Have you ever heard of the story about the Kingdom of Srivijaya? Well, read this blog to know more about this forgotten kingdom which existed in medieval Indonesia. Even Indonesians were unaware of the existence of this Kingdom until scholars and archeologists dug up the truth and published several papers on it. Fun Fact – Sang Nila Utama (founder of Temasek aka Singapore) is a prince of Srivijaya origin.
What is the Kingdom of Srivijaya?
Srivijaya was one of the most magnificent and prosperous maritime kingdoms in Indonesia from 500 CE to 1400 CE. The name itself is a Sanskrit word meaning, Sri = Shining and Jaya = Victory. We know about this kingdom first from the writings of Yijing, a Chinese monk, from the 7th century. According to Yijing’s writings and Drs. R. Soekmono (1973), the center of the kingdom was near Riau. However, other sources such as the Kedukan Bukit inscription says otherwise as it shows that the kingdom was located near a place now known as Palembang and the banks of Musi (Coedès, 1968) . The Srivijaya Kingdom managed to control almost every South East Asian kingdom in Java, Sumatra, West Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
“Arab accounts state that the empire of the Srivijayan Maharaja was so vast that the swiftest vessel would not have been able to travel round all its islands within two years” - Marwati Djoened Poesponegoro, Nugroho Notosusanto, (1992), Sejarah nasional Indonesia: Jaman kuna, PT Balai Pustaka, ISBN 979-407-408-X
Srivijaya was known by different names according to different people, the Chinese called it San Fo Qi, the Indians called it Yavadesh, the Arabians called it Zbej, and the Khmer called it Malayu, but the Indonesian refer to it as, Sriwijaya. The many names of Srivijaya is one of the reasons why it is so hard to find information about the kingdom. People in the Modern world have never heard of this kingdom until a French scholar named George Cœdès published about it in a Dutch and Indonesian newspaper in 1920 based on the inscriptions that were discovered in Sumatra and Malaysia Peninsula.
“No modern Indonesians, not even those of the Palembang area around which the kingdom was based, had heard of Srivijaya until the 1920s, when French scholar and epigraphist George Coedès published his discoveries and interpretations in Dutch and Indonesian-language newspapers.” - Taylor, Jean Gelman. Indonesia: Peoples and Histories. New Haven; and London: Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN 0300105185.
Little is known about the origin of the Srivijaya Kingdom. Although Srivijaya’s territory was wide, the very limited number of relics left made it hard for the archaeologists to know everything there is to know about this kingdom. The fact that there is little relics left from Srivijaya is due to the attack of Majapahit at 1477. From the little relics that we still have, the Kedukan Bukit inscription showed that the name of the first king of Srivijaya was Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa. According the the inscription, the king embarked on a journey with 20 000 people in search of power and prosperity (Farrington, 2002). Srivijaya is known to be one of the two big empires in early Indonesia, the other one being Majapahit. It was argued which one was the prior colonial Indonesian identity .
The downfall of Srivijaya Kingdom was caused by the Chola dynasty. The Chola dynasty was a Tamil Maritime power and was a major competitor of the trade in the region. Captivated and jealous of the success of Srivijaya, Chola dynasty decided to attack Srivijaya’s ports. Additionally, they engaged with acts of robbery and stole goods that are to and from Srivijaya (Coedès,1968). Not only did they plundered the kingdom, they also kidnapped the King of Kadaram which was an important partner of Srivijaya’s trades (Kulke, Kesavapany & Sakhuja, 2009). Due to the Chola attack, the kingdom became weaker and even the port cities of Srivijaya shrugged off the exclusive influence of Srivijaya and started to initiate direct trade with China. The kingdom also became more fragmented as there was a power struggle between the city of Palembang and neighboring city Jambi. Furthermore, Srivijaya was already in a weakened state from decades of war with the Javanese. Further attacks from Java and the Majapahit empire ensured the once great empire’s downfall.
Flourishing well before Muslim came to the country, Srivijaya was one of the biggest Buddhist kingdoms. It followed Vajrayana Buddhism and is one of the most influential Kingdom for the spread of Buddhism around Asia. Srivijaya has played many roles as a catalyst for Buddhism such as a stopping point for Chinese monks who wanted to travel to India and a center for Buddhist monks to learn more on Buddhism. The kings of Srivijaya created monasteries in Naggapatinam, India. And as the kingdom of Srivijaya expands across the region, Buddhism was introduced and were embraced upon by communities.
The kingdom also played a major role in spreading Buddhism across the territory they successfully subdued. It was one of the centres that Buddhist monks went to learn Buddhism.
Due to the strategic location of the kingdom, maritime trading became a major reason why the kingdom had that much riches and power. The kingdom manage to gain control of 2 key and significant straits in routes which traders and merchants often travel through. These straits are the Malacca strait and Sunda strait. Hence, it managed to control a lot of the trades that were going on in Asia, including India and China. The strategic location has also made Srivijaya a resourceful empire. Because the Musi river was rich with silt, the land around the river is arable. Hence, it was also well known as a source for cloves, camphor, pepper, tortoiseshell, aloe wood, and sandalwood, as well as ivory, gold and tin. The empire’s riches can be equaled to any Maharaja in India.
Like all the other great kingdoms, there are artefacts found from the Srivijaya kingdom, including inscriptions. Inscriptions are evidence that show that kingdoms exist, and it worked the same for Srivijaya. although majority of artefacts and evidences of Srivijaya’s existence has perished, there are still some artefacts and inscriptions which proved the existence of Srivijaya Kingdom.
There are 2 inscriptions that are believed to have been cursed for those who do not follow the rules and the king’s order.
This inscription is carved on an andesite stone and is 118 cm tall. On top of the inscription, it is embellished by seven deities head, or what we call nāga. There is some king of a water channel at the lower portion that were likely used for some kind of allegiance ritual in the past. It is written in the Old Malay language in Pallava alphabet. It was found in Palembang.
One of the oldest written evidence of the Old Malay language that survived. It is also written in Pallava alphabet in Old Malay language. This inscriptions was carved on a pinnacle stone and is 177 cm tall. It was found on 606 CE west of Palembang.
Though the great kingdom was almost forgotten, its greatest legacy would be the spreading of the Old Malay language. Being a maritime kingdom, trading played a huge part on where it got its riches. Due to the extensive trading that took place, the Srivijayans managed to spread Old Malay language to the traders in the region. Old Malay is the foundation for Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia and the large territory of Srivijaya, are probably the reasons why Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore have Malay as their main language and Bahasa Indonesia became the language that unite the diverse Indonesia.
Today the Srivijaya Kingdom’s influence can be found from the local set of song and dance called “Gending Sriwijaya” in Palembang, South Sumatra. The dance was created to tell the glory and magnificence of the kingdom that successfully united the west side of Indonesia.
All in all, this mysterious great kingdom played a big part in spreading buddhism in its realm. It also influenced a few of traditional art such as the “Gending Sriwijaya” dance and song, as well as playing a big part in the making of Bahasa Indonesia itself. As an Indonesian myself, I learned a lot of this kingdom from History class in school. The Srivijaya Kingdom story is quite a big part of Indonesia’s history and it gave us hope that even a diverse country such as Indonesia can be united. It is safe to say that this almost forgotten kingdom is especially important for me and 260 million other people in Indonesia.
Farrington, Karen. Historical Atlas of Empires. New York: Checkmark Books, 2002. 101. Print
Hermann Kulke; K Kesavapany; Vijay Sakhuja, eds. (2009). Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to Southeast Asia, Volume 1 of Nalanda-Sriwijaya series. Institute of Southeast Asian
Taylor, Jean Gelman. Indonesia: Peoples and Histories. New Haven; and London: Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN 0300105185.