Agustus 08, 2014

Srivijaya (Sriwijaya): Overseeing Asian Maritime Trade

AS EARLY as the second or third century C.E., coastal polities on the southeastern shores of Sumatra had taken advantage of their position at the crossroads of maritime routes leading to China, India, and the Middle East (West Asia), and to the spice-rich islands of Eastern Indonesia. Changing circumstances in the history of the ancient world during the sixth and seventh centuries C.E.brought about a steady increase of Asian maritime trade. The reunification of China under the Sui (590–618 C.E.) and T’ang (618–907 C.E.) dynasties, and the demise of Persian long-distance trade, exerted a great impact on the burgeoning coastal polities of western Southeast Asia. A huge Chinese market opened with empty niches for Southeast Asian traders and their goods. Southeast Asian shippers, heirs to a mature technical tradition, were in a position to capitalize on centuries-old skills in constructing and sailing large trading vessels. Local resins and aromatics could now replace Indian Ocean commodities, long in demand in China. Camphor, oleoresins, and benzoin from Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula soon became standard trade commodities imported from the region, alongside spices, precious woods, gold, and tin.

A number of small polities in West Java and Sumatra first took advantage of these intense commercial activities in dispersed order. After 670 C.E., however, they coalesced into one single state, which the Chinese identified as Shilifoshih. Chinese records soon described this polity as one of the major trading operators of the southern seas. In 1918 epigraphist George Coedès took the brilliant step of linking these Chinese sources, together with later Indian and Arabic texts, to a group of stone inscriptions written in Old Malay. They told about the foundation times of a polity named Srivijaya, for which Shilifoshih was a regular Chinese transcription. All these crucial inscriptions were carved between 683 and 686, and were found over the years in and around Palembang, in present-day South Sumatra province. Coedès concluded that they marked the birth place and the first political center of the state of Srivijaya, which should therefore have been located at Palembang, on the banks of the large Musi River and its tributaries.This is also where a few Buddhist and Hindu statues had been found over the years. All this evidence indicated that Srivijaya had been the first large-scale state—of world economic stature—to have prospered in insular Southeast Asia. The wealth and prestige of its ruler, the regional eminence of its capital and harbor-city, and its role as a center for the diffusion of Buddhism were acknowledged by the other world economies of the times, from the Arabs at Baghdad to the T’ang and Song (Sung) (960–1279 C.E.) Chinese.

This prosperous polity thrived from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries and extended its sphere of influence to much of Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, and probably also to West Java and the western part of Borneo. It brought together into a still poorly understood entity a group of formerly autonomous harbor-based trading polities.

For half a century, however, the terrain at Palembang stubbornly refused to provide enough solid archaeological evidence to confirm that this site had indeed played such a major role in Asian history. Over the years, other sites, mainly on the isthmus of the Malay Peninsula, yielded enough archaeological vestiges, in the form of trade goods, inscriptions, monuments, and statuary, to lay claim to the status of capital of Srivijaya.This situation nurtured vigorous scholarly debate, often fanned by nationalism. It was only in the late 1980s, after years of intensive surveys, that archaeologists started unearthing in South Sumatra substantial evidence of economic and religious activity dating to the whole period of Srivijaya’s prominence, thus tilting the balance back to South Sumatra and confirming Coedès’s earlier hypotheses.The sites within and in the immediate vicinity of the modern city of Palembang have by now yielded pre-fourteenth-century material evidence for settlement, manufacturing, commercial, religious, and political hubs of activity at a level that can only be reconciled with a focally situated large settlement—in other words, a settlement with the political and economic center of the early Malay polity.The settlement pattern revealed so far in archaeological sites at Palembang confirms the evidence provided by contemporary foreign sources, Arabic or Chinese. A riverine urban pattern is by now clearly discernible: multiple hubs of specialized activities have been found scattered along some 12 kilometers on the northern bank of the Musi River and its smaller tributaries. Religious sites tend to have been located on higher, dry land. Judging from the quantity of finds on some of the excavated sites, population density must have been high in some places. Many of these finds clearly indicate active, long-distance trade, and the role of merchants and shipmasters is underscored in local inscriptions. Although no ruler’s residence has been located so far, the Sebokingking inscription in East Palembang clearly must have found itself at the hub or close to such a political center, at least at foundation time in the 670s and 680s.

Recent archaeological studies have not equally well documented all phases of the history of Srivijaya. Identification of confirmed archaeological sites dating back to foundation times (from the late seventh to the mid-eighth centuries) remains scarce. However, the spatial distribution in South Sumatra of contextless chance finds of seventh- to eighth-century inscriptions and statues, as well as the discovery of remains of Southeast Asian–built trading ships dating to the fifth to eighth centuries, does reveal a clear pattern, ancestral to the much better documented following phase. The late eighth and ninth centuries, in Sumatra as in most of Southeast Asia, remain very much shrouded in mystery.The last embassy sent to China by Shilifoshih/Srivijaya dates from 742 C.E.The name Srivijaya appears again in the late eighth century on an isolated inscription from southern Thailand, where it is associated with the foundation of two Buddhist sanctuaries and, for the first time, with the name of the Sailendra dynasty.

A Sailendra prince named Balaputradeva, defeated in Java by a rival of the Sanjaya dynasty in the 830s, appears to have emerged a few years later as a ruler of Srivijaya. These events, known from epigraphy, are exactly contemporary to a chronological phase brought to light in most archaeological sites in Palembang, as well as in the other coastal sites said to be part of Srivijaya in southern Thailand and Malaysia (Kedah). This phase is marked by the first massive appearance in Southeast Asian sites of Chinese ceramic wares in industrial quantities, and it bears testimony, in perfect synchronization all over western Southeast Asia, to an outstanding increase in maritime traffic. During this second phase of its history (ninth to tenth centuries), Srivijaya reached the pinnacle of its prosperity. Contemporary sources always mention the city-state’s king among the powerful rulers that thrived upon the wealthiest of maritime trade routes.The Chinese court again received numerous embassies (official records now use the term Sanfoqi to designate this born-again state of Srivijaya). Recent archaeological research has also brought to light along the valleys of the Musi River basin, upstream from Palembang, a number of sanctuaries, both Buddhist and Hindu, including a large complex of Hindu temples at Bumiayu. Temples were also built on behalf of the rulers of Srivijaya, in both China and India, as if to mark the limits of their sphere of commercial enterprise.

This flourishing state of affairs, however, appears to have attracted the interest of rising neighboring powers. Toward the end of the eleventh century, there were Chinese economic competition at sea and southern Indian (Cola) economic and military inroads into the Srivijayan scene. Furthermore, an antagonistic relationship with Java appears to have forced a shift of the center of political dominance from Palembang to the neighboring river basin of the Batang Hari in the Jambi province of Sumatra. It remained for a while an economically vibrant polity, still known to outsiders as Srivijaya, and strong enough to build the vast temple complex of Muara Jambi. However, its economic power appears to have quickly deteriorated under the blows received from both east and west. Consequently, so did its political ascendancy and its ability to control the original broad network of city-states. For reasons not yet fully understood, the ancient Malay center of political power that had occupied a coastal position for centuries now began to move inland to the Minangkabau highlands, heralding the final demise of Srivijaya.

Because of the paucity of written sources and the still limited amount of intensive and systematic archaeological research, the very nature of the economic and political network that prompted foreign powers and traders to perceive Srivijaya as a single entity is far from fully understood. Recent interpretations, however, have clarified a number of moot points.

Early historical interpretations based on inadequate comprehension of the sources available and on the misleading worldview of colonial times pronounced that Srivijaya encompassed a vast “kingdom,” or even an “empire,” ruled from Palembang. Rereading of written sources after assessment of data produced by recent excavations in South Sumatra and on the Malay Peninsula, in both Malaysia and Thailand, now allows a scaled-down image to be reconstructed. At the local level, if the data gathered in Palembang inscriptions are valid for the other Srivijaya polities, it appears that politically weighty, but spatially limited, symbolic centers were built around the datus—that is, the ruler’s palace and its fenced compound (the kadatuan). Scholars now understand the term wanua in the same inscriptions (also from the Malay linguistic stock) as referring only to the urban environment around the kadatuan,which included religious buildings and parks (both alluded to in the inscriptions), markets, and the semirural or riparian villages. As an outer circle, the inscriptions refer to a group of mandalas,under their respective datu, described as powerful local magnates ruling over their own wanua, but uneasily recognizing the authority of a primus inter pares, the ruler of Srivijaya. These outlying mandalas formed the outer reaches of the polity of Srivijaya. The overarching pattern that now emerges is that of a network of largely autonomous city-states. The true nature of the hierarchical relationship imposed on those peripheral polities that were drawn into the orbit of the South Sumatra–centered Malay polity remains, however, a matter of debate.

It has also been established by now that Srivijaya was composed of more than just a group of harbor-cities with entrepôt functions, passively exacting taxes over compulsory maritime routes. For one, progress in the field of maritime archaeology and history has confirmed that Malay world shippers and merchants played an active role in the Asian commercial scene. In South Sumatra, the expanding city-state exercised some sort of control over the vast river basin of the Musi, establishing close relationships with upstream and downstream societies, as confirmed by a number of monuments recently brought to light upstream from Palembang. The same could be said for those polities on the Malay Peninsula that were included for a time in the orbit of Srivijaya: they must also be understood as true city-states, at the interface between international trade networks and a rich hinterland, which they tapped to increase their revenues.[]


Pierre-Yves Manguin, “Srivijaya (Sriwijaya): Overseeing Asian Maritime Trade”, Ooi Keat Gin (ed.), Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia from Angkor Wat to East Timor, (California-Colorado-Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2004): 1245-1249.

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