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Early Malay Kingdoms

Kadaram and Kataha

If we were to look for proof of the existence of the earliest Malay kingdoms on the peninsula, it is inevitably Kedah that has yielded the most ancient archaeological evidence so far discovered. In the mid-nineteenth century, Captain James Low found "undoubted relics of a Hindoo colony, with ruins of temples ...' and '... mutilated images. ..' extending 'along the talus of the Kedda mountain Jerrei.' Among his later finds were fragments of a Sanskrit inscription of the fourth century A.D. written in the oldest Pallava alphabet as well as a slab found in the estuary of the Muda River bearing a Sanskrit prayer in fifth-century Pallava script for the success of a voyage about to be undertaken by a sailing-master (mahdndvika), indicating the estuary was a home port for Indian traders during the fifth century A.D. Later excavations in the valley of the Bujang River (an tributary of the Merbok River further north) uncovered various sanctuaries, palace halls of audience, temples, stapas, forts, as well as a number of other unidentified buildings. The shrines in the Bujang Valley were later abandoned in favour of sites nearer the Merbok estuary.

Indian ships found a sheltered anchorage and probably a small community of indigenous folk practising subsistence cultivation and fishing. No doubt these folk had diversified their simple economy by casual trading with Indian merchants entering the Straits of Malacca. Their settlement, at first a mere village, had grew to become the collecting point for the forest products of the surrounding hinterland, aided also by its strategic location at the western end of a trans-peninsular route to the east. By the fifth century Buddhism had established itself, thus giving Indian merchants the attractions of commerce with a familiar cultural environment.

During the ensuing three centuries the cultural ties between this settlement and India were strengthened, but fashions changed and Buddhism was superseded very largely by Hindu Saivism. Now the merchant landed on the northern shore of the Merbok estuary and looked northwards towards Gunung Jerai - doubtless an added attraction to devotees of the linga cult. Built on foundations of rounded boulders from the upper reaches of the Bujang, their shrines were oriented so that their entrances faced the east in the fashion of South Indian linga shrines.

In the later eighth and ninth centuries the pendulum of religious orthodoxy swung back and Buddhist Mahiyinist shrines emerged. In this period, too, it seems that commercial contacts were established with China, for T'ang Dynasty porcelain is encountered in the excavations. In about the tenth century, a new settlement develops further south on the Muda River. Various Chinese and Arab artifiacts found on the Merbok and Muda estuaries indicate that both these settlements continued their trade well into the period of the coming of Islam into the region.

There are also a great deal of references in ancient and medieval Indian literature to locations which have been identified as Kedah. One of the earliest presumed references to Kedah (called, at varying times, Kadaram or Kataha) is contained in the Tamil poem Pattinappilai, was written at the end of the second century A.D. It described goods from Kadaram "heaped together in the broad streets" of the Chola capital.

The seventh century Sanskrit drama Kaumudimahotsava called Kedah Kataha-nagara and described it as a country famed for its social attractions and gay life. The Agnipurina also mentions a territory known as Anda-Kataha, with one of its bounds delimited by a peak, which scholars have assumed to be Gunung Jerai. There are two further references to Kataha in a Prikrit work, the Samaraiccakaha written about the middle of the eighth century, relating voyages to Kataha-dvipa. Stories from the Kathasaritsagara described the elegance of life in Kataha, calling it 'the seat of all felicities'.

After a period of independence, Kedah then attained its height of greatness as the seat of power for the Sri Vijaya empire on the peninsula. It was clearly the chief power on the peninsula and in many ways surpassed Palembang in terms of trade and its strategic links with India and the rest of the region. Its fortunes, however, began to wane after the great raid by Rajendra Chola on the Sri Vijaya empire in 1025 A.D. Kedah was a primary military objective and despite what the Cholas described as the "fierce strength" of the defenders, it fell to the raiders, its king losing "large heap of treasures" to the new conquerors. Kedah later tried to assert its independence from the Sri Vijaya empire and another Chola King Vira Rajendra raided Kedah in 1068 A.D. to aid its king.

But the great city-state sinks into obscurity after that. The Kingdom of Ligor takes over the mantle of power from Sri Vijaya on the peninsula and its king Candrabhanu uses Kedah as a base for attacks on Sri Lanka. The Thais were to later subjugate this kingdom, leading to Thai domination of much of the northern peninsula in the centuries to come.

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