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Early history
Svarnadvipa: Island of gold

Early clues about Sumatra are hard to be found. The Indian Ramayane epos (3rd century BC) does name a Svarnadvipa of 'Gold Island' which is meant to be Sumatra; the big numbers of gold found on the island, have been mined ever since the ancient times. Claudius Ptolemeus, a geographer from Alexandria from the first century AD, wrote that there were probably living cannibals on the five Barusai-islands, east of India, probably these islands were meant to be Northwestern Sumatra. The seaport of Barus was later named as the source of camphor.

Until 500 AD Sumatra was described at a frightenins island, inhabited with fierce canibals and wild animals, but with an attractive mineral and botanical source. A trading harbour, somewhere along the southern coast, distinguishes itself as a desolate outpost of the civilization. This harbor, which was known among the Chinese ar Gantoli, had diplomatical ties with China from 441 until 563.

At the end of the 78th century, several Sumatran principalties held contact with China. These Sumatran principalties should have send diplomatical missions to India, over a danerous sea, for fourty days. They went back with descriptions of these principalties as centres of trade and erudition.

The principalty of Srivijaya

The biggest name in the early history of Sumatra is Srivijaya. At the end of the 7th century this principalty stretched from it's capital, which is currently named Palembang, it also rules over neighboring harbours in a short time. The next 400 years are in fact the story about the golden ages of Srivijaya. The name was first mentioned in 671, when the famous Chinese monk I-tsing stayed in Palembang for six months, while he was on journey to India.

In that time, Palembang was the centre of Buddhism. I-tsing had declared over 1000 Buddhist monks were staying in the city, and adviced other Chinese monks to stay in Srivijaya first, to learn Sanscrite. I-tsing travelled from China to India and back by Srivijayan ships, which were the most important way of transport on these distances.
Almost every single report about Srivijaya come from foreign visitors. Srivijaya must have known written documents as well, probably on pieces of palm-leave (lontar), but nothing of that has been saved. Vague echo's of this era have been saved in inscriptions in stopne which are found around Palembang and other places in Southern Sumatra. Most of them are made in the critical period between 682 and 686, when the principalty was expanding, and it's power consolidating.

The content of the Srivijayan inscriptions are the same. They contain promises of loyalty to the king, and also retalliation from higher for rebels. An inscription on the island of Bangka, reports that a military expedition is about to leave for Java. These inscriptions proove that Srivijaya had a government that was at least devided into two separate levels; a central rules, and his governors in distant parts. They also enclose a difficult hierarchy of civil servants, generals and clercs which were connected to the royal court.

Srivijayan inscriptions are found into Southern Thailand, and on it's best, the principalty probably included the coastal regions of Sumatra, the Malay peninsula and probably also the western coasts of Borneo. These far-away outposts were probably held together with loose ties of loyalty and appreciation between the maharaja in Palembang and the local rulers in the different harbour cities.

Buddhism and trade

The inscriptions of Palembang proove that the elite of Srivijaya was practising Buddhism, The rulers probably used the idea of bodhisattva, an enlighted creature of which all things were meant to add to the sense of life of living creatures. Sumatran, Chinese and later Arabic courses painted Srivijaya as a rich and powerfull principalty that fought agressively for a monopoly on trade in eastern luxury-goods in the harbour cities. The power of Srivijaya never stretched into the inlands; inland products eventually had to go to the area's that were controlled by Srivijaya anyway.

International trade flourished. During the first centuries AD Malaca Strait became an important alternative for the famous Silk Route which ran across the deserts and mountains of Central Asia, and connected China with India and the Mediterrainian Sea-area. Sumatra, which was in the middle of the route by sea, produced spices, ivory and incense, products that were loved in India and China. The control over this trade was something to fight for.

At the beginning of the 7th century several other harbours on Sumatra tried to get some of the trade as well. The most important was Melayu, at the River Batang Hari in the province of Jambi. At about 700 all those harbours were subjected to Srivijaya as well. Foreign traders weren't allowed in the harbours anymore, only when they had a special permit.

The following 300 years Srivijaya monopolized trade over sea in Asia. Their richness became renouned even in the far away China and Persia. However Srivijaya was a developed centre of trade and science, it seems that the capital was not a densely populated area, a row of houses stretched along the banks of the river Musi. Only at the end of the 11th century, when the migration of Chinese from Southestern Asia started, the first Sumatran cities developed.

The rise of Melayu

Around 1000 the Srivijaya principalty reached it's best. Chinese and Indian courses report that the rulers of Srivijaya supported the construction of temples with money, and even the densely populated Java should have been under Sumatran influence.

But suddenly disaster struck, from an unexpected corner. In 1025 the mighty principalty of Chola in southern India, attacked Srivijaya, ands virtually destroyed it. An inscription in the wall of a temple in Tanjore reported an armada of Indian ships, which conquerred Sumatran seaports one by one, the capital included. The motive of this attack has never been clear. We can just suggest that they were traders which didn't want to pay the high taxes, obliged by Srivijayan.

The end of Srivijaya brought two important changes to Sumatra; Tamil traders-guides became active. One of them placed an inscription in Barus in 1088. Other Sumatran harbours - older principalties like Melayu and several new ones - start with international trade.

In 1088, Melayu, the old rival from Srivijaya, succeeded to turn around the roles, and brought Srivijaya back to the status of department. More than enough archeological remains of Muara Jambi along the Batang Hari are a proove of the political and economical rule in the 12th and 13th century. Compared to this, there are just a few archeological remains from Palembang in this period.

And the downfall

The supremation of the Melayu lasted about 200 years. From this time, little historical sources are left, and we can presume that Sumatra was peacefull and prosperious. At the end of the 13th century, this calm period ended.

The first step came in 1278, when the principalty of Singasari in Eastern Java started a succeeded mission to Melayu. Following Javanese sources, a Sumatran princess was taken to Java, where she married a Javanese prince, she gave him a son, Adityavarman.

This half Sumatran, half Javanese man lived with his mothers in the lowlands of Batang Hari in about 1340. Maybe he was send there by the Javanese minister of Gajah Mada to serve as a local ruler. One of his first acts was to erect a giant statue of himself as Bhairava, a Buddhist god which is on top of a pile of human skulls.

Lord of the 'Golden Lands'

Adityavarman broke the local traditions and replaced his residence to the highlands along the western coast of Sumatra, the nowadays living area of the Minangkabau. Why did he take this radical step? There are two theories about it, and both can be true. The first is that Adityavarman broke his ties with Java, and became an independent principalty. From his residence in Sumatra's mountain station he could oversee every Javanese try to get back on him. The second theory is that he located his capital in the centre of a gold-mining area, so he could rule about the gold that was mined there. In one of his inscriptions he calls himself Kanakamedinindra, Lord of the 'Golden Lands'.

Adityavarman has left many inscriptions, more than all rulers of Sumatra together. These would be for people to understand his rule better than the vague principalties before him. After all, this didn't work out. Just a few of his inscriptions were copied, let alone translated and interpreted precise. One of the reasons is that the inscriptions are written in an unusual language which combines old-Malay with Sanscrite without grammar. This is a clear step back compared with the level of the texts from the principalty of Srivijaya from the 7th century, and a proove that the classical traditions were almost lost.
The little number of inscriptions that have actually been studied, tell that Adityavarman tried to establish a royal court in the area which didn't had any form of control, accept the rule of local villages, since it never had contact with the outside world. Undoubtly, he would have tried to create the same glory of the royal court on Java here too. Pieces of statues and constructions proove that, in Western Sumatra, popular stories are still being told about matches between autocracy and democracy, which probably mirror the efforts to adapt Sumatra to something he was used to.

The last words of Adityavarman were written down around 1374, when one of his monuments reports crown prince Ananggavarman. After this, Sumatra was covered in quietness, which was not broken for 300 years, and then they first Europeans arrived on the island. In the 17th century, the political system of Western Sumatra didn't match that of the royal systems in the classical inscriptions of Srivijaya, Melayu and Java.

A Chinese pirates nest

Even after his political downfall in the 11th century, Palembang stayed an important seaport. During the 14th century Malay workers worked for the Javanese rulers. In 1370 Palembang used the rise of the Ming-dynasty in China for sending a new mission to Peking for asking political acknowledgement. The Ming-emperror send diplomats to Palembang which recognised it as a Chinese fasal-state, but the representatives were taken to Java, where they were eventually killed.

In 1392 the ruler of Palembang, Paramesware tried to take independence, but a Javanese fleet destroyes the villages on Bangka, the most important base for it's maritime power. He fled to Singapore, and in 1400 he succeesed to found a new base in Malaca, which became the centre of trade for India, China and the Indonesian archipelago in the 15th century.
Chinese sources report that a few thousand Chinese inhabitants of Palembang fled. They choose a leader from the group, which was soon scared away by a Chinese bandit, who turned Palembang into a Chinese pirates nest. A Chinese sea-expedition emprisoned the pirat-leader, and brought him back to Peking where he was strangled to death in public.

In the 16th century the city no longer was a Chinese enclave, but an important seaport, dominated by Javanese culture. How this turnaround took place, is not known. The early history of Sumatra more is a series of separate events than a chronological story.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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