The Srivijaya Empire controlled modern-day Indonesia and much of the Malay Archipelago from the seventh to twelfth centuries. The empire traded extensively with India and China, incorporating Buddhist and Chinese political practices into their traditions.

Overview

  • As diverse peoples exchange goods, they also exchange political and cultural practices and beliefs.
  • A perfect example of this exchange is the Srivijaya Empire, which controlled modern-day Indonesia and much of the Malay Archipelago from the seventh to twelfth centuries.
  • The Srivijaya Empire traded extensively with India and China, incorporating Buddhist and Chinese political practices into their traditions.
  • When the Chola Empire from South India raided and took indirect control of the Strait of Malacca in the thirteenth century, the Srivijaya Empire lost influence.

The Srivijaya Empire

Map of Srivijaya Empire.
Map of Srivijaya Empire. Image credit: Wikimedia
Interactions among different peoples along trade routes led to syncretism, or blending, of religious and political ideas. The Srivijaya Empire, which controlled much of the Malay Archipelago in the Indian Ocean from the seventh to twelfth centuries, is a perfect example of this cultural blending. The Malay Archipelago is a group of islands between Indochina and Australia and includes modern-day Indonesia, East Malaysia, and the Philippines.
What might this empire have looked like? Unfortunately, historians have only recovered Srivijaya writings from a small window of time—the seventh century—written in Old Malay. However, artifacts of the empire include Buddhist sculptures and the remains of stupas, or Buddhist shrines, giving us a window into the role religion played in the region. We also have access to texts written about the empire by Chinese and Indian traders, so we have a view of what this empire was like through the lens of people interacting with the empire.

Trade

The Srivijaya Empire controlled two major passageways between India and China: the Sunda Straits from the city of Palembang and the Strait of Malacca—see the Sunda Strait, in the south, and the Strait of Malacca, to the north, on the map above. This control strengthened trade routes to China, India, and even Arabia. Some of the goods the people in the empire traded included ivory, tin, nutmeg, sandalwood, and strong-smelling camphor and aloes that were used for medicinal purposes. The empire had access to the trade network of spices from India and goods like silk and porcelain from China.
Even though we don’t have much political evidence about the scope of the Srivijaya Empire, records of trade between the Srivijayans and the Chinese make it clear that Srivijaya was a key economic actor. Chinese records show evidence of Srivijayan trade expeditions to the Song dynasty as well as China’s acceptance of the Srivijaya Empire as a vassal. Vassal states are subordinate to another nation. As a vassal to China, Srivijaya acted as a mediator between China and other smaller states on the Malay Archipelago. China considered it a great honor to bestow vassal status on another empire, so we know that the economic relationship between the two regions was strong.

Buddhism in the Srivijaya Empire and beyond

Palembang, a major city of the Srivijaya Empire, became a well-known stop for Chinese Buddhist pilgrims on their way to India, the birthplace of Buddhism. More than one thousand Buddhist monks lived in the city, and Buddhist travelers were welcomed there to study Buddhist texts.
A particularly popular form of Buddhism in the Srivijaya Empire was Vajrayana Buddhism, a mystical form of the religion that involved the cultivation of magical or supernatural powers through yantras, or special symbols. The Srivijaya Empire became a center for this form of Buddhism. One reason the version of Vajrayana Buddhism that developed in the Srivijaya Empire was so successful was that Srivijayan leaders combined Buddhist thought with indigenous beliefs about magic—another example of cultural syncretism. Vajrayana Buddhism originated in India but became popular in the Srivijaya empire during the same time period, indicating that trade connections between the two regions in the seventh century may have influenced each other’s religions.
The influence of Buddhism also affected political structures in the Srivijaya Empire. Srivijayan rulers incorporated Buddhist philosophy into their public image. For example, an inscription detailing a speech from a park dedication in 684 CE depicts a Srivijayan king, Sri Jayanasa, as a bodhisattva, or someone who has already achieved buddhahood. By praying aloud during his speech that the park would provide a benefit to all living things, Sri Jayanasa showed that he was attempting to position himself as a religious authority as well as a political one. This dedication is the first time on record that a Srivijayan ruler also claimed the role of a religious figure. The fact that the king felt associating himself with Buddhism would help his image indicated the importance of Buddhism in the Srivijaya Empire during the seventh century.
Srivijayan bronze torso statue of Boddhisattva Padmapani (Avalokiteshvara), eighth century CE (Chaiya, Surat Thani, Southern Thailand). The statue demonstrates the Central Java art influence. In 1905 Prince Damrong Rajanubhab removed the statue from Wat Wiang, Chaiya, Surat Thani to Bangkok National Museum, Thailand.
Srivijayan bronze torso statue of Boddhisattva Padmapani (Avalokiteshvara), eighth century CE (Chaiya, Surat Thani, Southern Thailand). The statue demonstrates the Central Java art influence. In 1905 Prince Damrong Rajanubhab removed the statue from Wat Wiang, Chaiya, Surat Thani to Bangkok National Museum, Thailand. Image Credit: Wikimedia

Malay language

Old Malay was the language of business and trade in the Srivijaya Empire. To successfully navigate the ports and marketplaces throughout the Malay Archipelago, a person had to be able to speak Old Malay. Establishing a standard means of communication made business transactions more efficient.
Old Malay is an Indonesian language from the Austronesian family. Written inscriptions show that Old Malay contains loanwords from Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language used throughout South Asia. Persian and Arabic influences found in Old Malay suggest that the language adapted due to the influence of people the Srivijayans traded with.

Decline of Srivijaya and new cultural interactions

Srijivayan power began to decrease after the Chola, a southern Indian dynasty, attacked the Srivijaya Empire in 1025 CE, gaining dominance in the waters around Southeast Asia. Already weakened, Srivijaya lost most of its remaining power in 1288 when the Singosari Empire from East Java incorporated them into their empire.
Despite the Srivijaya Empire’s decline, the trade routes Srivijayans helped establish continued to be widely used. For example, from 1405 to 1433, a Chinese Muslim diplomat under the Ming Dynasty named Zheng He undertook several voyages to the Malay Archipelago and on to East Africa and Arabia. Zheng He’s ability to travel these distances indicates that the Srivijaya trade routes through the Malay Archipelago remained crucial to travel and exchange after the Srivijayan Empire ceased to exist.
Map of trade routes and extent of Chola influence. Chola influence extends to northwest India and the Srivijaya Empire.
Map of trade routes and extent of Chola influence. Image credit: Wikimedia
Article by Rosie Friedland.
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"Zheng He." New World Encyclopedia, 2016.
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