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How to Rule Peacefully through Trading: The Rise and Fall of the Forgotten Maritime Empire, Srivijaya

How to Rule Peacefully through Trading: The Rise and Fall of the Forgotten Maritime Empire, Srivijaya

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

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

The location of Srivijaya Kingdom Archeological Park within Palembang city, South Sumatra Province, Indonesia.

The location of Srivijaya Kingdom Archeological Park within Palembang city, South Sumatra Province, Indonesia. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

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

The gilded costume of South Sumatran Gending Sriwijaya dance invoked the splendor of the Srivijaya Empire.

The gilded costume of South Sumatran Gending Sriwijaya dance invoked the splendor of the Srivijaya Empire.  ( Public Domain )

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

Golden Tara of Agusan

Golden Tara of Agusan ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Srivijaya: Kingdom, Empire or Thalassocracy?

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

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

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Top Image: Statue of four handed Avalokiteçvara, ( CC BY-SA 3.0) with Talang Tuo, Srivijaya inscription in background ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ); Deriv.

By Martini Fisher

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