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The Srivijaya Empire

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The Srivijaya Empire in Indonesia, c. 7th century to 13th century CE
The Srivijaya Empire ruled much of the Indonesian Archipelago in the middle ages.

Map of the Srivijaya Empire, 7th - 13th centuries, in what is now Indonesia.

Gunawan Kartapranata via Wikimedia

Among the great maritime trading empires of history, the Kingdom of Srivijaya, based on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, ranks among the wealthiest and most splendid. Early records from the area are scarce – archaeological evidence suggests that the kingdom may have begun to coalesce as early as 200 CE, and likely was an organized political entity by the year 500. Its capital was near what is now Palembang, Indonesia.

Srivijaya in the Indian Ocean Trade:

We know for certain that for at least four hundred years, between the seventh and eleventh centuries CE, the Kingdom of Srivijaya prospered from the rich Indian Ocean trade. Srivijaya controlled the key Melaka Straits, between the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Indonesia, through which passed all sorts of luxury items such as spices, tortoise shell, silk, jewels, camphor, and tropical woods. The kings of Srivijaya used their wealth, gained from transit taxes on these goods, to extend their domain as far north as what is now Thailand and Cambodia on the Southeast Asian mainland, and as far east as Borneo.

The first historical source that mentions Srivijaya is the memoir of a Chinese Buddhist monk, I-Tsing, who visited the kingdom for six months in 671 CE. He describes a rich and well-organized society, which presumably had been in existence for some time. A number of inscriptions in Old Malay from the Palembang area, which are dated from as early as 682, also mention the Srivijayan Kingdom. The earliest of these inscriptions, the Kedukan Bukit Inscription, tells the story of Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, who founded Srivijaya with the help of 20,000 troops. King Jayanasa went on to conquer other local kingdoms such as Malayu, which fell in 684, incorporating them in to his growing Srivijayan Empire.

The Height of the Empire:

With its base on Sumatra firmly established, in the eighth century, Srivijaya expanded into Java and the Malay Peninsula, giving it control over the Melaka Straights and the ability to charge tolls on the Indian Ocean maritime Silk Routes. As a choke-point between the wealthy empires of China and India, Srivijaya was able to accumulate considerable riches and further land. By the 12th century, its reach extended as far east as the Philippines.

The wealth of Srivijaya supported an extensive community of Buddhist monks, who had contacts with their co-religionists in Sri Lanka and the Indian mainland. The Srivijayan capital became an important center of Buddhist learning and thought. This influence extended to smaller kingdoms within Srivijaya’s orbit, as well, such as the Saliendra kings of Central Java, who ordered the construction of Borobudur, one the largest and most magnificent examples of Buddhist monumental building in the world.

Decline and Fall of Srivijaya:

Srivijaya presented a tempting target for foreign powers and for pirates. In 1025, Rajendra Chola of the Chola Empire based in southern India attacked some of the Srivijayan Kingdom’s key ports in the first of a series of raids that would last at least 20 years. Srivijaya managed to fend off the Chola invasion after two decades, but it was weakened by the effort. As late as 1225, Chinese author Chou Ju-kua described Srivijaya as the richest and strongest state in western Indonesia, with 15 colonies or tributary states under its control.

By 1288, however, Srivijaya was conquered by the Singhasari Kingdom. At this tumultuous time, in 1291-92, the famous Italian traveler Marco Polo stopped in Srivijaya on his way back from Yuan China. Despite several attempts by fugitive princes to revive Srivijaya over the next century, however, the kingdom was completely erased from the map by the year 1400. One decisive factor in the fall of Srivijaya was the conversion of the majority of Sumatran and Javanese to Islam, introduced by the very Indian Ocean traders who had long provided Srivijaya’s wealth.

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