Nalanda and the Southeast Asian connection

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If you’re in Singapore between now and March 2008, don’t miss a unique opportunity to drop by the Asian Civilisations Museum for a special exhibition called On the Nalanda Trail, which showcases Buddhism in India, China and Southeast Asia and traces the pilgrimages of three Chinese monks as they travel to India and back. I’ve written about the exhibition’s focus on China and India at yesterday.sg; here, I’ll write about the exhibition in relation to Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

Nalanda Trail - SEA section

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A short history of Indonesia

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13 July 2007 (Brunei Times) – Perhaps the Brunei Times is running a series about writing the short histories of different countries in Southeast Asia. Today, it publishes a short history of Indonesia – not particularly accurate, it gives a sense as if there were a series of empires that replaced one another, that Srivijaya was replaced by the Sailendra and the Mataram who in turn were replaced by the Majapahit. In reality, Srivijaya lasted all the way to the 12th century before getting run out of Sumatra by the Majapahit. (See my earlier article about Srivijaya.) The Sailendra empire also had dynastic links with Srivijaya. The article also makes no distinction between the shifts in centres of power between Sumatra (Srivijaya) and Java (Sailendra, Mataram and Majapahit). You might also want to look up the Indonesian timeline featured earlier in this site.

Indonesian history

The Dutch began to colonize Indonesia in the early 17th century; the islands were occupied by Japan from 1942 to 1945. Indonesia declared its independence after Japan’s surrender, but it required four years before the Netherlands agreed to relinquish its colony.

Fossilized remains of Homo erectus, popularly known as the “Java Man”, suggest the Indonesian archipelago was inhabited two million to 500,000 years ago.

Austronesian peoplearrived in Indonesia around 2000 BCE, and confined the native Melanesian peoples to the far eastern regions as they expanded.

Ideal agricultural conditions, and the mastering of rice cultivation allowed villages, towns, and small kingdoms to flourish by the first century CE.

Indonesian strategic sea-lane position fostered inter-island and international trade. For example, trade links with both Indian kingdoms and China were established several centuries BCE. Trade has since fundamentally shaped Indonesian history.

From the seventh century CE, the powerful Srivijaya naval kingdom flourished as a result of trade and the influences of Hinduism and Buddhism .

Between the eighth and 10th centuries CE, the agricultural Buddhist Sailendra and Hindu Mataram dynasties thrived and declined in inland Java, leaving grand religious monuments such as Borobudur and Prambanan.

Majapahit kingdom was founded in eastern Java in the late 13th century. Under Gajah Mada, its influence stretched over much of Indonesia. This period is often referred to as a “Golden Age” in Indonesian history.


Books about the history of Indonesia:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula by P. M. Munoz
Ancient History (The Indonesian Heritage Series) by Indonesian Heritage

Srivijaya: A primer – Part 1

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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

Borobudur exhibition in North Jakarta mall

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04 June 2007 (Jakarta Post) – For this week at the Mangga Dua Square in Jakarta, shoppers will be treated to an exhibition on the greatest Buddhist monument in Southeast Asia, Borobudur.

Ancient past exhibited in mall

For the next seven days starting Sunday, the seemingly distant topic of archaeology will be bridged by the exhibition, “Tracing the Nusantara civilization from the 9th to 12th centuries, Maha Karmawibhangga: The hidden legacy at the foot of Borobudur.”

“We want to bring this topic closer to the public and reveal things that previously remained exclusive to academics,” the Tourism and Culture Ministry’s head of cultural research and development, Junus Satrio Atmodjo, said last week.

The famed Borobudur serves as a lure to bring people in and pique their interest in Indonesia’s ancient past.

The timing of the exhibition was impeccable, with Buddhists commemorating Buddha’s Day of Enlightenment, or Waisak, the Friday before its opening.

Working with the Indonesia Sangha Conference, the ministry is putting on a full week of events as part of the exhibition, including art performances that will highlight the country’s rich cultural past.

In building Borobudur, the ancient civilization of Syailendra was thoughtful enough to provide a temple that would serve as a historical library for future generations.

Read more about the Borobudur exhibition at Mangga Dua Square mall.

Books about the great Buddhist monument, Borobudur:
The Restoration of Borobudur (World Heritage Series)
The Lost Temple of Java (History/Journey’s Into the Past) by P. Grabsky
The Mysteries of Borobudur: Discover Indonesia Series by J. N. Miksic
Borobudur by L. Frederic and J. Nou
Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas (Periplus Travel Guides) by J. Miksic
The Magnificence of Borobudur by D. D. Burhan