Archaeological travel guide to the ruins and ancient historical sites of Palembang, the capital of the Srivijaya Empire and the oldest city in Indonesia.
The history of the city of Palembang in Sumatra, Indonesia, is a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of the Srivijaya Empire: enormous wealth, devout Buddhists, powerful sultans, fierce warriors, and even wily pirates. Today, Palembang is a regional center of the rubber trade and a diverse, modern city. What is the history of this ancient place?
Palembang, dating from the 7th Century CE, is the most ancient city in Indonesia and commonly cited as the second-oldest city of Southeast Asia. The city is famed as the seat of the Srivijaya Empire that ruled the Sumatra seas until the eleventh century, when it served as both a cultural and political power center throughout Maritime Southeast Asia.
The second-largest city in Sumatra, Palembang, has a long and varied history as a strategic hub of religious, political, and economic power. It has been the center of royal dynasties and occupied by various countries in their search for its agricultural and mineral wealth and strategic position. What makes Palembang such an important city?
The Story of Ancient Palembang
The origins of the city of Palembang stretch back into mythical times, stemming from a legend telling of a king with magical powers who led his army land and sea from Tamvan Delta, settling at a place called Matajap (now a district of the city). This tale comes from the Kedukan Bukit inscription, the oldest surviving example of the Malay language, written on a small stone and dated back to 683.
The Geography of Palembang and the Musi River
Early civilizations grew along rivers, and more commonly, where rivers meet the ocean. The early maritime cities of Indonesia were no exception, as this geography gave them access to navigable inland routes and fresh water, as well as the open trade and resources of the greater sea.
In contrast to the mountainous forests that run the length of central and eastern Sumatra, where isolated cultures like the Pasemah created megaliths to nature spirits, the southeastern coast is crisscrossed with jungle rivers that flow eastward, eventually emptying into the commercially and strategically important Strait of Malacca.
Building their towns up from the river lowlands of southern Sumatra’s the Srivijaya culture was in a unique position to take advantage of this geography. The Srivijaya rulers turned their elaborate irrigation system into fortifications for their cities and palaces, securing their position to control and monopolize the India-China maritime trade routes that had been traversing the Straits of Malacca for several centuries already.
In this process, the Srivijaya and their client kingdoms adopted Indianized culture, the Hindu-Buddhist religious traditions, and ultimately became one of the earliest powers of Southeast Asia.
Early Palembang as a Center of Buddhism
By the Seventh Century CE, Palembang was already a center of Buddhist learning, attracting monks and students from China, Java, and India. The first recorded evidence of the city of Palembang is from the diary of a Chinese Buddhist monk, who traveled to the city in 671 CE, and stayed for six months. Yi Jing (more famously known as I-Ching) wrote that there were more than 1,000 Buddhist monks in the city and advised Chinese monks to study Sanskrit in Palembang before proceeding on their pilgrimage to India.
The Srivijayan rulers of Palembang held both religious and political authority. For example, an inscription detailing a speech from a park dedication in 684 CE depicts a Srivijayan king, Sri Jayanasa, as a bodhisattva or someone who has already achieved the status of Buddha.
The Golden Age of the Srivijaya Empire
From the ninth to the eleventh centuries, the Srivijaya Empire ruled the Sumatran seas, from the Sunda Straits as far north as the Straits of Malacca. This meant they effectively controlled the trade routes between China, India, and even Arabia, trading goods such as silk and porcelain from China, nutmeg, sandalwood, and camphor from India, as well as ivory and tin.
This powerful sea-faring empire was based at the port of Palembang, which became an important international trade center. According to Sanskrit inscriptions and Chinese travelogues, the monsoon meant that traders from China and India had to wait in Palembang for the wind to change direction, so infrastructure such as lodging and entertainment developed.
The Srivijaya Empire also had political power, having the honor of being a vassal of the powerful Chinese Song dynasty and mediating between China and Malay states in the archipelago.
The power of the Srivijaya Empire waned in the eleventh century after attacks by other Javanese kingdoms. After an attack from the Indian Chola dynasty in 1025, the empire was further weakened and began losing dominance in the trade routes it had once owned. In 1288, Palembang was incorporated into the Singhasari Empire of East Java, and Prince Parameswara fled from his capital.
With the exception of their intricate canals, very little remains in the city today of Palembang’s golden age. However, evidence of its royal heritage can be found in the beautiful silver and gold songket cloths still produced today, along with the regal dances and opulent costumes on display in the city.
Srivijaya Kingdom Archaeological Park (Karanganyar Archaeology Site)
The Srivijaya Archaeological Park (Taman Purbakala Kerajaan Sriwijaya in Indonesia) is the main city center of the ancient Srivijaya capital. It is located at the former Karanganyar archaeology site and is the area where ancient Palembang’s palaces, most important temples, and homes of all the nobility were located.
However, upon arriving, you’ll notice there is very little to see but a single engraved tablet and a bunch of canals surrounding a park.
Ancient Palembang was not built of stone like many of its regional successors. The Srivijaya people, in a curious parallel to the surrounding neighborhoods today, built their homes of wood and other highly perishable materials on their own rivers and canals. Unlike stone and brick monuments, these wooden buildings effectively decay over the centuries, a process that is only accelerated by the tropical climate.
The highlight of the archaeological park is a small museum located near the entrance to the site that is arguably more informative regarding the ancient city than the actual city museum.
There is an elevated platform in the modern park that emphasizes this in an ironic way. It raises you high enough to see down some of the 1500-year-old canals. Yet, you see only the common homes of the modern residents of Palembang, which are, to put it politely, low-quality by most Western or international standards, yet evocative of what might have been seen during the Srivijayan period.
Bukit Siguntang Park (Taman Bukit Seguntang)
Siguntang Hill is the highest point in Palembang and has served as a culturally important spot in every period of the city’s history. During the Hindu-Buddhist Srivijaya era (and before), Siguntang Hill was tied into the symbolism of the metaphysical Mount Meru and played a central role in the founding legend of the city and, in some versions, it is even the place where the Malay people originated.
Its significance during the Srivijaya has been demonstrated by the tombs of 7 important Srivijayan rulers and the discovery of a number of artifacts found at the site. These include multiple religious carvings, inscriptions, and a 2.7-meter-tall Buddha statue carved from local granite in the Amaravati style. The statue was found in pieces, restored, and is now on display at the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum near the landmark Ampera Bridge.
In the later Majapahit and Malacca Sultanate Periods, the hill became more heavily populated and, at times, fortified.
Today the hill is a park containing both archaeological exhibits and a historic cemetery.
Candi Angsoko Temple-Tomb
Candi Angsoko is a former Hindu temple dating from the 7th-10th Centuries CE that is now entirely in ruins and surrounded by an empty residential lot. Found in the ancient temple was the remnant of a yoni, part of the traditional shrine found in Shiva temples. There is also the tomb of Prince Madi (either Ratu Madi or Madi Angsoko, depending on the source).
Although there is little worth seeing in visiting the ancient temple ruin today (I did not visit), the name lives on with the east-west street that now runs through the neighborhood, Jalan Candi Angsoko or “Angsoko Temple Street”.
Candi Gedingsuro Temple-Tomb
Candi Gedingsuro is one of the only ancient brick structures that still survives in Palembang to t
The Candi Gedinsuo complex (also spelled Gede Ing Suro) is located on the far eastern edge of modern Palembang city in an area mostly made up of swamplands. The complex consists of 7 brick (sometimes stone) buildings (Buildings A-G) built in a notably similar manner to their more elaborate counterparts at Muaro Jambi.
Several of the structures are constructed overtop burials and are grouped into 6 temples, with Buildings F and G together comprising Temple 1.
The Palembang Balaputradeva Museum seemed rudimentary to me when I first arrived. The countries of the Malay Archipelago have a mixed history of embracing their non-Muslim past. In a very general sense, Malaysia completely glosses over it. While they have museums and archaeological landscapes that acknowledge their Hindu past, there are also many documented incidents of such archaeology sites being accidentally paved over during new development — a news story that only comes after the fact.
However, my first impression of the museum was premature, and the Balaputradeva Museum ended up being more diverse and informative overall than the museums I had been to in either Medan or even Jakarta.
The exhibits at the Balaputradeva Museum convey several eras of the region’s history, not only of Palembang, but of great southern Sumatra. This includes the ancient Srivijaya centered in Palembang, along with the inland megalithic culture found in the Pasemah Highlands, and the later periods of Islamic Sultanates and European Colonization.
Of particular interest to me were the several examples of megaliths from the Pasemah culture, which I would be going to see in the following days. While the majority of the megalithic carvings have been left in situ (in place at their original location), the museum had a handful of interesting examples in their possession as well.
How to Get to Ancient Palembang
GPS Coordinates: -3.01548, 104.73446
Palembang is one of the largest cities in both Sumatra Island and the whole of Indonesia, making it easily accessible by both domestic and international flights. The city has a fledgling public transportation system, mostly in the form of buses, but it is not reliable for the visitor to get around to most destinations. However, these buses do run down the center highway artery of the city and, if you’re staying along that, it is useful to get to most of the most frequented sites, such as the Balaputradeva Museum, the city center, most shopping areas, and the tourist center around the Ampera Bridge.
During my visit, I found private taxis the most efficient option to get short distances within the city, including to local attractions both within the city center and outer areas of Palembang.
However, it should be noted that I scheduled many of my taxi trips (both within the city and long-distance to Pasemash Megaliths) from my hotel, which had English-speaking staff. It should also be noted that, at the time, they were obsessed with Instagram and everyone I met (hotel staff and locals at the archaeology sites) wanted pictures with the rare foreigner that was staying in Palembang.
Name: Ancient Palembang
Where: Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia
Location: -3.01548, 104.73446
Description: Palembang is the first urban center of the Indonesian archipelago.
Getting there: The ancient sites of Palembang are within the main city and easily accessible by taxi.
Cost: No entry charge to the main site, however, there is a small fee for the museum. (Plus any transportation costs).
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. It stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.
City in southern Sumatra, Indonesia and historic capital of the Srivijaya Empire founded in 671 CE.
Empire based in Sumatra which controlled or influenced much of the Malay archipelago circa 600-1200 CE.
Strait of Malacca
Narrow waterway between Sumatra and the Malaysian Peninsula that has been one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world throughout history.
A maritime society that uses its navy to project power.
Sect of Buddhism that embraces tantric practices and mysticism.