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…

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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outside the occasional field report from Indonesian archaeologists- most of these stored in archives somewhere, still unpublished years after they were written.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.

Chaiya’s Charming Indonesian-Style Chedi

The first time I went to Southern Thailand, my highest priority in terms of historic sites was Chaiya, which was often described as Sriwijaya’s ‘capital’ in the Isthmus of Kra. It was also known as the home to the only intact monument from Southern Thailand’s early kingdoms, namely Panpan, Langkasuka, Tambralinga and Sriwijaya. Indeed, it was sometimes said that the ‘Sriwijayan’ chedi of Chaiya was the most complete monument from the entire Sriwijayan empire. Therefore, we stopped off there for a flying visit on the way between Bangkok and Krabi in 2006.

We got off the train at Surat Thani station, along with scores of other backpackers. The rest of them were on the so-called train-bus-boat tickets which were sold all up and down Bangkok’s Khao Sahn Road. They were mostly heading out to the islands of Ko Samui or, more likely, Ko Pha-Ngan, known for its drug-laced Full Moon parties and general air of substance-fueled revelry. There were local tour organizers who were waiting with mini-vans and they immediately started ordering the backpackers to form queues. The whole scene was reminiscent of a school excursion with the exception that the school ‘uniform’ was an odd mix of torn-off army pants, sarongs, tie-dyed shirts, beach smocks and hippie beads. It was amazing to think how many people’s experience of Thailand consists of this: being herded off to a famous beach where they would lie around drinking and conversing with other people from their own countries and thinking that this is somehow an authentic travel experience. Glad to get away from this cliched tourist circus, we immediately started down the road to the bus-stop to wait for the next bus to Chiaya.

We got on a bus after about twenty minutes and started off down the road to Chaiya. Apart from us, there were only a couple pf other people on board. The road was in good condition, so we covered a lot of distance quickly. We arrived at the turn-off into Chaiya town and they let us down by the side of the road. From there we wandered into town, surprised that the town seemed little more than a country village these days. We stopped at a noodle shop along the way, which was housed in a rundown timber building surrounded by banana palms. Coming from Bangkok, we were struck by how lush, green and tropical the whole area was, reminding us somehow of a quiet, backwoods town in Malaysia. After a cheap bowl of noodles, we continued on to Wat Phra Borommathat Chaiya, which, despite its out-of-the-way location today, is one of the two most revered temples in the entire south of Thailand.

With its brilliantly white walls, glossy red and green roof tiles and gilt decoration, at first glance this temple resembles a well-patronized Bangkok wat. It was better maintained than many regional wats but its ancient heritage was not immediately obvious. The chedi which is its main claim to fame is contained within the courtyard of the wat. On the way there you will see some minor chedis, some of them possessing interesting shapes. You will also find a long colonnaded area with dozens of Buddhas wrapped in yellow robes. There are also three Sriwijaya-style Buddhas set on a platform out in the courtyard, though these are almost certainly replicas or imitations. These features all add to the appeal of the wat, though the true reason everyone comes here is to see Phra Borommathat, the magnificent chedi in the courtyard of the temple.

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The chedi before its recent restorations

Dating to the eighth or ninth centuries, the chedi is Thailand’s finest surviving monument of the Sriwijaya era, and it looms large in any discussion of Southern Thailand’s religious architecture. Set on a square base, the chedi has a box-like shape but it is typed by an elaborate, multi-tiered roof. This gorgeously proportioned roof is full of elaborate detail, including miniature stupas placed in the corner of each tier. Despite some Thai additions in the form of gold-leaf figures and a gold finial, the Indonesian style of the design is quite apparent. Some writers have noted that it bears a striking resemblance to some of the temples carved on the bas reliefs of the sides of Borobodur, the mighty Buddhist monument in Central Java. While it has certainly been restored a number of times, it is thought to preserve its original Sriwijayan profile. There are a number of other monuments from the era which can be found in Chaiya, but none of them have survived intact. In having come down to us in one piece, this magnificent chedi is utterly unique.

Before leaving Wat Phra Borommathat Chaiya, we visited the branch of the National Museum which is located right nearby, It has a remarkable collection and is another must-see for anyone interested in Thailand’s early kingdoms. However, its collection deserves a special post all of its own, so we return to it in a future post.

The Avalokiteśvara of Bingin Jungut

One of the magnificent statues at the Gajah Museum in Jakarta

One of the best places to get a look at Srivijayan art is the Indonesian National Museum, which is popularly known as Museum Gajah, the Elephant Museum. One of the most impressive statues from the era is the Avalokiteśvara from Candi Bingin Jungut, which was taken from the ruins of an obscure Srivijayan temple site. The Avalokiteśvara was the bodhisattva of boundless compassion and could be seen as the very embodiment of this quintessentially Buddhist virtue. The word avalokiteśvara literally suggests the ‘lord who gazes down at the world’, suggesting the limitless compassion of the Buddha for the suffering of worldly beings. You can find similar Avalokiteśvara statues from the famous Buddhist university town of Nalanda, which was on the same pilgrimmage route as Srivijaya from the seventh to the tenth centuries. Many observers have also noted that the Avalokiteśvara of Bingin Jungut bears a close resembleance to the Salinedra art of Central Java, including the famous Buddhist stupa at Borobudur.

According to Indonesian press reports, the site of Candi Bingin Jungut is located about five hundred metres away from the Musi River and about a kilometre away from Bingin Jungut village. There is very little to see at the site today. The press report mention a few blocks of grey and black stone scattered about. There have been some Indonesian archaeological surveys done at the site since the 1990s but I am not aware of any findings being posted online, or even in academic journals for that matter. The stones are thought to belong to a candi, a temple, dating to the eighth or ninth century, which was when Srivijaya was at the height of its wealth and power. The imaginative visitor to Jakarta can get some sense of this collapsed temple by viewing this surviving example of its statuary at the National Museum.

Srivijaya Bronzes: The Buddha of the Future World

Because of the scarcity of temples and other monuments from the Classical period of Srivijaya, the best way to get some sense of the greatness of this kingdom (sometimes referred to as an empire) is to look at its artistic achievements. One of the areas in which Srivijaya excelled artistically is in its cast bronzes. The casting of elegant bronze figurines has been a feature of Srivijayan settlements everywhere from their home base, along the Musi River and its tributaries in Sumatra, to the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand, where they maintained an outpost.

A Maitreya Buddha from Srivijaya

This figure shows a Maitreya Buddha, which was found along the Komering River: a major tributary of  the Musi which joins that river in Palembang. This is a Maitreya Buddha, or the so-called ‘Buddha of the Future World’. The arms have been damaged, but the right hand would have been raised in a teaching position, delivering a sermon, while the left hand would have been at rest on the figure’s leg. Also of note is the wig-like coiffure on Buddha’s head, the half-closed eyes looking downwards, the delicate jewellery, and the diaphanous robe which hugs his form. This depiction of the Buddha spread throughout Buddhist South-East Asia during the 7th to 9th centuries. This is a fine Sumatran example of the type.

Candi Bumi Ayu: A Hindu Temple in Srivijaya?

Srivijaya is normally known as the greatest Buddhist trading network from South-East Asian history, so it may be a little surprising for some to find that there were, in fact, Hindu temples found not just towards the periphery of its ’empire’, but right in its South Sumatran heartland. One of these is the little-known site of Candi Bumi Ayu, which this post will introduce you to.

Candi Bumi Ayu is located at a bend in the Lematang River, which is one of the major tributaries of the Musi River, which flows through the centre of Palembang, Srivijaya’s former capital. It is thought that the site was abandoned towards the end of the fifteenth century when Islam was making serious inroads throughout the Indonesian archipelago. It was around this time that both Palembang and Jambi, sites of former powerful Buddhist kingdoms, reinvented themselves as Islamic sultanates.

A pieced together Vishnu from Candi Bumi Ayu
A pieced together Vishnu from Candi Bumi Ayu

The site was first explored by a Dutchman by the name of E. P. Tombrink in 1864, at which point it was already in a highly ruined condition. When the German archaeologist F.M. Schnitger visited the area in 1934 he was told that the site represented the istana (palace) of a former small Hindu kingdom by the name of Gedebong Undang; perhaps it was the name of a small principality which paid tribute to Srivijaya. He moved the best of the statuary to Palembang, where it is housed in the provincial museum. There were said to other historical remains in the district which had been lost to the continual erosion of the Lematang River.

The site of Candi Bumi Ayu contains the remains of nine temples, four of which have been partially restored since the 1990s. The entire site, which covers an area of 75 hectares, was once a rubber plantation, but its historic value has now been recognized and the ruins are gradually in the process of being investigated and preserved- though visitors should not expect anything on the scale of the more impressive Javanese temple complexes. The temples were constructed from bricks, which crumble more easily than stone, which accounts for their highly ruined condition. Still the general layout of the monuments is now visible and there is one impressive decorated staircase for photographers. The site is located 85 km from the small city of Muara Enim in Bumiayu village.

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.