The Komering River: A Highway of Sriwijaya

It wasn’t until the 1990s that it was decisively proved that Palembang was the site of the capital of Sriwijaya, the legendary kingdom which had appeared in the historical records at the end of the 7th century. If the capital of the kingdom remained in obscurity until comparatively recently, than the potential upstream sites of this kingdom are virtually unknown. Their names are barely mentioned outside the occasional field report from Indonesian archaeologists- most of these stored in archives somewhere, still unpublished years after they were written.

Yet a few sites associated with ancient Sriwijaya have been identified and they may appeal to intrepid pioneers or adventurers. One of these is the site of Candi Nikan (Nikan Temple), which is, until now, the most promising site on the Komering River, a tributary of the Musi. This unexcavated temple site can be found 150 kilometres upriver from Palembang at the confluence of the Komering with the small Sungai Nikan. Like many old communities in South Sumatra, the village of Nikan consists of beautiful timber traditional houses set high up on stilts. These traditional houses would make it worth a quick look in its own right.

However, the main importance of Nikan for historians is the fact that one of the houses is built right on top of an archaeological mound, which is thought to contain the ruins of an ancient candi (temple). Some bricks have been uncovered here with carved decorations that are consistent with the structure’s identification as a temple. Further evidence of a religious use for the site is a weighty lotus-stand (padsamana) which was found in the village and which is now stored in a kramat (shrine) in a wooden shed overlooking the mouth of the Sungai Nikan. Ceramic finds from the village indicate that the area was importing trade porcelain during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This suggests that Nikan may once have been an inland entrepot in the Sriwijaya kingdom, at least during its final phase. However, more recent evidence suggests that the Komering was tied into trade networks much earlier than that.

A traditional house along the Komering River

In 2014 sand miners on the Komering River discovered a twenty-five kilogram hoard of Sung Dynasty coins while dredging the river for sand. Soon thereafter they discovered a kind of ceremonial dagger known as a keris. These coins were thought to date back to the 10th century, a few hundred years before the Candi Nikan site was occupied. Having a square-shaped hole in the centre and bearing Chinese characters on them, these copper coins numbered in the thousands. Were these a sign that Chinese traders had been active on the Sungai Komering towards the end of the tenth century? The archaeological team from Palembang does not consider it likely. They suggested that the Chinese did not venture any further than Palembang. However, lacking a local currency, Sumatran traders used Chinese coins while buying jungle products along the banks of the Komering River. It is thought the local area produced resins, rattan and herbal medicines which made their way downriver to the Sriwijayan capital. This hoard is yet more evidence that the Komering River was part of the Sriwijayan mandala.