Little is known about Malaysia’s early history, but historians believe that as early as the first few centuries A.D. trade on the Strait of Malacca helped to create economic and cultural links among China, India, and the Middle East. Among the most powerful and enduring early kingdoms was Srivijaya, which ruled much of Peninsular Malaysia from the seventh to the fourteenth century with support from China and the Orang Laut (“men of the sea”) who originated from Peninsular Malaysia and were perhaps the region’s best sailors and fighters.

By the A.D. 2nd century. Europeans were familiar with Malaya, and Indian traders had made regular visits in their search for gold, tin and jungle woods. Within the next century Malaya was ruled by the Funan empire, centred in what’s now Cambodia, but more significant was the domination of the Sumatra-based Srivijayan empire between the 7th and 13th centuries. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD wrote in the Encyclopedia of Islamic History:“Sandwiched between the island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, the Strait of Malacca is the artery for commerce between China, Japan, India, Arabia and East Africa. In the Middle Ages, these Straits were the hub for trade and commerce just as much as they are today. Riding on the monsoons, ships from as far away as Canton, China visited Malacca from January to May. From July onwards, the monsoons reversed the flow of winds, facilitating the return of ships to India and Sri Lanka. The monsoon patterns in the Arabian Sea similarly allowed ships from Aden and East Africa to trade with Gujrat and the Malabar Coast of India.

“The interior of the Malay Peninsula is endowed with bountiful resources. Lush forests, coconut groves, a rich soil, an abundant supply of rain and a population endowed with perseverance, hard work and hospitality make this land an idyllic tropical resort. Through the ages, ships have used the coast of this peninsula to dock and transact business. If one were to visit this area around the year 1400, one would find Chinese, Indians, Omanis, Yemenis, Persians and Africans intermingling with traders from Sumatra, Java, Bali and Canton, exchanging goods and establishing trade relations. China exported silk, brocades, porcelain and perfumes. India offered hardwoods, carvings, precious stones, cotton, sugar, livestock and weapons. From the interior of Malaya came tin, camphor, ebony and gold. Sumatra provided rice, gold, black pepper and mace. Java was the source of dyes, spices and perfumes. Cloves were exported from the Malaccas and sandalwood came from Timor. Ceramics from China were a major commodity.

“Muslim merchants dominated international trade in the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the East China Sea. A common religion, impeccable business integrity and universal transaction laws based on the Shariah had enabled the Muslims to establish a trade network linking the coastlines of East Africa, southern Arabia, the Persian Gulf and the Malabar coast with the islands of Indonesia and the southern coast of China. As early as the 8th century, there was a Muslim trading post in Canton. The coastline of Malaya was cosmopolitan wherein merchants from Malabar, Arabia and Africa lived and interacted with the indigenous Malay population and Chinese mandarins.”

Early sultanates were called “harbor principalities. Some became rich from controlling the trade of certain products or serving as way station on trade routes. The Malay Peninsula was known to ancient Tamils as Suvarnadvipa or the "Golden Peninsula". It was shown on Ptolemy's map as the "Golden Khersonese". He referred to the Straits of Malacca as Sinus Sabaricus. Trade relations with China and India were established in the 1st century BC. In the early centuries of the first millennium, the people of the Malay Peninsula adopted the Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, religions which had a major effect on the language and culture of those living in Malaysia. The Sanskrit writing system was used as early as the 4th century.[Source: Wikipedia]

Malaysia and Funan, the Khmers and Chams

According to Khmer history, the earliest known civilisation was the 1st century Indianised-Khmer culture of Funan, in the Mekong Delta. The Khmer empire of Angkor was the last before the kingdom fled to various places seeking refuge. Palembang and later Malacca were among the places. Archeological evidences found that inhabitants of early Cambodia were peoples of Neolithic culture. They possessed good technical skills while the more advanced groups, who lived near the coast and in the lower delta of Mekong, cultivated irrigated rice. It is believed that they were the ancestors of the people living in insular Southeast Asia and islands of Pacific Ocean. They were also knowledgeable in iron and bronze works as well as possessing good navigational skills. (Source: Based on information from John F. Cady, Southeast Asia: Its Historical Development, New York, 1964.)

The similarity of the Cambodian Cham language and the Malay language can be found in names of places such as Kampong Cham, Kambujadesa, Kampong Chhnang, etc. and Sejarah Melayu clearly mentioned a Cham community in Parameswara's Malacca around 15th century. Cham is related to the Malayo-Polynesian languages of Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and the Philippines. In mid 15th century, when Cham was heavily defeated by the Vietnamese, some 120,000 were killed and in the 17th century the Champa king converted to Islam.

In 18th century the last Champa Muslim king Pô Chien gathered his people and migrated south to Cambodia while those along the coastline migrated to the nearest peninsula state Terengganu, approximately 500 kilometers or less by boat, and Kelantan. Malaysian constitution recognises the Cham rights to Malaysian citizenship and their Bumiputera status. Now that the history is interlinked, there is a possibility that Parameswara's family were Cham refugees who fled to Palembang before he fled to Tumasik and finally to Malacca. Interestingly, one of the last Kings of Angkor of the Khmer Empire had the name Paramesvarapada.

Early Malaysian Kingdoms

In the A.D. first millennium Malay's became the dominant race on the peninsula. The small early states that were established were greatly influenced by Indian culture. Indian influence in the region dates back to at least the 3rd century B.C. After the A.D. 3rd century, Buddhism took hold in Sumatra and Java and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Borneo and remained strong until the massive conversion to Islam in the 15th century.

In the first millennium Chinese chronicles mention several coastal cities or city-states, however they don't give exact geographical location, so the identification of these cities with the later historical cities is difficult. The most important of these states were Langkasuka, usually considered a precursor of the Pattani kingdom; Tambralinga, probably the precursor of the Nakhon Si Thammarat kingdom, or P'an-p'an in Phunphin district Surat Thani, probably located at the Bandon Bay Tapi River. The cities were highly influenced by Indian culture, and have adopted Brahman or Buddhist religion.

There were numerous Malay kingdoms in the 2nd and 3rd century, as many as 30, mainly based on the Eastern side of the Malay peninsula. Among the earliest kingdoms known to have been based in what is now Malaysia is the ancient empire of Langkasuka, located in the northern Malay Peninsula and based somewhere in Kedah. It was closely tied to Funan in Cambodia, which also ruled part of northern Malaysia until the 6th century. According to the Sejarah Melayu ("Malay Annals"), the Khmer prince Raja Ganji Sarjuna founded the kingdom of Gangga Negara (modern-day Beruas, Perak) in the 700s. Chinese chronicles of the A.D. 5th century speak of a great port in the south called Guantoli, which is thought to have been in the Straits of Malacca. In the 7th century, a new port called Shilifoshi is mentioned, and this is believed to be a Chinese rendering of Srivijaya. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to Kedah Annals, Kadaram (Kedah Kingdom 630-1136) was founded by Maharaja Derbar Raja of Gemeron, Persia around 630 CE, and also alleged that the bloodline of Kedah royalties coming from Alexander The Great. The other Malay literature, Sejarah Melayu too alleged that they were the descendants of Alexander The Great. [Source: Wikipedia]

Shrivijaya Kingdom

In the 7th century the powerful Shrivijaya kingdom in Sumatra spread to Malay peninsula and introduced a mixture of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. Shrivijaya was a maritime empire based in Sumatra that lasted for 500 years from the 8th century to the 13th century. It ruled a string of principalities in what is today Southern Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. When Srivijaya in Chaiya extended its sphere of influence, those cities became tributary states of Srivijaya.

The site of Srivijaya's centre is thought be at a river mouth in eastern Sumatra, based near what is now Palembang. For over six centuries the Maharajahs of Srivijaya ruled a maritime empire that became the main power in the archipelago. The empire was based around trade, with local kings (dhatus or community leaders) swearing allegiance to the central lord for mutual profit. [Source: Wikipedia]

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.

Pattinapalai, a Tamil poem of the 2nd century CE, describes goods from Kedaram heaped in the broad streets of the Chola capital. 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.

At times, the Khmer kingdom, the Siamese kingdom, and even Cholas kingdom tried to exert control over the smaller Malay states. 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 A.D. 11th century 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. 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.

See Srivijaya Empire Under Indonesia, History

Majapahit Empire


In the 13th century the Malay peninsula was under the control of the Java-based Hindu Majapahit empire. The Majapahit Kingdom (1293-1520) was perhaps the greatest of the early Indonesian kingdoms. It was founded in 1294 in East Java by Wijaya, who defeated the invading Mongols. Under the ruler Hayam Wuruk (1350-89) and the military leader Gajah Mada, it expanded across Java and gained control over much of present-day Indonesia—large parts of Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Borneo, Lombok, Malaku, Sumbawa, Timor and other scattered islands—as well as the Malay peninsula through military might. Places of commericial value such as ports were targeted and the wealth gained from trade enriched the empire. The name Majapahit stems from the two words maja, meaning a type of fruit, and pahit, which is the Indonesian word for 'bitter'.

An Indianized kingdom, Majapahit was the last of the major Hindu empires of the Malay archipelago and is considered one of the greatest states in Indonesian history. Its influence extended over much of modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia though the extent of its influence is the subject of debate. Based in eastern Java from 1293 to around 1500, its greatest ruler was Hayam Wuruk, whose reign from 1350 to 1389 marked the empire's peak when it dominated kingdoms in Maritime Southeast Asia (present day Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines). [Source: Wikipedia]

The Majapahit Kingdom Empire was centered at Trowulan near the present-day city Surubaya in East Java. Some look upon Majapahit period as a Golden Age of Indonesian history. Local wealth came from extensive wet rice cultivation and international wealth came from the spice trade. Trading relations were established with Cambodia, Siam, Burma and Vietnam. The The Majapahits had a somewhat stormy relationship with China which was under Mongol rule.

Hinduism fused with Buddhism were the primary religions. Islam was tolerated and there is evidence that Muslims worked within the court. Javanese kings rules in accordance with wahyu, the belief that some people had a divine mandate to rule. People believed if a king misruled the people had to go down with him. After Hayam Wuruk’s death the Majapahit Kingdom began to decline. It collapsed in 1478 when Trowulan was sacked by Denmark and the Majapahit rulers fled to Bali, opening the way to Muslim conquest of Java.

Majapahit flourished at the end of what is known as Indonesia's "classical age". This was a period in which the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism were predominant cultural influences. Beginning with the first appearance of Indianised kingdoms in the Malay Archipelago in the A.D. 5th century, this classical age was to last for more than a millennium, until the final collapse of Majapahit in the late 15th century and the establishing of Java's first Islamic sultanate at Demak. [Source: ancientworlds.net]

See Majapahit Empire Under Indonesia, History

Islam Comes to Malaysia

Islam was introduced to Malaysia by Arab, Persian and Indian traders who controlled trade on the Strait of Malacca. For the most part the process was peaceful; The people who brought Islam were traders first and missionaries second. Most were Sunnis. Shiites came later. Hinduism and Buddhism were already well rooted in Southeast Asia at the time.

Islam came to the Malay Archipelago via Arab and Indian traders in the 13th century, ending the age of Hinduism and Buddhism. It arrived in the region gradually, and became the religion of the elite before it spread to the commoners. The Islam in Malaysia was influenced by previous religions and was originally not orthodox.

Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD wrote in the Encyclopedia of Islamic History: Around the year 1390, a prince from Java, Parameswara, was forced to flee his homeland. Landing on the west coast of Malaya with a loyal following of about a thousand young men, the prince lived off piracy for almost ten years. At that time, Siam (modern Thailand) was the imperial power in the area. Parameswara drove out the Siamese and established the town of Malacca in 1403. The name Malacca derives from the Arabic word Malakut-meaning market place. The Arabs had maintained a trading colony there since the 8th century.

“Once settled, the prince encouraged peaceful trade. The fame and fortune of the trading post grew until it attracted international attention. The Muslims dominated the trade in the Indian Ocean. Arabic had become the lingua franca of traders in this region. Islam was gaining a following in the islands of Indonesia. Across the Straits from Malacca, the powerful Muslim kingdom of Acheh was emerging. Local folklore has it that around the year 1405, Prince Parameswara fell in love with a princess from the court of Pasai, accepted Islam, married her and changed his name to Sultan Iskander Shah.

Thus it was love that brought Islam to Malaya. The bride brought with her good fortune for Malacca. The following year, the Emperor of China, Chu Tin (1403-24) sent a delegation under admiral Yin Ching, offering trade and friendship. The offer was gladly accepted as the Sultan was under increasing military pressure from the Siamese to the north. More courtly transactions followed. In 1409, the great Chinese admiral Zheng Yi (commonly known as Admiral Ho) visited Malacca at the head of a large flotilla of great ships. Admiral Zheng Yi was the greatest seaman of the 15th century. He was a Muslim. The Emperor of China, realizing the importance of Islam in the Indian Ocean region, had appointed him as Admiral of the great voyage. Zheng Yi continued with his flotilla to Acheh, Sri Lanka, Calicut, Bijapur, Hormuz, Aden, Jeddah, Zanj (East Africa), Zanzibar, Shofala and then southwards, crossing what is today the Cape of Good Hope to the west coast of Africa. Admiral Zheng Yi brought an invitation for Sultan Iskander Shah to visit Peking.

In 1411 Sultan Iskander Shah visited China, was warmly received and was given presents of silk, gems, horses, gold and silver. Malacca also received a “most favored nation status” from China and entered into mutual defense agreements to ward off further Thai encroachments into the Malay Peninsula. Upon his return, Sultan Iskander Shah ruled as a benevolent monarch. He invited Muslim scholars from as far away as Mecca, honored them and encouraged the spread of Islam. Malacca became not only the hub of international trade but also a center for Islamic learning and a rich prize that was to be fought over in succeeding centuries by emerging European Empires. Sultan Iskander Shah died in 1424. His grave is not to be found because the Portuguese, when they captured Malacca in 1510, they dug up the graves of all of the Sultans of Malaya and destroyed the tombstones. But the legacy of Sultan Iskander Shah lives. He was a prince who brought Islam to Malaya for the love of a beautiful princess.”

Malacca Sultanate

The commencement of the current Malay nation is often traced to the fifteenth-century establishment of Malacca (Malacca) on the peninsula’s west coast. Malacca’s founding is credited to the Srivijayan prince Sri Paramesvara, who fled his kingdom to avoid domination by rulers of the Majapahit kingdom.

Early Malaysian cities and states originated in the coast and then moved to interior. These traded expensively with Chinese traders, who began arrived in numbers in the 14th century. Groups such as the Acehese, the Bugis and the Mnangkabau fought for dominance over the peninsula.

Before colonization, Malaysia was ruled sultanas who ruled over fiefdoms. The largest and most powerful of these Malacca kingdom on the Malay peninsular that was dominant power 1400-1511. It vied with the Chinese and Thais for control of the region.

Malacca was founded in 1402 by Paramesvara, a prince who fled from Sumatra and established a port which attracted trading ships from as far away as China, India and the islands near New Guinea. These ships carried sandalwood, pearls, porcelain, silk, gold, tin , bird-of-paradise feathers and spices such as cloves, mace and nutmeg from the Spice Islands in what is now eastern Indonesia.

Malacca became an Islamic state after Prince Paramesvara converted to Islam. Malacca then became a major supply stop for ships traveling the trade routes between China and the Arab sultanates around the Persian Gulf.

By the late fourteenth century, Malacca had become an important commercial power and cultural influence along the Strait of Malacca, largely as a result of its numerous advantages as a trading port and its commercial and military alliances with China and the Malay kingdom of Bintan, an island near Singapore and home of the Orang Laut. When Muzaffar Shah became Malacca’s ruler in 1444, he declared the kingdom a Muslim state, and Malacca’s growing commercial, military, and political influence helped spread the Islamic faith throughout the region.

Malacca Sultanate and Parameswara

The port of Malacca on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula was founded in 1402 by Parameswara, a Srivijaya prince fleeing Temasek (now Singapore), who was claimed in the Sejarah Melayu to be a descendant of Alexander the Great. Parameswara in particular 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 Malacca 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.

At the time of Malacca's founding, the emperor of Ming Dynasty China was sending out fleets of ships to expand trade. Admiral Zheng He called at Malacca and brought Parameswara with him on his return to China, a recognition of his position as legitimate ruler of Malacca. In exchange for regular tribute, the Chinese emperor offered Malacca protection from the constant threat of a Siamese attack. The Chinese and Indians who settled in the Malay Peninsula before and during this period are the ancestors of today's Baba-Nyonya and Chetti community. According to one theory, Parameswara became a Muslim when he married a Princess of Pasai and he took the fashionable Persian title "Shah", calling himself Iskandar Shah. Chinese chronicles mention that in 1414, the son of the first ruler of Malacca visited the Ming emperor to inform them that his father had died. Parameswara's son was then officially recognised as the second ruler of Malacca by the Chinese Emperor and styled Raja Sri Rama Vikrama, Raja of Parameswara of Temasek and Malacca and he was known to his Muslim subjects as Sultan Sri Iskandar Zulkarnain Shah or Sultan Megat Iskandar Shah. He ruled Malacca from 1414 to 1424. Through the influence of Indian Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Hui people from China, Islam became increasingly common during the 15th century.

Power and Influence of the Malacca Sultanate

After an initial period paying tribute to the Ayutthaya, the kingdom rapidly assumed the place previously held by Srivijaya, establishing independent relations with China, and exploiting its position dominating the Straits to control the China-India maritime trade, which became increasingly important when the Mongol conquests closed the overland route between China and the west.

In 1405 the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho arrived in Malacca with promises to the locals of protection from the Siamese encroaching from the north. With Chinese support, the power of Malacca extended to include most of the Malay Peninsula. Islam arrived in Malacca around this time and soon spread through Malaya.

Within a few years of its establishment, Malacca officially adopted Islam. Parameswara became a Muslim, and due to the fact Malacca was under a Muslim Prince the conversion of Malays to Islam accelerated in the 15th century. The political power of the Malaccan Sultanate helped Islam’s rapid spread through the archipelago. Malacca was an important commercial centre during this time, attracting trade from around the region. By the start of the 16th century, with Malaccan Sultanate in the Malay peninsula and parts of Sumatra, the Sultanate of Demak in Java, and other kingdoms around the Malay archipelago increasingly converting to Islam, it had become the dominant religion among Malays, and reached as far as the modern day Philippines, leaving Bali as an isolated outpost of Hinduism today.

Malacca's reign lasted little more than a century, but during this time became the established centre of Malay culture. Most future Malay states originated from this period. Malacca became a cultural centre, creating the matrix of the modern Malay culture: a blend of indigenous Malay and imported Indian, Chinese and Islamic elements. Malacca's fashions in literature, art, music, dance and dress, and the ornate titles of its royal court, came to be seen as the standard for all ethnic Malays. The court of Malacca also gave great prestige to the Malay language, which had originally evolved in Sumatra and been brought to Malacca at the time of its foundation. In time Malay came to be the official language of all the Malaysian states, although local languages survived in many places. After the fall of Malacca, the Sultanate of Brunei became the major centre of Islam.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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