The Rise and Fall of the Forgotten Empire

Since the Bronze Age, the state or empire with the most defined territories and the greatest military prowess makes the decisions. This has been the method of survival of empires for countless generations. However, unlike other contemporary empires, the Hindu-Buddhist empire of Srivijaya did not have clearly defined territories, many cities or big armies. At least on paper, Srivijaya probably should not have thrived, but this unlikely empire lasted nearly 700 years and its impact has extended itself through time as well as through geography. At its height, Srivijaya ruled South East Asia and controlled the strategic Malacca Straits which became a center point on the India-China trade route and most of the trade in the area.

Ganesha Pagaralam Palembang.jpg
A Ganesha statue in Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum Palembang. The statue was discovered in Pagaralam site, Jalan Mayor Ruslan, Palembang, South Sumatra. Located around 500 meters north of Angsoko temple ruin. The statue 175 cm tall and 110 cm wide was estimated originated from 9th century.

Surprisingly, even with its reported riches and long history, Srivijaya was, for a long time, largely forgotten. Although Palembang, the capital of Srivijaya became a part of Indonesia, even the modern Indonesian people never heard of the empire until the first hint of its existence was alluded to by French scholar George Coedes who published his findings in Dutch newspapers in 1918, based on inscriptions found in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. It was not until 1992 that another French scholar, Pierre-Yves Manguin, pin-pointed the center of Srivijaya as the Musi River, between Bukit Seguntang and Sabokingking in South Sumatra.

Today, despite their initial unawareness of the existence of the empire, Indonesia claimed Srivijaya as a source of pride and proof of its past glory. However, Indonesia is not the only country claiming the legacy of Srivijaya as their own. The people of southern Thailand recreated the dances named Sevichai (Sriwijaya) based on the art and culture of the ancient empire.

Avalokiteshvara head Aceh Srivijaya 1.JPG
The stone head of Avalokiteshvara Boddhisattva, discovered in Aceh. The Amitabha Buddha is adorned his crown. Srivijayan art, estimated 9th century CE.

The influence of the empire also reached the Philippines by the 10th century CE through the discovery of golden Tara statue in Agusan del Sur and the golden Kinnara from Butuan, Northeastern Mindanao.

After having been forgotten for a long time, there seems to be some disagreement on the kind of ruling system had by Srivijaya. Despite the modern Southeast Asian tendency to refer to Srivijaya as a “kingdom”, this is not technically correct, as a kingdom is defined as one country that is ruled by a monarch. An empire is composed of many smaller kingdoms working together and is ruled by an emperor or a Maharajah (“great king”) – this points to Srivijaya being an empire. However, becoming an empire without a powerful army is traditionally viewed as inconceivable. Therefore, as Srivijaya largely ruled through prestige, there is little basis to compare it to other empires which achieved their positions from warfare and power.

Taman Purbakala Kerajaan Sriwijaya - Pulau Cempaka.jpg
Pulau Cempaka, an artificial island measured 40 x 40 metres in the center of a square pond. Srivijaya Archaeological Park, Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia.

thalassocracy (“rule of the sea”) may be the most precise definition of Srivijaya’s rule. A thalassocracy is a state with primarily maritime realms— an empire at sea (such as the Phoenician network of merchant cities) or a seaborne empire. Traditional thalassocracies seldom dominate interiors, even in their home territories such as the Phoenician Tyre, Sidon and Carthage or Srivijaya. One can distinguish this traditional sense of thalassocracy from an “empire”, where the state’s territories, though sometimes linked by the sea lanes, generally extend into the mainlands.

Srivijaya was a maritime trading empire ruled by Maharajahs. It was based around trade, with datu (local kings or community leaders) swearing allegiance to the central lord, or Maharajah, for mutual profits. Srivijaya’s area of influence included Jambi, to the north the kingdoms of the Malay Peninsula such as Chitu, Pan-pan, Langkasuka and Kataha, as well as eastwards to Java, where they are linked to the Sailendra dynasty— the dynasty responsible for the construction of Borobudur between 780-825 CE.

At the beginning the Common Era, Chinese and Indian traders converged in the Gulf of Thailand at Funan’s port city of Vyadhapura to do business. However, with the fragmentation of Rome combined with civil wars in China, demand dropped dramatically and the kingdom of Funan languished. In the 6th and 7th century CE, trade began to flourish again with the reunification of China under the Tang dynasty.

In terms of trade, the Western market was weakened due to wars in and around the Mediterranean. In this period, Rome was collapsing and had yet to be replaced by anything comparable. On the other hand, the Chinese market was expanding due to a flourishing economy— a result of peace and internal consolidation that occurred during the Tang dynasty. Sensitive to the possibilities that this new development entailed, the traders from the East Indies became interested in capturing the growing Chinese market and reviving the trade with China. When trade with China began to accelerate, instead of returning the Chinese commerce to the Gulf of Thailand, exchange of goods between East and West was rerouted from Funan to Palembang, a port city on the Straits of Malacca.

A very probable cause of this new route was the business sense of the Austronesian sailors from the Southeast Asians islands. Recognizing China as a big customer and attempting to capture exclusive trade rights, the port of Palembang in Sumatra pledged obeisance to China as a vassal state, meaning that they were willing to treat foreign trade with China as tribute, and the goods they received in exchange were merely considered imperial presents. This way, the Srivijaya Empire became a part of the Chinese Empire in terms of the organization. By stroking the Chinese imperial ego, the Palembang traders were able to dominate the Chinese market, and by becoming a part of China, the traders were free to sail into Chinese ports with foreign goods to supply the Chinese appetite. Recognizing the opportunities that their position provided, the traders also purchased Chinese goods for resale in their ports to Indian merchants to satisfy the Indian appetite.

Avalokiteçvara, Malayu Srivijaya style.jpg
The graceful gold coated bronze statue of four handed Avalokiteçvara in Malayu-Srivijayan style c. 11th century, discovered at Rataukapastuo, Muarabulian, Indonesia

As the Indian merchants brought Hinduism and Buddhism with them, Palembang also became an important religious center and an important port for the spread of religious ideas between India and China. Recognizing the need to expand their market, Srivijaya also promoted itself as a commanding cultural center in which ideas from all over Buddhist Asia circulated and were redistributed as far as away Vietnam, Tibet, and Japan. As early as the 7th century Chinese and Indian devotees visited Palembang to study and copy manuscripts in institutions rivaling those in India. Due to the importance of Palembang as a cultural and trade center, wealth began to accumulate until Palembang eventually fully supplanted Vyadhapura of Funan as the new center point between China and India. The traders of Palembang began to control the Straits of Malacca. With the control of the Straits of Malacca, all trade between the East and West was channeled exclusively through their hands.

Dominating the Malacca and Sunda straits, Srivijaya remained a formidable sea power until the thirteenth century. Their methods of achieving and sustaining power would not have been out of place as a modern business strategy. After gaining monopoly of the Chinese trade, Srivijaya mobilized the policing capabilities of small communities of orang laut (“sea people” or seafarers), providing facilities and protection for traders in exchange for low tax rates.

Realizing that they only had a limited army and unlikely to be able to intimidate and rule over other empires by force, Srivijaya based their empire on positive reinforcement—that is, through cultivation of business contacts (mainly India and China) rather than domination by military prowess. This was a big difference between the ancient Southeast Asian politics and the rest of the world. However, it was not due to an extremely peaceful and enlightened empire. It had more to do with the geography of the region as military domination of the sea would have been extremely difficult at this time. In these island kingdoms, there was no equivalent to the military technology of bronze, chariot and horse which could allow the complete domination of one culture by another in the land-based cultures. Therefore, military domination was impossible and the cultures benefited more by relying upon cooperation and bribery.

The fluidity of Srivijaya’s territory also served them well in this setting. Srivijaya empire was defined by its capitol, or center, rather than its geographical boundaries. Palembang was Srivijaya’s capitol at the beginning. However, the attack and conquest of the Chola Empire in c. 1000 CE did not spell the end of Srivijaya. They simply moved their capital elsewhere and continued for another 300 years. Similarly, when the people from the Central Asian steppes attacked and defeated the Chou dynasty of China in their own capital, Srivijaya simply moved their capital south across the Yangtze River to get away and continued on for another 300 years.  

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Kedukan Bukit inscription (7th century, Srivijaya, Palembang), displayed in “Kedatuan Sriwijaya” exhibition in November 2017. 

By the early eleventh century, Srivijaya had been weakened by a devastating defeat in 1025 at the hands of the Chola, a South Indian maritime power. Chola launched an attack on Srivijaya and systematically plundered the Srivijayan ports along the Straits of Malacca. The reasons for this change in the relationship between Srivijaya and the Cholas are unknown, although there are theories that plunder made up an essential part of the Chola political economy. Although it seemed that the Cholas only intended to plunder Srivijaya, they left a lasting presence on Kataha, the remains of which are still visible at the Bujang Valley archaeological museum. The center of Srivijaya’s power shifted to Melayu, a port located further up the Sumatran coast near the Jambi River.

Talang Tuo Inscription.jpg
Talang Tuo inscription is a Srivijaya inscription measured 50cm × 80 cm discovered in 17 November 1920 at the foot of Seguntang Hill, near Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia. The inscription is written in Pallava letter in Old Malay, dated 606 Saka (23 March 684 CE) 

The successful sack and plunder by the Chola had left Srivijaya in a severely weakened state that marked the beginning of the end of the empire. The relationships between Srivijaya and its vassal states broke down in 12 CE. Having lost its wealth and prestige, the port cities of the region started to initiate direct trade with China, ignoring the exclusive influence Srivijaya once held over them. There was also a breakdown in culture and religion as the power of the Buddhist Maharajas was undermined by the spread of Islam. Areas which were already converted to Islam, such as Aceh, broke away from Srivijaya’s control. Towards the end of the 13th century, the Thai polities from the north came down the peninsula, brought most of Malaya under their rule and conquered the last of the Srivijayan vassals.

Buddha Seguntang Palembang.jpg
An Amaravati style Buddha statue displayed in Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum in Palembang. The statue was discovered in Seguntang Hill archaeological site in Palembang back in 1920s. It was discovered in pieces, the head part was discovered first, several months later the body parts were discovered, the leg part is still missing. The 277 cm tall statue made from granite stone commonly found in neighboring Bangka island. The statue followed the Amaravati style flourished in Southern India around 2nd to 5th century CE. The style was coppied during Srivijaya era and the statue was estimated to be dated around 7th to 8th century CE.

Srivijaya flew very quickly into obscurity, and it was not until the last 90 years that the kingdom’s history was rediscovered, mainly through epigraphical sources. Palembang, the center of power for Srivijaya poses a special problem for archaeologists as, if the modern settlement of today’s Palembang followed the ancient settlement pattern, ancient Palembang would have been built over shallow water and any archaeological remains would be buried deep in the mud.

The story of Srivijaya ends where the story of the Malacca Sultanate begins. The Sejarah Melayu (“History of Malay” or Malay Annals), begins with a story about “Raja Chulan”, which is very possibly an allusion to the raja (“king”) of the Cholas, whose sack of Srivijaya led to its ultimate downfall. The annals also relate the appearance of three princes at Bukit Seguntang in Palembang, one of whom eventually founds a city of Singapura in Temasek before reestablishing Malacca further north.

Telaga Batu inscription.JPG
Telaga Batu inscription, one of Srivijaya Sidhayatra inscriptions. The inscription is mentioned about curse upon whomever committed crime against Kadatuan Srivijaya. Today the inscription is displayed at National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta.

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