The oldest known inscriptions of the Indonesian archipelago are those on seven stone pillars, or yūpa (“sacrificial posts”), found in the area of Kutai, East Kalimantan, some twenty miles from the Makassar Straits. Written in the early Pallava script, these Sanskrit inscriptions were erected to commemorate sacrifices held by a King Mūlawarman, and are datable on palaeographical grounds to the second half of the fourth century AD (Vogel 1918; Chhabra 1965:50-52, 85-92; de Casparis 1975:14-18). They are only short inscriptions — in all no longer than 50 lines, the longest consisting of only three stanzas of four lines each — but they are the most important evidence that we have that testifies to the emergence of an Indianized state in the Indonesian archipelago prior to AD 400.
The inscriptions do not mention the name of this kingdom, but we have the names of three generations of rulers from one of them. They are Mūlawarman, the reigning king, who is styled the “lord of kings” (rājendra); his father Aśwawarman, entitled the “founder of the dynasty” (vaṇśa-kartṛ); and his grandfather Kuṇḍungga, the “lord of men” (narendra). It is generally agreed that Kuṇḍungga is not a Sanskrit name, and therefore he was most likely a native of the land. The fact that Kuṇḍungga’s name is of native origin while both his son and grandson had Sanskrit names seems to indicate that it was not Kuṇḍungga, but his son Aśwawarman who was the first of his line to adopt the Hindu cult and was probably also the founder of the “new” kingdom based on the principles of the new faith. Accordingly, Aśwawarman was called the “founder of the dynasty” by later generations, and in the inscription he was appropriately likened to aṅśuman, “the sun”, who was the mythical founder of the solar race of India (Chhabra 1965:51).
The inscriptions do not mention whether Aśwawarman embarked on a policy of expanding his influence to the surrounding areas, as was customary for the founder of a dynasty, but there is no doubt that his son launched such a policy. In one of the inscriptions Mūlawarman is said to have “conquered other kings in the battlefield, and made them tributaries, as did king Yudhiṣṭhira”. This is no doubt a reference to the digvijaya episode in the Mahābhārata (Book 2), which describes the conquest of various countries in all directions by the Pāṇḍawas, after which the rajaśuya sacrifice was performed and Yudhiṣṭhira became the world ruler. And so, while his grandfather was only designated as a narendra (“lord of men”) in the inscription, Mūlawarman was styled a rājendra (“lord of kings”), with all the neighbouring rulers paying tribute to him.
But who were these other kings who were conquered in the battlefield by Mūlawarman? Were they, like Mūlawarman himself, also rulers of Indic states, or were they chieftains of tribal communities in the surrounding areas? Obviously we are not in a position to give definite answers to such questions but, until new evidence is found which proves otherwise, it seems likely that they were the latter. Whereas in Kutai there are findings of various archaeological remains such as Hindu and Buddhist images, there has been no evidence, from inscriptions or from Chinese sources, which indicates that other kingdoms existed in the area. In the inscriptions those “other kings” are called pārthiva, and Kulke has suggested, on the basis of the etymology of this Sanskrit word, that they were landholders, comparable to the rakai of the Old Javanese inscriptions (Kulke 1990:6). We do not know what happened to this Kutai kingdom after the issuing of Mūlawarman’s inscriptions, but it might have declined soon afterwards and those pārthiva might then have regained their former status as chiefs of independent tribal communities.
Some sort of a kingdom or a chiefdom did, however, apparently continue to exist in the region, as we find the name Tuñjung Kute as one of the maṇḍalika-rāṣṭra (“ring-kingdoms”) under the “protection” of Majapahit, which are enumerated in cantos 13 and 14 of the fourteenth-century Old Javanese poem Nāgarakṛtāgama (Pigeaud 1960-63. “Tuñjung Kute” occurs in stanza 14.1). There seems to be no doubt that this Tuñjung Kute must have been the ancient name of present-day Kutai, because the name occurs in the list of the maṇḍala located in the island of Tañjung-nagara, i.e. Kalimantan. (For a discussion on the concept of maṇḍala in early Southeast Asia, see Wolters 1982:16ff.) It is even possible that Tuñjung Kute or one of its synonyms was the name of Mūlawarman’s kingdom. If the name Kute (Kutai) is still used in present-day Indonesia, there seems to be no strong reason why the name that appears in this poem could not be that of the same kingdom that existed earlier. Many names of villages, districts, and kingdoms found in the inscriptions survive to the present, often with only slight modification.