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?
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.