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The Early Kingdoms

National History - The Early Kingdoms

Until the beginning of the fifteenth century CE, the history of what is now Malaysia is difficult to reconstruct with any certainty. Because of this lack of information, historians have tended to regard the rise of a great entrepot, Melaka, on the west coast of the Malay
peninsula as an identifiable starting point for Malay history. Nevertheless, Melaka’s development from a quiet fishing-village to an emporium and centre of Malay culture cannot be explained unless one realizes that behind the splendour of its court and the vigour of its commerce lay traditions of trade and government that had evolved over centuries. The story of Malaysia does not  therefore begin at Melaka but stretches back deep into the past.

1 Gangga Negara (2nd-11th century)

Gangga Negara is believed to be a lost semi-legendary Hindu kingdom mentioned in Sejarah Melayu that covered present-day Beruas, Dinding and Manjung in the state of Perak, Malaysia with Raja Gangga Shah Johan as one of its kings. The Sejarah Melayu points to Bruas as the capital of the lost kingdom. Researchers believe that the kingdom collapsed after an attack by King Rajendra Chola I of Coromandel, South India, between 1025 and 1026.

Gangga Negara, meaning “a city on the Ganges” in Sanskrit, is believed to be a Hindu Malay kingdom founded by Hindu traders, or Kambuja peoples, originating from Ganganagar in northwest India. These Kambuja peoples were an Indo-Iranian clan of the Indo-Aryan family, originally localized in Pamirs and Badakshan. They built their colonies in Southeast Asia around 2000 years ago at the Mekong valley and also at certain sites within the Malay archipelago such as Funan, Chenla, Champa, Khmer, Angkor, Langkasuka, Sailendra and Srivijaya. Historians have traced the travels of the Kambuja traders from Gujarat to Sri Lanka and then to Ligor (Nakhon Sri Thammarat) of the northern Malay peninsular, overland to Thailand and Cambodia. 

Traders from the kingdom of Champ, enroute to Aceh, used Pattani as an overland route to cross the Isthmus of Kra. As a result of this, the Chi Tu kingdom, and Lembah Bujang, thrived economically and grew in importance.

Research into the Beruas kingdom had initially been conducted by Colonel James Low in 1849 and subsequently by H.G. Quaritch-Wales a  century later. Both researchers agreed that the Gangga Negara kingdom existed but could not ascertain its exact location. The discovery of
artifacts including tombstones bearing inscriptions indicates that Beruas could have been a crucial platform for the spread of Islam in Peninsular Malaysia. However, through these and other such archaeological evidence, it has been postulated that Pengkalan(Ipoh), Kinta Valley, Tanjung Rambutan, Bidor and Sungai Siput were included within the kingdom and that the kingdom's center might have shifted
several times.

Significantly, Kuala Selinsing, a coastal site located north of Perak is currently one of the most popular archaeological sites within the area. In 1998, a local team of archaeologists led by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) conducted research on the neighbouring islands of Pulau Buluh and Pulau Kelumpang and discovered artifacts such as glass beads and bead making tools, which indicate the existence of a glass-manufacturing community. It has been surmised that they obtained the blue-colouring for their beads from Egypt, which was much sought after by the Thais (Ban Chiang) as well as the Dayaks of Borneo. Till today, the blue beads which are worn during ceremonies are still considered to be the most valuable.

Gangga Negara was renamed ‘Beruas’ after the establishment of Islam.

Langkasuka (2nd-14th century)

Langkasuka was an ancient Hindu Malay kingdom located in the Malay Peninsula. This kingdom was founded by the Mon peoples following their migration from the Mon State in modern-day Burma downward to the West Coast of Malaya. The settlement of the Mons subsequently introduced Hinduism and later Buddhism to the area.

The kingdom, along with the Kedah Sultanate, numbers amongst the earliest civilizations founded on the Malay Peninsula. According to tradition, the founding of the kingdom took place in the 2nd century. Malay legends claim that Langkasuka was founded at Kedah, and later moved to Pattani.

The historical record is sparse, but a Chinese Liang Dynasty record (c. 500 A.D.) refers to the kingdom of "Lang-ya-xiu" (Chinese: 狼牙脩) as being founded in the 1st century AD. According to this Chinese chronicle, Langkasuka was 24,000 li (traditional Chinese unit of measurement, roughly equivalent to 500m) in distance from Guangzhou. Its capital was surrounded by walls, forming a fortified city with double gates, towers and pavilions. The Buddhist monk Yi Jing mentioned encountering three Chinese monks who lived in Lang-chia-su.

Notably, the kingdom's designation in Chinese records changed over time: it was known as "Lang-ya-se-chia" during the Song dynasty (960-1279); "Long-ya-si-jiao" during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368); and "Lang-se-chia" during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), as evidenced by the Mao Kun map of Admiral Zheng He.

The name "Langkasuka" was also mentioned in Malay and Javanese chronicles. Tamil sources cite "Ilangasoka" as one of Rajendra Chola's conquests in his expedition against the Srivijaya empire. It was described as a kingdom that that was "undaunted in fierce battles".

In 515 AD King Bhagadatta first established relations with China, with further embassies sent in 523, 531 and 568. In the 12th century Langkasuka was a tributary to the Srivijaya empire, and around the 15th century it was replaced by the Pattani Kingdom.

Pan Pan (3rd-5th century)

Pan Pan is a relatively obscure Hindu Kingdom believed to have existed around 3rd-7th Century CE., located within the regions of present-day Kelantan or Terengganu, Malaysia.The kingdom was eventually conquered by Srivijaya under the leadership of Dharmasetu before 775 CE. It is speculated be related to Pan tan i (Pattani Kingdom), a Malay sultanate that covered approximately the area of the modern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and much of the northern part of modern Malaysia, and is different in culture and language to other Malay regions nearby.

Srivijaya (7-13th century)

Srivijaya or Sriwijaya was a powerful ancient Malay maritime empire whose headquarters were based on the island of Sumatra, modern day Indonesia and had its regional centre in the province of Chaiya, near modern Surat Thani, Thailand. [1] Srivijaya was an important center for Buddhist expansion in the 8th to 12th centuries. In Sanskrit, sri (श्री) means "shining" or "radiant" and vijaya (विजय) means "victory" or "excellence".[5]

The earliest concrete proof of its existence dates from the 7th century; a Chinese monk, I-Tsing, wrote that he visited Srivijaya in 671 for 6 months.[2][3] The first inscription in which the name 'Srivijaya’ appears also dates from the 7th century, namely the Kedukan Bukit Inscription around Palembang in Sumatra, dated 683.[4] The kingdom ceased to exist in the 13th century due to various
factors, principally the expansion of the Javanese Majapahit empire.[1]

Due to a lack of archeological evidence and lapse in Malay historical consciousness, the existence of Srivijaya as a powerful political entity in Southeast Asia was only formally recognized in 1918 when French historian George Coedès of the École française d'Extrême-Orient postulated the existence of the empire.[5] By 1993, Pierre-Yves Manguin proved that the centre of Srivijaya was along the  Musi River between Bukit Seguntang and Sabokingking (situated in what is now the province of South Sumatra, Indonesia).[5]


Due to the lack of continuous records of Srivijaya in Indonesian histories, its forgotten past has been subject to reconstruction by
foreign scholars. No modern Indonesians, not even those of the Palembang area around which the kingdom was based, had heard of Srivijaya until the 1920s, when French scholar George Coedès published his discoveries and interpretations in Dutch and Indonesian-language newspapers.[6] Coedès noted that the Chinese references to "Sanfoqi", previously read as "Sribhoja", and the inscriptions in Old Malay, refer to the same empire.[7]

Srivijaya became a symbol of early Sumatran greatness, and a great empire to balance Java's Majapahit in the east. Srivijaya (and by extension Sumatra) had been known by different names to different peoples. The Chinese called it Sanfotsi or San Fo Qi; provisionally, there had existed an even older kingdom called Kantoli that could be considered the predecessor of Srivijaya.[8][9] In the languages of Sanskrit and Pali, it is referred to as Yavadesh and Javadeh, respectively.[8] The Arabs called it Zabag and the Khmer called it Melayu.[8]

Formation and Growth of a Commerical Empire

Little physical evidence of Srivijaya remains.[11] According to the Kedukan Bukit Inscription, dated 605 Saka (683 AD), the empire of Srivijaya was founded by Dapunta Hyang Çri Yacanaca (Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa). He led 20,000 troops (mainly land troopers and a few hundred ships) from Minanga Tamwan to Jambi and Palembang.

The empire was a coastal trading centre and was a thalassocracy (a state with primarily maritime realms). As such, it did not extend its influence far beyond the coastal areas of the islands of Southeast Asia, with the exception of contributing to the population of Madagascar 3,300 miles to the west.[12] Around the year 500, Srivijayan roots began to develop around present-day Palembang, Sumatra, in modern Indonesia. The empire was organised in three main zones—the estuarine capital region centred in Palembang, the Musi
River basin which served as hinterland, and rival estuarine areas capable of forming rival power centres. The areas upstream of the Musi River were rich in various commodities valuable to Chinese traders.[13] The capital was governed directly by the ruler while the hinterland remained under the administration of local datus or chiefs, who each paid allegiance to the Srivijaya maharaja or king. Force was the dominant element in the empire's relations with rival river systems such as the Batang Hari, which centred in Jambi. The ruling lineage formed dynastic alliances with the Sailendras of Central Java through intermarriage and lived along the Javanese Sanjaya dynasty when the Srivijayan capital was located in Java.

The Golden Age

From the 5th to the 13th century, the Srivijaya kingdom controlled the Malay Peninsula and much of the island of Java from its regional capital of Chaiya in the Surat Thani province of Thailand, which had been inhabited by the Negrito and Malayan tribes during prehistoric times. Some scholars state that the name Chai-ya may have derived its eponymous origins in Sri-vi-ja-ya. Notably, Wiang Sa and Phunphin were other main settlements of that time.

WIthin the 7th century, Cham ports, especially Hoi Ann, in Central Vietnam started to attract traders,

diverting the flow of trade away from Srivijayan ports. In an effort to regain trade supremacy, Srivijayan maharaja Dharmasetu launched
various raids against the coastal cities of Indochina (modern day Cambodia).

The period between the 8th and the 9th century saw continuous warfare occuring between the kingdoms in Java, Siam, Angkor and Champa. Srivijaya conducted raids against a small area located somewhere along the Mekong, is suspected to be Indrapura.


A Cambodian noble raised within the Srivijayan realm of Java by the name of Jayavarman II was sent to Indrapura as a governor to maintain order. Today, we know that Jayavarman as Jayavarman II.

The Srivijayans continued to dominate areas around present-day Cambodia until Jayavarman II declared sovereignty and declared the Khmer Empire dynasty, thus severing the Srivijayan link later in the same century.[18]

After Dharmasetu, Samaratungga became the next Maharaja of Srivijaya. He reigned as ruler from 792 to 835. Contrary to the expansionist policies of Dharmasetu, Samaratungga did not indulge in military expansion, concentrating instead on developing existing Srivijayan roots in Java. He personally oversaw the construction of Borobudur; the temple was completed in 825, during his reign.[19]

After the fall of the Srivijaya in Chaiya, the area was divided into the cities Chaiya, Thatong (now Kanchanadit) and Khirirat Nikhom.

Srivijaya also maintained close relations with the Pala Empire in Bengal, and an 860 inscription records that maharaja Balaputra dedicated a monastery at the Nalanda university in Pala territory. Relations with the Chola dynasty of southern India were initially friendly but deteriorated into actual warfare in the eleventh century.

After a trade disruption at Canton between 820 and 850, the ruler of Jambi was able to assert enough independence to send missions to China in 853 and 871. The Melayu kingdom's independence coincided with the expulsion of Sailendran Balaputradewa from Java, who subsequently seized the throne of Srivijaya. The new maharaja was able to dispatch a tributary mission to China by 902. Two years later, the expiring Tang Dynasty conferred a title on a Srivijayan envoy. This connection enabled the Srivijayan empire to reap the benefits of the brisk trade between the overseas world and the prosperous Song dynasty in the following century. Circa 903, the Muslim writer Ibn Rustah was so impressed with the wealth of Srivijaya's ruler that he declared one would not hear of a king who was richer, stronger or with more revenue. The main urban centres were at Palembang (especially the Bukit Seguntang area),Muara Jambi and Kedah.

The rivalry between Sumatran Srivijaya and the Central-Javanese Medang kingdom intensified in the late 10th century. This animosity was arguably precipitated by the exiled maharaja’s efforts to reclaim Sailendra lands in Java and also by Medang aspiration to challenge Srivijaya domination in the region. In the year 990, Medang king Dharmawangsa launched a naval invasion against Srivijaya, and unsuccessfully attempted to capture Palembang. Dharmawangsa's invasion led the Maharaja of Srivijaya, Chulamaniwarmadewa to seek protection from China. In 1006, Srivijaya's mandala alliance successfully repelled the Javanese invasion. In retaliation, Srivijaya assisted Haji (king) Wurawari of Lwaram in raising a coup against the Medang royal family. With the death of Dharmawangsa and the fall of the Medang capital, Srivijaya contributed to the collapse of Medang kingdom, leaving Eastern Java in further unrest, violence, and desolation for several years to come.

In spite of this conflict, the influence of the empire had reached Manila by the 10th century through the establishment of a
kingdom.[21][22]By the twelfth century, the vast empire had expanded to include parts of Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, Western Java, Sulawesi, the Moluccas, Borneo and the Philippines, most notably the Sulu Archipelago and the Visayas islands (the latter group of islands
is named after the empire).[23]

Srivijaya remained a formidable sea power until the thirteenth century.[1]

A Buddhist Religion

A stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism, Srivijaya attracted pilgrims and scholars from other parts of Asia. In the 4th century, Ho-lo-tan (the original name for Java) was visited by a Chinese monk en-route to India on a theological pilgramage. Such sojourns were later repeated by the Chinese monk Yijing, who made several lengthy visits to Sumatra on his way to study at Nalanda University in India in 671 and 695, and the 11th century Bengali Buddhist scholar Atisha, who played a major role in the development of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet. Yijing reports that the kingdom was home to more than a thousand Buddhist scholars; it was in Srivijaya that he penned his lifetime memoirs of Buddhism.

Relationship with regional powers

Although historical records and archaeological evidence are scarce, the Kota Kapur inscription discovered in Bangka Island shows that by the seventh century, Srivijaya had established suzerainty over large areas of southern Sumatra, western Java and much of the Malay Peninsula. Chinese records dated in the late 7th century mention two Sumatran kingdoms as well as three other kingdoms on Java being part of Srivijaya. During the same century, Langkasuka on the Malay Peninsula became part of Srivijaya.[17] Soon after this, Pan Pan and Trambralinga, which were located north of Langkasuka, came under the Srivijayan influence. These kingdoms on the peninsula were major trading nations that transported goods across the peninsula's isthmus.

Notably, these territories were also claimed to be under the ownership of the rival Majapahit empire in the East.

By the end of the 8th century, many western Javanese kingdoms, such as Tarumanagara and Holing, were within the Srivijayan sphere of
influence. Controlling the Malacca, Sunda and Karimata straits, Srivijaya controlled both the spice route traffic and trade between India and China, charging a toll on passing ships. Serving as an entrepôt for Chinese, Malay, and Indian markets, the port of Palembang, accessible from the coast by way of a river, accumulated great wealth.

The Malayu kingdom, also known as Jambi, was the first rival power centre absorbed into the empire under the leadership of Jayanasa in the 680s, and thus began the domination of the region through trade and conquest in the 7th and 9th centuries. Malayu kingdom's gold mines up in Batang Hari river hinterland were a crucial economic resource and may be the origin of the word Suvarnadvipa(island of gold), the Sanskrit name for Sumatra. Along from the Demak Empire in Sumatra, Srivijaya helped spread the Malay culture throughout Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, and western Borneo.

Decline of the Empire

In 1025, Rajendra Chola, the Chola king from Coromandel in South India, wrested Kedah from the Srivijayan empire. For the next 20 years, the Cholas continued a series of raids and conquests into parts of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Although the Chola invasion was ultimately unsuccessful, it gravely weakened the Srivijayan hegemony and enabled the formation of regional kingdoms based, like Kediri, on intensive agriculture rather than coastal and long-distance trade.

Between 1079 and 1088, Chinese records show that Srivijaya sent ambassadors from Jambi and Palembang.[24] In 1079 in particular, an
ambassador from Jambi and Palembang each visited China. Jambi sent two more ambassadors to China in 1082 and 1088.[24] This suggests that the centre of Srivijaya frequently shifted between the two major cities during that period.[24] The Chola expedition as well as changing trade routes weakened Palembang, allowing Jambi to take the leadership of Srivijaya from the 11th century on.[25]

In the book of Chu-fan-chi[26] written around 1178, Chou-Ju-Kua described the existence of two most powerful and rich kingdoms ruling over the Indonesian archipelago: Srivijaya, a Buddhist kingdom holding power in the west and Java (Kediri), which dominated the east. About Srivijaya, Chou-Ju-Kua[27] reported that Srivijaya had 15 colonies and was still the mightiest and wealthiest state in the western part of archipelago. Srivijaya's colonies were: Tioman, Pong-fong (Pahang), Tong-ya-nong (Terengganu), Ling-ya-si-kia (Langkasuka), Kilan-tan (Kelantan), Fo-lo-an (Dungun, eastern part of Malay Peninsula, a town within state of Terengganu), Ji-lo-t'ing (Cherating), Ts'ien-mai (Semawe, Malay Peninsula), Pa-t'a (Sungai Paka, northern part of Malay Peninsula), Tan-ma-ling (Tambralinga, Ligor or Nakhon Si Thammarat, SouthThailand), Kia-lo-hi (Grahi, northern part of Malay peninsula), Pa-lin-fong (Palembang), Sin-t'o (Sunda), Lan-wu-li (Lamuri at Aceh), Kien-pi (Jambi) and Si-lan (Cambodia)[20][28].

Srivijaya's powerful influence thus waned in the 11th century. It was in frequent conflict with, and ultimately subjugated by a succession of Javanese kingdoms. In 1288, Singhasari, the successor of Kediri in Java, conquered several Melayu states includes Palembang, Jambi as well as much of Srivijaya during the Pamalayu expedition. Finally, towards the end of the 13th century, the expansion of the Javanese Majapahit kingdom in Sumatra resulted in the gradual decline of Srivijaya. In 1347, Prince Adityawarman was given responsibility over Sumatera by Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi, the third monarch of Majapahit.

In the following years, sedimentation on the Musi river estuary cut the kingdom's capital off from direct sea access. This strategic
disadvantage crippled the trade in the Kingdom's capital. As the decline continued, Islam was spread to Sumatra through the influence of the Ottomans, who had taken over Aceh and the Pasai regions . By the late 13th century, the kingdom of Pasai in northern Sumatra converted to Islam.

From Srivijaya to Melaka

Both Malay and European account of Melaka’s early years attribute its establishment to a refugee prince from Palembang.

According to the Suma Oriental (Complete Treatise of the Orient) written by Tome Pires, a 16 th century Portuguese apothecary residing in occupied Melaka, a Palembang prince, Sang Nila Utama, leaves Sumatra following an invasion by a Javanese army. He flees to Temasek with a following of 30 Orang Laut (Bugis pirates) and there establishes his sovereignty after overthrowing the local chief, an Ayudhyan vassal. After 5 years, he is once again forced to flee upon the attack of a force from Ayudhya and the company moves from Muar and eventually Bertam. In later years, the son of Sang Nila Utama, Iskandar Syah, created the modern-day settlement of Melaka while out on a hunting trip after observing the courageous behaviour of a mousedeer while out on a hunting trip near Melaka Hill.

The Malay version of Melaka’s founding as recorded in Sejarah Melayu is more mythical in nature. According to this source, the descendents of Raja Iskandar’s line in India miraculously appear on Bukit Siguntang, a sacred hill in Palembang and establish their authority over Sumatra. One prince, Seri Teri Buana establishes a city in Temasek which he calls Singapura or ‘Lion City’, after purportedly glimpsing a stranger beast which he took to be a lion (singa). After 5 generations, the mighty city is subjected to an attack by the Javanese and Sultan Iskandar Syah flees to Muar, moving up the coast to a river called Bertam. While out hunting, one of his hounds is kicked by a white mousedeer. Declaring this a sign of good fortune, Sultan Iskandar decides to build a new settlement there, naming it Melaka after the Melaka tree that he was standing under.

Both interpretations, despite their differing approaches, contain a core of similar information concerning the founding of Melaka. Both trace its origins to an individual ruling in Palembang; his departure for Singapore, where he sets up a settlement, which was later moved to Muar, then to Beram, being finally established at Melaka itself, the site of which was chosen because of a mousedeer’s peculiar behavior. The movement from Palembang to Melaka is thus an important connection in the momentum of Malay history.

*taken from pages 33-36 of A History of Malaysia: Second Edition (Palgrave Macmillan 2001)



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