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775-1377 - Sri Vijaya Empire

In the seventh century a new power arose, the state of Sri Vijaya in Sumatra. By conquering the adjacent kingdom of Melayu (Jambi), Sri Vijaya gained command of the Strait of Malacca and began to send envoys to the court of China. At this time, when trade with China thrived under the liberal policies of the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), ships of Persia, India, China and Southeast Asia traveled the Strait route.

Changes in India, too, affected the rise of Sri Vijaya, for in the middle of the seventh century the Mahayana form of Buddhism gained widespread acceptance. Bengal's renowned Nalanda University, which represented all schools of religious thought but especially the Mahayanist, attracted students from all parts of Southeast Asia and China. Gradually, Sri Vijaya became a major center for the propagation in Southeast Asia of this form of Buddhism. A North Indian script, the Nagari, replaced the south Indian Pallava script formerly used. The Chinese traveler I-tsing, who spent 6 months studying Sanskrit at Sri Vijaya before going on to Nalanda, reported that there were more than 1,000 monks at Sri Vijaya.

The eighth century saw the rise of another powerful Mahayanist kingdom, that of the Sailendras in Java. Both Sri Vijaya and Sailendra seem to have obtained at least a foothold in northern Malaya before the end of the eighth century, Sailendra probably exacting tribute in gold from Pahang. A monument found at Ligor, dated 775, bears two inscriptions: one praises the ruler of Sri Vijaya for hisestablishment of a Mahayanist sanctuary; the second refers to a king "who bears the title of Maharaja because he belongs to the Sailendra family." The two kingdoms were united by a royal marriage in the middle of the ninth century, and the kingdom thus created dominated both the Malacca and Sunda Straits for nearly 2 centuries.

According to an Arab writer of the tenth century: " The Empire of the Maharaja has an enormous population and innumerable armies. No one, even with a ship of the utmost speed, can go over the isles in less than two years. This king is in possession of more kinds of perfume and spices than any other king."

An important secondary base of this state was at Kadaram (Kedah), and the ruler was frequently referred to as the King of Sri Vijaya and Kadaram. It is possible that Kadaram became the capital of the empire, but Malay tradition places it in Sumatra.

As part of the Srivijayan empire from the seventh to the fourteenth century, Malaya experienced much diplomatic contact with other countries, expecially China and India. These contacts were mainly economic in nature because Srivijaya was a maritime empire based on trade. Political, military, and religious factors also influenced Malaya's diplomatic relations but they were usually subordinate to the economic reasons or closely related. Malaya's strategic location between India and China enhanced the importance of trade. Traders from the surrounding region congregated at Malayan ports which served as thriving emporia. Most of these ports, as indicated by written sources and archaelogical finds, were situated on the East Coast of Malaya. In the eleventh century the empire was nearly destroyed by raids from Java and south India, but in the twelfth century it regained its prominence. According to Chinese records, it again comprised most of Sumatra and the peninsular states, Ligor, Langkasuka, Pahang and Trengganu. For another century, profiting once more from an expansion of Chinese trade, all ships through the Malacca and Sunda Straits were forced to call at one or another of Sri Vijaya's ports to pay tolls. During this second period of Sri Vijaya's power the city of Tumasek (Singapore) became an important port, and a group of Chinese settled there.

Sri Vijaya's dominance was brief, however, for new states with expansionist aims and the strength to attain them were emerging in Java and Siam. During the thirteenth century the Sumatran kingdom of Melayu reappeared as an independent state. According to Marco Polo's account of his trip in 1292, the old kingdom of Langkasuka was in an advanced state of decline, and there were eight different kingdoms on the island of Sumatra, one of them, Perlak, having been converted to Islam. During the last quarter of the century the Javanese state, Singhasari, had again claimed suzerainty over Pahang, and the Thai were raiding for south on the Peninsula.

In the fourteenth century the empire of Sri Vijaya continued to disintegrate under the onslaughts of the rising Thai kingdom of Sukhothai and the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit. The final blow was struck, probably in 1377, by Majapahit, which claimed suzerainty over the whole territory of Sri Vijaya. In the process of conquest the Majapahit raiders destroyed the port of Tumasek so thoroughly that legends arose as to its many dangers; it did not reappear as a major port until reestablished by the British in the nineteenth century, and even then local inhabitants dared not go up a nearby hill, thought to be inhabited by the ghosts of ancient kings and queens, and the Chinese residents were convinced that no rice would grow on the island.

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Page last modified: 10-04-2012 18:52:30 ZULU