Srivijaya: A primer – Part 1

The first hint of a Sumatran-based polity was first alluded to by the eminent French scholar George Coedes 1918, based on inscriptions found in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. In this primer, we’ll talk about the Srivijayan empire, the extent of its influence and its eventual fall.

Victorious is the king of Srivijaya, whose Sri has its seat warmed by the rays emanating from neighbouring kings, and which was diligently created by Brahma, as if this God has in view only the duration of the famous Dharma.

– The Wiang Sa Inscription (Thai Peninsula) dated 775 AD.

With a reach spanning from Sumatra and Java to as far north as the Thai peninsula and a reign of some 600 years, it’s remarkable that what is now known as the Srivijaya empire was only unearthed relatively recently. The first hint of a Sumatran-based polity was first alluded to by the eminent French scholar George Coedes 1918, based on inscriptions found in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. In this primer, we’ll talk about the Srivijayan empire, the extent of its influence and its eventual fall.

The kingdom of Srivijaya, a name which translates to “shining victory”, was a Malay polity centred in Palembang in south Sumatra. At its height, its area of influence included neighbouring Jambi, to the north the kingdoms of the Malay Peninsula: Chitu, Pan-pan, Langkasuka and Kataha, as well as eastwards in Java, where links with the Sailendra dynasty and Srivijaya are implied. The same Sailendra dynasty was responsible for the construction of the massive Buddhist stupa of Borobudur between 780 and 825 AD.

Indeed, Srivijaya was considered to be one of the major centres of learning for the Buddhist world. In the 7th century, Yijing, a Buddhist monk who travelled between China and India to copy sacred texts mentioned the high quality of Sanskrit education in Palembang, and recommended that anyone who wanted to go to the university at Nalanda (north India) should stay in Palembang for a year or two to learn “how to behave properly”. Srivijaya’s prominent role in the Buddhist world can be found in several inscriptions around Asia: an inscription in Nalanda dated 850-860 AD described how a temple was built in Nalanda at the request of a king of Srivijaya. In the 11th century, a temple in Guangzhou in China received a donation from Srivijaya to help with the upkeep. The Wiang Sa inscription quoted above recounts how a Srivijayan king ordered the construction of three stupas in Chaiya, also in the Thai peninsula.

The Srivijayan empire controlled the important Strait of Melaka (Malacca) which facilitated trade between China and India. With its naval power, the empire managed to suppress piracy along the Malacca strait, making Srivjayan entrepots the port of choice for traders. Despite its apparent hegemony, the empire did not destroy the other non-Srivijayan competitors but used them as secondary sources of maritime trade. Srivijaya’s wide influence in the region was a mixture of diplomacy and conquest, but ultimately operated like a federation of port-city kingdoms. Besides the southern centre of power in Palembang, Arab, Chinese and Indian sources also imply that Srivijaya had a northern power centre, most probably Kataha, what is now known as Kedah on the western side of the Malay peninsula.

Kedah is now known for remains of Indian architecture at the Bujang Valley. This was due to the invasion by the Chola kingdom from South India – an invasion which ultimately led to the fall of Srivijaya. How did this happen? Look out for part 2 of Srivijaya: A primer.

Books about Srivijaya (and also the books I referred to):
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds) contains chapters on the classical cultures of Indonesia and the archaeology of the early maritime polities of Southeast Asia.
Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula by P. M. Munoz
Early History (The Encyclopedia of Malaysia) by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman (Ed) has several chapters on Srivijaya.
Sriwijaya: History, religion & language of an early Malay polity by G. Coedès and L. Damais

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

6 thoughts on “Srivijaya: A primer – Part 1”

  1. Wow.. I never knew that Chinese monk Yijing think very highly of Srivijaya… I wonder why we know so little about this great empire when everybody outside the Srivijaya realm was very fond of it…

  2. it’s probably because so little of Srivijaya exists – in fact, the idea that there was a polity called Srivijaya wasn’t “proven” until the early 20th century through inferences from Sanskrit inscriptions in the region. The capital of Srivijaya, which is thought to be Palembang, also stands on a long strip of swampland and it’s also hard to excavate any remains with current methods.

  3. I have what I belive is a very rear Srivijay Buddha given as a gift from Bangkok. Who could I send a picture and get more info and maybe a value.

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