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Srivijaya was a maritime trade center. Source: Anandajoti / CC BY-SA 3.0

Whatever Happened to Srivijaya, Forgotten Maritime Trade Center?

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Srivijaya (often referred to as the Srivijaya Empire) was a thalassocracy (meaning a maritime/sea-based state) that flourished between the 7th and 13th centuries AD. This state was based on the island of Sumatra (today part of Indonesia) and became a dominant power in the area, extending its influence to the neighboring island of Java and the Malay Peninsula. Although the rulers of Srivijaya used conquest to extend their kingdom’s influence, it was not their primary method of doing so.

Instead, it was through trade that Srivijaya grew powerful, not to mention wealthy. In fact, Srivijaya is remembered more for its trade relations than for its military conquests, especially when compared to the more aggressive Majapahit, which was based on Java.

Unfortunately, Srivijaya is largely forgotten today, especially outside the region of Southeast Asia. Moreover, even in Indonesia and Malaysia, the existence of this state was mostly forgotten for a long time after its collapse.

The name ‘Srivijaya’ is a combination of two Sanskrit words, ‘sri’, which means ‘shining’ or ‘radiant’, and ‘vijaya’, meaning ‘victory’ or ‘excellence’. This state is known by various names, depending on the sources.

For instance, the Chinese referred to it as Sanfotsi, or San Fo Qi, whereas the Arabs called it Zabag. In addition, it was known as Melayu by the Khmer, and Yavadesh and Javadeh in Sanskrit and Pali respectively.

I Ching Travels to Srivijaya

The earliest reference to Srivijaya is found in the writings of I Ching (also transliterated as Yi jing), a Chinese pilgrim. I Ching was a Buddhist monk who lived during the Tang dynasty. In 671 AD, he set sail (on a Persian boat) from the port of Guangfu (known today as Guangzhou) and began his journey to India. His destination was the famous Buddhist university at Nalanda, in Bihar (an eastern state of modern India), where he could further his studies in Buddhism.

The depiction of I Ching (also known as I-Tsing or Yi Jing) 7th century pilgrim that visited Srivijaya. (Gunkarta / CC BY-SA 4.0)

I Ching was certainly not the first Chinese pilgrim to India, as many monks had already made the journey before him. He was a great admirer of two Buddhist pilgrims in particular, Fa Xian, who made the trip to India during the 4th/5th century AD, and Xuan Zang, a close contemporary of I Ching.

Unlike his predecessors, however, I Ching decided to journey to India by sea. The land route, which would have taken him across Central Asia and the Himalayas, was not an option at that time, due to the political turmoil in Tibet and Afghanistan.

Although I Ching’s travel records have attracted less attention from scholars than those of Fa Xian and Xuan Zang, they serve as a key source of information for Srivijaya. It may be added that the archaeological evidence for Srivijaya is scarce, so much so that some scholars even doubted its existence. Moreover, the people of Srivijaya seem to have not written much about themselves (or if they did, those records are not known to have survived).

In any case, after 22 days of sailing, I Ching arrived at a place commonly accepted by scholars to be Palembang, on the island of Sumatra and this was the heart of Srivijaya. The monk stayed there for six months, learning Sanskrit grammar and the Malay language. From this, we can deduce that Srivijaya was a major center of Buddhist scholarship in the region.

I Ching himself reported that Srivijaya was home to more than a thousand Buddhist scholars. After his stay in Palembang, I Ching continued his travels, spending a year studying Sanskrit at the Buddhist temple of Vahara at the port of Tamralipti (on the delta of the Ganges River), before heading for Nalanda.

Yi jing's travel map, including Srivijaya. (Lofor / Public Domain)

I Ching stayed in Nalanda for 11 years, before traveling back to China by sea. On his way back, the monk stopped at Srivijaya again, and this time stayed in Palembang for about eight years. During this period, the monk translated the manuscripts he had collected at Nalanda, and completed two works of great importance, The Record of Buddhism As Practiced in India Sent Home from the Southern Seas, and The Memoirs of Eminent Monks who Visited India and Neighbouring Regions in Search on the Law during the Great Tang Dynasty.

These two works were sent back to China from Srivijaya in 692 AD. An interesting incident happened to I Ching in 689 AD. In that year, the monk ran out of ink and paper, which apparently were not available in Srivijaya at that time and went to the port to send a letter home requesting these items. While he was drafting his message, the ship unexpectedly set sail, with I Ching on board.

As a result, the monk went home to China, where he recruited four assistants before sailing back to Srivijaya. The unavailability of ink and paper in Srivijaya seems a bit strange, considering that it was center of Buddhist learning.

Excerpt of a scroll from Yi jing's ‘Buddhist Monastic Traditions of Southern Asia’. (Bamse / Public Domain)

Ancient Srivijayan Writing

The unavailability of ink and paper in Srivijaya may lead to the speculation that the state did not possess any writing system, and hence did not need these writing materials. This idea, however, is not true, as a number of stone inscriptions have been found in Palembang. Apart from the ones in Palembang, Srivijayan stone inscriptions have also been discovered in the southern part of Sumatra.

Curiously, such inscriptions have not been found in other parts of the region where Srivijaya exerted its influence, including the northern part of Sumatra, Java, and the Malay Peninsula. An example of a Srivijayan stone inscription is the Talang Tuo inscription, which was discovered in 1920 by Louis Constant Westernenk at the foot of Bukit Seguntang (Seguntang Hill), within the vicinity of Palembang.

The inscription, which is dated to 684 AD, contains 206 words which are divided between Old Malay (117 words) and Sanskrit (89 words), and was written in a script called ‘Pallava’ (due to its similarities with the script of the Pallava charters from the same period). This inscription was set up by Dapunta Hyang (which is a Malay title equivalent to ‘king’) Sri Jayanasa in commemoration of his establishment of a public park called Sri Ksetra for the well-being of all living creatures.

The Talang Tuo inscription was not the only stone inscription erected by Sri Jayanasa. As a matter of fact, all 10 of the major Srivijayan stone inscriptions that we know of were set up during Sri Jayanasa’s reign, which makes it seem as though no other Srivijayan rulers recorded their proclamations on stone. In any case, these inscriptions are another valuable source of information for the history of Srivijaya and provides an insider’s view of the state, albeit one coming from the ruling class.

The content of the Talang Tuo inscription is somewhat different from the other stone inscriptions, as many of them were actually oaths of loyalty to the king. Another inscription that does not contain an oath of loyalty is the Kedutan Bukit inscription, which is dated to 683/2 AD. According to this inscription, Sri Jayanasa launched a military expedition with a land army and a fleet.

The Talang Tuo inscription of Srivijaya. (Gunkarta / CC BY-SA 3.0)

One interpretation states that although the Srivijayan king controlled Palembang, the interior of the island was not yet under his control. Therefore, the expedition was meant to bring the area under Srivijayan rule. Another interpretation focuses on the word siddhayatra, which may be translated to mean ‘magical arts’ or ‘good luck or beatitude’.

As Sri Jayanasa’s expedition was aimed at gaining siddhayatra, this interpretation claims that the inscription records a pilgrimage performed by the king, probably to Bukit Seguntang. In either case, Sri Jayanasa was successful in his mission, which brought Srivijaya prosperity and power.

Srivijaya Becomes a Major Power

Indeed, in the centuries that followed, Srivijaya became a major power in the region. The expansion of Srivijaya into Java and the Malay Peninsula meant that the entire Straits of Malacca was under its control.

This in turn meant that that the state held the choke-point between China and India on the maritime Silk Route and grew rich by levying taxes on the merchant ships that were sailing through its territory. In addition, Arab and Chinese documents record that Srivijaya was a source of forest products and aromatics.

As these valuable items were found in Sumatra’s hinterland, it would have been necessary for Srivijaya to exert its influence in this area, so that these goods could be brought to its ports. The might of Srivijaya was felt beyond the island of Sumatra as well. For instance, the Srivijayan rulers exerted their influence on smaller, neighboring kingdoms, like the Sailendra dynasty of Central Java, which commissioned the construction of Borobudur.

The Borobudur completed under the reign of Samaratunga, Srivijayan ruler of the Sailendra dynasty. (CEphoto Uwe Aranas / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Decline of the Srivijaya Empire

Srivijaya’s fortunes, however, were not to last. In 1025, Rajendra Chola I, the ruler of the Chola dynasty of Tamil Nadu in southern India, launched a military expedition against Srivijaya. One of their main ports, Kedah, which is in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula, was captured, and occupied for some time. In the next two decades, the Cholas conducted raids on Srivijaya.

Although the Srivijayans were able to fend off the invaders, they were severely weakened. The Chola invasion was such a momentous event in the region’s history that memory of this incident was preserved in the Malay Annals, though in an interestingly garbled version.

In this literary work, which was composed in Malacca during the 15th/16th century, the Chola king is known as Raja Culan. He is said to have been a powerful ruler whose kingdom stretched from east to west, excluding China. Therefore, Raja Culan desired to conquer China and prepared a military expedition for that purpose.

The Malay Annals, tells of the Chola invasion of Srivijaya. (Anjang Akuan~commonswiki / Public Domain)

When Raja Culan arrived in Temasik (the old name of Singapore), news of his invasion reached the emperor of China, who summoned his ministers to decide on what to do. The prime minister suggested that a leaky ship manned by elderly men be sent to meet Raja Culan in Temasik. Several trees bearing fruit were placed in the ship and the men given needles.

When the ship arrived in Temasik, the men were brought to Raja Culan, who inquired about the distance from the island to China. The men replied that when they left China, they were young men and had planted some seeds on the ship, which grew into trees and bore fruit.

Moreover, the needles they had with them were once iron rods that were as thick as their arms. When Raja Culan heard their reply, he canceled his plan to invade China. Instead, he decided to explore the bottom of the sea, but that is another story.

The weakening of Srivijaya as a result of the Chola invasion meant that its grip over other regional powers had loosened. Nevertheless, in the next two centuries, Srivijaya continued to dominate the region. The Chola invasion also sent Palembang into decline.

By the late 8th century, the political capital was shifted to central Java, when the Sailendras rose to become the maharaja of Srivijaya. (Anandajoti / CC BY-SA 2.0)

This was hastened by the changing trade routes during the 11th century. As a consequence, another city, Jambi, which is situated further north of Palembang, became the principal city of Srivijaya. This is evident in Chinese documents, which record that between 1079 and 1088, Srivijaya sent ambassadors from both Palembang and Jambi.

In 1079, an ambassador each from Palembang and Jambi went to China. Two more embassies, one in 1082 and another in 1088, were sent to China by Jambi. This meant that by the 11th century, Jambi had taken over Palembang’s place as the main city of Srivijaya.

The end of Srivijaya occurred in 1288, when Palembang, Jambi, as well as much of the state fell to Singhasari. This was a kingdom based in eastern Java that became powerful as a result of Srivijaya’s weakening during the 11th century. Singhasari itself did not last for long, however, as Sumatra fell to the Majapahit in 1293, shortly after its conquest by Singhasari.

Nevertheless, it seems that the Srivijayan royal line continued even after its fall. According to tradition, the founder of Malacca (in the Malay Peninsula) was a Srivijayan prince from Palembang by the name of Parameswara.

Lastly, it may be said that Srivijaya was forgotten for a long time after its demise. By the beginning of the 20th century, it seemed that memory of this state was completely lost, even among the inhabitants of Sumatra. Srivijaya was re-discovered during the 1920s by George Coedès, a French scholar and epigraphist.

In 1918, Coedès published a paper that showed the existence of Srivijaya by linking the stone inscriptions, that were discovered, to the texts mentioning this state. Coedès’ research continued through in the decade that followed and is thus credited with resurrecting this forgotten civilization.

Top image: Srivijaya was a maritime trade center. Source: Anandajoti / CC BY-SA 3.0

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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