33: Southeast Asia's Succession of Maritime Empires


Srivijaya’s Story (7th -> 11th CE)

Srivijaya Empire: “As mentioned in an earlier chapter, I was Southeast Asia’s first island empire. My political prominence was achieved in part by dominating the crucial Straits of Malacca from my capitol at the port of Palembang on the island of Sumatra.

I had a good life, as empires go. I lasted from the 7th to 13th centuries of the modern era. The peak of my power was about 800 CE. I dominated the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Borneo, as well as the Malay Peninsula. I was an Indianized kingdom with a courtly culture. However, my prosperity and political strength was based upon my relationship with China. She considered me her imperial representative. As such, she supported me by channeling her trade through my principle port of Palembang.

Palembang was the center of the mandala regarding my political power. Remember that I was a mandala empire with no real boundaries. Some refer to my empire as a thalassocracy. The Greeks used this term to refer to the Minoan civilization, a state with primarily maritime realms. Like the Phoenicians, they ruled the trading centers on the coast, but only exerted a loose control over the interior.  In similar fashion, I was an ocean-based empire. I controlled all the major ports in the region by dominating the seas.

My political power emanated from these trading centers. My overlordship over the region expanded gradually. Instead of a dominating the area militarily, I maintained control of my vassal states through cultural and economic politics. Economically I attempted to provide a protective and mutually beneficial trading arrangement to all by enforcing a peaceful environment.

Palembang, my heartland for 4 centuries, was a major cultural center and nexus between India and China. I-ching, a Buddhist pilgrim from China, visited Palembang in 671 CE on a 20-day voyage from Canton in southern China on his way to India. He recommended this remarkable city as an excellent Buddhist center. To indicate my international flavor, the art of Palembang reveals an artistic network with the Mon Dvaravati kingdom on the mainland – where Thailand is now. We both made bronze Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Further Java, one of my vassal states, provided inspiration for the Khmer Empire, who created Angkor in the Tonle Sap region of Cambodia between the 9th and the 13th centuries. Like me, they were another impressive mandala empire. Their devaraja, their god-king, transformed the physical environment to reflect the connection between the state and heaven. Their water system, based upon ancient Indian techniques, was most intricate. It supplied the kingdom with 3 to 4 crops of rice per year. This abundance supported 1 million people in the vicinity of Angkor. Each of Angkor’s kings regularly built a new capital to reflect their flexibility. Finally however, they located permanently and surrendered their mandala flexibility. My talented nephew became brittle, fell and faded quickly.

Ah, such is the life of an Empire. You feel as if you are going to last forever. Circumstances change unexpectedly and your worldly power can degenerate quickly. This also happened to me. The invasion of the Chola dynasty early in 2nd millennium led to my decline and fall. Hoping to last forever - at the end it seems like just a day.

In my heyday the Chinese relied on my people to do all their foreign shipping - their import/export business. We had a great relationship. China considered us one of her barbarian vassal states and provided us with tributary trade. In exchange, we provided her merchants with a safe base in the islands of Indonesia. The trade began growing in the 5th and 6th centuries, but with her civil wars, our trade dropped off in the late 6th and early 7th centuries. With the rise of the stable Tang dynasty, we wanted to capture the lucrative China trade. To this end, my rulers in Palembang became vassals to assuage the Chinese imperial ego. The benefits of joining their trade network were fabulous.

In addition, my rulers took steps to control all the harbors in the region. They accomplished by controlling the Straits of Malacca through Palembang. Prior to our extended control, there had been many small harbor kingdoms. This militancy is reflected in some of the old Malay inscriptions.

The power of my maharajahs depended on our alliance with those who possessed warships - the Chinese. Plus, our China connection gave us lots of prestige. We must have done a pretty good job of maintaining the peace because there is no mention of piracy in the Arab accounts of the time. We all felt that our interests were the same. We governed and ruled through positive reinforcement nationally and individually. My loyal subjects were rewarded for their cooperation with wealth, posts of honor, and supernatural benefits, i.e. earning merit to further them along the path of reincarnation. Through this process, we formed this maritime Austronesian collective, which was the Srivijaya Empire, yours truly.

I was powerful as long as Palembang was a thriving entrepôt. The bounty of my rulers depended upon our tributary status with China. The Chinese needed and we provided a strategic and secure entrepôt. This business alliance with my powerful neighbor drove my early history. The Chinese felt that my maharajas were her imperial agents. Unfortunately, the cohesiveness of our island-based Srivijaya Empire was undermined when the Chinese began doing their own shipping in the 10th century. After this shift, there was no longer a single entrepôt. Our mandala centralization collapsed and we became prey to the next invader. This happened to be the Chola dynasty of southern India. I’ll let him tell his own story.”

The Chola Dynasty (11th->12th CE)

Chola: “Like Srivijaya, I too am a political dynasty. As such I am made up of humans - Tamils from southern India to be exact. But I have a much longer life span than they do. They are just the cells of my body.

The wave of my expansion began about 750 CE, when my dynasty established control of the southern part of the Indian peninsula. From here our maritime culture expanded into the Sea of Bengal, conquering Ceylon. We then took control of the Malay Peninsula. However, this expansion didn’t satisfy our quest for wealth and power. We were intent on eliminating the middleman in the lucrative spice and silk trade between the Arabs and the Africans to our west and the Southeast Asians to the east. We launched a naval attack on the Srivijaya Empire in 1025 CE. My political wave crashed with so much force that it washed away the entrepôt of Palembang, the source of Srivijaya’s wealth and prestige. In typical Austronesian fashion, their dynasty just moved to another port in Java. Without control of the lucrative trade routes, the Srivijaya Empire spiraled into a long decline.

This military victory enabled my people, the Tamils, to establish control over most of the ports of call and sea routes utilized by the traders of both the Indian Ocean and Eastern Asia. After the elimination of Srivijaya as the middleman, we were able to trade directly with China and sell Southeast Asia’s valuable spices at high profits in Europe. The prosperity from our trade fueled our Empire for another few hundred years. This was our golden age between the 11th and 13th centuries. Then our wave lost its forward momentum, fragmented and dissolved back into the great sea of humanity. At our peak, we were invincible and then suddenly we were only traces in the sand - nothing more. Don’t laugh. It will happen to you too."

The Singahari Empire (13th CE)

As the Chola Dynasty disintegrated due to problems at home, their vassal states began to reassert themselves. Among these states was the Singhasari Dynasty of Eastern Java. They moved to insert themselves into the power vacuum and a return of local rule.

In 1275, the Singhasari launched a peaceful naval campaign northward towards the weak remains of the legendary Srivijaya Empire centered upon the island of Sumatra. One motivation for the campaign was continuous raids by ferocious Ceylonese pirates. These pirates and others were disrupting the trade routes.

In their ascendancy, the Singhasari were offering protection from piracy and economic stability in exchange for tributary status. To gain the allegiance of the Malay states and Sumatra, this East Javan kingdom established control over the Malaccan strait, the ‘Maritime Silk Road’. As mentioned, this ocean passageway between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra was the key to controlling the trade routes from China to India.

The Singhasari’s nearly 20-year campaign accomplished its goals and all the small kingdoms fell in line behind their leadership. Peace and secure trade routes were in everyone’s best interests. In this way, the  Java-based Singhasari fulfilled their ambition of supplanting Sumatra-based Srivijaya as the maritime empire of Southeast Asia.

While most some kingdoms joined peacefully, others had to be coerced. For instance, a hostile military campaign was required to force the Balinese to submit to Singhasari rule. Joining Bali with Eastern Java was to have momentous consequences in the centuries to come.

Here is picture of the Singhasari Empire in its ascendancy. Notice how their political control is centered along the coast. A new empire was to rule this same territory before too long.

Wikipedia Commons

Unfortunately, their leaders made a fatal mistake. The Mongols, who had just conquered China under Kublai Khan, sent an emissary to demand tributary status. Evidently, the Singhasari court didn’t treat the emissary with respect. In fact, their maharaja/king arrogantly scarred his cheek with a knife and sent him back as his answer. This is a big ‘no-no’ for the Mongols. As an example, because an Islamic ruler in the Middle East executed their emissary, the Mongols obliterated and overran many Muslim cities - killing millions of people.

Because Java was so far away, it took some time before the Mongols found out that their emissary had been mistreated. After discovering this affront, they immediately organized themselves for revenge.  Kublai Khan, the Chinese Emperor, arranged for 1000 ships and 20,000 soldiers, along with the Mongols’ famous horsemen to be shipped to Java to avenge this insult to their culture.

By the time they arrived, the king who had committed the affront was dead, killed in a rebellion by one of his vassal states. Evidently his ruthless behavior had also alienated the local population. His death placed Java was in a state of political turbulence with many factions vying to fill the power vacuum.

Raden Wijayawas one of the leaders of the rebellious states and the one who probably had slain the king. Presumably to avoid the Singhasari infighting, he went into voluntary exile in a forest that had bitter fruit, maja pahit. This was to be the name of the new Southeast Asian maritime empire.

When the Chinese arrived for revenge, Wijaya seized the opportunity. After befriending the Mongols, he persuaded them to expel the Singhasari. In a surprise turnabout, he then surrounded the Mongols with his army. Arguing that the trade winds were about to change, Wijaya then persuaded them to go home. Already weakened by tropical diseases and the climate, and in hostile territory with dwindling supplies, the mighty Mongol army fled.  This brilliant maneuver left Wijaya in charge. This was 1292 CE, the beginning of the Majapahit Empire.

The Majapahit Empire (14th-> 16th CE)

The Majapahit was Indonesia’s last Indianized mandala empire. In many ways, it was a continuation of the Srivijaya and Singhasari Empires. The three controlled similar territory and had the same Hindu/Buddhist culture. The primary difference was the center of their mandala empire.

As mentioned, these maritime empires, instead of being boundary based, emanated from a center, hence the name mandala. The focal point began as a general region, then a specific city, and most particularly a king/maharaja. While Srivijaya’s center was the port of Palembang on the island of Sumatra and Singhasari’s center was Eastern Java, and the Majapahit Empire was centered in Central Java. The Javanese refer to this region as Mataram.

To augment their prestige, the Majapahit rulers claimed an ancestral connection with the ancient 1st millennium Medong/Mataram kingdom of Central Java. Recall that this kingdom was responsible for the monument/shrines on the Dieng Plateau. Further their culture interacted with the Sumatran-based Sailendra dynasty to create Borobudur, a Buddhist temple, and the fabulous Prambanam temple complex. To indicate the importance of each of these dynastic traditions, the Sanjaya family is still, to this day, the royal family of Java. Further, when the last Prince of Srivijaya converted to Islam, the Austronesian islanders followed in his lead.

While the leaders of the variety of regions competed for political dominance, they shared a common culture. Their kings were ascetics, who were revered as Shiva-Buddhas – devarajas. They had an obligation to the gods to cleanse the kingdom, the holy land of Java, and thus the world, of impurities, by permeating the world with their royal divinity. With this mission in mind, they attempted to maintain the country as a literal temple.

In the typical mandala politics of the region, the kings ruled by prestige combined with force. The king was responsible for maintaining the peace so that trade could occur. Many kings of the Majapahit dynasty made regular tours of the countryside to ensure that the citizenry was taken care of. Instead of dominating their vassal states, the rulers demanded homage and tribute in exchange for preserving the stability and participation in the international trade network. The influence of this Central Javanese Empire was considerable. Their ally, the Chinese, used similar techniques to maintain their empire.

The power of the Empire depended upon the prestige of the king, who was considered a demigod – a devaraja. The Javanese felt that the spirit world supported the reign. Accordingly, the golden age of the Majapahit Empire coincided with the rule of their greatest king, Hayam Wuruk. Unfortunately, he died in 1389. Everything - good and evil, great and small, is consumed by the Fire of Time.

There was a power struggle to take his place. Each faction attempted to establish that their ruler was the new devaraja. This infighting weakened the political mandala. The vassal states arose to fill the vacuum, shrinking the perimeters of influence. The Majapahit Pulse was coming to an end.  Based on such noble ideals, they probably thought their Empire would last forever. But their rulers, as always, got lost in trivial pursuits, such as groveling after power and materialism. This ruined everything. Ah well - such is the transitory world of humans.


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