According to the Chinese records, the oldest kingdom in Eastern Sumatra was not the now-famous Sriwijaya, which rose to power on the Musi River in the seventh century. It had some predecessors in the region which dated back the early centuries of the first millennium. Bearing names such as Kantoli, Poli, Holotan and Ko-ying, these early polities were long known to the world only by the scant Chinese sources. They were protohistoric, mercantile states whose relative prominence was due to their commercial relationships with Indian, Funanese and Chinese traders. They provided Indonesian commodities such as gold, areca nuts and sandalwood in exchange for porcelain, glass beads and semiprecious stones.
The most powerful of these kingdoms is thought to have been Ko-ying, whose heyday may have been between the second and sixth centuries. It was long thought to be in Eastern Sumatra, probably near Jambi or Palembang, but the famous historian Wolters had also argued it might have been in the Taruma River basin in West Java, an area which had produced Vishnuite temples by the middle of the first millennium. However, archaeological research from Sumatra over the pat quarter century suggests that it was probably located on the eastern seaboard of Sumatra after all, downstream from the current location of the city of Palembang. The most important area archaeologically has proven to be along the banks of the Air Sugihan, a short river with many tributaries which flows into the Bangka Strait. Here amidst the tidal swampland and brackish water, the remnants of various habitation sites, perhaps even the ‘capital’ of Ko-ying, have been discovered.
The area was first resettled by trans-migrants in the 1980s and canals were drug at this time, which has dramatically changed the flow of water in the area. However, the former water courses can still be discerned based on vegetation patterns, and it appears that the people of Ko-ying were once settled in up to forty settlement sites along the banks of the former rivers. The main remains of these settlements are traces of wooden posts on which wooden houses would once have been perched about the tidal water; these are mostly posts cut from nibung wood. There are also some posts from selumar putih as well as gelam wood. These are all species of trees which grow well in peatlands or coastal marshlands, indicating that the environment two thousand years ago was similar in many ways to that we find today. Even today in the Musi River basin, you will find many post-houses made of the same type of wood. This kind of wood endures well in the brackish conditions, enabling people to build communities in an area which is regularly inundated by salt water.
In addition to these ancient houses, there have been many chance finds of pottery, beads, intaglios, gold items and metal items, many of them attesting to connections with international sea commerce. For example, some of the intaglios (a kind of carved semi-precious stone) feature images of a hamsa (goose) or a cakra (a Buddhist wheel), images which are associated with the Buddhist and Vishunite religions. Many of these intaglios are made from carnelian, an orange-colored stone which was a trade item in ancient South-East Asia. Furthermore, many of the gold items are similar in their direction to those found at Oc-Eo, which was a major early trade entrepot in South-East Asia. It is believed that the inhabitants of Ko-ying were accomplished seafarers who probably travelled to Oc-Eo (in Southern Vietnam), exchanging Sumatran commodities for luxuries such as carnelian intaglios and gold items. Parts of ancient seagoing vessels have also been uncovered in the area. It is thought that sewn-plank cargo boats up to fifty metres long were being built in Indonesia as far back as the early centuries as the first millennium AD.
While we cannot know for sure whether the settlement at Air Sugihan was a major settelment of Ko-ying, let alone whether it is was the ‘capital’, it was clearly a mercantile-based settlement with trade links with the Mekong River Delta and beyond. These discoveries prove that important polities existed in southern Sumatra that predated the historic kingdom of Sriwijaya, which is what the Chinese sources suggested all along. This ‘polity’ was already exposed to foreign religious ideas, as shown by the presence of Buddhist and Hindu religious symbols, proving that parts of Indonesia’s exposure to Hindu-Buddhist iconography and ideas began long before they were formally adopted as the state religion of Sriwijaya. Air Sugihan may have been the unlikely site of one of Sumatra’s first outward-looking trading communities.