A History of the Malay Peninsula

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The Malays

Early Malay Kingdoms

Buddhist Empires

China's Southern Sea

The Coming of Islam


The Melaka Empire

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Western Conquests

Buddhist Empires

The greatest of Malay empires, Sri Vijaya, had its beginning at Palembang which lying at the south of Sumatra dominated the Straits of Sunda. With its capital at Bukit Seguntang, the Buddhist pilgrim I-Tsing in 671 A.D. described it as an important centre of Buddhist learning, with more than a thousand monks devoting their days to study and good works. Four inscriptions in old Malay throw light on this Buddhist Sri Vijaya. The oldest from the foot of Bukit Seguntang records that on I 3 April 683 a king went by sea to acquire magic power and on May 8th left the estuary with 20,000 men, as a result of which he conferred on Sri Vijaya victory, power and riches. That king was probably Jayanasa who, in the following year, founded a public garden at Talang Tua some four miles from Bukit Seguntang and had an inscription carved expressing the hope that this and other good works would help him on the road to illumination. Inscriptions elsewhere invoked curses upon their inhabitants if they contemplate rebellion against the king or his officials.

Inscriptions also indicated an expedition in 686 against Java and a Sanskrit inscription in Ligor shows that by 775 Sri Vijaya had a footing in northern Malaya, having conquered Kedah and a large part of the west coast. It mentions a king entitled Sri Maharaja, a descendant of the Sailendra family and described as the "destroyer of his enemies". The Sailendras, or Kings of the Mountain, were originally rulers of the Cambodian Funan Empire, who became kings of Middle Java and become famous as the builders of Borobudur. Their descendants were to rule not only Palembang but Kedah (known variously as Kataha, and Kadaram).

In the world of commerce, Sti Vijaya, now called Sanfo-ts'i by the Chinese and Zabag or Sribuza by the Arabs, rapidly rose to be a far-flung empire controlling the two passages between India and China, namely the Sunda Straits from Palembang and the Malacca Straits from Kedah. Arab accounts state that the empire of the Maharaja was so large that in two years the swiftest vessel could not travel round all its islands, which produced camphor, aloes, cloves, sandal-wood, nutmegs, cardamom and cubebs, ivory, gold and tin, making the Maharaja as rich as any king in the Indies. In 990 A.D. Java appears to have attacked Sri Vijaya, which asked for China's protection. In 1006 Sri Vijaya seems to have burnt the capital of its Javanese enemy and slain the king and many of his chiefs.

A year before that, Chulamanivarmadeva, described in inscriptions as "the king of Kataha (Kedah) and Srivishaya", built a Buddhist temple at Negapatam, which the Chola King Rajaraja I supported with the revenue of a large village. Sri Vijayan relics have been found in various parts of Kedah and Perak. Chinese maps put Sri Vijaya right in the middle of the Malay Peninsula. Even Portuguese histories of I5I2 tells how Kedah in the middle of the fifteenth century still claimed tribute from Perak, Manjong, Bemam, Selangor and Malacca, obviously as heir to "Kataha."

For six hundred years or more Kedah became an important port of call for Chola-mandala (Coromandel). But in A.D. I0I7 Coromandel's famous ruler, Rajendra Chola I, made war on Sri Vijaya and, in 1025, overhwelmed it and her colonies in the Malay Peninsula. Sri Vijaya seems to have recovered from this setback, only to be attacked in 1068 by another Chola king, Vira Rajendra. Vira Rajendra conquered Kedah, apparently at the request of its ruler who wanted to win independence from Sri Vijaya.

However, the Empire was already falling to pieces. Wars became frequent, primarily due to trade rivalries, and this degenrated to piracy. The capital of the great empire sank to be a den of pirates. By the end of eleventh century, Jambi (or Melayu), Langkasuka, Ligor, Acheh and other countries that were part of Sri Vijaya were now independent - with Jambi playing the role of dominant power. Jambi did not have aspirations for a maritime, far-flung empire overseas but turned its attention to Sumatra's highlands and found what was to become the kingdom of Minangkabau.

On the peninsula, Ligor took over the mantle from Sri Vijaya. Its king Candrabhanu attacked Sri Lanka first in 1247 and again in 1270. Inscriptions indicate that Candrabhanu also ruled Kedah, from which he launched his expeditions across the Indian Ocean. The Thais were to later subjugate this kingdom, leading to Thais domination of much of the northern peninsula in the years to come.

In 1275 the famous Kartanagara, ruler of east Java, sent his Javanese forces against Sumatra and conquered Jambi and much of Pahang. Some time between 1338 and 1365, his successors - the Majaphit Empire - conquered all of Sumatra, bringing to an end the days of the first and perhaps greatest of all Malay Empires.

The Cholas

Raiders of South India


The Influence of India on Malay Culture


A historical perspective on the controversial word

About the Author

Write to the author: sabrizain@malaya.org.uk

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