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The Maritime Empire That Vanished Without A Trace

August 23, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that European, rather than Asian, scholars rediscovered a long forgotten empire that once flourished in Sumatra for hundreds of years. Its very existence proved present day Indonesia had a deeper and more colorful past than assumed. Sumatra itself is recognized as the core of a unique civilization that harmonized Hindu and Buddhist culture before Islam began spreading across the island and into the nearby Malay Peninsula in the 15th century. Often framed as a “polity” occupied by Austronesians*, the Srivijaya Empire was established along the banks of the broad Musi River where it received ships traveling through the narrow Malacca Strait.

With a limited archeological record to vouch for its existence, the Srivijaya Empire is best described as a thalassocracy–a nation built on ocean borne trade–whose complicated politics and economic system may never be known in full. What is understood about its origins today, however, is at best a summary gleaned from ancient texts. The Srivijaya emerged in the southeastern coast of Sumatra in the mid to late 7th century. This was credited to the success of its ruler Jayanasa, who founded a capital along the Musi River and imposed his kingship over the lesser territories downstream. Within a century, Srivijaya became a center of Buddhist scholarship and its power reached all the way to neighboring Java.

But the most authoritative primary source on Srivijaya isn’t a royal historian or a self-promoting monarch from its heroic age. Rather, the Chinese pilgrim I-Tsing (not to be confused with the philosophical text I-Ching) traveled to Srivijaya in the 7th century for its renowned Buddhist schools. It was the French scholar George Coedès who, when uncovering Srivijaya’s existence in the mid-20th century, cited I-Tsing’s own traveler’s account along with official Tang Dynasty records to ascertain the location of “Shih-li-fo-shish,” a place name corresponding to what surviving ancient Malay texts identified as “Srivijaya.”

The Srivijaya Empire lasted for several hundred years and at its height controlled much of Java, the Malay Peninsula, and even the southern coasts of Vietnam. Yet ascertaining how it was governed or the quality of life for its diverse population is elusive. The Srivijaya monarchs did build an alliance with the Sailendras of Java, yet these dynastic bonds lasted a mere two hundred years before rupturing. By the 11th century an ill-timed war against the Cholas of Southern India broke Srivijaya’s power and its decline commenced. When the field of Medieval Indonesian studies flourished almost 900 years later in the 20th century, only a small circle of researchers trailing after Coedès’ pioneering work The Indianized States of Southeast Asia (1948) managed to gather further insight on the Srivijaya.

Yet one contemporary author has gone the distance in solving the mystery of the Srivijaya Empire. Philip Bowring’s well-received Empire of the Winds bores deep into Southeast Asian history to show modern readers that a whole civilization did exist across the region, albeit in varying guises. Bowring calls it “Nusantaria” and its people are the teeming millions, whether Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim, who still inhabit the great archipelago between China and India. Long familiar with the scholarship on the Srivijaya Empire, Bowring takes stock of its achievements in several chapters. He also clarifies why the Srivijaya Empire eluded historians for so long: Its cities were made of perishable wood and, between seasonal floods and migrations, few timeless records survived.

Even as inter-island warfare helped establish and expand the empire, Bowring points out its success came from decentralized authority. Besides its reigning monarch, who adopted the divine kingship principle, many lesser rulers governed natural harbors crowded with shipping. Of course, since it was so reliant on duties collected from moving goods by sea, trade risks such as competition, disruption, and war hurt the Srivijaya in the long run. Bowring puts forth two reasons for Srivijaya’s fall; the breakdown of its alliance with the Javanese shrank the empire and, by the 11th century, the Chola Dynasty of Southern India invaded and seized the capital. In Bowring’s assessment, the humbled Srivijaya prospered for a hundred years more until the dwindling polity ebbed to irrelevance.

To sum up the Srivijayan experience, the consensus is the empire born in the 7th century was a regional power by the reign of King Jayanasa from 670 CE onward. The Srivijayan Empire was a Buddhist stronghold albeit with a monarchial regime borrowed from India. As for a “state religion,” the existence of such doesn’t seem to apply and multiculturalism was its most enduring trait. The Pax Srivijaya may have lasted from 700 until 1000 CE yet when the Chola fleets struck in 1025 CE the empire’s power was significantly reduced until it was subsumed by a resurgent Javanese kingdom in the late 13th century.

What happened to the Srivijaya, along with another thousand years of Nusantarian history, occupy Bowring’s Empire–a courageous reimagining of the past the Jakarta Post described as having “…tales rich enough to challenge Kipling.” Empire of the Winds is towering non-fiction at its most audacious and is now available wherever books are sold online.

* “Austronesian” is best understood as a language family encompassing the diverse communities spread over Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

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