ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA: FUNAN, SRIVIJAYA AND THE MON

FUNAN KINGDOM

After the A.D. 1st century complex polities began emerging in what is now Cambodia. The most powerful of these was known as Funan by the Chinese, and may have existed across an area between Ba Phnom in Prey Veng Province and Oc-Eo in Kien Giang Province in southern Vietnam. Funan was a contemporary of Champasak in southern Laos (then known as Kuruksetra) and other lesser fiefdoms in the region. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Funan was the first large Southeast Asian civilization. It was centered on the lower Mekong Delta in present-day Cambodia and Vietnam and stretched into Thailand, and, possibly, Malaysia. Funan lasted from the A.D. 1st century to 7th century. Archeologists are still not sure where the Funanese capital was. They are currently excavating a site at Angkor Borei in Cambodia, which they think may have been it. Funan is a Chinese name, and it may be a transliteration of the ancient Khmer word bnam (mountain). What the Funanese called themselves, however, is not known. Although very little is known about Funan, much has been made of its importance as an early Southeast Asian centre of power.

Even the Chinese, who considered most everyone around them to be Barbarians, marveled over Funan's treasures of gems and gold. Funan was a convenient stopover point for Hindu traders on their way to China. The Funanese were in power when Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced to Southeast Asia.

Funan, the earliest of the Indianized states in Southeast Asia, generally is considered by Cambodians to have been the first Khmer kingdom in the area. Its capital, Vyadhapura, probably was located near the present-day town of Phumi Banam in Prey Veng Province. The earliest historical reference to Funan is a Chinese description of a mission that visited the country in the third century A.D. Funan reached its zenith in the fifth century A.D.. Beginning in the early sixth century, civil wars and dynastic strife undermined Funan's stability, making it relatively easy prey to incursions by hostile neighbors. By the end of the seventh century, a northern neighbor, the kingdom of Chenla, had reduced Funan to a vassal state. [Library of Congress]

Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "The Fu Nan culture flourished in the Mekong River delta in southern Viet Nam and was a center of Southeast Asian trade between the first and fifth century. This period saw an increase in international trade from the Mediterranean to China. Westerners sought the gold of the East, and with the development of more advanced sailing ships that harnessed the power of the monsoon winds, transoceanic travel became possible. Few details are known about the Fu Nan people; however, it is evident that they were a technically advanced seafaring people with the means to participate in trade on a large scale. One third-century source describes their ships as two hundred feet long and able to carry seven hundred men and an extensive cargo. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

The Funan Empire collapsed in the 6th century, under the pressure of the vassal state, Kambuja to the north of Cambodia. One of the kings, Icanavarman I, based his capital at Sambor Prei Kuk (30 kilometers northeast of present-day Kompong Thom in Cambodia).

Funan Culture

During the first century A.D., when Rome ruled the Mediterranean, the Funanese traded widely, established a wonderful tradition of Hindu-influenced art and architecture, and became skilled goldsmiths and jewelers. They also built an irrigation system, impressive even by today's standards, and used an extensive network of canals for both transportation and agriculture.

Funan was essentially an Indian civilization set in Southeast Asia. Ruled by Hindu rulers and influenced by the culture of the Indian Pallava kingdom, it absorbed of Indian concepts of jurisprudence, astronomy, literature and universal kingship. The Sanskrit language was used in Funan courts. It gave birth to the first writing system and inscriptions used in Southeast Asia.

Most of what historians know about Funan has been gleaned from Chinese sources. According to Lonely Planet: These report that Funan-period Cambodia (1st to 6th centuries AD) embraced the worship of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu and, at the same time, Buddhism. The linga (phallic totem) appears to have been the focus of ritual and an emblem of kingly might, a feature that was to evolve further in the Angkorian cult of the god-king. The people practised primitive irrigation, which enabled successful cultivation of rice, and traded raw commodities such as spices with China and India. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Indianization was fostered by increasing contact with the subcontinent through the travels of merchants, diplomats, and learned Brahmans (Hindus of the highest caste traditionally assigned to the priesthood). Indian immigrants, believed to have arrived in the fourth and the fifth centuries, accelerated the process. By the fifth century, the elite culture was thoroughly Indianized. Court ceremony and the structure of political institutions were based on Indian models. The Sanskrit language was widely used; the laws of Manu, the Indian legal code, were adopted; and an alphabet based on Indian writing systems was introduced. [Library of Congress]

Cambodia's modem-day culture has its roots in Funan. It is from this period that evolved Cambodia's language, part of the Mon-Khmer family, which contains elements of Sanskrit, its ancient religion of Hinduism and Buddhism. Historians have noted, for example, that Cambodians can be distinguished from their neighbors by their clothing - checkered scarves known as Kramas are worn instead of straw hats. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Funan Government and Economy

According to the Library of Congress: Funan emerged in the second century B.C. as the earliest and most significant power in Southeast Asia. Its Hindu ruling class controlled all of present-day Cambodia and extended its power to the center of modern Thailand. The Funan economy was based on maritime trade and a well-developed agricultural system; Funan maintained close commercial contact with India and served as a base for the Brahman merchant-missionaries who brought Hindu culture to Southeast Asia. [Source: Library of Congress]

Funan traded with the Mediterranean, Persia, India, China and Indonesia. At the Funanese site of Oc-Eo in Vietnam Roman artifacts (including a gold medallion dated at A.D. 152) have been found as well as a seal rings with Sanksit inscriptions, a life-size Hindu statue, gems, crystal beads, a gold bell, and gold-and-sapphire rings.

Modern-day archaeological findings provide evidence of a commercial society centered on the Mekong Delta that flourished from the 1st century to the 6th century. Among these findings are excavations of a port city from the 1st century, located in the region of Oc-Eo in what is now southern Vietnam. Served by a network of canals, the city was an important trade link between India and China. Ongoing excavations in southern Cambodia have revealed the existence of another important city near the present-day village of Angkor Borei.

During the Funan period the population was probably concentrated in villages along the Mekong River and along the Tonle Sab River below the Tonle Sap. Traffic and communications were mostly waterborne on the rivers and their delta tributaries. The area was a natural region for the development of an economy based on fishing and rice cultivation. There is considerable evidence that the Funanese economy depended on rice surpluses produced by an extensive inland irrigation system. Maritime trade also played an extremely important role in the development of Funan. The remains of what is believed to have been the kingdom's main port, Oc Eo (now part of Vietnam), contain Roman as well as Persian, Indian, and Greek artifacts. [Library of Congress] By the fifth century A.D., the state exercised control over the lower Mekong River area and the lands around the Tonle Sap. It also commanded tribute from smaller states in the area now comprising northern Cambodia, southern Laos, southern Thailand, and the northern portion of the Malay Peninsula. [Library of Congress]

Chenla

In the 6th and 7th centuries Funan was weakened by civil wars and absorbed by the pre-Khmer civilization of Chenla (Zhenla). Chenla endured for around 200 years. In the 8th century it split into two kingdoms. Lower Chenla was located east of Tonle Sap. Upper Chenla extended from the northern shore of Tonle Sap northward up the Mekong River into southern Laos. Chenla was conquered by Khmers.

From the 6th century, Cambodia’s population gradually concentrated along the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers, where the majority remains today. The move may have been related to the development of wet-rice agriculture. From the 6th to 8th centuries it was likely that Cambodia was a collection of competing kingdoms, ruled by autocratic kings who legitimised their absolute rule through hierarchical caste concepts borrowed from India.

This era is generally referred to as the Chenla period. Again, like Funan, it is a Chinese term and there is little to support the idea that Chenla was a unified kingdom that held sway over all of Cambodia. Indeed, the Chinese themselves referred to ‘water Chenla’ and ‘land Chenla’. Water Chenla was located around Angkor Borei and the temple mount of Phnom Da, near the present-day provincial capital of Takeo, and land Chenla in the upper reaches of the Mekong River and east of Tonlé Sap Lake, around Sambor Prei Kuk, an essential stop on a chronological jaunt through Cambodia’s history.

Chenla flourished from southern Cambodia to southern Laos. The first stone inscriptions in the Khmer language and the first brick and stone Hindu temples in Cambodia date from the Chenla period. Little archeological evidence exist on Funan or Chenla. Most of what is known about them is based on Chinese texts. Many historian now think they were relatively minor states and the only reason they were mentioned in Chinese texts is because they paid tribute to the China. States that may have been more powerful but didn’t pay tributes were not mentioned.

King Mahendravarman reigned form 607 to 616 over Chenla. He was a son of a king. The century following the death of Jayavarman I, the last known king of the kingdom, in the second half of the 7th century, was a dark period in the history of Chenla. According to a Chinese accounts, in the 8th century, the country of Chenla was divided into land and water Chenlas. The obscurity prevails and this monument might be neglected thereafter. The history. However, is traced again with the accession of Jayavarman II, who founded a new polity that is now referred as Angkor in the beginning of 9th century.

Impact of the Chenla

The people of Chenla also were Khmer. Once they established control over Funan, they embarked on a course of conquest that continued for three centuries. They subjugated central and upper Laos, annexed portions of the Mekong Delta, and brought what are now western Cambodia and southern Thailand under their direct control. [Library of Congress]

The royal families of Chenla intermarried with their Funanese counterparts and generally preserved the earlier political, social, and religious institutions of Funan. In the eighth century A.D., however, factional disputes at the Chenla court resulted in the splitting of the kingdom into rival northern and southern halves. According to Chinese chronicles, the two parts were known as Land (or Upper) Chenla and Water (or Lower) Chenla. Land Chenla maintained a relatively stable existence, but Water Chenla underwent a period of constant turbulence. [Library of Congress]

Funan and Chenla gave way to the Angkor Empire with the rise to power of King Jayavarman II in 802. Late in the eighth century A.D., Water Chenla was subjected to attacks by pirates from Java, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula. By the beginning of the ninth century, it had apparently become a vassal of the Sailendra dynasty of Java. The last of the Water Chenla kings allegedly was killed around A.D. 790 by a Javanese monarch whom he had offended. The ultimate victor in the strife that followed was the ruler of a small Khmer state located north of the Mekong Delta. His assumption of the throne as Jayavarman II (ca. A.D. 802-50) marked the liberation of the Khmer people from Javanese suzerainty and the beginning of a unified Khmer nation. [Library of Congress]

Funan Art

Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "More than three hundred Fu Nan archeological sites have been identified in the Mekong Delta region; these sites are characterized by domestic architecture built on stilts, terracotta wares and buff-colored ceramics, gold jewelry, and Buddhist and Hindu architecture and sculpture. A preponderance of imagery from this region is associated with the worship of the Hindu god Vishnu, and several examples are on view here. Extensive excavations of the city of Oc Eo have yielded rich local artifacts and a few examples of international contact, including Roman coins and jewelry, Chinese sculpture, and Indian beads. The dominant position of the Fu Nan people in international trade fell significantly by the sixth century and then came to a halt around 650." [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

Describing an Ekamukhalinga from the 6th century Tingley wrote: "The Hindu god Shiva is frequently worshipped in his linga (phallus) form, which according to ritual texts signifies Shiva’s highest level of being. This is an example of an ekamukhalinga, or one-faced linga. The linga is generally installed in the garbhagrha ("womb," or central, chamber) of the temple, and is the primary object of worship for devotees of Shiva. The form of the linga is divided into three sections, a square section that alludes to Brahma the Creator; an octagonal section, to Vishnu the Preserver; and the cylindrical upper portion, to Shiva the Destroyer." [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society, found at the Oc Eo site, My Lam Village, An Giang Province; now in Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5532]

Describing Three Intaglio made from carnelian and crystal from the 6th century, Tingley wrote: "These intaglios, along with Indian inscribed gems, cameos, and Roman medallions, attest to the cosmopolitanism of Oc Eo. The use of carnelian for stone seals was common in the western ancient world. A close look at these carnelian intaglios reveals that they were produced with a rotary abrasive tool, which creates a round edge at the end of a cut. In contrast, the crystal intaglio was more coarsely carved with a chisel, and was probably made at a different location. Several similar crystal examples with figures seated in the posture of royal ease were excavated at Oc Eo." [Source: ** found at Oc Eo site, My Lam Village, An Giang Province now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 2248, BTLS 2258, BTLS 2253]

Describing a stone lintel from the late 7th century, Tingley wrote: " The lintel of a Southeast Asian temple, positioned above the doorway, served as the sculptural focus for the temple’s entrance and provided a large surface for deep relief carving. The lintel framed the image of the primary deity inside and was one of the first views the devout had of the building. As in this example, early lintels often included a curved arch that imitated wooden prototypes." [Source: ** found at Thuy Lieu Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5977 ]

Bronzes combine elements of indigenous animism with tantricism. Buddhism. Describing a bronze Vishnu from the 7th century, Tingley wrote: "Vishnu was the most popular Hindu god during the Fu Nan period, and four-armed images of him are abundant throughout the Mekong Delta region. In these images, he holds a conch (a symbol of the origin of existence); a mace, which also serves to support the figure in this example; a clod of earth; and a wheel (a symbol of power), broken here. The long dhoti he wears recalls earlier images of Vishnu, but also suggests Pallava south Indian influences. The silvery patina of this piece reveals that the bronze is of high tin content, which is typical of Southeast Asian bronzes. The large hands and the backward thrust of the second pair of upper arms are also common in sculpture of this early period." [Source: ** found at the Tan Phu site, Tan Hoi Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 1585]

Describing Three Elephants made of gold sheet from the 7th–8th century, Tingley wrote: "The site of Go Xoai, excavated in 1987, included a square brick temple measuring approximately 50 feet (15.4 meters) on all sides. The temple contained a smaller structure in its western section. In this secondary structure, the excavator found a hole filled with white sand and ash, as well as a thin inscribed gold leaf text; inlaid jewelry; and tortoise, snake, eight elephants, and a number of lotuses all in gold repoussé. The dedication of a temple in Southeast Asia was an important religious and secular event that involved the practice of burying gold and other precious objects in the foundation. The Agni Purana, an Indian text of which the Southeast Asians were aware, states that a tortoise and five objects of cosmological significance were to be buried in the base of the temple." [Source: ** found at the Go Xoai site, Duc Hoa District, Long An Province; now in the Long An Museum, BT87-M1-I-3]

Describing a stone Surya from the 7th–8th century, Tingley wrote: "Surya, the sun god, is an important generative force derived from Indian Vedic and other solar deities. When portrayed without his chariot and attendants, he can be distinguished by the two lotuses he holds and his heavy clothing. Early images of Surya have been found in many areas of Southeast Asia. His importance derives not only from his independent identity as sun god, but also from his close association with the Hindu god Vishnu. In this sculpture, Surya’s headdress recalls that of Vishnu, although this headdress has an octagonal form, rather than the more common circular shape." [Source: ** at the Ba The Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5527]

ANCIENT MON

The first major group of immigrants to arrive in present-day Burma were the Mon who were originally from China and settled in what is now northern Burma around the third century B.C.The Mon where a highly cultured Buddhist people with a classical North Indian heritage who settled in Central Burma. Pegu (50 miles from Yangon) was established by the Mon in the 6th century, it was the capital of southern Myanmar in the 13th century, when the Mons ruled the region. In 1757, it was sacked and almost completely destroyed by the Burmese monarch, King Alaungpaya.

The closely related Mon and Khmer peoples entered Southeast Asia along migration routes from southern China in the ninth century B.C. The Khmer settled in the Mekong River Valley, while the Mon occupied the central plain and northern highlands of modern Thailand and large parts of Burma. Taking advantage of Funan's decline in the sixth century A.D., the Mon began to establish independent kingdoms, among them Dvaravati in the northern part of the area formerly controlled by Funan and farther north at Haripunjaya.

The Mon were heavily influenced by Indian Hindu culture and Asoka Buddhist kingdom in India.. They established the Dvaravati Kingdom (A.D. 6th to 11th century) and several centers in mainland Southeast Asia. The Dvaravatis controlled the Menam Valley area in present-day Thailand from the 6th or 7th century to the 11th century. They were ultimately defeated by the Thais who absorbed much of their culture.

The Mon probably began migrating into the area in about 3000 B.C. and their first kingdom Suwarnabhumi. was founded around the port of Thaton in about 300 B.C. Spoken tradition suggests that they had contact with Buddhism via seafaring as early as the 3rd century B.C. though definitely by the 2nd century B.C. when they received an envoy of monks from Ashoka. Much of the Mon's written records have been destroyed through wars. The Mons blended Indian and Mon culture together in a hybird of the two civilizations. By the mid-9th century. they had come to dominate all of southern Myanmar. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The Mon of Haribhunjaya and Dvaravati kingdoms people in modern Thailand may have entered present-day Lower Burma as early as the 6th century A.D. According to mainstream scholarship, the Mon had founded at least two small kingdoms (or large city-states) centered around Pegu (Bago) and Thaton by the mid 9th century. The earliest external reference to a Lower Burma "kingdom" was in 844-848 by Arab geographers. The Mon practiced Theravada Buddhism. The kingdoms were prosperous from trade. The Kingdom of Thaton is widely considered to be the fabled kingdom of Suvarnabhumi (or Golden Land), referred to by the tradesmen of Indian Ocean. [Source: Wikipedia]

Once a very powerful political and cultural group, today’s Mon population of around 1.3 million has been mostly absorbed into the mainstream of Burmese culture. These Burmese Mons make up only a small part of the Mon-Khmer speakers of Southeast Asia with many of their relatives living further to the east in Thailand and Kampuchea. Although their culture has merged with that of the Burmese, the Mons have continued to use their own language and since 1962 have had their own state. As devout Buddhists, they follow their own ceremonial calendar of Theravadin festivals. Their main source of livelihood comes from the cultivation of rice, but they also grow other crops such as yams, sugar cane, and pineapple.

Ancient Mon Culture

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The first Indianized peoples in Burma were the Mons. An honor shared with their northern neighbors, the Pyus. The Mons, a people of Malayo-Indonesian stock, are related to the early inhabitants of Thailand and Cambodia who also spoke Mon-Khmer languages. The Mons who are considered to be the indigenous inhabitants of lower Burma, established their most significant capital at Thaton, strategically located for trade near the Gulf of Martaban and the Andaman Sea. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Little is known of the early history of the Mon people including how long their various kingdoms flourished and the extent of their domains. For example, it is not definitely known if it was the Mon or the Pyu who controlled the lower delta region. Descriptions in Chinese and Indian texts specify their settlement area as being around the present day cities of Moulmein and Pegu in the monsoonal plains of Southeast Burma. This area was first known as Suvannabhumi ("land of gold") and later as Ramannadesa ("Land of Ramanna"); Ramanna being the word for Mon people. The area known as Suvannanbhumi was often connected with the historical Buddha in the later Mon and Burmese chronicles that credit the Mons with first establishing the Buddhist religion in Burma. =

Although little is known about actual religious practice, trade connections through the Mon port city of Thaton can be traced to the Indian kingdom of the Buddhist King Ashoka from as early as the 3rd century B.C. Legend maintains that 2,500 years ago the Mon people began the original structure of the Shwedagon Pagoda that today has become the most revered Buddhist stupa in Burma, a true national monument. This theory, though tenable, lacks objective corroboration because the many changes that have been made to the pagoda over the years have repeatedly encased its original structure and there is no contemporary record of its foundation or a description of its form. =

The Mon were receptive to the art and literature of India, and for centuries they were the agents for diffusing Hindu cultural values in the region. The frequent occurrence of Sanskrit place-names in modern Thailand is one result of the long and pervasive Indian influence. In the eighth century, missionaries from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) introduced the Mon to Theravada Buddhism. The Mon embraced Buddhism enthusiastically and conveyed it to the Khmer and the Malay of Tambralinga. The two Indian religious systems--Hindu and Buddhist--existed side by side without conflict. Hinduism continued to provide the cultural setting in which Buddhist religious values and ethical standards were articulated. Although Buddhism was the official religion of the Mon and the Khmer, in popular practice it incorporated many local cults.

In Thailand the ancient Mon culture is referred to as the Dvaravati civilization. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Dvaravati is a Sanskrit name meaning Place of Gates, referring to the city of Krishna in the Indian epic poem Mahabharata. The French art historian Georges Coedès discovered the name on some coins that were excavated in the Nakhon Pathom area. The Dvaravati culture is known for its art work, including Buddha images (showing Indian Gupta influence), stucco reliefs on temple walls and in caves, architecture, exquisite terracotta heads, votive tablets and various sculptures. Dvaravati may have also been a cultural relay point for the Funan and Chenla cultures of ancient Laos and Cambodia to the northeast and east. The Chinese, through the travels of the famous pilgrim Xuan Zang, knew the area as Tuoluobodi, between Sriksetra (Myanmar) and Isanapura (Laos-Cambodia). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

Mon Kingdoms

Mon kingdoms were political establishments by the Mon-speaking people that ruled large sections of present-day Myanmar (Burma) at various times in the last 1200 years. The kingdoms in chronological order are the Thaton Kingdom (9th. century–1057), the Hanthawaddy Kingdom (1287–1539), and the Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom (1740–1757). [Source: Wikipedia +]

The first recorded kingdom attributed to the Mon people is Dvaravati, which prospered until around 1000 A.D. when their capital was sacked by the Khmer Empire and a significant portion of the inhabitants fled west to present-day Lower Burma and eventually founded new polities. Thaton (9th century–1057). + See Thailand

Mainstream scholarship holds that the Mon established small polities (or large city-states) in Lower Burma. Both the city of Thaton and Pegu (Bago) are believed to have been established in the 9th century. The states were important trading ports between Indian ocean and mainland Southeast Asia. Still, according to traditional reconstruction, the early Mon city-states were conquered by the Pagan Kingdom from the north in 1057, and that Thaton's literary and religious traditions helped to mold early Pagan civilization. Between 1050 and about 1085, Mon craftsmen and artisans helped to build some two thousand monuments at Pagan, the remains of which today rival the splendors of Angkor Wat. The Mon script is considered to be the source of the Burmese script, the earliest evidence of which was dated to 1058, a year after the Thaton conquest, by the colonial era scholarship.

However, recent research—still a minority view—argues that Mon influence on the interior after Anawrahta's conquest is a greatly exaggerated post-Pagan legend, and that Lower Burma in fact lacked a substantial independent polity prior to Pagan's expansion. Possibly in this period, the delta sedimentation—which now extends the coastline by three miles a century—remained insufficient, and the sea still reached too far inland, to support a population even as large as the modest population of the late precolonial era. (The earliest evidence of Burmese script is dated to 1035, and possibly as early as 984 A.D. Recent research argues that the Pyu script was the source of the Burmese script.)

Though the size and importance of these states are still debated, all scholars accept that during the 11th century, Pagan established its authority in Lower Burma and this conquest facilitated growing cultural exchange, if not with local Mon, then with India and with Theravada stronghold Sri Lanka. From a geopolitical standpoint, Anawrahta's conquest of Thaton checked the Khmer advance in the Tenasserim coast.

Thaton

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The early Mon kingdoms that were in power during the prehistoric period, were situated between the Sittang and Salween rivers and were referred to as Ramannadesa. Thaton, the seat of this kingdom, is believed to have been Suvannabhumi (“Golden Land”), a term that was also used to refer to the whole region of continental Southeast Asia bordering the Bay of Bengal. Thaton is thought to have been founded by King Siharaja during the lifetime of the Buddha, which would place it in the fifth century B.C. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Thaton was once a flourishing port community that communicated with and transported goods from as far away as Southern India. Later Burmese chronicles credit the Mon people of Thaton with bringing the Buddhist religion to Burma. In these chronicles it is also stated that Buddhist manuscripts from Sri Lanka were translated into Mon characters around 400 AD. Although scholars have questioned this fact, it is known from local inscriptions that Theravada Buddhism definitely existed in Lower Burma by the fifth century AD. Although the exact founding date of Thaton and the extent of its kingdom has yet to be discovered, it is known that Thaton fell under Burmese control during the 11th century when the first great King of Pagan, Anawrahta, sacked the city and returned to Pagan with Thaton’s King Manuha as his captive. Thaton remained under Burmese domination until the fall of Pagan in 13th century. Thenceforth, the Mons re-established their independence, although the capital was later moved to other locations including Marataban and Pegu. =

Thaton’s quadrangular city plan resembles that of the later Burmese cities of Amarapura and Mandalay. Four walls surrounded the old city creating a rectangular shape that enclosed the walled palace compound that was located at its center. From north to south the palace site measured 1, 080 feet and 1, 150 feet from east to west. Two chief stupas were situated between the palace site and the south wall. Today, the old city of Thaton is no longer visible as growth of the modern town has obscured the earlier settlement.

Dvaravati Civilization, Mon Culture in Thailand

Nakhon Pathom in central Thailand was the centre of the Mon Dvaravati culture, which arose in the 9th century and quickly declined in the 11th century under pressure from invading Khmers. A Mon kingdom – Hariphunchai – in today’s Lamphun Province, held out until the late 12th or early 13th century, when it was annexed by northern Thais.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Dvaravati is a Sanskrit name meaning Place of Gates, referring to the city of Krishna in the Indian epic poem Mahabharata. The French art historian Georges Coedès discovered the name on some coins that were excavated in the Nakhon Pathom area. The Dvaravati culture is known for its art work, including Buddha images (showing Indian Gupta influence), stucco reliefs on temple walls and in caves, architecture, exquisite terracotta heads, votive tablets and various sculptures. Dvaravati may have also been a cultural relay point for the Funan and Chenla cultures of ancient Laos and Cambodia to the northeast and east. The Chinese, through the travels of the famous pilgrim Xuan Zang, knew the area as Tuoluobodi, between Sriksetra (Myanmar) and Isanapura (Laos-Cambodia). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

The Mon were receptive to the art and literature of India, and for centuries they were the agents for diffusing Hindu cultural values in the region. The frequent occurrence of Sanskrit place-names in modern Thailand is one result of the long and pervasive Indian influence. In the eighth century, missionaries from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) introduced the Mon to Theravada Buddhism. The Mon embraced Buddhism enthusiastically and conveyed it to the Khmer and the Malay of Tambralinga. The two Indian religious systems--Hindu and Buddhist--existed side by side without conflict. Hinduism continued to provide the cultural setting in which Buddhist religious values and ethical standards were articulated. Although Buddhism was the official religion of the Mon and the Khmer, in popular practice it incorporated many local cults.

In spite of cultural dominance in the region, the Mon were repeatedly subdued by their Burmese and Khmer neighbors.In the tenth century Dvaravati and the whole of the Chao Phraya Valley came under the control of Angkor.

SRIVIJAYA

The Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya was the first major Indonesian kingdom and the first major Indonesian commercial sea power . Ruled by Tamils and centered in Palembang, on the Musi River in present-day Sumatera Selatan Province, it was founded in Sumatra the end of the 6th century after Funan had been conquered and thrived from the 8th to 13th centuries.. At its height, it ruled Western Indonesia and controlled the strategic Molucca Straits—a choke point on the India-China trade route— and much of the trade in the area. Although historical records and archaeological evidence are scarce, it appears that by the seventh century A.D., the Indianized kingdom of Srivijaya, centered in the Palembang area of eastern Sumatra, established suzerainty over large areas of Sumatra, western Java, and much of the Malay Peninsula.[Sources: Library of Congress, noelbynature, southeastasianarchaeology.com, June 7, 2007]

With a reach spanning from Sumatra and Java to as far north as the Thai peninsula and a reign of some 600 years, it’s remarkable that what is now known as the Srivijaya empire was only unearthed relatively recently. The first hint of a Sumatran-based polity was first alluded to by the eminent French scholar George Coedes 1918, based on inscriptions found in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. In this primer, we’ll talk about the Srivijayan empire, the extent of its influence and its eventual fall.

The kingdom of Srivijaya, a name which translates to “shining victory”, was a Malay polity and a Hindu-Buddhist trading kingship ruled by the Maharajahs of Srivijaya. The empire was based around trade, with local kings (dhatus or community leaders) swearing allegiance to the central lord for mutual profit. Srivijaya’s area of influence included neighbouring Jambi, to the north the kingdoms of the Malay Peninsula: Chitu, Pan-pan, Langkasuka and Kataha, as well as eastwards in Java, where links with the Sailendra dynasty and Srivijaya are implied. The same Sailendra dynasty was responsible for the construction of the massive Buddhist stupa of Borobudur between 780 and 825 AD.

Books: 1) “Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History” by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds) contains chapters on the classical cultures of Indonesia and the archaeology of the early maritime polities of Southeast Asia; 2) “Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula by P. M. Munoz; 3) “Early History (The Encyclopedia of Malaysia) by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman (Ed) has several chapters on Srivijaya; 4) “Sriwijaya: History, religion & language of an early Malay polity by G. Coedäs and L. Damais; 5) Wolters, O. W. Early Indonesian Commerce: A Study of the Origins of Srivijaya. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967. 6) Wolters, O.W, The Fall of Srivijaya in Malay History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Mataram and Srivijaya

Another kingdom—Mataram— arose as Srivijaya began to flourish in the early eighth century, in south-central Java on the Kedu Politically, the two hegemonies were probably more alike than different. The rulers of both saw themselves and their courts ( kedatuan, keratuan, or kraton) as central to a land or realm ( bhumi), which, in turn, formed the core of a larger, borderless, but concentric and hierarchically organized arrangement of authority. In this greater mandala, an Indic-influenced representation of a sort of idealized, “galactic” order, a ruler emerged from constellations of local powers and ruled by virtue of neither inheritance nor divine descent, but rather through a combination of charisma ( semangat), strategic family relationships, calculated manipulation of order and disorder, and the invocation of spiritual ideas and supernatural forces. [Source: Library of Congress*]

The exercise of power was never absolute, and would-be rulers and (if they were to command loyalty) their supporters had to take seriously both the distribution of benefits (rather than merely the application of force or fear) and the provision of an “exemplary center” enhancing cultural and intellectual life. In Mataram, overlords and their courts do not, for example, appear to have controlled either irrigation systems or the system of weekly markets, which remained the purview of those who dominated local regions ( watak) and their populations. This sort of political arrangement was at once fragile and remarkably supple, depending on the ruler and a host of surrounding circumstances. *

Very little is known about social realities in Srivijaya and Mataram, and most of what is written is based on conjecture. With the exception of the religious structures on Java, these societies were constructed of perishable materials that have not survived the centuries of destructive climate and insects. There are no remains of either palaces or ordinary houses, for example, and we must rely on rare finds of jewelry and other fine metalworking (such as the famous Wonosobo hoard, found near Prambanan in 1991), and on the stone reliefs on the Borobudur and a handful of other structures, to attempt to guess what these societies may have been like. (The vast majority of these remains are Javanese.) A striking characteristic of both Srivijaya and Mataram in this period is that neither—and none of their smaller rivals—appear to have developed settlements recognizable as urban from either Western or Asian traditions. On the whole, despite evidence of socioeconomic well- being and cultural sophistication, institutionally Srivijaya and Mataram remained essentially webs of clanship and patronage, chieftainships carried to their highest and most expansive level. *

Srivijaya Culture

Srivjaya was a Buddhist kingdom. The Srivijaya kings practiced Mahayana Buddhism which suggests its introduction from India. As a stronghold of Mahayana Buddhism, Srivijaya attracted pilgrims and scholars from other parts of Asia. These included the Chinese monk Yijing and the eleventh-century Buddhist scholar Atisha, who played a major role in the development of Tibetan Buddhism. In the 8th century Srivjaya introduced a mixture of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism to Malaysia and Thailand. [Sources: Library of Congress, noelbynature, southeastasianarchaeology.com, June 7, 2007]

Srivijaya was considered to be one of the major centres of learning for the Buddhist world. The Chinese pilgrim Yijing (635–713), who briefly visited Srivijaya in 671 and 687 and then lived there from 687 to 695, recommended it as a world-class center of Buddhist studies. Inscriptions from the 680s, written in Pallava script and the indigenous Old Malay language (forerunner of contemporary Bahasa Indonesia), identified the realm and its ruler by name and demanded the loyalty of allies by pronouncing elaborate threats and curses. [Library of Congress]

Yijing, a Buddhist monk who travelled between China and India to copy sacred texts mentioned the high quality of Sanskrit education in Palembang, and recommended that anyone who wanted to go to the university at Nalanda (north India) should stay in Palembang for a year or two to learn “how to behave properly”. Srivijaya’s prominent role in the Buddhist world can be found in several inscriptions around Asia: an inscription in Nalanda dated 850-860 AD described how a temple was built in Nalanda at the request of a king of Srivijaya. In the 11th century, a temple in Guangzhou in China received a donation from Srivijaya to help with the upkeep. The Wiang Sa inscription quoted above recounts how a Srivijayan king ordered the construction of three stupas in Chaiya, also in the Thai peninsula.

Very little is known about social realities in Srivijaya and Mataram (570-927, a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom based in Java), and most of what is written is based on conjecture. With the exception of the religious structures on Java, these societies were constructed of perishable materials that have not survived the centuries of destructive climate and insects. There are no remains of either palaces or ordinary houses, for example, and we must rely on rare finds of jewelry and other fine metalworking (such as the famous Wonosobo hoard, found near Prambanan in 1991), and on the stone reliefs on the Borobudur and a handful of other structures, to attempt to guess what these societies may have been like. (The vast majority of these remains are Javanese.) A striking characteristic of both Srivijaya and Mataram in this period is that neither—and none of their smaller rivals—appear to have developed settlements recognizable as urban from either Western or Asian traditions. On the whole, despite evidence of socioeconomic well- being and cultural sophistication, institutionally Srivijaya and Mataram remained essentially webs of clanship and patronage, chieftainships carried to their highest and most expansive level.

The chedi of temples produced during the Srivijaya period resemble Hindu-Buddhist stupas of central Java which have a ‘stacked” appearance. This style was copied in Thailand, including at temples in the great Thai kingdom of Sukothai (m 1238 until 1438).

Early Trade in Indonesia

Medieval Sumatra was known as the “Land of Gold.” The rulers were reportedly so rich they threw solid gold bar into a pool every night to show their wealth. Sumatra was a source of cloves, camphor, pepper, tortoiseshell, aloe wood, and sandalwood—some of which originated elsewhere. Arab mariners feared Sumatra because it was regarded as a home of cannibals. Sumatra is believed to be the site of Sinbad’s run in with cannibals.

Sumatra was the first region of Indonesia to have contact with the outside world. The Chinese came to Sumatra in the 6th century. Arab traders went there in the 9th century and Marco Polo stopped by in 1292 on his voyage from China to Persia. Initially Arab Muslims and Chinese dominated trade. When the center of power shifted to the port towns during the 16th century Indian and Malay Muslims dominated trade.

Traders from India, Arabia and Persia purchased Indonesian goods such as spices and Chinese goods. Early sultanates were called “harbor principalities.” Some became rich from controlling the trade of certain products or serving as way stations on trade routes.

The Minangkabau, Acehnese and Batak— coastal people in Sumatra— dominated trade on the west coast of Sumatra. The Malays dominated trade in the Malacca Straits on the eastern side of Sumatra. Minangkabau culture was influenced by a series of 5th to 15th century Malay and Javanese kingdoms (the Melayu, Sri Vijaya, Majapahit and Malacca).

Srivijaya Trade and Economic Power

Srivijaya was the first major Indonesian commercial sea power. Primarily a costal empire, it drew its riches and power from maritime trade and extended its power to the coasts of West Java and Malaysia and to Vhaiya in southern Thailand. It was able to control much of the trade in Southeast Asia in part because its location on the Strait of Melaka between the empires of the Middle east, India and China. Merchants from Arabia, Persia and India brought goods to Sriwijaya’s coastal cities in exchange for goods from China and local products. [Sources: Library of Congress, noelbynature, southeastasianarchaeology.com, June 7, 2007]

At its zenith in the ninth and tenth centuries, Srivijaya extended its commercial sway from approximately the southern half of Sumatra and the Strait of Malacca to western Java and southern Kalimantan, and its influence as far away as locations on the Malay Peninsula, present-day southern Thailand, eastern Kalimantan, and southern Sulawesi. Its dominance probably arose out of policies of war and alliance applied, perhaps rather suddenly, by one local entity to a number of trading partners and competitors. The process is thought to have coincided with newly important direct sea trade with China in the sixth century, and by the second half of the seventh century Srivijaya had become a wealthy and culturally important Asian power.

The important Strait of Melaka (Malacca) which facilitated trade between China and India. With its naval power, the empire managed to suppress piracy along the Malacca strait, making Srivjayan entrepots the port of choice for traders. Despite its apparent hegemony, the empire did not destroy the other non-Srivijayan competitors but used them as secondary sources of maritime trade. Srivijaya’s wide influence in the region was a mixture of diplomacy and conquest, but ultimately operated like a federation of port-city kingdoms. Besides the southern centre of power in Palembang, Arab, Chinese and Indian sources also imply that Srivijaya had a northern power centre, most probably Kataha, what is now known as Kedah on the western side of the Malay peninsula. Kedah is now known for remains of Indian architecture at the Bujang Valley. This was due to the invasion by the Chola kingdom from South India —“ an invasion which ultimately led to the fall of Srivijaya.

Dominating the Malacca and Sunda straits, Srivijaya controlled the trade of the region and remained a formidable sea power until the thirteenth century. Serving as an entrepôt for Chinese, Indonesian, and Indian markets, the port of Palembang, accessible from the coast by way of a river, accumulated great wealth. Control over the burgeoning commerce moving through the Strait of Malacca. This it accomplished by mobilizing the policing capabilities of small communities of seafaring orang laut (Malay for sea people), providing facilities and protection in exchange for reasonable tax rates on maritime traders, and maintaining favorable relations with inland peoples who were the source of food and many of the trade goods on which commerce of the day was built. But 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. Srivijaya declined in the 11th century because of forced changes in trade routes brought about by increased piracy in the Sunda and Malacca Straits.

Palembang on the Musi River in Sumatra: Heart of ancient Srivijaya

Palembang, the second largest town on Sumatra after Medan, was once the celebrated seat of the rich and powerful Srivijaya kingdom, that for more than three centuries. The city was then known as the wealthy trade hub as well as the center for Buddhist learnings. Monks from China, India and Java used to congregate here to learn and teach the lessons of Buddha. In AD 671 the famous Chinese Buddhist monk, Yojing wrote that there were more than 1.000 Buddhist monks in the city and advised Chinese monks to study Sanskrit in Palembang before proceeding to India.

While the Srivijaya kings lived inland on shore, his subjects lived along the wide Musi river, manning the powerful fleet and busily trading in gold, spices, silks, ivories and ceramics with foreign merchants who sailed in from China, India and Java. In 1025, however, the king of Chola in South India sent a fleet to Sumatra, destroying the kingdom, marking the end of its golden era. Later, Chinese admiral Cheng Ho, emissary of the Chinese emperor visited Palembang in the 15th century.

Palembang is also known in history as the origin of the Malays whose kings are believed to have descended to earth at Gunung Siguntang, north of Palembang.Today, not much can be seen from Srivijaya’s golden age, except for evidence of the area’s fine gold and silver songket weaving that persists until today, the fine lacquerware it produces for which Palembang is renowned, and its regal dances and opulent costumes.

On Kemaro Island in the middle of the Musi river there is a large Buddhist temple and the grave of a Chinese princess, who was destined to wed a Srivijaya king. The island is today the center of the Cap Go Meh celebrations. During Cap Go Meh, Chinese communities from around the city squeeze into this small piece of land, together with those coming from Hongkong, Singapore and China. Ever since the 9th century Srivijaya was a thriving trading power and an epicenter for Buddhist learnings, Chinese merchants came to trade in Palembang and monks stayed here to study Sanskrit before proceeding to India. Over the centuries many Chinese settled in the area.

Legend of the Srivijaya Princess and the Chinese Prince

There are many legends connected to the Chinese princess (or maybe a prince) buried on Kemaro. According to one version, the island is evidence and symbol of the love and loyalty of Princess Siti Fatimah, daughter of the King of Srivijaya, towards a Chinese prince called Tan Bun An. In the 14th century, so the legend goes, Prince Tan Bun An arrived in Palembang to study. After living here for some time, he fell in love with princess Siti Fatimah. He came to the palace to ask the king for her hand in marriage. The king and queen gave their approval on one condition, that Tan Bun An must present a gift.

Tan Bun An then sent a messenger back to China to ask his father for such a gift to be presented to the King of Srivijaya. When the messenger returned with pots of preserved vegetables and fruits, Tan Bun An was surprised and enraged because he had asked his father to send Chinese jars, ceramics and gold.In his anger he threw the ships cargo into the Musi River, unaware that his father had placed gold bars inside the fruits and vegetables. Ashamed after finding out his mistake, he tried to recover what he had thrown into the river. Tan Bun An, however, never returned as he drowned with the precious cargo.

When Siti Fatimah heard about the tragedy, the Princess ran to the river and drowned herself to follow her lover, but not before leaving a message saying; "If you see a tree grow on a piece of land where I drown, it will be the tree of our true love ".At the place where the princess drowned, a piece of land appeared on the surface of the river. The locals believe that this new island is the couple’s tomb and therefore, they call it "Kamarau Island" which means that despite high tides in the Musi River, this island will always remain dry.

The local ethnic Chinese believe that their ancestor, Tan Bun An, lives on this island. As a result, the island is always crowded during Chinese New Year. Today, a magnificent Chinese temple, the Hok Cing Bio, stands here. Built in 1962, it attracts many devotees. On special occasions, especially on what the Hokkien call the ‘Cap Go Meh’ Celebrations, the island is packed with locals and visitors coming from Palembang and overseas. There is something magical about Kamaro island. Witnessing the crowds on this particular occasion is an attraction by itself.

Srivijaya Civilization in Malaysia

In the 7th century the powerful Shrivijaya kingdom in Sumatra spread to Malay peninsula and introduced a mixture of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. Srivijaya influence extended over the Malay Peninsula and much of Borneo from the 7th to the 14th centuries. Shrivijaya ruled a string of principalities as far north Chaiya in what is today southern Thailand with support from China When Srivijaya in Chaiya extended its sphere of influence, those cities became tributary states of Srivijaya.

The Srivijaya kingdom in Malaysia was based in the the Bujang Valley or Lembah Bujang, a sprawling historical complex situated near Merbok, Kedah. It is regarded as the richest archaeological area in Malaysia. Over the years, numerous artefacts have been uncovered in the Bujang Valley - celadon, porcelain, stoneware, clay, pottery, fragments of glass, beads and Persian ceramics - evidences that Bujang Valley was once a centre of international and entrepot trade in the region.

More than 50 ancient Hindu or Buddhist temples, called candi, have also been unearthed, adding to the spirituality of the place. The most well-preserved of these is located in Pengkalan Bayang Merbok, which is also where the Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum is located. This museum is the first archaeology museum built in Malaysia, under the Museum and Antiquity.

Kedah also had a strong Tamil influence which have led to surmise at least some of the Srivijaya maharajas may have been Tamiles. A 7th-century Sanskrit drama, Kaumudhimahotsva, refers to Kedah as Kataha-nagari. The Agnipurana also mentions a territory known as Anda-Kataha with one of its boundaries delineated by a peak, which scholars believe is Gunung Jerai. Stories from the Katasaritasagaram describe the elegance of life in Kataha. The Buddhist kingdom of Ligor took control of Kedah shortly after. Its king Chandrabhanu used it as a base to attack Sri Lanka in the 11th century, an event noted in a stone inscription in Nagapattinum in Tamil Nadu and in the Sri Lankan chronicles, Mahavamsa. [Source: Wikipedia]

Decline of Srivijaya Civilization in Malaysia

At times, the Khmer kingdom, the Siamese kingdom, and even Cholas kingdom in India tried to exert control over the smaller Malay states. In 1025 and 1026 Gangga Negara was attacked by Rajendra Chola I, the Tamil emperor who is now thought to have laid Kota Gelanggi to waste. Kedah—known as Kedaram, Cheh-Cha (according to I-Ching) or Kataha, in ancient Pallava or Sanskrit—was in the direct route of the invasions and was ruled by the Cholas from 1025. The senior Chola's successor, Vira Rajendra Chola, had to put down a Kedah rebellion to overthrow other invaders. The coming of the Chola reduced the majesty of Srivijaya, which had exerted influence over Kedah, Pattani and as far as Ligor. [Source: Wikipedia]

The power of Srivijaya declined from the 12th century as the relationship between the capital and its vassals broke down. Wars with the Javanese caused it to request assistance from China, and wars with Indian states are also suspected. In the 11th century CE the centre of power shifted to Melayu, a port possibly located further up the Sumatran coast at near the Jambi River. The power of the Buddhist Maharajas was further undermined by the spread of Islam. Areas which were converted to Islam early, such as Aceh, broke away from Srivijaya’s control. By the late 13th century, the Siamese kings of Sukhothai had brought most of Malaya under their rule. In the 14th century, the Hindu Java-based Majapahit empire came into possession of the peninsula.

By the fourteenth century, Srivijaya’s dominance had ended because it lost Chinese support and because it was continually in conflict with states seeking to dominate lucrative trade routes. In 1405 the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho arrived in Melaka with promises to the locals of protection from the Siamese encroaching from the north. With Chinese support, the power of Melaka extended to include most of the Malay Peninsula. Islam arrived in Melaka around this time and soon spread through Malaya.

As for the other region of Malaysia, Borneo, evidence suggests that Borneo developed quite separately from the peninsula and was little affected by cultural and political developments there. The kingdom of Brunei was Borneo’s most prominent political force and remained so until nineteenth-century British colonization.

Srivijaya Prince and the Founding of Malacca

The founding of trading port of Malacca on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula is credited to the Srivijayan prince Sri Paramesvara, who fled his kingdom to avoid domination by rulers of the Majapahit kingdom. In 1402 by Parameswara fled Temasek (now Singapore). The Sejarah Melayu claims that Parameswara was a descendant of Alexander the Great and said he sailed to Temasek to escape persecution. There he came under the protection of Temagi, a Malay chief from Patani who was appointed by the king of Siam as regent of Temasek. Within a few days, Parameswara killed Temagi and appointed himself regent. Some five years later he had to leave Temasek, due to threats from Siam. During this period, a Javanese fleet from Majapahit attacked Temasek. [Source: Wikipedia]

Parameswara headed north to found a new settlement. At Muar, Parameswara considered siting his new kingdom at either Biawak Busuk or at Kota Buruk. Finding that the Muar location was not suitable, he continued his journey northwards. Along the way, he reportedly visited Sening Ujong (former name of present-day Sungai Ujong) before reaching a fishing village at the mouth of the Bertam River (former name of the Melaka River), and founded what would become the Malacca Sultanate. Over time this developed into modern-day Malacca Town. According to the Malay Annals, here Parameswara saw a mouse deer outwitting a dog resting under a Malacca tree. Taking this as a good omen, he decided to establish a kingdom called Malacca. He built and improved facilities for trade. The Malacca Sultanate is commonly considered the first independent state in the peninsula.

Srivijaya Civilization Thailand

The Wiang Sa Inscription (Thai Peninsula) dated 775 AD reads: “Victorious is the king of Srivijaya, whose Sri has its seat warmed by the rays emanating from neighbouring kings, and which was diligently created by Brahma, as if this God has in view only the duration of the famous Dharma.”

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand:While much of northern and eastern Thailand was controlled by the Angkor-based Khmers, “southern Thailand – the upper Malay Peninsula – was under the control of the Srivijaya empire, the headquarters of which is believed to have been located in Palembang, Sumatra, between the 8th and 13th centuries. The regional centre for Srivijaya was Chaiya, near modern Surat Thani. Remains of Srivijaya art can still be seen in Chaiya and its environs.” Srivijaya was a maritime empire that lasted for 500. It ruled a string of principalities in what is today Southern Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

Chaiya, near Present-day Surat Thani (685 kilometers south of Bangkok, jumping off area for Ko Samui), was a provincial capital of the Srivijaya Empire. Just north of Surat Thani city, Chaiya is the home of Wat Phra Boromathat, Thailand's most important monument from the Srivijaya period. Surrounded by walls and moats, this temple features a cloister with a large number of Buddhist images. At the center of the courtyard is an ancient Srivjaya-style stupa restored during the reign of King Rama V. Surat Thani is located on the Gulf of Thailand about equidistant between Bangkok and the Malaysian border.

When Srivijaya in Chaiya extended its sphere of influence, those cities became tributary states of Srivijaya. Srivijaya ruled a string of principalities in what is today southern Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Chaiya contains several ruins from Srivijaya times, and was probably a regional capital of the kingdom. Some Thai historians even claim that it was the capital of the kingdom itself for some time, but this is generally disputed. After Srivijaya lost its influence, Nakhon Si Thammarat became the dominant kingdom of the area. During the rule of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great of Sukhothai leader, Thai influence first reached Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south.

Fall of Srivijaya

By the early eleventh century, Srivijaya had been weakened by decades of warfare with Java and a devastating defeat in 1025 at the hands of the Chola, a Tamil (south Indian) maritime power. Chola launched an attack on Srivijaya, systematically plundering the Srivijayan ports along the Straits of Malacca, and even captured the Srivijayan king in Palembang. The reasons for this change in relations between Srivijaya and the Cholas are unknown, although it is theorised that plunder made up an essential part of the Chola political economy. While 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. [Source: noelbynature, southeastasianarchaeology.com, June 11, 2007]

The successful sack and plunder of Srivijaya had left it in a severely weakened state that marked the beginning of the end of Srivijaya. Having lost its wealth and prestige from the Chola attack, the port cities of the region started to initiate direct trade with China, shrugging off the exclusive influence Srivijaya once held over them. Towards the end of Srivijaya’s influence, the power centre of Srivijaya began to oscillate between Palembang and neighbouring Jambi, further fragmenting the once-great empire. Other factors included Javanese invasion westwards toward Sumatra in 1275, invading the Malayu kingdoms. Later towards the end of the 13th century, the Thai polities from the north came down the peninsula and conquered the last of the Srivijayan vassals.

Despite its influence and reach,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, determined as the centre of power for Srivijaya poses a special problem for archaeologists, for if the modern settlement 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. As the 19th-century naturalist Alfred Wallace described it, Palembang is a populous city several miles long but only one house wide!

By way of a quick epilogue, the story of Srivijaya ends where the story of the Malacca Sultanate begins. The Sejarah Melayu, or Malay Annals, begins with a story about Raja Chulan —perhaps an allusion to the king (Raja) of the Cholas, whose sack of Srivijaya led to its ultimate downfall. The annals go on to relate the appearance of three princes at Bukit Seguntang in Palembang, one of whom eventually founds a city of Singapura in Temasek before establishing Malacca further north.

As Srivijaya’s hegemony ebbed, a tide of Javanese paramountcy rose on the strength of a series of eastern Java kingdoms beginning with that of Airlangga (r. 1010–42), with its kraton at Kahuripan, not far from present-day Surabaya, Jawa Timur Province. A number of smaller realms followed, the best-known of which are Kediri (mid-eleventh to early thirteenth centuries) and Singhasari (thirteenth century), with their centers on the upper reaches of the Brantas River, on the west and east of the slopes of Mount Kawi (Gunung Kawi), respectively. In this region, continued population growth, political and military rivalries, and economic expansion produced important changes in Javanese society. Taken together, these changes laid the groundwork for what has often been identified as Java’s—and Indonesia’s— “golden age” in the fourteenth century. In Kediri, for example, there developed a multilayered bureaucracy and a professional army. The ruler extended control over transportation and irrigation and cultivated the arts in order to enhance his own reputation and that of the court as a brilliant and unifying cultural hub. The Old Javanese literary tradition of the kakawin (long narrative poem) rapidly developed, moving away from the Sanskrit models of the previous era and producing many key works in the classical canon. Kediri’s military and economic influence spread to parts of Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2014

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