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Srivijaya was a major trading state and Buddhist cultural center based in southeastern Sumatra. It loosely controlled a regional empire in western Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula between the seventh and eleventh centuries CE. The fortunes of Srivijaya were closely related to conditions surrounding the Indian Ocean maritime trade that linked East Asia and Southeast Asia to the Middle East and East Africa.
The ancient Malay peoples who formed Srivijaya in southeastern Sumatra benefited from a strategic position for maritime commerce and intercultural exchange. The Straits of Melaka between Sumatra and Malaya had long served as a crossroads through which peoples, cultures, and trade passed or took root. The prevailing climatic patterns in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean allowed ships sailing southwest and southeast to meet in the Straits and exchange goods. Some Malays specialized in maritime trade to distant shores. By the third century BCE Malay sailors procured cinnamon grown in China, which was carried, possibly by the same Malays, to East Africa or Arabia, from where it was transported to Europe. Between the seventh and eleventh centuries CE, Srivijaya would become a loosely federated empire whose fortunes and connections depended on trade.
Early Indonesian Commerce and Trading States
By early in the common era small coastal trading states based on lively ports had emerged in the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra; these enjoyed an international reputation as sources of gold, tin, and exotic forest products. Between the fourth and sixth centuries the overland trading routes between China and the West along the Silk Roads through Central Asia were closed off by insecurity and warfare between rival tribal confederations, increasing the importance of the oceanic connection. Just as various Central Asian societies became important because of international commerce, some Southeast Asians benefited from the growth of seagoing trade between China and Western Eurasia.
Beginning around the first century CE, Indian traders and priests began regularly traveling the oceanic trade routes, settling in some of the Southeast Asian states, where they married into or became advisers to influential families. They brought with them Indian concepts of religion, government, and the arts. Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism became important in the region, especially among the upper classes. By 800 a Buddhist world incorporating many distinct societies stretched from the Indian subcontinent eastward to Japan, and it included the Straits of Melaka. Some Indian-influenced kingdoms in Southeast Asia were based largely on agriculture, such as the inland Khmer kingdom of Angkor. Others depended heavily on maritime trade, including the states alongside the Straits of Melaka. These contrasting patterns represented a skillful adaptation to the prevailing environment.
Mercantile Kingdoms in Sumatra
Throughout the first millennium CE a complex and increasingly integrated maritime trading system was gradually emerging that linked the eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, East African coast, and India with the societies of East and Southeast Asia. A vigorously mercantile variation of Indian-influenced culture emerged to capitalize on this trend.
In the later seventh century the Sumatran state known as Srivijaya (in Sanskrit the name means “Great Victory”) began to exercise more influence over many of the small trading states in the Straits region, eventually forming a loosely controlled empire over a wide region. Based in the riverine port of Palembang, Srivijaya used its gold, a naturally occurring resource in that part of Sumatra, to cement alliances. Srivijaya’s control was not centralized; rather, the empire was a federation of linked trading ports held together by a naval force that both combated and engaged in piracy. Srivijaya’s kings forged a close political and economic relationship with the powerful Buddhist state ruled by the Sailendra dynasty in central Java, a highly productive rice-growing region.
Srivijaya was also a major center of Buddhist observance and study, attracting thousands of Buddhist monks and students from many countries. In 688 a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and ordained monk, Yi Jing, stopped off in Sumatra after some two decades of travel in India and Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). He was impressed with the vitality of the Srivijayan practice and the devotion of the rulers, and he advised other Chinese Buddhist pilgrims to sojourn for several years in Srivijaya before proceeding to India.
Srivijaya exercised considerable power over the international commerce of the region and maintained extensive trade ties with China. Srivijaya also became a fierce rival of the aggressive Cola trading kingdoms of southern India, with whom it fought repeated battles. By the eleventh century, destructive conflicts with the Colas and rival kingdoms in East Java reduced Srivijayan power in the region, and the Srivijayan political center moved north to the East Sumatran ports of Jambi and Melayu. Eventually several states in Java, North Sumatra, and Malaya became more influential, and the increasing activity of Chinese trading ships undermined Malay shipping. By the fourteenth century Srivijaya had lost much of its glory.
Eurasian Trade and Islamic Expansion
While Srivijayan power faded, the Indian Ocean routes between Southeast Asia and the Middle East grew even more important between 1000 and 1500, becoming the heart of an extensive trade network. The trading system linked China, Japan, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the east through Malaya and the Indonesian archipelago to India and Sri Lanka, and then connected westward to Persia, Arabia, Egypt, the East African coast as far south as Mozambique, and to the eastern and central Mediterranean. Over these routes the spices of Indonesia and East Africa, the gold and tin of Malaya and Sumatra, the textiles, sugar, and cotton of India, the cinnamon and ivory of Ceylon, the gold of Zimbabwe, the carpets of Persia, and the silks, porcelain, and tea of China traveled to distant markets. Many of these products reached Europe, sparking interest there in reaching the sources of the riches of the East.
Like the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean developed a spatial unity. No particular state dominated the trading route. The dynamism depended on cosmopolitan port cities like Hormuz on the Persian coast, Kilwa in present-day Tanzania, Cambay in northwest India, Calicut on India’s southwest coast, Quanzhou and Guangzhou in southeastern China, and the ports along the Straits of Melaka. These trading ports became vibrant, cosmopolitan centers of international commerce and culture with multinational populations.
Trade networks helped foster the expansion of Islam and the rise of Melaka. Sunni Islam spread widely in the Southeast Asian archipelago from the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries. A common Islamic faith and trade connections linked societies as far apart as Morocco and Indonesia. Islamic culture was a globalizing force, dominating huge sections of Africa and Eurasia. By the fourteenth century Islam was well established in northern Sumatra. Some Hindu-Buddhist rulers of coastal states in the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian islands, anxious to attract the Muslim Arab and Indian traders who dominated interregional maritime commerce and attracted by the cosmopolitan universality of Islam, adopted the new faith.
The spread of Islam coincided with the rise of the great port of Melaka, on the southwest coast of Malaya, which in the early 1400s became, like Srivijaya before it, the region’s political and economic power as well as the crossroads of Asian commerce. Melaka also served as the main base for the expansion of Islam in the archipelago, including into the Srivijayan heartland, displacing Buddhism and Hinduism. Like Srivijaya, Melaka also played a crucial role in international trade. Merchants from around Asia rapidly transformed the port into the region’s major trading entrepot and major link for the Indian Ocean maritime trading network. Gradually, like Srivijaya, Melaka established a decentralized empire over much of coastal Malaya and eastern Sumatra. Today only a few ruins and artifacts hint of the once-great Srivijaya, but its greatest port, Palembang, is a bustling center for Indonesia’s oil industry, with a mostly Muslim population.
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