Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Ancient Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago

As I look back on my last few postings I notice that I've tended to be a little negative about some things, and thus the casual reader might be distracted from the reality that Indonesia is truly an amazing place; a place well worth knowing more about. So today's post is going to be about some of the old kingdoms that form part of the rich and fascinating history of the country. These kingdom were heavily influenced by their geography, and so we'll use that as a starting point.

Southeast Asia is usually divided by geographers into two sub-region: mainland Southeast Asia (consisting of Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) and "insular" or maritime Southeast Asia (consisting of the island states of Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia). Geographers make generalizations about the two sub-regions; mainland SEA has mountain-lowland divisions, long rivers that promote rice cultivation, and are populated by speakers of languages from the Mon-Khmer, Sino-Tibetan, and Thai-Kadai language families, whereas insular SEA cultures tend to be more ocean-oriented, with people speaking closely-related languages of the Malayo-Polynesian family. In general societies of mainland SEA have been more inward-looking, whereas those of insular SEA have long had contact with other realms.

The Geography of Empire

For a significant portion of recorded history, two of the richest (in terms of culture and material wealth) poles of civilization have been China and India. Trade between these two regions emerged thousands of years ago and at various stages involved other areas as well, including Persia, Rome, Europe, and others, but much of the trade occurred over land via tortuous and dangerous trade routes through Central Asia. Sea trade between India and China was hampered by the Malay Peninsula, a more than 1000 kilometer long finger of land extending from what is now Thailand and Burma down to the island of Singapore. Goods had to be portaged across the isthmus (1) of Kra. However, sometime around the 4th century A.D. Malay sailors developed an all-sea route between India and China. This new route was a faster way to transport silks from China to the western regions. The cultures of the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra only had to offer port facilities and safety from pirates for trade to flourish along the new route. They also introduced new goods to the world market, including cloves, nutmeg, and mace. These spices, most of which only grew on certain islands because of very specific climate requirements, became extremely profitable for the people of the islands of what would become Indonesia. Trade in spices and control of the narrow sea lanes of the Strait of Melacca gave rise to the first of the great ancient kingdoms of the Indonesian archipelago, Sri Vijaya (Sriwijaya).

Sri Vijaya, which means "glorious victory", emerged during the 6th century around present day Palembang on Sumatra. Sri Vijaya was originally one of several small riverine kingdoms athwart the trading route on the coast of Sumatra. Each of these small kingdoms centered on a river; the inhabitants downstream provided port services and sometimes coerced passing ships into anchoring and paying taxes. They also served as collection points for goods produced upstream. It's not certain how Sri Vijaya came to dominate its neighbors, but some historians speculate that the large area of the fertile valley of the Musi river helped the Sri Vijayans produce more food, which in turn enabled them to support a large navy. For five centuries the Sri Vijayans controlled the China trade, with goods such as porcelain, jade and silk from China, textiles from India, and sandlewood, spices, and resins from the Moluccas. One ancient traveler's account of Sri Vijaya saya that the kingdom was so rich, every year the king's subjects would throw bricks of gold into the river as an offering (2). Sri Vijaya was an important center for Mahayana Buddhist learning, and monks from as far away as China and India came there to study.

Sri Vijaya is an example of a maritime empire. The kingdoms that emerged in Indonesia consisted of two types: thalasocracies like Sri Vijaya, whose rise and fall depended on trading relations and strong navies, and the inland, rice-producing states that emerged mainly on the island of Java. The latter weren't as involved in trading but rather developed sophisticated agricultural societies. The first major example of the rice kingdom, Mataram, arose in central Java around the middle of the 8th century. The Mataram rulers built the Dieng temples I mentioned in a previous post before moving east to the area around present-day Jogja. Mataram is not the original name of the kingdom but rather refers to the geographic area around Jogja (3). The Mataram kingdom collapsed in the 11th century due to military pressure from Sri Vijaya.

The greatest empire of insular Southeast Asia, Mahapahit, emerged out of the decline of another kingdom in the 13th century. Majapahit ("bitter fruit") ruled over much of what is now Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula. Through cunning the founder of Majapahit, Vijaya, manipulated an invading Mongol fleet of 1000 ships and 20,000 soldiers (4) into eliminating his rivals before turning on them and driving them out of Java. Majapahit gave rise to two heroes of Indonesian history that are still revered today. The first of these, Gajah Mada, served as prime minister (patih) and regent from 1331 to 1364 and greatly expanded the rule of Majapahit, extended authority to neighboring islands. One of Indonesia's major universities (Universitas Gajah Mada) in Jogja is named for him. The second major figure is Hayam Wuruk, who worked with Gajah Mada to expand the empire. Hayam Wuruk is known as a patron of the arts and an avid performer of traditional Javanese music and dance. The fact that Majapahit controlled most of the islands that would become Indonesia was used as evidence by independence leaders such as Sukarno (5) that there was a historical precedent for the nation of Indonesia.

This is just a short introduction to the many kingdoms that have emerged in Indonesia over the past 1500 years. There are many others, including Tarumanagara, Jambi, the Sailendras, and Singhasair. They all have fascinating stories and all contributed to the rich historical heritage of Indonesia.

(1) An isthmus is a narrow piece of land connecting two larger areas of land. Can you use a world map to find other isthmuses?

(2) According to Shaffer (see reference below), when the king died his successor would dredge the gold out of the river and distribute it to influential members of court to cement support during the transition.

(3) One should take care not to confuse this earlier Mataram kingdom, which was a Hindu kingdom, with the later Mataram Sultanate, an Islamic kingdom that emerged in the 16th century.

(4) The fleet had come to punish Vijaya's father, Kertanagara, king of the defunct Singasari kingdom, because Kertanagara refused to pay tribute to Kublai Khan, who had recently become emperor of China.

(5) Sukarno would go on to become Indonesia's first president.


SarDesai, D.R. 1997. Southeast Asia: Past and Present. Boulder, CO: Westview. 422pp.

Shaffer, Lynda Norene. 1996. Maritime Southeast Asia to 1500. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe. 121pp.


  1. Indonesia is certainly an amazing country. The beginning of their empires proved how resourceful they are. They used what they had, which is sea trades, to their advantage and built a kingdom for themselves. The start of their societies shows that even though their economic status had their ups and downs, they will be able to improve it.

  2. I'm taking a Geography class and we are currently studying Southeast Asia. This entry added to the things I already know about the region. It's interesting how the Sri Vijaya used a navy force in order to tax incoming ships and how they were able to support their naval force through a fertile valley that they cultivated. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Indonesia is certainly one country I would want to visit now, as much for its links with maritime history of India, as also development of a culture which worked to take the people to a more substantial level. And Majaphit history is certainly fascinating, specially for an India like me. And Bali here I come. Suneil, Bangalore, India.

  4. The Majapahit people, who didn't want to be converted by the new Muslim, fled to the island of Bali. Therefore, to this day, people in Bali remain Hindu.