Śrīwijaya: A Centre of Learning?

For a communication to be effective, the language of the message sent by a speaker obviously has to be properly understood by those for whom the message is intended. Writing as an instrument of communication would be of no use if the language represented by these signs were incomprehensible to readers. Hence the spread of literacy would inevitably bring the vernacular languages of the texts into prominence.

It was not a coincidence, therefore, that some of the oldest inscriptions written in any vernacular of the Austronesian language family were issued by the rulers of Śrīwijaya, the first known imperial kingdom of the region, whose suzerainty at the peak of its power was widely acknowledged in the western parts of the Malayo-Indonesian archipelago, so much so that one of its rulers, writing to the Sung emperor in 1017, proudly referred to himself as “the king of the ocean lands” (Wolters 1970:1).

Six inscriptions from early Śrīwijaya (dated between AD 682 and 686) have so far been found in areas of southern Sumatra — three in Palembang, one in upper Jambi, one on the island of Bangka and another in Lampung — and these probably indicate the extent of the area under its effective control at this early stage of its long history (Coedès 1968:82-85; van Naerssen 1977:31-36). All these inscriptions are written in Old Malay, using a later type of Pallava script which is related to the script used in the Kutai inscriptions. Some adaptations were of course required. For instance, although the alphabet used for Sanskrit possessed many more signs than required for representing Old Malay and other Austronesian languages, it does not have a symbol for the phoneme ĕ. To overcome this problem, the Śrīwijayan scholars simply used the “zero mark”, using the two consonants between which the ĕ was pronounced as a ligature, e.g. writing tmu for tĕmu (“to meet”). Whoever worked out these adaptations must have been scholar(s) of some influence, for most of the principles used in the writing of the early Śrīwijaya inscriptions continued to be used by later generations of scribes of Old Javanese and Old Balinese inscriptions and manuscripts.[8]

At about the same time as the inscriptions were issued, a well-known Chinese pilgrim, I-tsing, stopped in Śrīwijaya for six months in 671 to study Sanskrit grammar while on his way to India, and for another four years between 685 and 689, during which time he copied and translated Buddhist texts into Chinese. In his memoirs I-tsing tells us that: “In the fortified city of Fo-shih, there are more than a thousand Buddhist priests whose minds are bent on study and good works. They examine and study all possible subjects exactly as in Madhyadeśa [India]” (Coedès 1968:81; Takakusu 1966:xxxiv). I-tsing even tells us that while he was in Śrīwijaya, śākyakīrti, one of the four most distinguished Buddhist scholars at that time, was residing there (Takakusu 1966:184). It is clear from I-tsing’s accounts, and confirmed by the inscriptions, that by then Śrīwijaya was not only an established kingdom with considerable power over both sides of the Straits of Malacca, but was also a famous centre of learning.

In such an environment it is reasonable to expect that some sort of Old Malay literature must have developed in the kadatuan of Śrīwijaya. If I-tsing was able to complete “a new translation of śūtras and śāstras” into Chinese during his stay in Śrīwijaya, one would expect that the Malay scholars would have done the same into Malay, or even produced original literary works. No such works, however, have come down to us. This is perhaps not surprising, considering that Śrīwijaya did not have its “Bali”, the small, insulated island to which Old Javanese literature owes its survival to the present day. But even in later Malay literature — the product of the Malay courts of Malacca and its successors, which claimed to be the heir to the Śrīwijayan cultural tradition (Wolters 1970, 1982:22-24) —we cannot find any traces of written Old Malay literature. On the contrary, it is evidence of the influence of the Old Javanese cultural tradition that we find in later Malay literature. Of the half a dozen or so works listed in Chapter III (The Hindu Period) of Winstedt’s A History of Classical Malay Literature, most are derived from Javanese sources such as the twelfth century Old Javanese poems Bhāratayuddha and Bhomakawya (Bhomāntaka), and others from the oral tradition, e.g. the Hikayat Seri Rama (Winstedt 1977:24-27).[9]

Now, apart from the absence of any trace of Old Malay literary works, we also find hardly any architectural remains from the Śrīwijaya period. One explanation usually offered for this is that, despite its fabulous wealth, as a maritime power Śrīwijaya did not possess the necessary manpower to build great edifices comparable to, say, the Borobudur; whereas the agricultural states of Java, with their “administrative machinery expanding in patrimonial, bureaucratic forms”, were able to mobilize the needed manpower from the docile peasantry (see e.g. van Leur 1967:96-97).

It seems more likely, however, that lack of manpower was not the main reason for this apparent absence of building activities in Śrīwijaya throughout its long history. Had the rulers of Śrīwijaya had the inclination to build large religious monuments there seems little doubt that they would have been able to obtain the necessary manpower to build them. We know from the Kedukan Bukit inscription of AD 683, for instance, that the king had an army of more than twenty thousand soldiers at his disposal to accompany him on his siddhayātrā (a journey to obtain supernatural prowess). As Hall has pointed out, an emphasis on the maritime aspect of Śrīwijaya, while in the main correct, tends to neglect the important relationship between the Śrīwijaya ports and their hinterland, from which this large force of twenty thousand soldiers could have been recruited (Hall 1985:79-80). We also know from the writing of the Arab geographer Mas’ūdi (dated AD 995) that the kingdom of the islands of Zābag (among which were “Kalah and Sribuza and other islands in the China Sea”) had “an enormous population and innumerable armies”. “Even with the fastest vessel”, Mas’ūdi says, “no one can tour these islands, all of which are inhabited, in two years” (Coedès 1968:131).

Lack of manpower, therefore, can not be used to explain why there are hardly any architectural remains from the whole Śrīwijaya period, spanning at least four centuries (from the seventh to the eleventh century), or even seven centuries (to the fourteenth century). Considering the fact that there are also no traces of literary works from this great empire, the conclusion seems to be that either the greatness of Śrīwijaya is merely another myth, comparable to that of Prapañca’s Majapahit (Supomo 1979), or that the rulers of Śrīwijaya had entirely different priorities from those of their Javanese counterparts. That is, to quote Coedès:

After having become a great economic power, śrīvijaya seems to have neglected the spiritual values that attracted the Chinese pilgrim I-ching there in the seventh century. In fact, while the Javanese kings were covering their island with religious buildings, the śrīvijayan sovereigns were preoccupied with superintending the traffic straits rather than building lasting monuments, and they have left us only insignificant brick towers and a very small number of inscriptions (1968:131; cf. van Leur 1967:106-107).