Pre-Moslem Indonesia

   by Charles Kimball

When Funan fell under Khmer rule, the Indochina trade was taken up by other states. The one in the best location was Srivijaya, on the southeastern coast of Sumatra near both the Malacca and Sunda straits. It was probably in existence as a kingdom before the collapse of Funan, but the first record that mentions Srivijaya is the travel diary of I-ching, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who visited in 671 and praised its capital, Palembang, for its 1,000 monks and an excellent library of holy texts.

One hundred years later Srivijaya not only ruled Sumatra but also the Malay peninsula and western Java, giving it almost complete control over the Indochina trade. And with the growth of powerful new states eager to trade with one another (the Tang dynasty of China and the Islamic caliphates of the Middle East), Srivijaya could look forward to a prosperous future.

Srivijaya never forgot that its prosperity came from abroad. The Srivijayans kept the Chinese friendly with diplomacy, sending merchants to the Chinese court in the guise of vassals offering tribute. To supplement their income as middlemen, local industries were developed in pepper, nipa mats, tortoiseshell, beeswax, aromatic woods, and camphor. The Orang Asli (Forest People) were hired to gather the wood and locate the diseased trees that are the source of camphor, and the Malaccan pirates ( Orang Laut or Sea People) were recruited into the Srivijayan navy, to defend the straits rather than plunder them. All of their vassals and allies, on land and sea, were taught that the Srivijayan kings were sons of the gods, and that they had the power to strike down anyone guilty of treason. This idea soon became so widely believed that servants of the monarch routinely committed suicide upon his death.

Despite all this, Srivijaya did have to deal with competition, and the most aggressive competitor was the kingdom of Mataram, in central and eastern Java. Mataram's first important king was Sanjaya (732-750), who went forth with his fleet to raid everyone within reach, including Srivijaya, Chenla, and even China. At first the Srivijayans could not resist this threat, but a few years later a second dynasty, the Sailendras, arose in Java. Because the Sailendras were Buddhists, while Sanjaya and his successors were Hindus, Srivijaya and the Sailendras quickly became friends. The Sailendras probably received aid from Srivijaya when they overthrew their rivals in 775. Then Srivijaya and Mataram's new ruler cemented good relations with a treaty and a royal marriage. By 860 the ruler of Srivijaya was also a Sailendra, boasting of his Javanese ancestors.

Whereas Srivijaya depended on trade for its wealth, Mataram was an agriculture-oriented society. Its monarchs showed their devotion to Buddhism by constructing the Borobudur temple in the center of Java. Immense by any measure, Borobudur is a five-layered step pyramid containing two million cubic feet of stone, 73 bell-shaped shrines ("stupas"), and 1460 bas-reliefs. Srivijaya, by contrast, was so preoccupied with commerce that it built no enduring monuments of any kind.

Borobudur was not meant to be a place of worship, but a guide to enlightenment. Going around the rim on each level is a sunken pathway, lined on both sides with reliefs showing scenes from the Buddha's life. Each stage up, the Buddha becomes less involved with the things of this world. The pilgrim who follows all five corridors (a 3-mile walk) emerges on a platform open to the sky, leaving the earth behind. On this platform are three smaller platforms, circular to represent perfection. This is where the stupas stand; each shrine contains an image of the Buddha, partially obscured by stone screens because a mortal can only half understand the Buddha. The highest and largest shrine has solid walls, because the image inside is beyond human understanding.

Despite all this effort, devotion to the Buddha was on the way out, just as it was in Champa, Cambodia, and post-Gupta India. By 850 the Sailendra monarchs of Mataram had converted to the Saivite sect of Hinduism, which teaches that the king is an avatar or living incarnation of the god Shiva, and they started building Hindu temples to match Borobudur, 50 miles away. Because the Srivijayans were still Buddhists, the alliance cooled. When Mataram was overthrown by a rival, the prince of Kediri (a city near Mataram), in 928, the Javanese went back to their old habit of raiding. So hostile did relations become that Srivijayan ambassadors went to China in 992, pleading for aid against the Javanese pirates. The Chinese declined to intervene.

More trouble was coming. Srivijaya's principal customers, China and the Abbasid Caliphate, went to pieces in the early tenth century, causing an economic slump. Then in 1030 came a devastating raid from the Chola Empire of south India; Srivijaya was forced to pay tribute to the Cholas until 1190. There was some recovery in the 12th-early 13th centuries, but the country never prospered the way it did before. The Orang Laut became pirates again, since they could no longer make an honest living. The end came sometime after 1230, when Srivijaya lost control over the all-important waterways. No details are available, but when Marco Polo visited Sumatra in 1292, he found the island divided into eight states, none of them claiming to be the old trading empire.

Meanwhile Java was undergoing problems of its own. In 1016 Kediri was destroyed; no details are available to describe what happened, but an inscription written in 1041 called it "the destruction of the world." The kingdom was restored by the dead king's son-in-law Airlangga, but he then undid his achievement by dividing his kingdom between his two sons to keep them from quarreling over a single throne. Nearly two centuries of strife followed.

Conditions began to improve at last when an adventurer named Angrok overthrew the last Kediri prince in 1222, founding a new kingdom called Singosari. At this time a political and economic vacuum existed in Indonesia, and the new Javanese kings eagerly filled it. The most powerful Singosari king, Kertanagara (1268-92), imposed his authority on the nearest islands: Madura, Bali, the lesser Sundas, and the southern half of Sumatra. But he went too far in 1289, when he mistreated Kublai Khan's envoy, who came from China to demand submission to the Mongol Empire. The Mongols organized a punitive expedition, but Kertanagara was killed by a Kediri rebel, Jayakatwang, before they arrived. Jayakatwang in turn was quickly thrown out by Kertanagara's son-in-law, Kertarajasa, who used the Mongols to defeat Jayakatwang and then turned against them and drove them back into the sea. A new capital city was established at Majapahit. The new king spent the rest of his reign putting down rebellions, with the help of a fine general named Gajah Mada. His reign came to an untimely end, however, when he took Gajah Mada's wife and put her in his harem; the next time the king needed an operation Gajah Mada made sure the doctors cut too deeply. Gajah Mada was the prime minister during the reign of Kertarajasa's daughter (1329-1350), and in these years Majapahit became the center of an empire. Historians have debated the actual extent of Majapahit's empire; some say it encompassed all of modern Indonesia and Malaysia, while others say it only ruled a few key islands directly (Java, Madura, and Bali?) and merely dominated the seas around the rest.

Hayam Wuruk's reign (1350-1389) was the most glorious period in Java's history, thanks in part to the power behind the throne, Gajah Mada. Most of Hayam Wuruk's reign was a time of peace and cultural development, but it began with a dramatic incident. In 1351 Hayam Wuruk asked the still-independent king of Sunda for a daughter to marry. Delighted at the prospect of becoming father-in-law to Indonesia's most powerful monarch, the king agreed. He came with the princess and a splendid retinue to a Javan city named Bubat, where both kings agreed to have the wedding. But Gajah Mada did not approve of the marriage. Just before it was to take place, he intervened and told the king of Sunda that the bride was not the object of a political alliance, but an object of tribute being given by a vassal to his overlord. Realizing that he had been neatly trapped, the king tried to back out of the marriage with the help of his guards, but the Majapahit guards were prepared for this. The king of Sunda and his retinue were overpowered and slain. No record tells us whether the bride lived through the massacre to take part in the marriage. If she did, she must have died soon afterwards, for she is never mentioned in later inscriptions.

The "Bubat bloodbath" ended the period of conquest. Hayam Wuruk devoted the rest of his reign to building new temples, as evidence that a new period of history had begun. Gajah Mada hired a poet named Prapanca to compose an epic poem, the Nagarakertagama , in praise of the "misunderstood empire-builder." In addition to this, Gajah Mada kept busy with so many other activities that when he died in 1364, a state council decided that no one could replace him, and divided his functions among four ministers. Java enjoyed trade and good relations with every part of the Far East except Sumatra, which launched a short-lived rebellion to restore Srivijaya in 1377.

Java promptly crushed the rebellion, but then declined rapidly. Hayam Wuruk left no son by his queen, so he divided Java between two sons of concubines. As might be expected, a civil war broke out between them, and unity was not restored until 1406. In Sumatra a Chinese pirate named Liang Daoming took Palembang and made it his base of operations, raiding local shipping until a Chinese fleet came and removed him in 1407. The Chinese returned Palembang to Majapahit, but according to their own records the empire now existed in name only. Almost no records exist to tell us about Indonesia's history in the 15th century, but what we have suggests that there was civil strife in every reign. Javanese tradition asserts that Moslems overran all of Java in 1478, but this is not entirely true; an inscription mentions a Hindu king named Ranavijaya as late as 1486. When the Portuguese arrived in the area, they wrote that the coast of Java had a number of petty Moslem states, while a heathen named Pateudra (Pati Udara?) ruled the interior. Pateudra's reign ended in 1518 (or 1527?) when he was overthrown by a nearby sultan, and with that event Indonesia's pre-Islamic history comes to an end. The culture of Majapahit, however, is still alive on Bali, an island of ancient traditions in a Moslem sea.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball