A brief history of the Srivijaya Empire, a maritime power based in Sumatra that controlled ancient Indonesia and the China-India trade routes.
The Straits of Malacca are often cited as the busiest commercial shipping route on Earth. Fly into any major airport along the Straits of Malacca today — be it Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, or Penang — and you will see the narrow strip of water (2.8 km at its narrowest) filled with dozens to hundreds of cargo ships.
This trend has remained unchanged for over 2000 years, when these waterways were also used in transit between the cultural goliaths of China and India, and were ruled over by the Srivijaya Empire.
Who Are the Srivijaya Empire?
The Srivijaya Empire was a thalassocracy (a seaborne empire) and a commercial sea-power that thrived between the 8th and 13th centuries. A large portion of this empire is what is now known as Indonesia. It was formed on the island of Sumatra, which had a strong influence on Southeast Asia.
Srivijaya, also known as Sri Vijaya or Sriwijaya, was a Buddhist empire in Indonesia. It was a seaborne empire and played an important role in the expansion of Buddhism between the 8th and 12th centuries. It was a powerful state at one point in time due to its excellent maritime resources and trade.
This article will overview the history and culture of the Srivijayan civilization. To know more about its historical background, religious practices, and rapid cultural and economic growth, keep reading.
Origins of the Srivijaya Empire
For well over 2000 years, the sea lanes between India and China have been maintained as a vital commercial shipping route. Just as massive amounts of freighters pass through the straits surrounding Malaysian peninsula today, ancient traders would likewise make similar voyages based on the predictable seasonal weather patterns.
Along the trade routes, small pockets of of locals began to adopt Indianized cultures, societal structures, and belief systems. Along the mainland Pacific coast, these included the Funan, Champa, and Tambralinga, while on the Indian Ocean coast, kingdoms flourished along the Straits of Malacca, including at Lembah Bujang in Northern Malaysia, and the Melayu Kingdom of Sumatra, which would later evolve into Srivijaya.
It is believed that the empire began around the year 500 in Sumatra. According to the Kedukan Bukit inscription, the empire of Srivijaya was founded by Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa. Under his leadership, a classical Malay Buddhist kingdom known as the Melayu kingdom became the first to be integrated with Srivijaya.
The empire was the first major Indonesian kingdom and also its first commercial sea power. It controlled the Strait of Malacca, and thereby the India-China trade route, gaining power over much of the trade at sea.
Though there are not many historical records to support this theory, historians believe that by the 7th Century CE, the kingdom of Srivijaya had established suzerainty over many areas belonging to Sumatra, Western Java, and the Malay Peninsula.
Srivijaya Name Origins
“Srivijaya” is derived from the Sanskrit words “sri” and “vijaya”. “Sri” is an honorific often translating roughly to “fortunate,” “prosperous,” or “glorious” and is commonly seen titles of individuals or place names (e.g., Sri Lanka, Sri Thep). “Vijaya” is most commonly translated as “triumph” or “victory”.
Historians believe that the empire may have been named after a king who shared the same name, H. Kern, an epigraphist and linguist, believed that the term “Vijaya” might have referred to a king’s name, with “Sri” being a title of respect.
The other variations in the spelling, such as Sri Vijaya and Sriwijaya, are based on the Sundanese and Javanese pronunciations.
Culture and Beliefs of the Srivijaya
The Srivijaya Empire prospered in a dense, tropical environment along coastal waterways and rivers. The civilization was regarded in both India and China for its Buddhist religious beliefs and practices. These elements blended together to form a culture wholly unique from its contemporaries on the mainland or even on the neighboring island of Java.
The kingdom was one of the most prominent religious centers in the region. The kings of Srivijaya played a major part in the expansion and establishment of Buddhism in many places that they conquered or interacted with, including Java and the Malay Peninsula.
Pilgrims of any religion were encouraged to spend time interacting with the monks in the capital city of Palembang, before heading for India. This included the famous Chinese monk Yijing, who made several stays in Palembang on his travels to and from India.
The Srivijayan realm had numerous Buddhist temples. It is believed that these sites served as monastic Buddhist learning centers, which students and scholars from all over Asia visited. Historians are convinced that Palembang alone housed over 1000 monks who had dedicated their lives to teaching and training traveling scholars in Buddhism.
While Mahayana Buddhism was the predominant form of Buddhism within Srivijaya, other forms of Esoteric Buddhism such as Vajrayana Buddhism were practiced as well. This was a mystical form of the religion and involved supernatural powers through yantras. This form of Buddhism originated in India but was possibly passed on to the empire because of strong trade connections between the two regions.
Unlike many of the other Indianized kingdoms in Southeast Asia, Srivijaya was not a culture of monumental builders. There are some examples of refined brick Buddhist architecture, such as the temple complexes at the Muaro Jambi and Muara Takus. However, most public and residential buildings, and settlements in general, were not heavily fortified cities, but rather wooden homes built either or with easy access to water.
Modern Palembang in Southern Sumatra was home to the ancient capital of Srivijaya. Surrounding the city are hundreds of artificial canals and islands which have yielded many Srivijaya artifacts. Populating these canals today are wooden homes that are built on stilts or floating on the water, mirroring in many ways the way their Srivijaya ancestors once lived.
Commercial trade flourished in the empire and brought with it a proliferation of art. Most of this was influenced by Buddhism in an attempt to spread the religion through the trade of art. Furthermore, the art of Srivijaya was greatly influenced by the Indian art of the Gupta and Pala empires.
Numerous Buddhist sculptures have been discovered by archaeologists in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Additionally, Chinese artworks were very popular in the kingdom, leading to an escalation in various art styles in pottery, fabrics, and silks.
History of the Srivijaya Empire
As a powerhouse of maritime influence and Buddhist culture, Srivijaya was a symbol of greatness and prosperity in the region for many centuries. However, the civilization remained almost entirely forgotten after its disappearance in the 1200s CE.
Although Srivijaya left few archaeological remains, the discovery of this ancient empire by the historian George Cœdès in the 1920s brought Indonesia’s former glory to light. It was also a frame of reference for how ancient globalization, maritime trade, and foreign relations had contributed to the history of the region and Indonesian civilization.
In the 20th century, Srivijaya — along with successors like Majapahit — was adopted by Indonesian nationalist intellectuals to prove the Indonesian identity within the state before the establishment of the Dutch colonial state.
Trade and Economic Power
Sumatra was known as the ‘Land of Gold’ due to its richness in natural resources. It was a source of cloves, camphor, tortoiseshell, pepper, aloeswood, and sandalwood, all of which contributed to the empire’s growing business of trade.
Srivijaya was the first Indonesian commercial sea power. It drew most of its riches and power from its considerable naval fleet and the maritime trade that fleet enabled. By the second half of the 7th Century CE, Srivijaya had become an important and wealthy regional power.
Using this naval power, Srivijaya controlled the Sunda and Malacca straits, taxing ships along the India-China trade routes until the 13th Century.
Expansion and Conquests of Srivijaya
Historians believe that Srivijaya conquered most of southern Sumatra and the neighboring islands. According to the inscriptions, the empire also launched a war against Java in the late 7th Century. By the end of the 8th century, many western Javanese kingdoms were under the rule of Srivijaya.
In the same century, Srivijaya managed to conquer Langkasuka on the Malay Peninsula. Within no time, the mainland polities of Pan Pan and Tambralinga also came under Srivijayan influence. All these kingdoms on the peninsula transported goods across the peninsula’s isthmus.
The Srivijayans’ Exploration
Between the 9th and 12th Centuries, explorers from the Srivijayan Empire had gone in search of new lands for trade and commercial development. Navigators, sailors, and traders engaged in trade with Borneo, Philippines archipelago, Eastern Indonesia, coastal Indochina, and Madagascar.
The migration to Madagascar is believed to have taken place around 830 CE. It is also speculated that the settlers from Srivijaya may have colonized Madagascar.
The Srivijayan explorers reached Manila by the 10th Century. A 10th-century Arab account called Ajayeb al-Hind records an invasion in Africa. The invaders are believed to have been the Malay people of Srivijaya. The main reason for this invasion was to acquire coveted African commodities like ivory and tortoiseshell for the Asian market. It is also presumed that they captured black slaves from Bantu tribes.
Geography of Srivijaya
The territories and cities controlled by Srivijaya were primed for easy access to the sea. Even in their homeland of Sumatra, the rulers of Srivijaya paid little attention to the affairs of the inland cultures. This seafaring nature instead brought them into contact with other oceangoing cultures, taking in new exotic ideas and spreading Srivijayan influence as far out as Philippines and Madagascar.
Srivijaya in Sumatra and Java
The maritime influence of Srivijaya was focused along the coastlines and riverways extending inland. Beyond this, the rulers of Srivijaya did not concern themselves too deeply with the affairs of their inland neighbors. Because of this, many inland cultures continued to thrive apart from the Indianized states, such as the Batak culture around Lake Toba or the megalithic culture of the Pasemah Highlands.
Meanwhile, Srivijaya had a strong relationship with Mataram, an inland culture based on Java. Mataram had more in common with mainland contemporaries, such as Dvaravati and Funan, in that they based their cultures on stable settlements and rice cultivation. They were also monumental builders in a way that the Srivijaya were not.
The dynamic of the relationship between Mataram and Srivijaya is still debated, however, there appears to be some periods where Mataram was also the dominant of the two.
Srivijaya in Mainland Southeast Asia
Although their center of power was in the islands of Sumatra and Java, Srivijaya had contact with, influence over, and even conflicts with the contemporary cultures of mainland Southeast Asia. As their power expanded, many of the small and formerly independent kingdoms were brought under the control of Srivijaya, including Indianized states such as Tambralinga, Chaiya, and Kedah in modern-day Thailand and Malaysia.
Srivijaya in China
Srivijaya was highly regarded as a both a powerful trade empire and bastion of Buddhism by the Chinese. Buddhist pilgrims from China seeing to travel to their religion’s roots in India would often pass through Srivijaya on their way. It was common practice for these pilgrims to remain in Srivijaya for up to two years studying scriptures and learning the language before continuing to India.
What Happened to the Srivijaya?
By the 11th Century CE, Srivijaya had been weakened due to continuous warfare with Java and the Chola dynasty from India. The Cholas systematically plundered the Srivijayan ports along the Malacca Strait, until they captured the Srivijayan king in Palembang.
These attacks marked the beginning of the end of the empire. Srivijaya slowly started to lose its unity and began to fragment. Finally, it lost its remaining power in 1288, when the Singhasari empire from East Java invaded their empire.
Despite its far-reaching influence, the empire quickly and suddenly disappeared into obscurity.
Cities of the Srivijaya
Muaro Jambi (Jambi)
GPS: -1.47763, 103.66707
GPS: -6.05634, 107.15491
GPS: 1.34789, 103.87427
Tambralinga (Nakhon Si Thammarat)
Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand
GPS: 8.41206, 99.96645
Surat Thani, Thailand
GPS: 9.38461, 99.18544
Monuments of the Srivijaya
Central Java, Indonesia
GPS: -7.60721, 110.20334
Candi Muaro Jambi
GPS: -1.47763, 103.66707
Candi Bahal Portibi Temples
North Sumatra, Indonesia
GPS: 1.40516, 99.73049
Surat Thani, Thailand
GPS: 9.3781, 99.19022
Name: Srivijaya Empire
Origin: Unified Indianized kingdoms that established economic control over the Straits of Malacca
Language: Ancient Malay
Religion: Buddhism (minor Hinduism)
Era: 7th-13th Centuries CE
Location: Centered on Sumatra, Java, and Peninsular Malaysia.
Decline: Attacks from the Chola dynasty weakened Srivijaya and they were soon replaced by more powerful Javanese kingdoms.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
Austronesian ethnic group native to Southeast Asia that once controlled the Hindu Champa civilization in the region of modern Vietnam. Today, the Cham people are a minority in Vietnam and largely practice Islam.
An Indianized Hindu kingdom in ancient Vietnam known for constructing Tháp Chàm, their iconic Cham Towers dedicated to Shiva and other Hindu deities.
Early period (6th-9th Centuries CE) of independent Khmer states before being united into the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman II.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.
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.
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.
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.
Empire based in Sumatra which controlled or influenced Buch of the Malay archipelago circa 600-1200 CE.
A maritime society that uses its navy to project power.
Sect of Buddhism that embraces tantric practices and mysticism.
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