Malayu (3.9) An Elegy for Sumatra’s Forests

On our second morning in Pekanbaru, it was back to bargaining with Indonesian taxi drivers, a profession whose uniform almost always seemed to include a neatly trimmed little moustache. The man, whose name was Wahyu, had never been there before and radioed his taxi buddies to get a quote. This wasn’t a good start: the more people involved in a transport deal in Indonesia, the higher the quote was likely to be. These misgivings proved well-founded as the initial quote came back at Rp 700.000- around $75. True, it was a two hundred and fifty kilometre return trip, including two hours’ waiting time, but it was a lot more than we had ever paid for a taxi ride in Indonesia and some serious haggling was in order. In the end, we got him down to Rp 400.000, which was what we had hoped to pay in the first place, and Wahyu didn’t grumble too much on the way, which meant he must have been happy enough, too.

The hundred and twenty five kilometre journey to the temple complex provided little by way of scenery. The area was across the Sumatran lowlands, which had been covered until recently in impenetrable jungle. As late as the 1990s herds of elephants, or possibly even the odd ‘woolly’ Sumatran rhinoceros, were sometimes spotted by travellers on the roads on Riau province. But the lowland jungle of Riau- far more biologically diverse than the remaining mountain forests- had been torn up and burnt down in the space of a decade. By the time of our visit there was no long anything but plantations to see.

For most of the journey we followed the main road west from Pekanbaru towards the Minang Highlands of West Sumatra. Traffic was sparse, especially compared to the highways of Java, with the majority of vehicles being trucks or buses. Car ownership was increasing in Suamtra but it was still far from common. We passed through the odd small town, none of which seemed to be of any real age. According to our driver, they had mostly sprung up in recent decades as service towns for the surrounding plantation belt, in which vast amounts of palm-oil was being cultivated. Indonesia and Malaysia had, over the course of a decade, emerged as the world’s leading producer of this cheap cooking oil, which was now being used not only in the woks of Asia, but as an ingredient in hundreds of different processed foods.

The destruction of Sumatra's forests
The destruction of Sumatra’s forests

The utterly deforested landscapes which we passed through on the way out to Candi Muara Takus were not only utterly different to what explorer Cornell De Groot would have seen when he had rediscovered the lost temple complex, mounted on elephant-back, in 1861. It was radically different to what would have greeted the backpacker just twenty years before. Indeed, Riau may have been the site of one of the greatest environmental crimes of the young millennium. For example, while Sumatra had lost 23.7% of its forest cover between 2000 and 2010, making it one of the world’s fastest vanishing wildernesses, Riau had lost almost 40% of its peat-land forest cover over the period, meaning that it far outpaced even the rest of Sumatra in the loss of its native heritage. With its valuable timbers plundered, the land had then been replanted with palm-oil and pulpwood plantations which greeted our eyes.

Tempo, easily Indonesia’s most courageous news outlet, had long shown how Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings limited (APRIL), international pulpwood companies, had been systematically stripping Riau of its forest cover in breach of Indonesian laws and the terms of their own contracts. The reason it was able to do this with such impunity was because its clandestine links with corrupt officialdom, both at a regional and national level. The Forestry Department, the Attorney General’s Department and the National Police are all alleged to have been involved in this ‘environmental crime’. Green activists and anti-corruption campaigners had compiled a wealth of documentary evidence but typically cases had gone nowhere. However, in 2012 the Anti-Corruption Court has shown new interest in the crimes, dating back to around 2006 to 2007, and in 2012 four Forestry Heads from Riau were jailed for corruption. The Environment Ministry is still talking about pursuing the companies involved but for the forests of Riau, once home to Sumatran tigers, elephants, bears and rhinos- it was already too late, and only scattered remnants of the peatswamp forests remained.


Lampung (5.2) The Ghosts of Pagung Raharjo

Pugung Raharjo was discovered by the transmigrants who had settled the area in the 1940s, replacing the original jungle with the plantations we see today. It dated from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries, a range of dates which overlaps with the late Sriwijaya period. As such, it gives us a unique glimpse of what a settlement from the Sriwijayan hinterland might have looked like, most academic attention having focused on Palembang, or the temple architecture of Jambi and Riau. It proved illuminating in many ways.

The first surprise was the earthwork walls and trench that surrounded the site. The walls were between two and three metres tall and were clear evidence of a fortified ancient settlement. Being made of heaped soil, they have weathered unevenly but they clearly represented a major public works project for an ancient community. It was by no means obvious to us, but the research has shown that originally there were two forts here, the combined length of their walls reaching more than a kilometre. Impressed by the scale of these earthen fortifications, we wondered whether the perceived enemy had been local or foreign. In North Sumatra and the offshore island of Nias, you find fortified villages, a testimony to an era of internecine warfare between rival villages and clans. The megalithic carvings we had seen at Besamah also suggested a warlike society, the figures depicted with swords and daggers. Clearly tribal warfare had been a recurrent part of Sumatra’s ancient history. But in building these earthen walls- perhaps originally topped with bamboo spikes or wooden palisades- had the inhabitants of Pugung Raharjo been trying to keep out their neighbours or invaders from across the sea?

There was no way of knowing for sure, but remembering that the Sunda Strait was nearby, we tended toward the later option. There are two main sea routes between the Indian Ocean and the Far East. The more popular route is through the Straits of Melaka, passing just to the south of the island of Singapore. The second option was to pass through the Sunda Strait, which separates Java and Sumatra. This route took traders and marauders of many nations right along the south coast of Lampung; so it is not hard to imagine that pirate ships sometimes conducted raids on land. Pugung Raharjo may have had to defend itself against some of the visitors sailing to Sriwijaya.

Within the walls were open grassy areas, meandering paths and groves of trees. We didn’t have to walk far before we came upon the main ‘sights’. The first of these was a cluster of megalithic stones, one of them standing upright. Noting how phallic this long, slender stone was, we were glad that it had been fenced off. We felt sure its shape would have inspired some visitors to try their own hand at carving, adding a pair of initials here or a stiff penis there. But our bike riders later contradicted our perception of these menhirs. They had been told that locals knew it as Batu Mayat, or The Corpse Stone; its shape apparently reminding locals of a corpse wrapped up in a shroud. Whatever the true meaning of their symbolism, we were surprised to see in the stones such clear evidence of a megalithic cult. While it is said that the site dated from Sriwijayan times, its inhabitants were clearly not Buddhists- at least in the ordinary sense of the word. While Mahayana Buddhism may have flourished in Sriwijaya’s larger cities, in smaller, regional centres like this, more archaic religious traditions had clearly persisted. Sumatra’s oldest stone monuments are the menhirs, tombs and dolmen of the megalithic age, and clearly, at Pugung Raharjo, they continued to be revered during the Sriwijayan era and possibly even beyond.

Changes in religious belief may have been much less drastic in the hinterland than at the centre in the empire. In the case of Lampung, this is very easy to believe, as even in the colonial era many traditions survived with roots in the megalithic past. These included the preservation of ancient roles, such as ‘chief’, the importance of feasts of rank in preserving the social order and the giving of ritual cloths at important ceremonies like weddings and circumcisions.

Just ahead was a large mound, more proof of prehistoric customs surviving on into the Sriwijayan era. The mound was in the shape of a shallow-sided pyramid, with stone terracing dividing its three levels. A stone staircase ascended along one side, rising to the uppermost terrace. The mound was covered all over with grass and surrounded on all sides by coconut palms and other trees. Not having any information on the site, we guessed that it was some kind of crude temple, but we were later told it was a tomb. There were other mounds on the site, but this one was by far the largest and most impressive. The others had only one or two terraces, a sign that the person buried beneath them was of lower social status than the ‘owner’ of this largest of mounds. No one knows who is buried beneath the mound, but it is tempting to believe it was the greatest of the settlement’s early leaders. We found it tantalizing to think that during Sumatra’s Sriwijayan age, a megalithic culture had continued in Lampung, its people building earthen forts and tombs for their leaders, continuing their ancient customs, their professed allegiance to Buddhist Sriwijaya notwithstanding.

The tomb of an early ruler of Pagung Raharjo
The tomb of an early ruler of Pagung Raharjo

Impatient to head back to town, our bike owners had come looking for us. They had spoken to someone who had told them that the best sight at Pugung Raharjo was  a small spring, set by a stream. As at many other sites in Indonesia, it was claimed that the spring water had magical properties and could preserve youth. The superstitious mindset of locals was also shown by the ghost stories we were offered. They said that the villagers believed that Pugung Raharjo was haunted and few of them would dare to walk there at night. Entertained, indeed delighted, by these details, we walked on, soon finding the spring in a cluster of trees, at the rear of the site. There was a tin shed on the hill above the site and three local children in their swimming shorts. Just as we arrived, the skies finally opened, the rain coming down in a deluge. We hurried down to a little concrete changing room by the spring, stripping down to our shorts and jumping into the spring. Our guides waited in the tin shed at the top of the hill, staring down at us as if we were mad.

The rain came down so heavily that, within minutes, the downhill path was turned into a cascade, brown water racing down at impressive speed. For the children, this was too great a temptation to pass up; forming a chain, they sat down and were carried to the bottom of the hill, as if along a water slide. Being children of some ten years old, they immediately climbed to the top of the hill and raced down again, laughing and cheering all the while. As we soaked in the cold water spring, raindrops striking our face, we speculated that this was why Pugung Raharjo had been founded where it was. In the event of the settlement being besieged by enemies, they had a steady water supply to help them last it out. Though we were wet and cold the whole way back to Bandar Lampung, this rainstorm dip, in the fort’s secret weapon, was the finest moment of our trip.

Lampung (5.1) In the Land of the Transmigrants

The next day, we set off on a day trip, catching a minivan out to the Rajabasa Bus Terminal. From there we hoped to get on a bus to Pugung Raharjo, an archaeological site located some fifty kilometers out of town. Unfortunately, no one recognized the name. At the mention of it, the bus touts would stare at us blank-faced, or ask if we meant some other long-named place that they had heard of. Growing increasingly desperate, we pulled out our research notes and read them the name of the nearest village. This also befuddled the bus touts, though an ojek driver, who had edged closer to watch the show, started nodding violently, saying he knew it well. We followed him, asking whether he knew another motorbike taxi driver and how much he wanted for the return trip. He quoted a fair price, which we agreed to at once. We walked across to the ojek stand and requested that the two drivers stay together: we didn’t want to be separated. But while my rider went off to find a second helmet, Cameron’s driver took off, speeding out onto the highway at terrific speeds. Looking behind him, Cameron grew increasingly worried that there was no sign of me, asking his driver to stop and wait. By the time he’d come to a halt, they were already a couple of kilometers along their way, stopped by the side of the road near some kind of road-works project. Returning with the second helmet, my driver said he had no idea of where Pugung Raharjo was and would have to wait for his friend to come back. They waited five, ten, fifteen minutes but still there was no sign of Cameron’s driver- he was still waiting for us to catch up with him.

Lampung’s busy Rajabasa Bus Terminal

Cameron had a mobile phone on him but I didn’t, and I couldn’t remember Cameron’s number either. Finally I went to a wartel (a telephone office), called Sienna, our Jakarta flatmate, and asked her to call Cameron and tell him to return to the terminal. By the time Cameron and his driver finally made it back to Rajabasa, more than an hour had been lost. On the positive side, the whole episode had provided a great deal of entertainment to the large number of people who were idling around the terminal, with nothing much else to distract them.

From there we travelled in tandem, heading east out of Bandar Lampung, passing the road project where Cameron and his driver had parked. Once we were out of the city, there was little traffic on the roads, just the odd bus and trucks serving the farms of the plantation belt. The entire area was under cultivation, with rubber and pepper plantations on both sides of the road. These were doubtless a product of the transmigration programs which had so transformed Lampung. Their ongoing importance to the local economy was shown by the excellent state of the road heading east. It was in unusually good condition for a highway anywhere in Sumatra. We also had luck with the weather. The sky was overcast, with dark grey clouds huddling ever more closely. We got a few spots of rain, but the downpour held off far longer than either of us expected.

There were no large towns along the way, but occasionally the long rows of rubber trees were replaced by a village of small, white houses centered around a mosque. As we got closer to Pugung Raharjo, some of the villages boasted pura (Balinese temples.) These were easily identified by their elaborate entrance gates and thatched-roofed towers. During the early years after Independence, overcrowded Bali had been an important source of trans-migrants. In relocating to the plantation belt of Southern Lampung, they had brought their religious architecture with them; some of the day tours offered by the travel agents in Bandar Lampung included stops in ‘Balinese’ villages.

About an hour out of Bandar Lampung, our bottoms beginning to ache, our drivers pulled over to the roadside and asked a local man for directions. He indicated to veer off the highway just ahead and continue on for some distance. As we turned onto the side road, we passed a gerobak, a traditional cart, drawn by a white ox. We asked our drivers to stop, stepping down to get a photo. These glimpses of a slower-paced past were one of the reasons we kept being drawn back to Indonesia, despite the frustrations of travel there. Having remounted our bikes, we drove on for a couple of kilometers, arriving in Pugung Raharjo village. It was more traditional and attractive than the other villages we had seen, consisting of timber houses, some of them raised on stilts. The ‘Lampung house’ is not one of Sumatra’s more celebrated examples of traditional architecture, but the province does have its own distinctive style of house. We found a couple of examples in that village, with their wooden verandas and tiled stairways. Stopping to ask for directions yet again, our drivers were told that there was museum in the village, and asked us if we wanted to see it.

We said we would. The drivers turned around, heading back to the last intersection and parking their bikes there. The museum, housed in a single roomed building, was locked. But with our appearance someone ran to get the key-holder and we were led across a yard and let inside. The key-holder explained that the exhibits had been yielded by the archaeological digs at nearby Pugung Raharjo. It was a small, completely unlabelled collection of pottery sherds and other miscellaneous items. The star exhibits were a pair of stone statues, often described as being ‘Polynesian’ in style. Perhaps this is intended to distinguish them from the elegant, realistically proportioned sculpture of the Hindu-Buddhist period. These rough, crude human figures looked nothing like the Buddhas, Ganeshas and garudas that grace the museum collections of Java. But Lampung is on the Indian, not the Pacific, Ocean, and really those ‘Polynesian’ statues were part of the region’s indigenous megalithic tradition, not something from further abroad.

Having tipped the key-holder, we returned our bikes and continued to the archaeological park along another side road. It was set in a semi-wooded area at the edge of the village, too little visited to warrant the erection of a ticket booth. The only official welcoming party wMediaas a signboard warning visitors of the fees for damaging ‘cultural objects’. Pointing at the dark stormclouds, our ojek drivers warned us not to be too long. We nodded rather noncommittally, as if to say, we heard what you said, but we aren’t promising anything.

Srivijaya: A Floating City

When the Chinese traveller Chau Ju Kua came to Palembang in the twelfth century, he described Sriwijaya in most unexpected terms. He wrote, “The people either lived scattered about, outside the city, or on the water on rafts of boards covered over with reeds, and these (floating houses) are exempt from taxation.” This description of a floating city comes from classical Sriwijaya’s period of decline. Within living memory it was still much more a ‘city afloat’ than it is today. Friedrich Schnitger, the first man to write a book about Sumatran archaeology, investigated Palembang during the 1930s. The German was interested mostly in ancient inscriptions and statues, but in one of his most lyrical and romantic passages, he describes a city that was still partly ‘floating:

On moonlit nights, young Malays of Palembang hire a boat and go rowing with their sweethearts. They glide past the Chinese houses, built on rafts. Inside, one catches a glimpse of red-enamelled altars, coloured dragons, and images of smiling gods. If anyone in the house has died, lilac candles are burning, their quiet flame reflected in the water.

These raft houses are known today in Palembang as rumah rakit. You can still find them in Palembang, but you have to know where to look. Since the 1960s, local governments have encouraged people to live ashore, and fewer and fewer of these kinds of houses are to be found in the city. In central Palembang, they are especially scarce. There are a few floating coffee shops and one large floating restaurant, but there are no raft houses in the immediate vicinity of the Ampera Bridge. When we had gone out onto the Musi, on our previous boat trips, we had kept an eye out for them. We saw a preponderance of small, wooden boats and even some flimsy bamboo rafts: some small traders still drift to market on bamboo rafts laden with produce. What we didn’t see were raft houses. By the time we decided on a boat trip to a historic mosque, known as Mesjid Kiai Muara Ogan, we had given up on them.

A Dutch-era postcard of the waterfront and boats
A Dutch-era postcard of the waterfront and boats

On all our previous boat trips, we had headed down the Musi. Our goal on this trip was to head upstream, to the Musi’s junction with the Ogan: one of its major tributaries. We headed off early in the morning. It was a cloudy, wet-season day. The city has a reputation for fiery weather, but it was nowhere in evidence then. The weather was, in fact, rather mild. We set off from the new promenade, in front of the fort, and quickly crossed to the opposite side of the river. There was that immediate sense of freedom and excitement which comes with leaving behind a big, crowded city and getting out on the water. We were soon racing along the Seberang side, looking at the dilapidated houses, the narrow canals heading inland and the numerous boats moored along the bank.

Before long, Cameron spotted a floating puskemas (local health clinic). It was housed on a sizable craft. Presumably, it travelled along the river, treating people in kampungs without health services. Just a few moments later, we passed a boat repair ‘garage’, perched on the banks of the river. The idea of a sail-in garage appealed to us almost as much as a floating clinic. In going to somewhere like Palembang, what we were always looking for was something special or unique, that we could only find there. Our rising excitement suggested that we had gained our first signs of it. And then our young ‘captain’ turned to us and said, apologetically, that he had to stop for petrol. We smiled at each other knowingly. We guessed correctly that the next request would be for an advance on the boat rental money. In Indonesia, this kind of small business is almost always conducted on a transaction by transaction, hour by hour, basis. Whether it is boat, minibus or car owners, they rarely have enough petrol for a chartered trip.

Delightfully, the petrol station was housed in a wooden pile-house. There was a young man out bathing on the wooden porch, with a sarung tied around his waist, beside him was a bucket on a rope. A morning ‘shower’ in Seberang Ulu often meant hauling a bucketful of water up from the Musi. He was squatting in a puddle of water and soapsuds. As our captain stepped onto the porch to get petrol, he smiled and waved at us and asked where we were from. The Western traveller to Palembang can expect people to constantly call out, “Come here Mister”, “Where you go?”, “Where are you from?”, or the equivalent expressions in Indonesian. “Hello Mister” fatigue is one of the best-known annoyances of regional Indonesia. Yet what would have been an irritant, elsewhere, seemed, in this case, a refreshing example of village curiosity and friendliness. As we pulled off from the petrol station, we agreed what an unspoilt part of Indonesia it was.

From this point on, the trip became even more interesting. Moored along the banks were a number of houses floating on rafts of bamboo poles. Here were the descendants of the raft houses which had housed so many of ancient Sriwijaya’s citizens. Typically, the tightly-bound rafts consisted of eight or more lengths of bamboo, each of considerable breadth. Some of them had simple wooden porches and partitions made of woven rattan. People sat out on the porches, smoking, eating or fishing. The closer we moved towards the junction with the Ogan, the more numerous these rumah rakit became. Some of them were quite large, with wooden roofs and fenced verandas. Overall, they seemed much more substantial than the reed and bamboo constructions described by ancient travellers, but the basic concept was the same. Apart from accommodation, floating buildings were put to a variety of other purposes. There was a floating general store, which boat owners would pull up to, to do their shopping. There were floating boat sheds, and even small workshops on bamboo rafts.

A floating house on the mighty Musi
A floating house on the mighty Musi

In Thailand, tour groups are raced off every day to floating markets which exist only for the benefit of tourists. Whereas in overlooked Palembang, whole communities still live and work on floating houses. The exoticness of raft houses is enough to recommend them in their own right, but for the traveller in search of ‘lost’ Srwijaya, these rather makeshift-looking structures are of special interest, for the traveller knows that they have been a surprisingly permanent fixture along the banks of this part of the Musi. We were pleased to have finally seen what had proven the most elusive of Palembang’s sights. As a result of the scant attention paid to Palembang by guidebooks, experiencing the city fully was taking a lot more persistence than normal. Yet it seemed worth the effort; our trip kept yielding fresh and exciting discoveries.

The dwellings onshore were also of historic interest. In Seberang Ulu, many rumah limas houses survived along the river banks. The grandest of these were double-humped. Their prominent roofs consisted of two, large tiled pyramids. The best-preserved of them had ‘goat’s horn’ ornamentation, a local motif that had inspired the designers of the Great Mosque. Many of the smaller houses had beautifully detailed facades. There were balconies closed in latticework, elaborately curling awning supports, gracefully curving staircases and delicate wood-carving. Yet, despite their great age and charm, for grandeur, the houses of Seberang Ulu could not compete with the riverside mansions on the Ilir side of the Musi. Those on the northern bank, featuring large balconies, stained glass and elaborate ironwork, were of a much more aristocratic appearance. It appeared that even in the eighteenth century, Ilir had been the ‘better’ side of Palembang. This revelation gave rise to further speculation. Ancient Sriwijaya had been centred on the northern side and the monuments of royal Palembang were also located there. We suspected that the status and prestige of the Ilir side had continued, unbroken, for fourteen centuries. In modern Palembang, just like in ancient Sriwjaya, the best address was north of the Musi.

As we approached the junction with the Ogan, we passed large coal barges and other commercial boats. Up ahead were some huge, dark silos. We were nearing an industrial zone on the western fringes of the city. This formed quite a contrast with the area we were currently in. The ramshackle mansions and tumble-down traditional homes of old Palembang would soon merge into industrial plants and warehouses. Yet at the edges of the old city, just before the mouth of the Ogan, we spotted the largest concentration yet of rumah rakit. Here, in clear view of industrial Palembang, was a whole cluster of raft houses. They rocked a little on the swell from the passing boats and some of their inhabitants looked out from their porches, waving at us. It is strange that the traditional of raft houses, at least as old as Sriwijaya, survives today in the shadow of industrial Palembang.

Also at the confluence of the Musi and Ogan Rivers was the historic mosque we had set as our destination. But we saw at once that it was less remarkable than the old kampungs we had just passed by. The reason for this, as with many historic mosques in Indonesia, is architecturally insensitive renovations. It was clear from the lines of the roof, that it had begun life as a traditional mosque, in the style of Palembang’s Great Mosque. It was originally built here in the 1870s. But eventually the mosque could no longer house its congregation, and a large veranda was added in the 1950s. A subsequent renovation in the 1980s further ‘modernized’ the appearance of the mosque, and in its present form it looks little different from many Indonesian mosques built last year. Nonetheless it continues to draw pilgrims, as beside the mosque is the tomb of Kiai Merogan, the imam who had founded this and Masjid Lawang Kidul.

Yet if we were rather unimpressed by the modern-looking mosque, our visit there proved interesting in other ways. Just a little downstream, the Ogan River was spanned by the colonial-era Wilhemina Bridge. This had been built to link Palembang with the Kertapati train station, which was located just behind the mosque. Clearly, over the years, this part of Palembang had been a crossroads and intersection in a variety of ways. But most of interesting of all to us was the realisation of exactly why Sriwijaya-Palembang was located where it was. We had known, in a general sense, that Sriwijaya was strategically located to tax products coming downriver from the hinterland. But standing there, at the mouth of the Ogan, we realised that it was set between the mouths of the Ogan and Komering Rivers, the last major tributaries to enter the Musi. Had Sriwijaya been built any further upriver, it would have been possible to bypass the city along at least one of these lesser rivers. There were sound strategic reasons for the city being founded exactly where it was. Sriwijaya had positioned itself for commercial success right from the start. Realising this gave us a deeper respect for the rulers of the ancient kingdom. Despite the minor disappointment of the mosque itself, the trip had been a revelation.

Malayu (3.8) Three Days in Rainy Pekanbaru

Our second and final encounter with Malayu was to come four years later in 2007 when we were just commencing our second stint living and working in the Indonesian capital. We had already ticked off most of the likely weekend trips during out first stint, so by this point we were ‘getting creative’ with our choices. One of the possibilities which Cameron had raised was Pekanbaru, as budget airline Air Asia had recently started flights to the city, which was known as a centre for the oil and plantation industries. By all accounts there was very little to see in the town itself, and the only attractions were way out in the sticks. The one which appealed most to us was Candi Muara Takus, known as one of the few ancient temple complexes to have survived from Sumatra’s Golden Age. With some reservations we booked the flight and flew out for a long weekend, which coincided with Indonesian Independence Day, which falls on the 17th of August.

Cam had booked us a room at the Hotel Ibis, which was situated, unfortunately, on the outskirts of the city- the capital of the province of Riau, which straddled the equator. The only possible destination in the vicinity was a large, new mall, which was mostly empty but was the hangout of choice for the city’s youth. We went there for lunch when we first arrived and it was good for cheap eats from its food-court if nothing else, but the burgeoning mall culture of Indonesia’s middle-class had never been our thing and these malls in Sumatra were of even less interest than those in the capital. Cam had a bit of a fetish for getaways to international hotels, but he regretted he hadn’t booked something nearer to the centre. In the parlance of hotel reviewers, The Hotel Ibis was ‘inconveniently located’.

Still, one benefit of being in a low-income country is the super-abundance of public transport. All we had to do to reach the centre of town was walk out the front of our hotel and flag down the first minibus heading by. The town looked modern and, indeed, it had been little more than a provincial river-town until the 1950s when oil had been discovered in the province. At that point the larger centre had been the royal capital of Siak Sri Indrapura, some one hundred and twenty kilometres downstream on the Siak River. Since then Pekanbaru had rapidly grown to a city of some half a million people, most of them arrivals from more heavily populated parts of the archipelago. There were some solid-looking government buildings from the 1960s but we couldn’t convince ourselves that these were actual tourist sights. Our best hope is seeing something memorable was an eighteenth century mosque attached to the Siak Sultanate.

It didn’t overly impress us as it had clearly been renovated many times over the centuries and the large, lime-green onion dome, in particular, had a very modern look, but we decided that the basic outlines of the mosque were still intact and this colourful, square-shaped mosque was a reminder that this city had begun life as a regal centre in the eighteenth century. Back then nothing in town would have been located very far from the Siak River, which was the town’s highway to the outside world. As far as we could tell, this building was the city’s one real link with its deep past. We were astonished then when we read, a few years later in the national newspaper Kompas that this historic mosque, dating from 1762, had been completely demolished to make way for a massive new ‘mega-mosque’ with a Turkish look. With astonishing contempt for its own ‘Melayu’ heritage, the people of Pekanbaru had demolished their own past to make way for a ‘mega-mosque’ that had all the authenticity of the mall out by our hotel. Again we were left to speculate that there is this thinly hidden ‘inferiority complex’ in the Indonesian mindset, perhaps dating from the experience of colonization, which meant that things from ‘di luar’- abroad, outside of Indonesia- were somehow more valuable than the local and indigenous. Needless to say, we found this mindset most unfortunate.

Pekanbaru's oldest building- demolished in 2009
Pekanbaru’s oldest building- demolished in 2009

Apart from this doomed mosque, we spotted barely anything that was more than a few decades old- even in the vicinity of the Siak River. There were a couple of Chinese shop-houses that might have been of some age, but they too had been modernized, depriving them of any period detail. It seemed that Pekanbaru truly was intent on erasing every trace of its long history. At the end of our walk we came to the Siak River itself. There was an old jetty and port complex down here, and a few of the old guardhouses and warehouses had an historic look about them and probably were a relic of the Dutch colonial era, but the city truly did offer scant pickings for the history buff. The one thing which we enjoyed most, in the end, was just standing on the edge of the deserted port complex and looking out at the waters of the Siak River, which were dark and still. It was only here we felt any link at all to the city’s past as a river port in a jungle kingdom.

After that one look about the port area, we never returned to the older part of town. We set out for Candi Muara Takus the next morning and had reasonable weather for that excursion, but after that heavy rain fell for most of the next two days. We spent most of our time in Pekanbaru looking out our hotel window at the endlessly falling rain and asking each other if we were having a bad time. Fortunately, our visit to the ancient temple was to partly rescue out trip.

Malayu (3.7) Which Kingdom Did Muara Jambi Belong To?

At that time of this visit to Sumatra, we were left with one unresolved question about Muara Jambi. It was described as Sumatra’s greatest archaeological site, but was it a Sriwijayan site or did it belong to a smaller rival kingdom? Could the visitor to Muara Jambi claim to have seen a Sriwijayan city? Or rather was it the centre of its own kingdom, known by the name of Malayu? We discussed the matter first in the taxi on the way back from Muara Jambi but didn’t have the information to answer it then. In researching this book, I discovered that whether it was part of Sriwijaya or Malayu might depend on which time period you were looking at: it may have slipped in and out of Sriwijayan control over the centuries.

Intriguingly, it appears that Jambi had emerged in world history with a burst of diplomatic activity. It had sent missions to the court of the China’s Tang Dynasty in both 644 and 645. It was known to the Chinese as Mo-lo-yeu (Malayu): a name which, of course, has come down to the present day in the words Malay, Malaya and Malaysia. At this point, around the middle of the seventh century, it was clearly an independent state. Like Palembang, which emerged at almost exactly the same period in history, it was positioned upstream from the mouth of one of Sumatra’s major rivers: where Palembang controlled the Musi River and its tributaries, Jambi controlled the Batang Hari River, which at eight hundred kilometres long drained a massive area of lowland Suamtra.

This strategic position, upriver from the mouth of the Batang Hari, was clearly the key to its rise, as it was able to control and tax the flow of valuable forest products and metals from the interior to the coast. In ancient times, the rivers were the highways of Sumatra and Malayu controlled one of the longest and richest waterways on the island. As Chinese interest in Sumatran resins and woods increased, Malayu was ideally placed to control part of this lucrative international commerce. Yet its success must have inspired envy, because we find that by half a century later it had been conquered by Sriwijaya. When the Buddhist monk, I-Tsing, visited Moloyeu in 671, it was an independent Buddhist kingdom, but by the time of his second visit in 686 he reported that it had become part of Sriwijaya.

An 8th century Buddha from Jambi
An 8th century Buddha from Jambi

Thus we find that Malayu became, in 682, the first major conquest of an expansionist Sriwijaya. The city remained an important port in the Sriwijayan Empire for many centuries following this. It shared Mahayana Buddhism and a mercantile outlook with the larger power to the south, so it may have played the role of ‘second fiddle’ on Sumatra comfortably enough. This state of affairs probably continued until Sriwijaya was invaded and sacked by India’s mighty Chola Empire in 1025. This attack greatly weakened Palembang and by the end of the eleventh century Muara Jambi seems to have supplanted Palembang as the centre of the Malay trading world. It is probably to the eleventh or twelfth century that most of the remains of Muara Jambi date. With Sriwijaya’s old capital at Palembang all but obliterated by the Indian invaders, Malayu regained a large degree of independence and may have entered its most prosperous phase. While the city was part of Sriwijaya for some four centuries, its greatest temples might date to a period of renewed independence after the Chola invasion.

Yet many Indian and Arab traders continued to refer to this new empire as Sriwijaya. Whether its capital was on the Musi or Batang Hari River, they still recognized it as essentially the same predominantly Buddhist trading kingdom, engaged in the trade of Sumatran jungle products with foreigners. For many Arabs,  it was essentially the same Mahayana Buddhist kingdom, with Jambi as its centre instead of Palembang. The benefits of the Buddhist trade monopoly on the Straits was so lucrative for the sub-centres involved- Palembang, Muara Jambi, Kedah, Chaiya- that they had a powerful incentive to unite behind the strongest ruler within the network, in the name of prosperity for all. In some sense then the Malayu kingdom based at Jambi really was just a re-centred Sriwijaya. Unlike a European empire, where whoever controlled a fixed capital could name himself emperor, Sriwijayan authority was less centralized. It was a co-operative trading network whose glue was the mutual benefits accrued from controlling the Straits of Malacca. If Palembang was no long able to exercise its supreme authority, then, in the name of continued prosperity, the other Sriwijayan centres were just as happy to unite behind the rulers of Jambi. So with the lack of tangible remains in the city of Palembang, Muara Jambi offers the single best opportunity for the traveller, in search of either lost Sriwijaya or Malayu, to catch a glimpse of Sumatra’s ‘island of gold’ past.

Malayu (3.6) The Potsherds of Ancient Malayu

Although all of the major remains are known as candi, perhaps only the first two can truly be thought of as Buddhist ‘temples’. The other archaeological remains may be known as candi- the Malay word for temple- but they are often really walls, indeterminate mounds and raised platforms constructed from brick. These platforms reminded us of those we had seen at Candi Panataran- the leading ancient temple site of East Java . There they were used as bases for a kind of wooden pavilion which is known in Java as the pendopo. A common feature of traditional architecture throughout Indonesia is a large, wooden roof, raised on columns, with the sides left unenclosed. This provides a shady work space where the air can circulate. In Bali, it is still common to see women sitting out beneath such a structure, doing their daily tasks. In courtly life, these pavilions would have been used for receiving important guests. Some beautiful examples still exist from the old royal courts of Java. In seeing these raised platforms, we guessed that what we were seeing was actually the base section of former royal pavilions. This suggested that we had already left behind the ‘sacred’ part of the site and entered an area that had once been part of the royal residential quarter.

These ‘lessser’ temple remains are situated closer to the banks of the Batang Hari and are overshadowed by forest vegetation. Perhaps the dense jungle nearby enclosed the former site of the keraton (palace) of the King of Malayu. If they had been constructed from timber, they would have long since rotted away, as perishable materials would not have lasted long in the moist, rainy, endlessly humid climate of the region. With all trace of the royal residence obliterated by the elements, the most interesting aspect of this area, for us, was the abundance of pottery shards scattered everywhere, even on the main paths. In every other archaeological site we have visited in Southeast-Asia, you will only find potsherds in the cabinets of site museums. It is a novel experience to be able to pick them up off the ground yourself and compare the different styles.

There are two main kinds of pottery sherds you can see. In Indonesian writing about the site, the distinction is made between keramik and tembikar. The keramik potsherds are of course glazed Chinese porcelain. They are white, sometimes featuring designs in blue. This coloring suggested they were from the Ming period, meaning they were one of the later, uppermost strata of the site. The tembikar potsherds are from the plain brown pots, which would have been a local industry. Unlike the Thais or Vietnamese, Indonesian kingdoms never mastered the technique of making fine porcelain. There are far more tembikar potsherds than keramik ones, though you could find hundreds of either kind in a small area.

Excavations continue at this large site and whole pieces continue to be unearthed. A 2006 dig uncovered bowls, plates, water jugs and the long, elegant vessels known as mercury jars. Chinese porcelain is, of course, very useful for dating archaeological sites. Most of the porcelain found at Muara Jambi dates from the Sung dynasty (10th to 13th centuries).  Tang Dynasty porcelain (7th to 10th centuries) is also found. This gives a long occupation date of some seven centuries. Malayu was clearly one the leading trading entrepots of antiquity in South-East Asia, protecting traders from as far away as China.

For the visitor, the large amounts of broken pottery help to give a sense of the place as a real city, not just a cultural site. The Chinese export porcelain reminds us of the city’s role as an international port many centuries before European colonization began. We can imagine Sriwijayan vessels returning from trade missions to China with their holds full of highly-prized porcelain. The humbler tembikar shards can remind us that Muara Jambi was not always just a series of ruined temples. In ‘medieval’ times, it was a living city with thousands of inhabitants, including royalty, monks, traders and artisans. Its sizeable population must have required large numbers of simple pots for their cooking needs. This kind of fired pottery was easily shattered, so a considerable number of potters must have been required just to meet the needs of the city’s inhabitants.

An aerial photo of the jungle-clad site
An aerial photo of the jungle-clad site

It seems there have been many digs and restorations conducted at Muara Jambi since our first a decade ago. The Indonesian President himself, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, paid it a visit in 2007. It is already well on the way to becoming more of a local  attraction, even if Western travellers have still barely noticed it, and there are big plans to keep pushing back the jungle and restoring the uncovered remains. It would be a mistake to place too much confidence in any scheme announced by Indonesia’s ponderous and inefficient bureaucracies- a plan to close a single road in Jakarta’s Old Town took thirty-seven years to implement. But as some action has already been taken in this case, we hope that they don’t over-restore and ‘tidy up’ the place too much. One of the best things about a trip there is the chance to crunch some thousand year old potsherds beneath your feet.

At that point, we returned to the caretaker’s ‘cottage’ and looked in the tiny, one-room site museum. It housed the famous Prajaparamita image from Candi Gumpung, the lower half of a stone standing Buddha in flowing drapes, and numerous pottery and bronze finds. We had a quick look around and then went back outside. Our two hours’ waiting time was already up. We paid the youths ten thousand rupiah for their ‘guiding’ (ie. staring) services, and they beamed at the gift. With this we climbed back into the taxi, in which our relaxed driver had been having a little siesta. Such was our first acquaintance with Sumatra’s Hindu-Buddhist past. We enjoyed our visit but it was only one of dozens of historical sites we’d visited by that point and we had no thought then of ever writing a book about travels through the old Sriwijayan Empire. But it must have made an impression as our travels in search of ancient Sumatra certainly didn’t end there, and in that visit was the germ of this book.