Of Lost Cities and Early Kingdoms

Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula
by Paul Munoz
pub: Didier Millet 2006

In a recent edition of Tempo there was a fascinating article on The Buddhist Civilization by the Batanghari. In case you missed it Kurie Suditomo reported from Jambi in eastern Sumatra on the vestiges and history of a Buddhist-inspired polity in the lowlands of that region. At the very beginning of the piece the writer made mention of the Dutchman F.M. Schnitger’s Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra.

Seeing this reference I went to the bibliography of Paul Munoz’s Early Kingdoms and was surprised to find no mention of this much earlier work. Had the Frenchman overlooked it or dismissed it, I wondered? Given the weight of detail in this newly published work, the latter did not seem likely.

Be that as it may, the study of history moves on.

Paul Michel Munoz is an ethnographer and ancient historian with a lifelong fascination with the peopling of the Earth. Resident in Singapore for 20 years, he has used the island-state as a base to pursue an interest in the pre-European colonial history of Southeast Asia and in particular that profusion of polities that spread across the islands of the region and its mainland.

I was so absorbed by the 48-page first chapter ‘Prehistory’ that I wondered if that ought not to be published separately but, no, I decided it is indeed a very good preface to the heart of the book or what Munoz calls ‘the classical period,’ which centers on the likes of Srivijaya. There is so much stimulation in this that I put the book down for a number of days to think about it. The movement of small bands of people overland through heavily forested terrain and to some extent by sea in primitive craft; just how long did it take? The answer to that, of course is ‘eons.’ The first diffusion southwestward out of mainland China through the islands, the author asserts, started around 40000BC and it was not until around 1000BC that the peopling of the Malay peninsula by recognizably Malay stock began. All of this subsumed under Austronesian migrations and it is worth noting here that linguists recognize Indonesian and the aboriginal tongue of Taiwan as being Austronesian.

There was however movement from the other direction and the beleaguered Kubu people of Sumatra and Sakai of Malaysia are remnants of this, their type being Veddoid and related to the Vedda aborigines of Sri Lanka and southern India.

Munoz discusses at some length the spread and development of tool manufacture amongst these and later groups. He also recognizes difficulties in classifying the various societies in the region, “Though they all came from a common ancestry, the Austronesian groups developed important cultural differences so large that classification becomes problematic.”

(The maps in the book are very clear and presentable and support the author’s arguments admirably.)

Whatever, after reading this absorbing introduction, it became clear that Munoz’s is not a narrative as such and more readily ranks as a reference book. Some readers of course will prefer to let the author establish his own continuum over the succeeding chapters but I wonder if there is not just too much here to take at one or two sittings.

Again, be that as it may.

In ‘The Premises’, the spread of pre-Islamic religions through the region is examined at length from the expansion of Buddhism in the region following the 3rd Buddhist Council under the Mauryan King Asoka at Pataliputra in North India. It was at the end of this council that Buddhism underwent schism into its Therevada (orthodox) and Mahayana schools of which Munoz says, “It is uncertain which doctrine was followed by the first Buddhist missionaries who reached Indonesia (between the 1st and the 2nd centuries AD) but they were probably orthodox.” If that is so then they would have communicated with counterparts in what are now Thailand and Burma.” An “esoteric form of Mahayana Buddhism called Tantrism gained favor amongst Malay rulers, perhaps through the influence of Chinese pilgrims who were traveling between China and India,” he adds. The popularity of Tantrism, the author adduces, “was most probably due to the byproducts of its magic rituals, which produced sortileges and tokens used to reward or threaten officers and vassals.” Spiritual power met temporal power as the basis of feudalism…as ever, some may say.

Srivijaya, which was based on the banks of the Musi River around what is now Palembang in eastern Sumatra, and Malayu, which was the aforementioned Batanghari River polity, eventually developed from this Buddhist diffusion. The Srivijayan Maharajahs became renowned for their political expertise and cunning as well as an ability to raise revenues through the interdiction of trading vessels in the neighboring Straits of Malacca and beyond. Interestingly, this power had faded from history until early in the last century when its existence was re-established in consciousness by European historians.

Lately there has been a further renewal of interest in the fate of Srivijaya, which probably fell around the 11th century AD to forces from southern India, with added speculation as to the existence of the remains of a ‘lost city,’ Kota Gelanggi, in the thick forests of northern Johor. This ‘lost city’ may well have been identified by aerial photographs that clearly show lines of development, battlements probably, under very thick rainforest canopy. The Malaysian historian Raimy Che-Ross is amongst those who believe it is there and that is was likely overrun by the armies of King Chola. (Anyone interested in this should google in ‘Kota Gelanggi’ or ‘The Lost City of Johor.’) Majapahit is also discussed at length as is the Sundanese Pajajaran kingdom.

When all is said and done, reviewers should not throw up their hands and say ‘Enough!’ but the book is so densely woven that I have to say that in credit to Paul Munoz’s research there is insufficient space to do every aspect of it justice. It has certainly whetted my appetite. As I say, this is an excellent reference and will find a place on university history faculty shelves very comfortably.

(pub. Tempo No. 15/VI/Dec 12 – 18, 2006)

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