India And The Middle East: At The Heart of the Filipino Spirit

Subtle yet profound; significant yet underlying – this is what defines the influence of Indian and Arab culture on the Philippines. It is common knowledge that the country is a melting pot of Malay, Spanish, American, and Chinese customs and traditions, but the Middle East and India have also helped shape what many Filipinos see, speak, eat, and believe in today. Beginning in pre-Hispanic times, and continuing with the influx of expatriate Arabs and Indians in the country, get to know how these 2 cultures have specifically influenced the Philippines.


Arab Culture

Source: Flickr | Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ

While a Christian-majority country, approximately 6% of the Philippine population practices Islam, with most Filipino Muslims concentrated in the Southern island of Mindanao. The Abrahamic religion was brought to the country by traders hailing from the Persian Gulf and the neighboring Malay Archipelago in the 12th and 13th centuries – an era more widely known as the Islamic Golden Age, as the region ushered in numerous scientific, scholarly, economic, theological, and literary advancements to the East and West.

In an interview with the Jordan Times, the country’s Ambassador to Jordan Junever M. Mahilum-West cites the trade and migration links between what is now the Philippines and the Arab world, long before the first Spanish armadas set foot on the archipelago.

She explains how the 9th century saw the region’s economy flourish, playing a more prominent role by using Southeast Asia as a location for multiple stopovers and trading posts until the 15th century. During this period, Arab traders would exchange various goods such as cotton cloth, rice, yarn and thread, and even opium.

Large-scale migration would also occur in Southeast Asia from the Hadramaut region, in what is now known as Southern Yemen. In the case of the Philippines, many settlers found their way towards Sulu, Cotabato, Maguindanao, Zamboanga, Davao, and Bukidnon. Due to these settlements, an estimated 2% of Filipinos today can also claim Arab ancestry. Prominent Arab-Filipino families continue to reside on the islands, spanning from Lanao to Tawi-Tawi as well.


Yet according to 20th century scholar N.M Saleeby, the first Muslim to ever come to the islands is said to be Karimul’ Makhdum, an Arab whose name came to be associated with many myths and legends in Mindanao. With the continued Arab trade and settlement, Islam would become institutionalized in the existing local sultanates. Once foreign, Arab and Islamic culture would also eventually be accepted and integrated within pre-Hispanic Philippine society, with parts of Mindanao even resisting the efforts of conquistadors to Christianize the population.

Many Arabic loanwords would also come to be used in the Filipino language, numbering about 200 today. These would either be directly influenced by Arabic, or derived from Moor or Muslim-influenced Spanish and Malay.


Among these include:

Lawa – which means lake. Rawaa is “freshwater” in Arabic.

Kuba – which means hunchback. Quba is an Arabic term which means dome, arch or curve.

Salawal – which means underwear. Translates to sarwal in Arabic.

Pantalon – which means pants. Has the equivalent of bantalon in Arabic.

Pinsan – which means cousin. Has the equivalent of ‘Al insan’ meaning descendants.



Indian Culture

In the context of Southeast Asia, the influence of Indian culture on the Philippines has often been described as peripheral, secondary compared to its neighbors Malaysia and Singapore, and even the Hindu-majority island of Bali in Indonesia.

Indeed, the country possesses no Borobudur, no Taj Mahal or intact Sanskrit documents, but the impact ancient India has had on the Filipinos goes beyond the materially obvious. From food, to faith, and even dance, one can notice subtler hints – many of which occupy a significant place in the national identity.

But how exactly did Indian culture set foot in the Philippines? Prior to the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, evidence has been found of early Indic influence in the country – particularly on the southern and central islands of Mindanao and the Visayas. Gradually, this spread even to the northernmost islands of Luzon, where present-day Manila is situated.

The next significant point of contact was during the two nations’ colonial-era history. As the Seven Years’ War between Europe’s great powers spilled over to Asia, this conflict eventually pitted the British Empire against the Spanish crown, culminating in Britain’s brief occupation of Manila from 1762 to 1764. The occupational force brought with them a contingent of over 600 sepoys, Indian infantrymen employed by the British East India Company, and nearly 1,400 laborers.

Considered as menial workers by their British superiors, they were ill-paid, ill-clothed, and ill-treated: with some even choosing to stay despite the end of the Seven Years’ War, and the British force’s eventual withdrawal from the country.

A significant number of them would settle down in the town of Cainta, where a large part of the population are descendants of the Sepoys.


Throughout these waves of Indian settlements, the native vocabulary would be influenced. Today, words of Indian (mostly Sanskrit) origin can be found throughout the Filipino language, particularly in many important moral, psychological, and spiritual concepts.


These include:

Bathala – which means “Supreme Being” in Tagalog and other languages. Bhattara is “noble lord, lord, great lord” in Sanskrit.



Diwa – which means “soul” in Tagalog, Visayan, and Ilocano. Jiva is “living, alive, existing” in Sanskrit.

Sampalataya – which means “to have faith, trust, or belief in God” in Tagalog. The Sanskrit equivalent is “sampratyaya”.

Hari – which means “king” in various Philippine languages.  Hari is the name of the king of the gods in Hinduism.

Maharlika – which means a “a freeman, person of wealth, or a non-slave” in Tagalog. Maharddhika means “rich” or “a person with great talent or knowledge” in Sanskrit.


Si – A Tagalog honorific placed before names of persons (ex. Si Catherine). Sri is the equivalent Sanskrit term, which may also mean “lord”.


Another interestingly Indian-influenced tradition is the Muslim dance of singkil. While mainly performed by the Maranao and Maguindanao ethnic groups, the dance is said to be based on the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, which became a major influence on these groups’ major literary works.

For instance, the Maranao epic Darangen has a half-monkey character named Laksamana, replacing the Ramayana’s central character Hanuman.

On the other hand, deities named devatas are also present throughout the Indian epic, replaced in the Darangen by similar-sounding creatures named diwatas – a type of spirit in Philippine mythology, and more loosely used today to refer to other supernatural beings such as ‘elves’ and ‘fairies’.


While Indian culture has made an impact on the country’s vocabulary and performance art, it has also notably influenced the structure of Baybayin – an ancient script written by natives long before Roman letters came into use. The script likely originated in South Celebes in east Indonesia, a place which fell within the rule of Madjapahit, a powerful Southeast Asian Hindu empire that once stretched from southern Thailand to New Guinea.

A few Filipino culinary traditions also possess some subtle Indian influences. One of these is vinegar. Known as suka in Filipino, its equivalent Sanskrit term is ashoka, proving the ingredient’s longstanding use before the arrival of the Spaniards.

Yet one dish seems more Indian-ized than anything else. The famous kare-kare, a stew made of peanut sauce, vegetables, and various meats has a roughly similar appearance to the Indian curry. Pre-colonial records claim that kare-kare traces its origins back to the Southern Philippines, where the elite classes of the Hindu and Muslim-influenced Moro people brought the dish to the rest of the archipelago.

Still, it is also often theorized that kare-kare was brought to the Philippines in the 17th century by the sepoys of the British Empire. Even back then, curry had already been a beloved dish among the British colonizers – who lamented the lack of locally available ingredients during their brief rule of the Philippines. Given this, their Indian cooks had to find suitable alternatives at the local markets, using everything from crushed peanuts to annatto seeds to color and flavor their stews. This was then dubbed “kari-kaari” by its creators, which eventually evolved into the popular kare-kare.

While not overt in terms of impact, India and the Middle East have influenced the way many Filipinos think, pray, work, and even eat. Indeed, both cultures deserve to be examined further, both academically and personally – as it is necessary for Filipinos to be better informed about their heritage.




Philippine Statistics Authority

National Commission for Culture and the Arts

The Jordan Times

The Jordan Times

West Asian Communities in the Philippines: an Exploratory Study of

Migrant Iranians, Jews, Arabs, and Turkish

UCLA Language Materials Project

Arabic and Persian Loanwords in Tagalog

The Indian Community in the Philippines: A Profile

Indian Penetration of Pre-Spanish Philippines: A New Look At the Evidence

Splendid Table