Reminder of history’s richness and complexity

Early Malay Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and Malay Peninsula
Paul Michel Munoz
Editions Didier Millet, 2006
pp.392

Paul Munoz is a Frenchman with more than 20 years experience of living in Singapore, from which base he has pursued his interests in ethnology, prehistory and the early history of Southeast Asia.

In Early Malay Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and Malay Peninsula, a 392-page work, Munoz is mainly interested in what he calls the the “Classical Period” from the seventh to the 15th Century AD.

During this time a number of powerful polities grew up and competed with one another. Based mainly in Sumatra and Java, but with power extending to the Malay peninsula and modern Thailand, these states (or mandala, as Munoz prefers to call them) both absorbed and imparted influences from and to various directions. Both China and India play major parts in this story.

Of course, this will all go to prove that Indonesia in particular has been absorbing outside influences for millennia.

These include religion and in the pre-Islamic period we find that various forms of Hinduism, including Vishnuism and what the author calls Sivaism (worship of Shiva), and Buddhism all were important.

It is fascinating to learn that Srivijaya, which was based on Palembang in eastern Sumatra, was for a long time in the first millennium AD a major center of Buddhist learning to which devotees traveled from as far away as China to study.

Srivijaya, like many polities of the region, paid “tribute” for centuries to the Chinese emperor.

Srivijaya is truly enigmatic. It was not until the early 1990s that the French historian and archaeologist P.Y. Manguin conclusively established that it had been based on the Musi River around what is modern Palembang.

For centuries it had slipped from local memory, partly because so few brick or stone remains could be found.

There is serious speculation that a “lost city”, which was once part of the Srivijaya Empire (Munoz appears at points to contradict himself as to its real or alleged imperial status) is to be found in the dense forests of northern Johor state in modern Malaysia.

Competing powers

Certainly, the Malays and the Orang Asli have for centuries subscribed to the idea that such a city called Kota Gelanggi or Kota Batu Hitam (City of the Black Stone) is hidden in these forests.

Canberra-based independent researcher Raimy Che-Ross, who has for years asserted that this city is there and been dismissed for his pains, has come up with strong photographic material from aerial reconnaissance to indicate a well-planned settlement beneath the tropical forest canopy in an area at the headwaters of the Johor River.

Why would it have fallen into oblivion? In the 11th Century AD, Srivijaya, which had competed with Jambi, among others, was a waning power and was “knocked out” by the forces of the Tamil Chola kingdom of southern India, who also laid Kedah low.

The Tamils, intriguingly, were for centuries very influential in Sumatra through their trading guilds. The modern Tamil population of Sumatra, which is based in and around Medan, is not related to the earlier Tamil presence, having arrived under the Dutch to work the rubber plantations that flourished in the 19th Century.

Much is said in the book about the fierce competition, which often devolved into warfare, between the Sumatran polities and their Javanese counterparts such as Banten and Demak.

Again, intriguingly, we find that the numerous statelets along Java’s north coast maintained diplomatic and tribute relations with the Chinese emperors.

The same is true of now very obscure kingdoms in the Sunda region of West Java, which, of course, in pre-Islamic times was culturally very different from neighboring Java.

For example the now almost completely forgotten Holotan polity of West Java sent seven separate diplomatic missions to China in the first four centuries AD and then disappeared.

It seems fantastic today that the pre-modern peoples of this region would send missions over such long distances, but that is to dismiss their seamanship, which had, after all, enabled Malay people to colonize Madagascar on the far side of the Indian Ocean.

Knowledge of the monsoons was outstanding and with it came the ability to cover those distances.

The 48-page preface to the book deals with “prehistory”, a rather awkward term in my view, and is absolutely absorbing. Who were the first hominids through the Malay peninsula and the islands of the archipelago? What traces have they left?

The author writes, “Though hominids (any of a family of erect bipedal mammals including humans) most probably spread throughout southeast Asia their oldest relics have only been found in China and Java.” The Javanese connection is Trinil on the Solo River in Central Java, but, says Munoz, Trinil man was “an evolutionary dead end”.

The Hoabinhian culture that merged later was largely confined to the peninsula and northeast Sumatra although a later still cultural diffusion took it to Borneo where artifacts confirming it have been found at the Niah caves in Sarawak.

This is really a historian’s reference book (nothing wrong with that) but the lay reader will find much to stimulate thought from it. As a reminder of the richness, complexity and diversity of the pre-modern history of the region it is most welcome.

(pub. The Jakarta Post 18th March 2007)

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History. Bookmark the permalink.