own well-defined navy which helped them to extend their reach and influence over the various islands in South and South-East Asia. In fact ancient Indian sea expeditions have covered far East including Japan.

Indian cultural extent
Dark orange: The Indian subcontinent (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka)
Light orange: Southeast Asia culturally linked to India, notably Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia (except Western New Guinea), Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Singapore, Southern Vietnam (Champa) and Thailand
Yellow: Regions with significant Indian cultural influence, notably the Philippines, Tibet, Yunnan and historically eastern Afghanistan
(Photo credit:

Like Vietnam, it is very difficult to find the influence of India from ancient times on Philippines in current scenario. Despite this, little research in various aspects of life, including folk, language, archaeological evidence from centuries ago and accounts of various international travelers does indicate very clearly that pre-colonial Philippines had direct or indirect contact with India. Referring some of those sources and already established facts, we will review the teasers of Indian imprints in various walks of life during pre-colonial Philippines.

Impact on folk, language & literature

Major epics and folk literature of Philippines show common themes, plots, climax and ideas expressed in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. According to Filipino Indologists Juan R. Francisco and Josephine Acosta Pasricha, Hindu influences and folklore arrived in Philippines by about 9th to 10th century AD. Juan R. Francisco has also translated The “Maharadia Lawana (or “Maharaja Rāvaṇa) which is a Marana epic. The Maranao is a southern tribe in Philippine island of Mindanao. The epic is a local version of the Indian epic Ramayana.

Filipino anthropologist Felipe Landa Jocano has listed the various streams of the evidence indicating the Indian influence in pre-colonial Philippines which he quoted as: “Syllabic writing; artifacts in the form of different figurines made of clay, gold, and bronze that were dug in various sites in the Philippines; and 336 loanwords identified by Professor Francisco to be Sanskrit in origin, with 150 of them identified as the origin of some major Philippine terms.”

Brahmi based Babyabyin language was used in Philippines during pre-Spanish era. Oldest Philippine document found so far is the Laguna Copperlate Inscription, from 900 AD. From the various Sanskrit terms and titles seen in the document, the culture and society of Manila Bay was that of a Hindu-Old Malay amalgamation, similar to the cultures of Java, Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra at the time. Another gold artifact with an image of Garuda, Hindu God Vishnu’s mount was found from the Tabon Caves in Philippines.

The Laguna Copperplate Inscription (above) found in 1989 suggests Indian cultural influence in the Philippines by late 9th century AD

Even today, one could notice the linguistic influence of Sanskrit and Tamil in Tagalog and other Philippine languages. Here are some of those words in Philippine language which are loaned from Sanskrit and Tamil:

Philippine languageWordIndian languageWordEnglish
TagalogPutoTamilPuttuRice pastry
KapampanganDamlaSanskritDharmaDivine law
KapampanganMantalaSanskritMantraMagic formula

There are many words where the sound of “R” in Sanskrit pronunciation is being replaced by the sound of “L” in Filipino pronunciation. This is the same as what we could find today in Japanese language where, for example: “Love” is being pronounced as “Rabu” or “Lottery” or “Rottery”.

  • Flowers and their Sanskrit names introduced to Philippines by Indian traders during the ancient times include Sampaguita and Champaka
  • Fruits and their Sanskrit names introduced to Philippines by Indian traders during the ancient times include Mango, Nangka (Jackfruit) and Sirisa
  • Vegetables and their Sanskrit names introduced to Philippines by  Indian traders during the ancient times include Ampalaya, Patola and Malunggay

Spaniards encountered many Filipino customs which appear to be of the Indian origin, like their mode of salutation, eating in silence, offering sacrifice before major construction work, having a devotional area in the home for family worship before a religious image, as described by Pedro Chirino (Spanish priest & historian) in great details.

Traditional martial arts of the Philippines which is based on weapon-based (sticks, knives, bladed weapons, and various improvised weapons) fighting, as well as “open hand” techniques without weapons is known as “Kali”. Most likely, Kali derives from the pre-Hispanic Filipino term for blades as many historians have also discussed about Indian influence over this ancient martial art.

Archaeological reminiscence

The Spaniards destroyed hundreds of Idols while converting the Philippines to Christianity and even after decades of fully Christianizing the country, Spanish priests were still ferreting out idols hidden by secret practitioners. In fact, even till 1773, a church synod in Pangasinan discussed means of putting a stop to the secret practice of ceremonies of the old religion. Due to this, there is a limited archaeological evidence of religious statutory. Here are some of those archaeological records that could survive and could be un-earthed recently (there may still be many more to be excavated):

1. Agusan or Golden Tara – a 2 kg, 21-karat gold statuette found in Philippines dating to the 9th–10th centuries. H, Otley Beyer (American anthropologist, who spent most of his life in the Philippines teaching Philippine’s indigenous culture) believed that the image was that of a Hindu Sivaite goddess. It is now on display in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. It is worth mentioning that the Rajahnate of Butuan (and so does Rajhanate of Cebu), in present-day Agusan del Norte and Butuan City, used Hinduism as its main religion along with indigenous Lumad nature-worships. 

2. Avalokitesvara icon: excavated by Professor Beyer in Mactan. It was a bronze statue which is being identified as a Buddhist form of Lord Shiva (typical case as identified in Japan and other East Asian countries with a mix of Hindu-Buddhist Gods)

3. Mactan Ganesh: A copper statue of a Hindu Deity, Shi Ganesha, has been found from the same site in Mactan, from where Avlokitesvara icon was found. Again, like Japan where Shri Ganesh has been localized as “Kangiten”, this copper statue also indicates a localized form of Shri Ganesh in Philippine. Unfortunately, these icons were destroyed during World War II. However, black, and white photographs of these icons survive.

4. Bronze Lokesvara (Lord of the world): was found in Isla Putting Bato, Tondo, Manila.

5. Puerto Galera Ganesha: is pictured without details in E.P. Patanne’s book: The Philippines in the 6th to 16th Centuries.

Photo credit: Jacob Walse-Dominguez

6. Golden Garuda Pendant: This was a family heirloom, purchased from a family in Brookes Point (Palawan) and now at the National Museum of the Philippines as cited by Juan R Francisco in “Reflexions on the Migration Theory Vis-a-vis the Coming of Indian Influences in the Philippines,” Asian Studies, Vol. IX, No. 3 (December 1971), p. 312.

7. Professor Beyer stated that there were minor finds of coins, pottery, etc. with the Mactan images which were relics from the days of Majapahit (Hindu kingdom). Lingas were found in Pinagbayanan, and there are also the possible cases of Linga and yoni from Magsingal, llocos Sur. Recent excavations on the eastern shores of Laguna de Bay have allegedly revealed evidence of cremations (Indian practice of burning their dead).

8. Sri Yantra, a complex sacred geometry used for worship, devotion, and meditation, meaning ‘instrument’ in Sanskrit was found in Butuan which has small Hindu kingdom as per Chinese chronicles.

Moreover, the belief structure was amazingly persistent, despite the introduction of Christianity. Even today, Mt. Banahaw is re­garded as a sacred mountain, the object of annual pilgrimages by numerous religious sects, some of which retain elements apparently attributable to practices and traditions preserved from the early beliefs. The concept of a mountain as sacred, the dwelling place of the gods, is itself a Hindu belief, observable today not only in Balinese cos­mology but also in an annual pilgrimage up Mt. Bromo in East Java. The same pilgrimage tradition, incidentally, is said to be associated with Cuyo, Palawan, where three little mountains dominate a plateau. Gold ornaments and numerous porcelain objects were also reportedly discovered there after rains as mentioned by Alfred Marche, Luzon and Palawan, p. 218.

Indian influence was very profound in pre-colonial period as reflected from the testimony of Francisco de Sande (3rd Spanish governor and captain-general of the Philippines), Relation and Description of the Phelipenas Islands (1577), where he referred to native Filipinos as Indians:

The Indians of this country are not simple or foolish, nor are they frightened by anything whatever. They can be dealt with only by the arquebuse, or by gifts of gold or silver…They kill the Spaniards so boldly, that without arquebuses we could do nothing.”

The only eyewitness account of the battle of Mactan by chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, also referred Lapulapu’s man as “Indian” while telling how Magellan was stabbed in the face and the arm with spears: “An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain’s face”.

Politics & conquest:

Ancient India was the world’s largest ship builder and there was massive trade activity between Indian mainland and other South East islands (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, New Guinea, etc) during various ancient Indian regimes viz.  Guptas, Satvahans, Pallavs and further consolidated by Chola empire. Eventually, Indian culture spread to Southeast Asia and the Philippines which led to the establishment of Indianized kingdoms. Islands of Southeast Asia, especially the Indonesian Archipelago and the Philippine Archipelago were often referred as “East Indies” by Europeans where the name “Indies” is used to connote parts of Asia that came under the Indian cultural sphere. All these island kingdoms were highly Indianized for the fact that the marriage ceremony (also a national epic) of one of the greatest Indonesian king Airlangga (1016-49) is known as Arjuna Vivah even today. One of his successors about 200 years later, King Kertanegara established his supremacy on various Malay & Indonesian islands and had established alliance with the kind of Champa (Vietnam). His son-in-law, Raden Wijaya (also known as NararyaSangramawijaya & Kertarajasa Jayawardhana, reigned 1293–1309) crushed the Mongol led Chinese navy and established Majapahit empire.

The Majapahit Empire was a Javanese Hindu empire in Southeast Asia, based on the island of Java during 13thcentury to 15th century. Majapahit was an empire of 98 tributaries, stretching from Sumatra to New Guinea: consisting of present-day Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand, East Timor, Sulu Archipelago, and other parts of the Philippines. During the 1300s, the Javanese-centered Hindu empire of Majapahit briefly ruled over Luzon island and the Sulu Archipelago as recorded in the epic poem Nagarakretagama, which stated that they had colonies in the Philippines at Saludong (Manila) and Solot (Sulu). It even incorporated the Butuan and Cebu Rajahanates’ Bornean ally, Kutai. Current kings of Yogyakarta (in Java) identify themselves as descendants of Majapahit empire.

In the year 1025, the kings of Java and Angkor (Cambodia) invited Shri Rajendra Chola to defeat Shrivijay. After a successful campaign against Shrivijay, Rajendra Chola returned to his native land while the islands of Indonesia and Philippines were continued to be ruled by multiple Chola kings with smaller territories. This continued until Spanish invasion of Philippines during 16th century.

As per historical records, there were at least three Hindu kings in Philippines until 1521: Raja Humabon of Cebu, Shri Lapulapu of Mactan and Rajah Siagu of Butuan (Southern Philippines). Other Hindu kings were Raja Avirjirkaya (referred as”Majapahit Suzerain”), who once ruled Maynila (now known as Manila), a pre-colonial Indianized Tagalog polity. Maynilà comes from the Tagalog phrase may-nilà, which translates to “where indigo is found”. Nilà is derived from the Sanskrit word nīla which refers to Indigo. The Maynilà name is more likely about the presence of indigo-yielding plants growing in the area. Another Tagalog polity Tondo was ruled by “Lakan” who were Maharlikas (or Kshatriyas).

Raja Humabon (Sri Hamabar) of Cebu: Rajah Humabon was the son of Sri Bantug, and the grandson of Sri Lumay (Rajamuda Lumaya). Sri Lumay was a minor prince of the Hindu Chola dynasty which happened to occupy Sumatra-Indonesia and got settled in the Visayas (part of Philippines which got its name from “Sri-Viajyans”). Sri Lumay was known for his bravery and being a strict ruler who have successfully repelled attacks from the raiders from Mindanao (southern part of Philippines). Due to the strategic position, his territory has become a critical part for trade route and the trade with various countries was flourished during the subsequent rules by Sri Bantug and Raja Humabon. In fact, the word “Cebu” was coined from the old word “sibo” which means trade. Talking about names, Cebu’s ancient capital was named as Singhapala (Mabolo district today). The name Singhapaha comes from Sanskrit word via Tamil Singam (சிங்கம்) which become Singa (Lion) in Old Malay,  and Puram (புரம்) (City) become Pura in Old Malay and then Pala in Philippine languages. Singa-Puram or Singapura literally means “Lion city”, the same root name of the country of Singapore. According to historical accounts, Rajah Humabon was among the first indigenous who converted to Catholicism and was baptized as Don Carlos to form an alliance with Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan. This religious conversion was not based on any spiritual connect but rather was triggered due to political reasons. Since Rajah Humabon wanted Magellan’s help to defeat his rival King Lapulapu, he converted and formed blood compact with Magellan.

The monument in an honor of Rajah Humabon

Butuan & Rajah Siagu: Chinese chronicles from Song dynasty records Butuan as a small Hindu country with regular trade connection with Champa. It was known for its mining of gold, its gold products, and its extensive trade network. Spanish chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, mentioned in his records that gold was so abundant in Butuan  that even houses were decorated with gold. Rajah Siagu was also a cousin of Rajah Humabon of the Cebu. Hindu kings of Cebu & Butuan had an alliance with Hindu Bornean neighbor, Kutai to repel Islamic invasion from Brunei. Rajah Siagu also decided to convert and formed a blood compact with Magellan, in alliance with Raja Humabon.

Shri Lapulapu, King of Mactan: Also known as Si Lapulapu, Salip Pulaka, and Lapulapu Dimantag, was a ruler of Mactan and was a rival of Rajah Humabon of neighboring Indianized Cebu. Modern Philippine society regards him as the first Filipino hero because he was the first native to resist imperial Spanish colonization. He is best known for the Battle of Mactan that was fought at dawn on April 27, 1521, where he and his soldiers defeated Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who was killed in battle. Magellan’s death ended his voyage of circumnavigation and delayed the Spanish occupation of the islands by over forty years until the expedition of Miguel López de Legazpi in 1565. Monuments of Lapulapu have been built in Cebu and Manila, while the Philippine National Police and the Bureau of Fire Protection use his image as part of their official seals.

Sri Lapulapu
(Photo courtesy: Nmcast at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Some accounts indicate that Lapulapu was adopted by Kusgano Mangal, Rajah of Opong and Lapulapu’s niece was married to Raja Humabon but after some time the relationship between the two deteriorated. While some of the accounts indicate that he was the son of Sri Bantug and his second wife Princess Bauga. 

Battle of Mactan (April 27, 1521): When Raja Humabon formed an alliance with Magellan after getting baptized, an order was issued to nearby Chiefs to provide food supplies and convert to Christianity. While most of the Chiefs surrendered, Lapulapu refused to accept the order. Raja Humabon then suggested Magellan to go to the Mactan and force Lapulapu to become a Christian.

Magellan’s troops though small in numbers, had huge advantage of having modern weapons and shields compared to Lapulapu’s native army. However, rocky outcroppings and coral near the beach, forced the Spanish soldiers to anchor their ships far from the shore. Due to this, Magellan could not bring his ships’ cannons to bear on Lapulapu’s warriors.

When Magellan’s force landed on Mactan after walking into water up to their thighs, there were attacked by a range of weapons including poisoned arrows, iron-tipped bamboo spears, fire-hardened sticks, and even stones. The Spanish musketeers and crossbowmen on the boat tried to provide support by firing from the boats but the barrage had little effect, as they were firing from afar and the natives could easily avoid them. Due to the distance, Magellan could not command them to stop and save their ammunition, and the musketeers and crossbowmen continued firing for half an hour until their ammunition was exhausted. Magellan’s men burned some of the native houses to scare them, but this only angered Lalpulapu’s men who in turn killed Magellan and his men with spears and swords. This battle is known for Shri Lapulapu’s wisdom who judiciously who stopped his man from attacking Magellan until Magellan was under firing range by his musketeers. Once Magellan was caught away from his musketeer’s firing range, Sri Lapulapu’s man went ahead with full blown attack, achieving decisive victory.

Sri Lapulapu defeating Magellan
(Image Source:

After the death of Magellan at the Battle of Mactan and the consequent failure of the Spanish to defeat Lapulapu, Humabon and his warriors plotted to poison the remaining Spanish soldiers in Cebu during a feast. According to the chronicler Pigafetta, Enrique (Magellan’s slave) had revealed to Humabon that the Europeans planned to take over his kingdom, following which he eliminated Magellan’s crew.

As per the translation of folk epic “Aginid” by Jovito Abellana, in the succeeding years, Humabon and Lapulapu rekindled their friendship and Lapulapu returned to Borneo. After Humabon, Sri Tupas reigned. He was the son of Sri Parang- Humabons’ elder brother who could not rule because he was limp. During the time of Tupas, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi came to Cebu in 1565, and another era of fierce battle ensued. With Legazpi at the helm, Cebu and the entire archipelago was subdued by the Spanish crown for more than three hundred years, in the name of Christianity.

Observing all of this from Japan, Samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi became suspicious of Jesuit motives when he saw the Spanish invasion of the Philippines. He got disgusted with missionary activities and conversion in Japan and expelled the Jesuits from Japan in 1587. By 1614, his successor Samurai Tokugawa Ieyasu banned Christianity entirely noting that they were corrupting morals (meat eating by missionaries was considered sinful by Japanese Samurais) and creating political division. This explains as to why Japan did not meet with the same fate as that of Philippines.

There were some claims by the inhabitants of Sulu island suggesting Lapulapu was a Muslim. However, all the available evidence suggests otherwise. Some of them are:

  1. Prominent Cebuano anthropologist Jose Eleazar Bersales disputes this claim, based on the findings from an excavation in southern Cebu, that clearly indicate that Cebu was never Islamized.
  2. Sugbuanon epic and accounts by various travelers identify the founder of the Rajahnate of Cebu as Sri Lumay, who was the grandfather of Rajah Humabon, and a prince of the Indianized Chola dynasty.
  3. Various accounts mention that Lapulapu got his niece married to Humabon and he received an island from Humabon to rule. In fact, Lapulapu returned to Borneo after the battle of Mactan. This indicates that both Humabon &Lapulapu were related to Chola dynasty who was also ruling Borneo besides several other South East Asian islands.
  4. It is undoubtedly established from Spanish records as well as from that of other European travelers that the Cebuanos were predominantly animist or Indianized (like the contemporary Kingdom of Butuan) on the arrival of the Spanish
  5. Spanish records also mention about “Pintados” (meaning painted), word they used for tattooed man in Cebu. Given that tattooing is forbidden in Islam, it is another indication that Cebu was not Islamized during the era of Lapulapu.
  6. “Bathala” has been recorded as the supreme god of the religion of the Visayans by the contemporary historians including Jesuit historian Pedro Chirino in 1604. Bathala has been derived from Sanskrit, which came from Hindu kingdom of Majapahit.
  7. Antonio Pigafetta (from Magellan’s expedition) has quoted during the mass baptism (1525) of the Cebuanos, “We set up the cross there for those people were heathen. Had they been Moros, we would have erected a column there as a token of greater hardness, for the Moros are much harder to convert than the heathen.” Here “Moros” is referred for the Muslims and “Heathen” is often referred for Indianized or native tribes/cultures.
  8. In fact, the Visayans were known for their resistance to conversion to Islam in the epic poem Diyandi of the Aginid chronicle. The capital city of the island being named as “Sugbo” (blaze or burning the whole settlement to prevent from looting), which is a method being used by the natives against Moro raiders from Mindano (southern Philippines).
  9. Earliest record of his name comes from Italian diarist Antonio Pigafetta who mentions “Çilapulapu“. Later Filipino revolutionary & National Hero Dr Jose Rizal spells this name as “Si Lapulapu”. The honorific “Si” was derived from a Sanskrit title “Sri“.
  10. The title Salip (and its variants SarripadaSipadPadukaSeri Paduka, and Salipada, etc.) is frequently used as an honorific for Lapulapu and other Visayan datus (leaders). Despite common misconception, it is not derived from the Islamic title Khalīfah (Caliph). It was derived from the Sanskrit title Sri Paduka, denoting “His Highness”. The title is still used today in Malaysia as Seri Paduka.

LakanDula (Lakan means Raja), Rajah Matanda and Rajah Sulayman, were the three rajahs who played significant roles in the Spanish conquest during the earliest days of the Philippines’ Spanish colonial period. The Philippines was never profitable as a colony during Spanish rule and numerous internal & external conflicts contributed to the increasing difficulty of governing the Philippines. The Royal Fiscal of Manila wrote a letter to King Charles III of Spain in which he advises to abandon the colony, but the religious orders opposed this since they considered the Philippines a launching pad for the conversion of the Far East.


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Ocampo, Ambeth R. (August 30, 2011). “Piloncitos’ and the Philippine golden age“, Philippine Daily Inquirer. 

The Kingdom of Butuan“. Philippine Gold: Treasures of Lost Kingdoms.

Baumgartner, Joseph (March 1975). “Manila — Maynilad or Maynila?“. Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society. 3 (1): 52–54. JSTOR 29791188.

Chamberlain, Alexander F. (1901). “Philippine Studies: V. The Origin of the Name Manila“. The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal. 23 (5): 33.

Lourdes Rausa-Gomez. “Sri Yijava and Madjapahit

Jocano, F. Landa (2001). Filipino Prehistory: Rediscovering Precolonial Heritage. Quezon City: Punlad Research House, Inc. ISBN 971-622-006-5.

Blair, Emma (1906). “The Philippine Islands“, 1493–1898 Vol. 4. Arthur H. Clark Company.

“The Death of Magellan, 1521″. Eyewitness to P. Patanñe (1996). The Philippines in the 6th to 16th Centuries. LSA Press, Inc. p. 175.

William Henry Scott (1994). Barangay: sixteenth-century Philippine culture and society. Ateneo de Manila University Press. ISBN 9789715501354.

 H. Otley Beyer, Pre-Hispanic Philippines&Alfred Marche, Luzon and Palawan, p. 218.

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