Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Temples of Muaro Jambi and the Malayu Kingdom

This past week I made the 12-hour (one way!) journey to Jambi city, the capital of Jambi province, to handle some business related to my research project.  While there I had the opportunity to visit the Mahayana buddhist temple complex at Muaro Jambi, about 20km from the city.  The temples here were constructed between the 7th and 13th centuries and represent the largest temple complex in Indonesia, covering 2,612 hectares.  The complex spreads for 7.5 kilometers along the banks of the Batang Hari river and is still being excavated.   I spent about 5 hours wandering around the expansive complex, and I would recommend the trip to anyone.  

Go To Muaro Jambi

Guide Wawan beneath the Bodhi tree
There are two ways to get to Muaro Jambi: by boat and by road.  The latter is the quickest and cheapest if you are alone.  For rp40,000 (about US$4.50) I hired an ojek to drive me to the complex.  I didn't dicker with him, but if you feel the need you could probably talk the price down a bit.  It took about 25 minutes to get there.  You can hire a boat just downstream of the WTC mall in Jambi city.  The "captain" quoted me a price of rp300,000 (around US$33) to go and come back in his motorized longboat.  It takes between 1.5 and 2 hours to go.  I didn't go by boat because the sun looked pretty oppressive and I didn't want to get burned.  But I would think that taking a boat would be fun and you could probably talk down the price a bit.   

Guides Wawan and Ahok describing temple architecture
Candi Tinggi
The entrance fee to the temple complex is rp3000 (about 35 cents).  I told the guys there they should jack the price up, especially for foreigners, so when you go if the price is higher you can blame me.  They told me that at this point they are more interested with getting the word out about the temples; they were more concerned with ensuring that I had a good time there so I would tell other people about it.  You can hire a guide there at the gate; I would highly recommend this as they are very well informed.  I tried to stump them, asking questions about the soil and hydrology of the area as it related to the original occupants of the site, and they knew everything.  I really learned a lot from them and was impressed with their knowledge.  They don't have a set fee, but I ended up paying them rp150,000 (about US$18) to split two ways, but this included transport back to Jambi city.  They motored me to some of the more remote sites and gave me coffee.  They also have a small (but nice) museum with artifacts and interpretive materials in English.  

They also have bicycles in good condition for rent; you can get one for rp5000 (55 cents) per hour.  There are tandem bicycles as well.  Though I didn't do this because I was walking with the guides, but it looks like it would be fun.  The local folks have done a great job in maintaining brick and concrete paths around the temples, so I would imagine you could pass a very relaxing couple of hours biking around.  It's quite and clean and the people are very hospitable.  

Map from Tjoa-Bonatz et al; see references and note embedded citation

About the Temples...

Tjoa-Bonatz (see references)
The complex is said to be one of the most expansive and best preserved in all of Southeast Asia.  In fact, work is ongoing, and I had a chance to witness the work first hand.  One of the larger temples was just restored last year, and a smaller structure was finished in August.  Currently dozens of local people are employed by the Indonesian government to clear away the alluvium that has piled up around the structures.  As you can see, there is a lot of work to be done.  It's really exciting to watch the process and think about what sorts of treasures may be waiting just beneath the ground; there is a real air of discovery at the site. 

Eight temples have been reconstructed so far, and according to the guides there are 84 known temples, but there is no doubt that others remain to be discovered.  All the temples are built of bricks made from the local clay.  While the temples aren't as elaborate in terms of embellishments as those at Angkor Wat and Borobudur, I would attribute this to material constraints rather than a lack of sophistication.  At Borodudur there is plenty of volcanic rock available, which can be carved to make sculptures.  Muaro Jambi, in contrast, is in a floodplain, and so clay is the most readily available material.  Some statues have been unearthed, but these appear to have been transported from Java a thousand years ago.   

One of the houses, drawing from Tjoa-Bonatz
Another interesting feature of the complex is the existence of canals that link the various temples.  There are 6 man-made waterways and a reservoir about the size of a football field.  These channels were used for transportation and drainage and indicate a fairly high level of hydraulic engineering.  The canals are currently overgrown, but there are plans to clear them out and possibly provide boats so that visitors can travel from temple to temple via water. 

Though the dwellings and other functional buildings (made of wood) have long since disappeared, carving discovered at the site provide an idea as to what the buildings may have looked like.   Tjoa-Bonatz et al (see references) offer an excellent analysis of the style and function of the houses.  They conclude that the drawings show buildings that may have been located at the site while it was occupied.  They also conclude, that given the variety of styles, suggest that Muaro Jambi was a multi-ethnic trading center, with people from many different regions living there.  

Who Built the Temples?

Source for this map here.
Though there is a new assertion that the complexity of the Muaro Jambi site indicates that it must have been the capital of Sri Vijaya (1), most of the literature takes for granted that the temples were built by the Malayu kingdom.  The picture is blurred by a lack of written documentation, and much of what is known about Malayu and Sri Vijaya comes from Chinese records.    The Malayu kingdom was centered on the Batang Hari river, which flows through Jambi.  Control of the river meant control of the resources coming down the river, like gold and other precious commodities from the hinterlands of Sumatra.  Apparently somewhere along the line Malayu became a vassal state of Sri Vijaya, and by the 14th century the polity centered at Muaro Jambi was in decline.  

As you can see, there's a lot to learn from the temples at Muaro Jambi.  They are definitely worth a visit.  I've included a video below from youtube to give you a better idea of what you can expect to find when you make your visit to Muaro Jambi. 

(1)  The conventional wisdom is that Sri Vijaya was centered at Palembang. 


Tjoa-Bonatz, Mai Lin, J. David Neidel, and Agus Widiatmoko.  2009.  Early Architectural Images from Muara Jambi on Sumatra, Indonesia.  Asian Perspectives 48:1 pp32-55. 


  1. The conventional wisdom is now that Sriwijaya was centred at Jambi for several centuries.

  2. Hi there. Thanks for the comments, and no offense is intended, but what conventional wisdom are you referring to?