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Indianized Empires


Figure 2. Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula in the Seventh Century A.D.

Source: Based on information from M.C. Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia: c. 1300 to the Present, Bloomington, 1981, 311.

Although historical records and archaeological evidence are scarce, it appears that by the seventh century A.D., the Indianized kingdom of Srivijaya, centered in the Palembang area of eastern Sumatra, established suzerainty over large areas of Sumatra, western Java, and much of the Malay Peninsula (see fig. 2). Dominating the Malacca and Sunda straits, Srivijaya controlled the trade of the region and remained a formidable sea power until the thirteenth century. Serving as an entrepôt for Chinese, Indonesian, and Indian markets, the port of Palembang, accessible from the coast by way of a river, accumulated great wealth. A stronghold of Mahayana Buddhism, Srivijaya attracted pilgrims and scholars from other parts of Asia. These included the Chinese monk Yijing, who made several lengthy visits to Sumatra on his way to India in 671 and 695, and the eleventh-century Buddhist scholar Atisha, who played a major role in the development of Tibetan Buddhism.

During the early eighth century, the state of Mataram controlled Central Java, but apparently was soon subsumed under the Buddhist Sailendra kingdom. The Sailendra built the Borobudur temple complex, located northwest of Yogyakarta. The Borobudur is a huge stupa surmounting nine stone terraces into which a large number of Buddha images and stone bas-reliefs have been set. Considered one of the great monuments of world religious art, it was designed to be a place of pilgrimage and meditation. The basreliefs illustrate Buddhist ideas of karma and enlightenment but also give a vivid idea of what everyday life was like in eighthcentury Indonesia. Energetic builders, the Sailendra also erected candi, memorial structures in a temple form of original design, on the Kedu Plain near Yogyakarta.

The late ninth century witnessed the emergence of a second state that is noted for building a Hindu temple complex, the Prambanan, which is located east of Yogyakarta and was dedicated to Durga, the Hindu Divine Mother, consort of Shiva, the god of destruction. From the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, powerful Hindu-Javanese states rivalling Srivijaya emerged in the eastern part of the island. The kingdom of Kediri, established in eastern Java in 1049, collected spices from tributaries located in southern Kalimantan and the Maluku Islands, famed in the West as the Spice Islands or Moluccas. Indian and Southeast Asian merchants among others then transported the spices to Mediterranean markets by way of the Indian Ocean.

The golden age of Javanese Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms was in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although the eastern Javanese monarch Kertanagara (reigned 1268-92) was killed in the wake of an invasion ordered by the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan, his son-in-law, Prince Vijaya, established a new dynasty with its capital at Majapahit and succeeded in getting the hard-pressed Mongols to withdraw. The new state, whose expansion is described in the lengthy fourteenth-century Javanese poem Nagarakrtagama by Prapanca, cultivated both Shivaite Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. It established an empire that spread throughout much of the territory of modern Indonesia.

The empire building was accomplished not by the king but by his prime minister, Gajah Mada, who was virtual ruler from 1330 to his death in 1364. Possibly for as long as a generation, many of the Indonesian islands and part of the Malay Peninsula were drawn into a subordinate relationship with Majapahit in the sense that it commanded tribute from local chiefs rather than governing them directly. Some Indonesian historians have considered Gajah Mada as the country's first real nation-builder. It is significant that Gadjah Mada University (using the Dutch-era spelling of Gajah Mada's name), established by the revolutionary Republic of Indonesia at Yogyakarta in 1946, was--and remains--named after him.

By the late fourteenth century, Majapahit's power ebbed. A succession crisis broke out in the mid-fifteenth century, and Majapahit's disintegration was hastened by the economic competition of the Malay trading network that focused on the state of Melaka (Malacca), whose rulers had adopted Islam. Although the Majapahit royal family stabilized itself in 1486, warfare broke out with the Muslim state of Demak and the dynasty, then ruling only a portion of eastern Java, ended in the 1520s or 1530s.

Data as of November 1992

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