Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Ancient Kingdoms of Sumatra

Photo of Candi Bahal at Padang Lawas from Wikipedia.

A couple of years ago I made a post about some ancient kingdoms of Indonesia.  These included Majapahit, Old Mataram, and Sri Vijaya.  The first two of these had their centers on the island of Java, while the former was located on Sumatra.  These three kingdoms are quite famous and all have been studied and written about extensively, and they all have relatively famous archaeological sites.  Recently I have been doing a significant amount of background reading on the history of Sumatra, and so I thought it would be appropriate to describe some of the lesser known kingdoms that had their capitals on Sumatra.  In this post I'll discuss chronologically three Sumatra-based kingdoms: Panai, the kingdom of Adityawarman, and the Jambi-Palembang states that emerged after the decline of the Majapahit empire.  I want to stress here that there is a significant amount of discussion amongst scholars concerning these kingdoms since there are few written records and much of what we know comes from expert interpretation of archaeological findings.  Thus please don't take this dilettantish blog as the final word.  Check out the references; they are all quite interesting, and there are numerous other sources if you are interested in delving a little deeper into the fascinating historical mysteries of Sumatra.

The Panai Kingdom of Northern Sumatra

I first learned about the kingdom of Panai while reading
Map from Wikipedia.  Note the location of
Panai, Jambi, Palembang, and Melayu.
a memoir by FM Schnitger (see references), an archaeologist who was active all over Sumatra during the late colonial period.  Schnitger's writings, though at times irritatingly colonial, pique one's curiosity by opening the door to the vast but little-known history of Sumatra.  He describes the ruins of Padang Lawas (in North Sumatra) as the remnants of the Panai kingdom, which, according to him, appeared in Chinese chronicles as early as the 7th century.  Schnitger asserts that Panai, which was known to the Chinese as Puni or Poli, was the most important state on the island of Sumatra by the year 1000, but shortly thereafter was sacked by Rajendracoladewa, the king of Chola in southern India.

According to Schnitger, the impressive ruins of Padang Lawas were constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries.  He writes that the temples indicate that Panai was a Hindu state, but a later scholar (Mulia 1980) writes that it was a Buddhist kingdom.  Little is known about the history of this kingdom because the inscriptions (1) found at the ruins describe the magic and Tantric cults which presumably were the function of the temples, rather than the realms kings and history.  For a description of the religious leanings of the Panai we turn to Schnitger (1983 [1939]:73-4):

The Bhairawas of Terrible Ones worshiped their gods under horrible solemnity, by preference during the night at cemeteries.  At these orgies, they dedicated to the gods piles of human corpses, in high flaming fires; the stronger the smell of the burning corpses grew, the greater it pleased them, because this stench, which in the inscriptions is compared with the smell of ten thousand flowers, brought salvation from the sphere of generation  Usually the ceremony (which was a symbol of the destruction of the earthly bonds) commenced a few hours after nightfall.  The living victims destined for sacrifice were laid down in a definitely determined attitude, which can well be seen in the drawings; resting on the back, the feet were folded under the body, the hands tied up and the head bent backwards, the chest thus being fully expanded.  Then the priest would approach, and quickly inserting a large knife in the belly of the victim, he would pull it upwards with a jerk so that the whole body was ripped open up to the lower rubs.  The victim would mostly die after a few minutes in violent pain.  The priest would then place himself upon the convulsing body, cut away the heart, fill a skull with blood and empty it at a draught several times in succession.  If by drinking this incomparable beverage, this superior wine, he gradually entered into a state of inebriation, then he would light the fire and would sink into deep meditation.

Camphor, a forest product with numerous
medicinal uses.  An important trade good in
Panai and other early Sumatran kingdoms.
Picture from Botanical.com.
My professional colleagues in archaeology and anthropology are probably going to scream at me and unfriend me on Facebook for saying this, but it sounds like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  In other words, awesome.  Anyway, according to Mulia, Panai eventually was absorbed into the great empire of Majapahit in the 14th century.  It is unclear from the materials I have read what happened to them after that, but Leonard Andaya references "the presumably Batak kingdom of Panai" (2002:386), and so it is possible that the people of Panai were among the ancestors of the Batak, a large ethnic group which today inhabits a large part of North Sumatra.  However, I asked a couple of Batak friends if they had ever heard of Panai and they told me they hadn't; rather they related to me the popular history that the Batak trace their ancestral home to the area around the Toba supervolcano (Lake Samosir).  But whatever may have happened to the people of Panai, they left an impressive complex of at least 16 temples, which I will be sure to check out next time I am in the neighborhood.  Unfortunately, at least until recently, the site was being targeted by treasure hunters who were excavating the ruins (see Jakarta Post article here).  

Adityawarman and the Sumatran Heart of Darkness

Photo from Wikipedia.  

The second kingdom chronologically is the highland domain of Adityawarman, which was founded in approximately 1347 in the interior of Sumatra up the river from Dharmasraya, which is now in West Sumatra province.  The history of Adityavarman's kingdom is even more unknown than that of Panai, and there are conflicting sources.  For example, the Wikipedia page on Adityawarman refers to him as the founder of the Minangkabau dynasty of Pagarruyung, but other sources (Miksic 2007, Kulke 2009) suggest that Adityavarman's lineage might have ended shortly after his reign.  I chose to include Adiyawaraman's kingdom in this post because I was fascinated by the story; it sounds very much like a Sumatran "Heart of Darkness".  Adityavarman's tale, as near as I can tell, is as follows.

Adityavarman was born in the late 13th century into a noble family in the capital of the powerful Majapahit empire.  His mother seems to have been a princess from the aforementioned kingdom of Dharmasraya (2), and so Adityavarman was granted titles and a position authority in the Majapahit hierarchy.  After two diplomatic voyages to China in the early 14th century he was sent to Sumatra for one reason or another, most likely to administer Majapahit dependencies, or conduct diplomacy with small "kingdoms" nominally beholden to Majapahit.  At some point, though, Adityawarman decided to strike out on his own, and in 1347 he moved up the river into the highlands, usurping royal authority and proclaiming himself king (maharajadhiraja; see Kulke 2009:232) and disavowing any obligation or overlord.

Like the Panai rulers, Adityavarman was a devotee of the Sivaitic Bhairava cult (Schnitger 1989[1939]).  One of the most visible symbols of his rule is a 4.41-meter (14.5 feet) statue, presumably of himself, now located in the National Museum in Jakarta.  Kulke (2009:229) calls this ghastly statue "Southeast Asia's largest royal 'portrait sculpture'".  For a description we again turn to Schnitger:

A terrifying figure, it represents the Malay ruler Adityawarman, with a knife and a skull in his hands, serpents twined about his ankles, wrists, upper arms, and in his ears, standing on a recumbent human body, which in turn rests on a pedestal of eight grinning skulls.

Schnitger goes on to explain that human sacrifice, the drinking of blood, and the "rattling of human bones" (24) were important parts of Bhairaya rituals.  Thus one might imagine Adityavarman "going up the river" to found a kingdom of sensual mayhem where divine sanction was manifested in death and sexual bacchanalia.  Though Adityavarman is also remembered for leaving the among the most royal inscriptions of any ruler in Southeast Asian history, many of these have yet to be interpreted.  Ironically after his death Adityavarman's kingdom seems to have been absorbed by the deep jungle which gave rise to it; though his son succeeded him his kingdom may have been destroyed in the late 14th century (shortly after his death) by Majapahit.

Jambi and Palembang 

The last kingdom I want to discuss in this post is actually two kingdoms, Muara Jambi, which are thought by some to be the capital of Sri Vijaya.  There are also ruins at Palembang, but neither of these sites are directly related to the more recent kingdoms of Jambi (which developed on the Batang Hari river) and Palembang (which developed on the Musi river).  These latter-day kingdoms seem to have emerged in the 16th and 17th  century.  The new Palembang Sultanate was founded by nobles fleeing from the collapsing Majapahit empire who allied with local leaders to form a new independent realm.  Jambi arose an an independent realm a little later on.  The ascendancy of Palembang and Jambi appears to be directly related to the international pepper (Piper nigrum) trade.  Pepper was developed as a cash crop in this area in the 1500s and Jambi and Palembang both lay outside the reach of the powerful Achenese and Banten kingdoms, and so they weren't compelled to sell their pepper to the respective royal monopolies (Colombijn 2002).  Instead they could sell directly to the Europeans at a lower price, and so the Dutch and English East India companies set up trading posts in the early 1600s (B Andaya 1993).  By this time the two often competing polities already had close ties due to frequent intermarriage, and were regarded by European visitors as essentially one large clan.
Plan of Palembang Palace from here.
Jambi and Palembang, but they were so closely related in terms of kinship and geography that they are often treated together.  These two states developed in the coastal plain of eastern Sumatra in the core of what had once been the heartland of the great Sri Vijayan empire.  I wrote a previous post about the ruins of

However relations with the Europeans weren't smooth, and after repeated incidents both the English and Dutch left Jambi.  The lack of an external market led to a decline in the power and prestige of Jambi.  Elsewhere in insular Southeast Asia (3) historians have commented on upstream-downstream dynamics, where downstream rulers were able to assert control over upstream populations because they could control traffic on the waterway.  However, thanks to the scholarship of Barbara Andaya we know that the upstream areas of central Sumatra (including Kerinci and areas inhabited by Minangkabau) were linked by jungle pathways and established communication routes, and so upstream groups didn't have to trade with a particular downstream ruler if the conditions weren't favorable.  This seems to have been the case in Jambi in the 18th century, and eventually the sultanate fell under the authority of the Dutch colonial government.  At the same time the Palembang sultanate was able to reach more lucrative and lasting agreements with the Dutch, so they held out a little longer, but eventually they too would become part of the Dutch colony.

Map of Palembang, Jambi, and environs from Kathirithamby-Wells (1993).  See references.

This is just a brief, impressionistic history of three kingdoms that existed on Sumatra.  In my reading I encountered references to many others, some mere mentions of nearly unknown states that once existed and no doubt commanded vast realms of people and resources, but now are little more than a name.  It reminds me of Percy Shelly's poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: 'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.  ear them, on the sand,
Half sung, a shattered visage lies whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear--
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!"
Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'


(1)  Mulia (1980) says that the inscriptions are from the 11th to the 14th century.

(2)  I say "may have been" here because most of the sources I have consulted agree that she was from a kingdom called "Malayu", which was a coastal state that was evidently part of the Sri Vijaya confederation and was, in approximately 1275 annexed by Singasari (which gave rise shortly thereafter to Majapahit), but there seems to be some disagreement as to where Malayu actually was.  Some sources indicate that it was Dharmasraya.

(3) "insular" Southeast Asia refers to island Southeast Asia.


Andaya, Barbara Watson.  1993.  To Live as Brothers: Southeast Sumatra in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.  324pp.

Andaya, Leonard.  2002.  The Trans-Sumatran Trade and the Ethnicization of the Batak.  Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land en Volkenkunde 158:3, pp367-409.

Colombijn, Freek.  2002.  The Volatile State in Southeast Asia: Evidence from Sumatra, 1600-1800.  The Journal of Asian Studies, 62:2 pp497-529.

Kathirithamby-Wells, Jaya.  1993.  Hulu-Hilir Unity and Conflict: Malay Statecraft in East Sumatra Before the Mid-Nineteenth Century.  Archipel 45, pp77-96.

Kulke, Hermann.  2009.  Adityawarman's Highland Kingdom.  pp229-252 in From Distant Tales: Archaeology and Ethnohistory in the Highlands of Sumatra.  Dominik Bonatz, John Miksic, J. Davide Neidel and Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz, editors.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 509pp.

Miksic, John.  2007.  From Megaliths to Tombstones: the Transition from Prehistory to the Early Islamic Period in Highland West Sumatra.  Indonesia and the Malay World 32:93 pp191-210.

Mulia, Rumbi.  1980.  The Ancient Kingdom of Panai and the Ruins of Padang Lawas  Bulletin of the Research Centre of Archaeology of Indonesia #14.  Jakarta.  36pp.

Reid, Anthony.  2005.  An Indonesian Frontier: Acehnese and Other Histories of Sumatra.  Singapore: National University of Singapore.  439pp.

Schnitger, F.M.  1989.  Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.175pp.

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