The Vernacular Buildings of Muara Jambi

Muara Jambi is the largest archaeological site in Sumatra and Indonesia’s best surviving example of ancient temple complex outside Java. However, we know this city mostly from its religious monuments, in particular its eight extant temple compounds, all of which are spread out along the river flats at the edge of the Batang Hari. It is well-established that this site was the ceremonial centre of Malayu,  a polity which at times enjoyed independence from the Palembang-based Sriwijaya kingdom but which at other times fell under the suzerainty of Sriwijaya. The surviving temples are thought to date from the between the ninth and twelfth centuries, which was the city’s heyday as an international trading centre. What is much less clear is whether Muara Jambi was merely a religious centre or also the site of a large urban settlement.

On the Sumatran lowlands, people still tend to build houses from perishable materials, so none of the residential buildings of this ancient site have survived until the present day. Therefore, it has remained a matter of conjecture whether Muara Jambi’s ruins were the ceremonial core of a larger urban area. Furthermore, presuming Muara Jambi was a city, it had long remained a mystery what its residential buildings might have looked like. However, during Indonesian excavations at the city during the 1970s and 1980s, nine inscribed bricks were located which depicted architecturally accurate building designs for various forms of vernacular architecture. These offer unique insights into the ancient residential dwellings of the Muara Jambi elite.

There are a number of different designs sketched on the bricks, which can be presumed to be the likenesses of real buildings. This conclusion is supported by the fact that they resemble known architectural types from the island of Sumatra. It is also supported by the fact they their weight-bearing beams are marked with double lines. These inscriptions are no mere doodles; they were made by someone with a working knowledge of the construction principles of wooden buildings. Once we have accepted this much, we can readily see the importance of these bricks: they are the only surviving visual representations of one of one of the most important ancient cities in Indonesia. What then do they tell us about Muara Jambi in its prime?

A sketch which resembles a Minangkabau house

The sketches depict a variety of buildings. While the multi-levelled houses resemble types familiar from the vernacular architecture of modern Jambi, some of other designs come from further afield. There is an elaborate house with a horned roof, with immediately brings to mind the houses of the Minang highlands. Intriguingly, the Minang Highlands are the source of the Batang Hari river which runs by the site; yet they are located some eight hundred kilometres upriver. There is also one house with a steeply sloping pyramid-shaped roof. This structure resembles the rumah limas houses which can still be found along the banks of the Musi River in Palembang. Another design has architectural features which are known from Aceh. Based on these resemblances, it has been suggested that Muara Jambi was a multi-ethnic trading port with a broad network of commercial links.

This is an interesting conclusion, and it is one that is supported by the finds of Chinese and Thai porcelain at the site, but what has not always been emphasized is that the houses types all have a Sumatran origin. Perhaps Muara Jambi’s resident population was more a melting pot of ancient Sumatran ethnic groups than a truly international metropole. We can assume that Acehnese, Minang, Sriwijayan and Malayu traders once lived alongside one another here, all profiting from the rich trade in ancient Sumatra’s jungle products.In this sense, perhaps it really was a precursor of the multi-ethnic cities of modern Indonesia.

Phattalung’s Sri-Lankan Style Chedi

Today Phattalung is one of the least visited provinces in the South of Thailand, a quiet backwater on the far side of Songkhla Lake. If it is any prominence at all with tourists, it is only with twitchers; the province has extensive flocks of birdlife at the Thale Noi Waterfowl Park. The other minor attractions seem to consist of karst outcrops and the caves within. One of these even graces the province’s seal. Yet the town’s current low profile belies a surprisingly rich history. The town was regarded as one of the twelve cities of the Ayutthaya kingdom during the fourteenth century. Today, the most impressive remains of its cultural heyday can be found at Wat Khieng Bang Kaeo, a recently restored wat with intriguing links to the former kingdom of Tambralinga and even medieval Sri Lanka. Wat Khieng Ban Kaeo has a very low-profile with Western tourists, but it is arguably one of the most fascinating wats in the South, especially if its history is taken into account. We will describe the wat first, and we will then try to put it into its historical context, finding links as far afield as Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Wat Khieng Ban Kaeo is situated in the village of Ban Bang Kaeo, about fourteen kilometres from the modern city of Phattalung. It is located not far from from the Tha Madeua, a small river which drains into Songkhla Lake. The area is a very quiet rural area today with a population consisting mostly of fishermen and farmers. Yet it remains a monastery of some note in this part of the world, due mostly to its primary treasure, the sacred Phra That Bang Kaeo, a Buddhist stupa which dates back at least as far as the earlier Ayutthaya era and possibly much further.

In the few online descriptions of this wat which I was able to find, it was usually described as being in a somewhat shabby condition, despite having been declared a national monument in 1986. However, at the time of writing, it has now undergone a thorough restoration and the entire complex is in excellent condition. As soon as you approach the wat, you will see the brilliant white of the main stupa gleaming in the sunshine, a far cry from a few years ago where it was a dull grey colour. Its towers above the outer walls of the complex, which are surrounded by a grove of old tamarind trees, covered in a mantle of orchids, moss and other epiphytes. We went straight into the wat to get a look at its historical treasures.

Phra That Bang Kaeo

The wihaan of the complex is an attractive old wooden building with exposed timber beams. These were painted a deep scarlet red, matching the lips of the restored Buddhas which sat in a quincunx formation on a platform at the end of the hall. This airy old building with its rustic timbers was far removed from the elaborate royal architecture of modern Thailand and seemed to belong to a more village-based vernacular tradition. In this sense, it reminded me somehow of the old timber mosques of the North Coast of Java, an impression that was not based in any shared history but rather from a common effort made to imitate the grand architecture of larger cities with modest local resources.

The obvious appeal of the wihaan aside, the main treasure was doubtless the stupa in the courtyard aside: Phra That Bang Kaeo. It was a large Sri Lankan-style stupa set on an octagonal base. It rose up from a plethora of lesser stupas, all of them now restored in brilliant white stucco. An elaborate staircase rose up on one side to a terrace around the base of the stupa. Presumably monks would have circumambulated around the hefty stupa during certain ceremonial rituals. The shape was uncannily like the famous stupa in Nakhon Si Thammarat and indeed the Phra That Bang Kaeo is often described as being a miniature version of that revered monument. In its current incarnation, the restorers have inset dozens of colorful porcelain plates and tiles into the stucco. You can see everything from the subtle blues of Chinese porcelain to the pastel pinks of Western style dishes. The model here is once again the stupa in Nakhon Si Thammarat, but we were once again reminded of the North Coast of Java, where old trade porcelain often found its way into the walls of tombs and shrines. One addition which did remind us of Nakhon Si Thammarat was the bells hanging off the stupa, sometimes ringing softy in the breeze.

But how did an ancient Sri-Lankan style stupa end up in a quiet village in the countryside? What links did this remote place have with medieval Sri Lanka? Well, the answers to these questions have been debated in enormous length in the academic literature and controversies abound. However, I will try to stick to a basic outline and offer just some of the broadest themes of the history of the South. The story involves a number of ancient cities and kingdoms, most notably those of Satingpra and Tambralinga.

The area around Wat Khien Bang Kaeo has yielded the ruins of numerous laterite structures and a number of statues and sculptures, leading historians to conclude that the centre of ancient Phattalung was here and not in the modern town. This makes a certain amount of sense, as the lakeshore is nearby- or really the lagoon shore- and the maritime trade was long an important part of the economy of this part of the world. Phattalung may have been a minor vassal state in a larger kingdom or ‘mandala’. But where would these centres have been?

One obvious choice would have been Satingpra, which is a mere village today, but which struck a much larger figure a millennium ago. Yet Jacq-Hergoualc’h, the noted French historian, has suggested that insisted that Satingpra was itself a vassal of Tambralinga, a kingdom whose capital was Nakhon Si Thammarat. If he is right, then Phattalung would have been a centre within what Nansook, a Thai historian of the region, calls the ‘mandala of Tambralinga.

We know that Tambralinga was a most unusual South-East Asian kingdom in the way it took an intense and imperialistic interest in the island of Sri Lanka. In fact, we know of no other South-East Asian kingdom which ever launched an invasion outside the region, but Tambralinga performed the feat twice: once in the twelfth century, and again in the thirteenth. Its extensive engagement with the island eventually led to its conversion to Theravada Buddhism. By around the year 1200 the rulers had constructed the great stupa at Nakhon Si Thammarat in celebration of their new faith, and it remains the greatest monument of the South to this day. There are many hundreds of historic bell-shaped stupas in Thailand but none of them is older than the one in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

It seems very likely that Phra That Bang Kaeo was built in imitation of the famous prototype in Nakhon Si Thammarat, becoming one of the first of many monuments to Theravada Buddhism built in the kingdom of Thailand. Yet it was originally a product of the former Tambralinga, whose Sri Lankan adventures proved hugely and improbably influential for the whole history of Thailand.

The Silver Buddhas of Kantarawichai

The upper Northeast is far away from the Dvaravati heartland of the river valleys of Central Thailand. Therefore, it is not surprising entirely surprising then that this area has some different artistic traditions from the central zone of Dvaravati. One of the artistic treasure troves of this zone was the small moated and ramparted mound of Kantarawichai in the modern Thai province of Mara Sarakham. The egg-shaped settlement, also known as Kantharavisai, was about five hundred metres across. Here in 1972 the Thai Fine Arts Department unearthed the foundations of an early Thai ubosoth (ordination hall), which attested to the existence of a Buddhist monastic community at the site. Some fragmentary sema (boundary stones) which were found at the site helped to identify the original identity of the structure. The ordination hall measured 37 by 10 metres, indicating it must have been a very large temple by the standards of Dvaravati sites. However, it is not the ubosoth which has attracted most attention here; after all, literally remains of it but brick and laterite foundations. The main object of interest were the ritual deposits found at the northeast corner of the former hall.

The find which excited archaeologists was a small terracotta bowl which contained silver repoussé plaques, most measuring 5 by 10 cm. Repoussé was a technique whereby the image of figures was chiselled into metal. These plaques, believed to date to the eighth or ninth centuries, depicted Buddha images, divine or royal figures, stupas, and dharmacakras (the Buddhist wheel of the law). The stupa types depicted are similar to those of central Thai Dvaravati sites such as Nakhon Pathom, and indicate similar examples were also present in the northeast.

A silver plaque from Isaan

Interestingly, there were numerous fragments of stucco decoration found at the site as well. During the Dvaravati culture, stupas were often encased in a layer of stucco decoration. It is not too great a leap to suspect that the stupas depicted on these plaques would have resembled those once found at Kantarawichai. The Buddhas are very similar to those on the famous sema stones at Muang Fa Daet, an important Mon settlement just twenty kilometres away in Kalasin province. For example, one of the plaques depicts an image of the Buddha descending from the Tavatisma heaven, and a very similar design is found on one of the semas at Muang Fa Daet. Both sites seem to have belonged to the same regional variant of Mon-Dvaravati culture. However, for the visitor today, there is almost nothing left to see at Kantarawichai. You are better off heading to the museums in Bangkok or Khon Kaen, where examples of some of the silver plaques are still housed.

The Elusive Kingdom of Sri Canasa

There were doubtless many early polities in Thailand that we do not even known the names of. Furthermore, historians have sometimes found inscriptions bearing the name of kingdoms which we know next to nothing about. For example, you will have to work hard to find more than a few fleeting references to Sankhapura, Sambuka or Mahidharapura. The number of polities may have been especially large in the Mon-Dvaravati realm, because the Hindu cult of the god-king (devaraja) played a less prominent role there. It has been argued that Mahayana Buddhism, the religion practiced by most of the Mon, placed less emphasis on strong kingship than Hinduism. Consequently, this led to a certain decentralizing tendency. The Mon tended to rule themselves in city-states which shared a common culture, but not a strong central government. This made them much less prone to the practice of empire-building than their (mostly) Hindu cousins from Cambodia. However, in the small polity of Sri Canasa, we may see an exception to this general tendency.

It is arguable at least one strong Mon kingdom called Dvaravati existed around the seventh to eighth centuries, the capital of which was located at Nakhon Pathom. Based on archaeological discoveries and the number of monuments, it seems that the largest of all Mon settlements. But it is not realistic to believe that it could exercise anything like direct control over the small polities of the Khorat Plateau. The settlements of Thailand’s Northeast must have governed themselves in some fashion, and it is highly unlikely that they were reporting on a regular basis to Nakhon Pathom. While the rulers and states of this area largely remain an enigma, there is at least one of which we know the name, its location and a little about its rulers. That polity is Sri Canasa, and it is worth sharing an overview of what he do know. It provides an example of what the earliest kingdoms of the Mon-Dvaravati realm may have looked like.

Sri Canasa is mentioned on a very important stele found among the ruins of the tenth century temple of Bo Ika, located near the important archaeological site of Muang Sema. On one side of the stele is a Sanskrit and Khmer inscription dating to the year 868. It commemorates the foundation of a gold linga, clearly indicating the rulers of the kingdom were Shivaites, as well as a gift of slaves by a ruler by the name of Ansadeva. On the other side there is an earlier seventh century inscription in Sanskrit which commemorates donations of buffalo, cattle and both male and female slaves to a Buddhist community by the lord or ruler (known as the isvara) of Sri Canasa. This gives us some interesting insights into the history of this enigmatic kingdom.

It would seem that in the seventh century it is was a Mahayana Buddhist kingdom, just like Dvaravati in central Thailand. The legitimacy of the ruler was partly based on his support of the sangha (Buddhist monks). We also learn that the economy of Sri Canasa was partly based on slave labour, with the slaves having been captured from unnamed weaker polities. Yet by the ninth century the kingdom had been both Khmerized and Hinduized, with Shiva worship being practiced and Khmer language being used in the inscriptions of the Sri Canasa governing elite. In using the same stele for both inscriptions it is if the later rulers of Sri Canasa were emphasizing both continuity and change. They were acknowledging that their ancestors were Mahayana Buddhists but they were making clear that the main religion was now Shivaism. This probably shows the strong influence of nearby Cambodia in the culture of Sri Canasa; the area is situated not far from the present Thai-Cambodian frontier. It appears likely that this part of the country was one of the first parts of Isaan to be absorbed more into the Khmer cultural realm. By the eleventh century, it appears that much of Isaan and even central Thailand was under control of the kings of Angkor.

Prasat Phanom Wan is a Khmer site that contains possible remains from Sri Canasa-era temples

It has been argued that Muang Sema may have been the capital of Sri Canasa (also known as Canasa and Canasapura). The other site which may be associated with this kingdom is known as Hin Khon, a site which has yielded inscriptions in mixed Mon and Khmer. There is also evidence of earlier temples having been built in sandstone and laterite beneath later Khmer temples from the area. For instance, the Khmer temple site of Prasat Phanom Wan contains traces of earlier monuments which may have been a sanctuary of Sri Canasa. All these sites are found within the modern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, which may be considered the heartland of this former polity. Some people have suggested that the polity may have extended as far as Sri Thep in Phetchabun, but there is no firm evidence for this.

It makes sense that this kingdom should have had a somewhat different history than the Mon-Dvaravtai city states of central Thailand when we consider the role that river systems played in the history of early Thailand. While the rivers of central Thailand are mostly tributaries of the Chao Phraya and all flow into the Gulf of Thailand, the area around Nakhon Ratchasima is part of the uppermost reaches of the Mun River system. Muang Sema itself is situated on the Lam Takhong River, which is a tributary of the Mun. The Mun flows in an easterly direction towards the Mekong, creating links with the Isaan plateau rather than the core of the Dvaravati realm. It appears likely that Sri Canasa was something of a buffer zone between the central and Northeastern part of the Mon world, also absorbing strong influence from nearby Cambodia. It is another example of how complex and fascinating the early history of Thailand was.

The Ancient Mon Chedi of Roi Et


The town of Roi Et has never attracted more than the odd traveller passing through but for the art history fan or Mon-Dvaravati period relic-hunter, it has one treasure. On the grounds of a wat called Wat Neua there is a most unusual chedi, which is one of the few surviving Mon-Dvaravati-era structures in the whole country. Its value is only increased by the fact that it quite distinct from the other extant Mon monuments in Thailand. Whereas there are at least eight Dvaravati stupas, this is the only surviving Dvaravati chedi; its closest cousins are a number of Haripunchai chedis from North Thailand.

Unlike the Mon-Dvaravati ruins of Nakhon Pathom, Sri Thep or the Mon-Haripunchai ruins of the North of Thailand, this chedi has a square base but a bell shape overall. This cornered bell shape is unique to this one location. The stucco has peeled almost entirely off, exposing…

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