28: The Srivijaya Empire


The Straights of Malacca & Palembang

At the beginning the Common Era, the cultures of Rome, India and China were flourishing. Chinese and Indian traders converged in the Gulf of Thailand at Funan’s port city of Vyadhapura to do business. As a result, the traders in Southeast Asia became rich. The Khmer kingdom of Funan epitomized this trend. With the fragmentation of Rome combined with disastrous civil wars in China, demand dropped precipitously and the Funan kingdom languished. In the 6th and 7th century trade began to flourish again with the reunification of China under the powerful and long lasting Tang dynasty.

Although trade with China was beginning to accelerate, the Chinese commerce did not return to the Gulf of Thailand. Instead, exchange of goods between East and West channeled through the islands of Southeast Asia. Trade was rerouted from the Khmer kingdoms on the mainland to Palembang, a port city on the Straights of Malacca.

Palembang? The Straights of Malacca?

Perhaps it's time to introduce a few more of Southeast Asia's geographical characters.


The westward side of the Gulf of Thailand is called the Malay Peninsula. Just south of this peninsula is a long and narrow island called Sumatra. The island begins midway up the peninsula and extends an equivalent distance past the end of the peninsula. Between Sumatra and the peninsula are the Straits of Malacca. The Straits of Malacca are the only way from India and the West to the Gulf of Thailand, which connects up with China and the East of Asia. It is a narrow corridor whose trade winds correspond to the alternation of the monsoons. Palembang, one of Sumatra’s port cities, has an ideal location, at the eastern end of the Straights of Malacca. Beyond Sumatra is another long skinny island called Java, which we shall also visit. These islands are part of the Indonesian archipelago.

We mentioned how Indian culture spread throughout the cultures of Southeast Asia due to the influence of Indian traders. Due to its prime location, an Indianized kingdom with maharajahs began to emerge at a trading port in southern Sumatra on the way from the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Thailand. The name of the port was Palembang.

The Indian merchants brought Hinduism and Buddhism with them. Buddhism was heavily mixed up with Hinduism, as it preceded the Theravada purifications that were coming. As well as being an important port, Palembang was also an important religious center. It was an entrepôt for the spread of religious ideas between India and China.

As early as the 7th century Chinese and Indian devotees visited Palembang to study doctrines and copy manuscripts in institutions that rivaled those in India. So as not to lose perspective, India was the dominant influence in Palembang, just as it was in Funan. Chinese Buddhists were traveling to Palembang to get Indian information, not vice versa. The Indian influence on the kingdom based at Palembang on the island of Sumatra was considerable.

Due to the importance of Palembang as a cultural and trade center, wealth began to accumulate. Eventually, Palembang supplanted Vyadhapura of Funan as the new entrepôt between China and India. There were 2 primary reasons behind this shift.

Foremost, the traders of Palembang began to control the Straits of Malacca. They were the first port to do so, but not the last. With the control of the Straits of Malacca, all trade between the East and West was channeled through their hands. In this manner, Palembang became the entrepôt between India and China.

Palembang 2012

Nurturing the China trade

The other reason for Palembang’s emergence as an international entrepôt had to do with China. In terms of trade, the Western market was still weak due to wars in and around the Mediterranean. Rome was collapsing and had yet to be replaced by anything comparable. On the other hand, the Chinese market was expanding due to a flourishing economy resulting from peace and internal consolidation that occurred during the Tang dynasty. Sensitive to possibilities, the traders from the East Indies were interested in capturing the growing Chinese market. That was where the money was to be made.

As a warrior culture, the Chinese ruling class was not supposed to engage in trade. Further, the Chinese considered themselves the center of the civilized world. As evidence, there is no word for China in Chinese. Instead they call themselves the Middle Kingdom. What this meant was that traders from other kingdoms and cultures were meant to visit China - not the other way around.

In the Chinese imperial mind, the rest of the world consisted of vassal states that were meant to pay tribute. As matter of interest, this condition persisted into the modern era up until the 20th century. The Chinese were not meant to explore and trade. They were so superior that they were brought tribute and gave out presents. Hence at this point in history, the Chinese were not traders although they supplied manufactured goods to traders. Shanghai and Taiwan then, as now, were trading ports where huge volumes of merchandise changed hands. The main difference was that all the traders were foreign 'barbarians' because the Chinese were not allowed by custom to leave China.

The Austronesian sailors from the Southeast Asians islands, who had spent millennia on the sea, were glad to provide this function to China. They sailed into Chinese ports with foreign goods to supply the Chinese appetite. While there, they purchased Chinese goods for resale in their ports to Indian merchants. To accommodate this big customer and capture her exclusive trade rights, the entrepôt of Palembang in Sumatra pledged obeisance to China as a vassal state. This meant that her foreign trade was treated as tribute, and the goods they received in exchange were merely considered imperial presents. By stroking the Chinese imperial ego, the Palembang traders, like the Funanese before them, were able to dominate that enormous market. To further sweeten the pot and attract the Chinese pilgrims, Palembang began to stress China’s Mahayana Buddhism over Hinduism.

With this mass infusion of funds being funneled into Sumatra, a great Empire began to form. Based in Palembang, it was called the Srivijaya Empire. It began in the 7th century and lasted into the 13th century. It laid many foundations for the politics and religion in Southeast Asia, which we shall explore.

This Palembang/Srivijaya Empire, as it is sometimes called, eventually grew to have a loose control over the islands of Java and Sumatra, as well as the Malay Peninsula. However, they ruled by prestige rather than by military power.

Western Politics determined by Force

This control by prestige might be difficult to understand coming from a European/American historical background, where political boundaries are decided on the field of battle. In the West, the state or kingdom with the greatest military prowess makes the decisions. Further, the nation who wins the battle assumes that their God is most powerful, maybe even the only God. To assuage the innate guilt that emerges from exploiting other human beings, the victorious nation develops a religious philosophy that claims that their culture is most advanced culturally, because God has allowed them to win. This, of course, is predicated on the assumption that God is good and would only allow the best things to happen.

Conquering and enslaving agricultural populations and cultures has been the modus operandi in the northern part of our Hemisphere since the Bronze Age. Indeed the Bronze Age begins when one culture dominates another through the advanced military technology based on bronze. The bronze military technology was based upon better weaponry and the wheeled chariot drawn by a domesticated horse. Any culture that could create this type of army was able to subjugate farmer armies everywhere.

The Bronze Age civilization is also related to the stratification of society and the subjugation of women. As such, it is also related to a class society with kings and slaves. The Aryan cultures of Persia, India, and Scandinavia, which were to have a huge effect culturally on the development of politics on the Eurasian continent, were all based on this Bronze Age political model. Similarly, in battles across the Central Asian steppes, the Bronze Age military technology with its sky god institutions spread to China, Korea and Japan.

Egalitarian cultures based upon trade, art and cooperation stand in opposition to these highly stratified military cultures based on large concentrations of people in cities. Indeed this is why Bronze Age cultures are called civilizations - cultures based upon a collection of cities. While egalitarian cultures have rulers, there is no separation into classes. In egalitarian cultures, the sexes, while having different roles based upon biology, are considered equal. Many farming and hunting cultures are egalitarian. These were the cultures of the Neolithic and Paleolithic Ages that preceded the Bronze Age. The proto-Bronze Age began when one military culture was able to conquer and enslave another culture, becoming their rulers. This has happened countless times throughout the millennia that humans have been around.

Archeological evidence indicates that a mainland Southeast Asian culture was using a high level bronze technology significantly before the Chinese. However, this ancient culture employed bronze for crafts rather than weaponry. The Bronze Age political model that is so prevalent in the rest of the world does not apply to Southeast Asia, at least until the arrival of the Europeans.

The Srivijaya Empire based in Palembang did not become an empire by virtue of a superior military technology. Becoming an empire without a powerful army is inconceivable in the rest of the northern hemisphere.

So how did Srivijaya grow into an empire?

Cooperation and Mandala Politics in Eastern & Southeast Asia

In order to understand the political organization of the Srivijaya Empire, we need to first explore what it means to be a mandala kingdom or empire. Modern nation states are based upon clearly defined property boundaries. Real estate is of primary importance in terms of tax collection as well as property rights. Each modern country has clearly defined borders with a clearly defined citizenry. Alternately, the mandala states of East and Southeast Asia had no specific territory, as their influence emanated from the center. Rather than defending the perimeter, the idea was to strengthen the core of the kingdom or empire.

The mandala political organization doesn’t require strict boundaries. Instead power emanates from the center. This power is based upon military and cultural prestige. The country is defined by the capital. The spheres of influence are determined by the vassal states on the perimeter that pay tribute to the king or emperor in the center. In return for tribute, the supreme ruler provides military protection and certain privileges, primarily concerning trade.

In the case of the Srivijaya Empire, they were provided with exclusive trading rights with the Chinese Empire in exchange for becoming one of her vassal states. In such a way, the Srivijaya Empire was part of the Chinese Empire in terms of the organization. Similarly, the kingdom of Funan was provided trade privileges when they pledged obeisance and tribute to China.

Cooperating with China also created the entrepôt port of Palembang and the Srivijaya Empire. This was another kingdom with vassal states, which were also rewarded for cooperating. Although the Srivijaya Empire had an Indianized political structure, it was a Chinese style mandala empire.

“Cooperate and you will be rewarded,” seemed to be the mantra that Srivijaya used with its vassal islands. The Arab historians don’t ever mention piracy in their trading ventures in the East Indies during these times. It seems that then as now that cultures that depend on trade realize that safety is good for all. The positive side of trade is that it thrives on peace.

This maritime empire seems to have had only a limited army. They based their empire on positive reinforcement - through cultivation of business contacts, rather than the negative reinforcement of domination by military prowess.

Because power emanates in concentric circles from the center, there is a fluid, rather than fixed, field of power. This means that if the center is weak, the boundaries of influence collapse. Vice versa when the center is strong, the boundaries expand. This organization applies to the religious sphere as well as the political. Under the political system, the theoretical boundaries are continually shifting depending on who gives the best deal and has the most prestige, rather than on who has the biggest army.

Why this huge difference between Southeast Asian politics and the rest of the world? Why was military might needed to resolve conflicts on the Eurasian land-mass? Or why wasn’t it necessary in the island cultures of Southeast Asia? Were these people just more peaceful than most?

Possible, but unlikely. It probably had more to do with the geography of the region. Military domination of the sea was extremely difficult at this time. There was no equivalent to the military technology of bronze combined with the chariot and horse. Bronze technology allowed the complete domination of one culture by another in the land-based cultures. Because military domination was impossible in these island kingdoms, the cultures instead relied upon cooperation and bribery.

Stability of Chaos

Despite the fact, or perhaps because the borders and spheres of influence were incredibly fluid, these island empires and kingdoms were amazingly stable. The Srivijaya Empire wasn’t urbanized; didn’t have many cities; didn’t have a big army; didn’t occupy a capital continuously, and didn’t have clearly defined territories. Yet it lasted nearly 700 years. Further its influence continues into modern times. Its impact has extended itself through time as well as through geography.

The Srivijaya Empire survived by trade and agriculture rather than military prowess. The empire was defined by its capitol, or center, rather than its geographical boundaries. Initially, Palembang was Srivijaya’s capitol. However when the Chola Empire attacked and conquered Palembang circa 1000 CE, it was not the end of Srivijaya. They simply moved their capital elsewhere and continued for another 300 years. Similarly when the barbarians from the Central Asian steppes attacked and defeated the Chou dynasty of China in their own capital, they didn’t capitulate or disintegrate, they simply moved their capital south across the Yangtze River to get away. They also continued for another 300 years.

These nation-empires were not defined by territorial borders, but upon imperial influence. Similarly when Nationalist China fell to the Communists in 1948 they simply moved across the ocean to Taiwan. For decades they claimed to be the legitimate China because this is where the government is centered. It is easy to see that mandala style kingdoms have unstable borders but are remarkably durable. This organization was the predominant political form in Southeast Asia up until the 19th century.

The European colonial influence finally undermined this mandala political structure. For instance, the Brits needed to instill order in these unstable political units in order to do business. In Malaysia, they delineated boundaries amongst the caliphates, i.e. small kingdoms, so it would be clear who owned what. In this fashion, they knew who was in charge of what piece of property. Accordingly they knew who to bribe or coerce to do their bidding.

China provides political role model for Southeast Asia.

Perhaps China provided the role model for Southeast Asia’s mandala style political organization. From the very beginning, the Chinese included the Southeast Asian kingdoms in their imperial system. Instead of employing military might, imperial representatives offered great deals to entice the kingdoms to join a global trade network. The pattern began with Funan early in the Common Era and continued for more than a millenium.

Due to her geography, the mandala political organization was quite natural for China. The Middle Kingdom had very practical reasons for organizing in this fashion. From earliest times the imperial government was not able to protect the Empire’s vast perimeter from the militaristic nomadic cultures of the Central Asian steppes. These barbaric tribes, who lived just to the north of the fertile valleys surrounding China’s Yellow River, would either raid or conquer the villages and cities after crossing the empire’s immense northern border. When China counterattacked the nomadic raiders would easily disappear into the vast deserts of the high plateau.

The Imperial Army attempted to pacify these annoying tribes on the perimeter, but their nomadic warriors tended to be better fighters. They lived on their horses. Consequently they were better horsemen and were also able to shoot arrows while riding. Plus they could evaporate into terrain that they knew well and counter attack from new positions. Indeed, these ‘barbaric’ nomads even captured one arrogant Emperor as he led his army to teach them a lesson.

These punitive campaigns proved dangerous and unproductive. The Imperial government found it more economical to include the northern tribes in the largesse of the Empire. The government gave select tribes ‘presents’ to protect the perimeter from other nomadic tribes. This type of protection money worked better than utilizing an army to protect an indefensible border. Even the Great Wall of China was more for show than any real protection.

Instead of wasting resources and manpower defending the perimeter, the Emperor employed his armies to bolster the military strength of the Imperial capitol. This strategy both increased the imperial prestige and provided protection from other Chinese warlords.

They really had little choice. The imperial army could not really protect the extended perimeter from nomadic attacks. The best they could do was protect and strengthen the center. It was more expedient to just withdraw to the capital to minimize losses. It was safer to allow the ‘barbarian’ tribes to exhaust their energy pillaging the countryside, than to deplete the Imperial Army fighting them. The Emperor found it more expedient to have his army available to defend the capitol.

In this way, the mandala political organization emerged naturally due to the Chinese geography. The capitol was not bound by a particular location but instead resided where the Imperial court was. When the Imperial Court moved to a new capitol, China moved with them. More than once in Chinese history, the Emperor retreated across the Yangtze River to establish a new capital city in the South. This strategy enabled he and his court to continue the Empire when the northern barbarians became too aggressive.

Common culture of India binds Southeast Asians

While the Chinese had a huge economic impact upon the region, Indian culture permeated Southeast Asia. Indeed it served as a mechanism to merge the tribes with their individual differences into a greater nation.

Prior to the entry of the Indians onto the Southeast Asian scene, Southeast Asians participated in a cult of ancestors. This spirit or ancestor worship seems to be a universal among our human species. Honoring the spirits of our forefathers allows ephemeral humans to sink some roots into the past. It gives us a sense of continuity that extends past our short century on the planet.

Unfortunately, we humans get carried away with our good ideas, as always, and take these insubstantial thoughts that seem so real in destructive directions. Because each tribe worshipped different spirits, it tends to divide the world into Us and Them. This sense of difference frequently degenerated into aggression and warfare.

India’s Hindu mythology united Southeast Asians under one religious roof. This common religion bound the disparate and sometimes hostile tribes as one. While each group continued worshipping their ancestors, they also worshipped the same Hindu gods in common. More importantly, they shared a common literature. This religious universality not only bound them to their individual kingdoms, but also to a common culture of both Southeast Asia and India. Influenced by Buddhist ideas from India, even the Chinese participated in the same belief system.

This unification around the shared religious beliefs surrounding Indian literature and thought even transcended major linguistic obstacles. The residents of central Java kingdom spoke an Austronesian language. They communicated with residents of the contemporary Khmer kingdom of Chenla, who spoke a form of Austroasiatic. Both of these kingdoms and more were in regular cultural contact with Sri Lanka, the Tamils of southern India, and the Burmese, who spoke languages in the Dravidian and Sino-Tibetan families. As mentioned, the Chinese also participated in these international religious discussions. Thus Indian culture, especially their religion, connected clans, tribes and nations who spoke languages from 5 different language families. Note these are not dialects; they have more differences than Spanish and English.

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