Ancient Indonesia

Comprising over seventeen thousand islands, Indonesia has been a strategic center of trade since ancient times, and is home to the ancient cultures of Bali, Java and Sumatra.

Javanese Nobility via Costumes de Différents Pays (1797)
The History of the Indonesian Archipelago

Head of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Central Java; Volcanic stone, 9th century

The earliest known book to map world geography was written by the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy toward the end of the first century AD. In the “Geographia, Ptolemy wrote about an intriguing island located to the east of the Indian subcontinent called Labadius. The island “… is said to be a most fruitful one, and to produce much gold,” wrote Ptolemy. “It has a metropolis on the north side toward the west called Argentea….” The name Labadius probably was derived from the Indian Sanskrit word Yavadvipa, the name that the natives of the Indian subcontinent first used to refer to the island of Java in religious texts that were written in the third century BCE. Archaeological digs in western Java have produced Chinese ceramics that date from the period of the Han dynasty that once ruled China during the opening centuries of the Common Era. These important discoveries demonstrate that western Java had indeed once been a stop-over point along the maritime trade route that connected China with India and Persia. In addition, a Chinese text has been found that describes a mission to China from an undisclosed port that was ruled by King Devavarman. Some scholars believe that this port city may have been located on the coast of western Java.

The Early Indonesian Archipelago

The Buddha Vairochana, from Java 9th century

The earliest Indonesians in the anthropological sense probably arrived in the islands of Southeast Asia between three and four thousand years ago, at which time they largely superseded earlier populations. The linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that these natives may have crossed over from the Chinese mainland via Taiwan and the Philippines. Indonesia’s history, has been profoundly affected by the sea. Major waves of human immigration to the islands occurred as long ago as 3000 BCE, and continued piecemeal for the best part of 3000 years. It is not known, though exactly where these people came from southern China or the Pacific islands. Certainly they brought with them their language, Austronesian, However, because they arrived in small groups and established independently settlements all around the coast, sometimes co-existing with the distant descendants of Java Man, this language rapidly diversified, so that now there are something like 200 different languages, all derived from Austronesian, spoken within Indonesia.

At the same time that people were immigrating to Indonesia, earlier settlement were sailing to other parts of the world in order to trade. The first records of this are probably in the works fo Pliny Elder, whose “Historia Naturalis” seems to refer to trade between people from Indonesia and the cultures of eastern Africa. It was about this time that Hinduism first came to Indonesia, with the arrival of Indian traders. However, the real impact of Hinduism was to come to Indonesia much later, as a deliberate missionary act by Brahmans, probably in the 5th century, by luck of coincidence some of the basic ideas of Hindusim accorded well with existing Indonesian mountain worship, and a strange hybrid of the two religions emerged. Indonesia’s major trading partner by this time was southern China, thus Buddhist influences also began to play a part.

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Buddhist and Hindu Kingdoms reaches Sumatra

The Buddha Srivijaya, from an exceptionally naturalistic fragment of a once complete statue

The first Buddhists arrived in Indonesia from around 100 to 200 AD from India. One of the most famous Buddhist kingdoms in Indonesian history is Sailendra (750-850 AD). During this period, the famous Buddhist temple at Borobudur was built. Records from these days in Indonesia are scarce, but we do know that sophisticated cultures already existed. The kings and cities of Sumatra and Java are mentioned in records from China, because ambassadors were sent there. Arabs and Persians knew about the area from traders, and even the Greeks and Romans had very distant reports.Records from inside Indonesia are very few, though, since writing was done on palm leaves and other materials that did not survive well. Much of our knowledge comes from stone buildings and inscriptions. By the time we start to get a clear history of Java and Sumatra, there are already great buildings in stone, fine sculptures, classical music and dance, much as we know them today.

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Srivijaya Empire

The kris or keris is a distinctive, asymmetrical dagger indigenous to Indonesia, and are often considered to have an spiritual presence

The kris or keris is a distinctive, asymmetrical dagger indigenous to Indonesia, and are often considered to have an spiritual presence

The Srivijaya empire was a maritime and commercial kingdom that flourished between the 7th and the 13th century in the Malay Archipelago. The kingdom, which originated in Palembang on Sumatra, soon extended its influence and controlled the Strait of Malacca. The kingdom’s power was based on its control of international sea trade. It established trade relations not only with the states in the archipelago but also with China and India.

Until perhaps as late as the 7th century the peoples of Indonesia still retained their multiplicity of comparatively small communities, trading and sometimes fighting with each other. By then, however, a major Buddhist kingdom, Srivijaya, had established itself with its center probably just to the west of modern Palembang, in Sumatra. It seems the rulers of Srivijaya had considerable wealth as a result of both an extensive trade network and great industry in the region. At the end of the 7th century Srivijaya moved to conquer all the smaller communities along the northern coast of Sumatra and thereby snatched a monopoly of the lucrative trade with China. The Maharajahs made various treaties with the natives of smaller islands in the region so that merchant ships could pass unmolested. In this way, the kingdom survived until the10th century, it being convenient for the Chinese to deal with only one center. However, the Chinese then began trading with local production centers elsewhere in the region, and there was little Srivijaya could do to stop them. The kingdom may have dragged on until sometime in the 14th century, but by then its power was a mere husk.

The Hindu God Shiva, from a Javanese temple

The Hindu God Shiva, from a Javanese temple

Srivijaya was also a religious center in the region. It adhered to Mahayana Buddhism and soon became the stopping point for Chinese Buddhist pilgrims on their way to India. The kings of Srivijaya even founded monasteries at Negapatam in India. Srivijaya continued to grow; by the year 1000 it controlled most of Java but soon lost it to Co?a, an Indian maritime and commercial kingdom, which found Srivijaya an obstacle on the sea route between South and East Asia. In 1025 Co?a seized Palembang, captured the King, and carried off his treasures and also attacked other parts of the kingdom. By the end of the 12th century, Srivijaya had been reduced to a small kingdom and its dominant role in Sumatra was taken by Malayu (based in Jambi), a vassal of Java. A Javanese kingdom, Majapahit, soon began to dominate the Indonesian political scene.

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Central Javanese Kingdoms

A scene for the Ramayana, a Hindu epic poem

Meanwhile, from about the 8th century, central Java had been ruled by the Sailendra princes. Their small kingdom was argriculturally rich, and they were able to spend lavishly on the erection of religious monuments. The vast sanctuary and burial edifice of Borobudur was built over some 50 years from the end of the 8th century onwards. The Temple to Siva at Prambanan began to be constructed at about the same time that Borobudur was completed, although its builder were not the Sailendras. However, something seems to have happened at about the start of the 10th century, for there was a sudden cessation in the production of monuments, inscriptions and other artifacts from central Java.

In 1268, the Javaneses King Kertanagara came to the throne, and within a few years he extended his kingdom to include southern Sumatra’s ancient kingdom of Malayu. He was overthrown and killed in 1292, but not before he stupidly sent the envoy of Kublai Khan home with his nose cut off and ‘No’ tattoo on his forehead. By the time a punitive Mongol expedition arrived in Java, the usurper himself had been despatched by Kertanagara’s son-in-law Kertarajasa, who used wile to repel the threat from overseas, then set up his new capital at Majaphit. Kertarajasa and his successors gradually established dominance over most of today’s Indonesia as well as parts of Malaysia.

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The Hindu Kingdom of Mataram

One of the demon guards at the Plaosan Temple Mataram

The dynasty’s replacement, the Hindu kingdom of Mataram began the era of Hindu kingdoms. The mightiest Hindu kingdom in Indonesia’s ancient history was the Majapahit Empire. Under the reign of King Hayam Wuruk (1331-1364 AD), the empire enjoyed tributary relationships with territories as far away as Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines. Mataram was an Indianized kingdom based in Central Java between the 8th and 10th centuries AD and was established by king Sanjaya, he was also known as the founder of Sanjaya dynasty. The Sanjaya dynasty reign the kingdom, but then in later period the kingdom was ruled by Isyana Dynasty. Although initially eclipsed in power by the rival Sailendra Dynasty, by 850 it had become the dominant power in Java and was a serious rival to the hegemonic Srivijaya Empire.

The early account of Mataram kingdom is mentioned in Canggal inscription, dated 732, discovered in Canggal village, Southwest from the town of Magelang. This inscription was written in Pallava letters and in Sanskrit, and tell about the erection of a lingga (symbol of Shiva) on the hill in the Kunjarakunja area. This area is located at a noble island called Yawadwipa (Java) which blessed with abundance of rice and gold. This inscription tells that Yawadwipa was reigned by king Sanna, which his long period of reign was marked with wisdom and virtue. After king Sanna died the kingdom fell into disunity. Confused because lost of ruler and patron, Sanjaya ascend to throne, he was the son of Sannaha (sister of Sanna). He was king that mastered holy scriptures, martial art, and also military prowess. He conquered neighboring area around his kingdom, his wise reign blessed his land with peace and prosperity for all his subjects.

King Sanna and Sanjaya also known in Carita Parahyangan, a book from later period which mainly tell the history of Pasundan (Sunda Kingdom). This book mentioned that Sanna was defeated by Purbasora, king of Galuh, then he retreated to mount Merapi. Later Sanna’s successor Sanjaya reclaim Sanna’s kingdom and ruled West Java, East Java, and Bali. He also involved in battle with Malayu and Keling (against their king Sang Srivijaya). In main theme of Carita Parahyangan is corresponds to Canggal inscription.

An 18th century lithograph showing Bugis Warriors, from Mataram

An 18th century lithograph showing Bugis Warriors, from Mataram

From the time of its founding until 928, the kingdom was ruled by the Sanjaya Dynasty. The first king of Mataram was Sanjaya, who left inscriptions in stone. Although little is known about the kingdom at this time due to the dominance of the Sailendra. The kingdom leaves several temples and monuments. The monumental Hindu temple of Prambanan in the vicinity of Yogyakarta built during Hindu Mataram era, is the fine example of ancient Mataram art and architecture. The grand temple complex was dedicated to Trimurti (Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu), the three highest god in Hindu pantheon. It was the largest Hindu temple ever built in Indonesia, the evidence of immense wealth and cultural achievement of the kingdom.

At certain point of the time, the centre of the kingdom was shifted from Central Java to East Java by Mpu Sindok, who established the Isyana Dynasty. The exact cause of move of location still uncertain. However probably have been caused by an eruption of the volcano Gunung Merapi or a power struggle. The later king Dharmawangsa ordered the translation of the Mahabharata into Old Javanese in 996. The kingdom collapsed at the end of Dharmawangsa’s reign under military pressure from Srivijaya. Airlangga, a son of Udayana of Bali and a relative of Dharmawangsa re-established the kingdom (including Bali) under the name of Kahuripan. In 1045 Airlangga abdicated his throne to resume the life of an ascetic, and divided the kingdom between his two sons, Jangala and Kediri and from this point on the kingdom is known as Kediri.

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The Arrival of Islam

In the 11th century, traders brought Islam to the islands of the archipelago. Just as the Indonesian had earlier adapted Buddhism to their own needs and beliefs, so they accepted Islam very much on their own terms. Gujarati and Persian merchants who embraced Islam started to visit Indonesia in the 13th century. Along with trade, they introduced Islam to the Indonesian Hindus, particularly in the coastal areas of Java. Islam then spread further east to the Bone and Goa Sultanates in Sulawesi, Ternate and Tidore in the northern part of Maluku, and the east part of Lombok. Besides those areas, Islam also expanded to into Banjarmasin, Palembang, Minangkabau, Pasai, and Perlak.

Although Muslim traders first traveled through South East Asia early in the Islamic era, the earliest evidence of Islamized populations in Indonesia dates to the 13th century in northern Sumatra. Although it is known that the spread of Islam began in the west of the archipelago, the fragmentary evidence does not suggest a rolling wave of conversion through adjacent areas; rather, it suggests the process was complicated and slow. The spread of Islam was driven by increasing trade links outside of the archipelago; in general, traders and the royalty of major kingdoms were the first to adopt the new religion.

Other Indonesian areas gradually adopted Islam, making it the dominant religion in Java and Sumatra by the end of the 16th century. For the most part, Islam overlaid and mixed with existing cultural and religious influences, which shaped the predominant form of Islam in Indonesia, particularly in Java. Only Bali retained a Hindu majority. In the eastern archipelago, both Christian and Islamic missionaries were active in the 16th and 17th centuries, and, currently, there are large communities of both religions on these islands.

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History of Bali

The Ulundanu Water Temple in Bali

Bali has been inhabited for a long time. Sembiran, a village in northern Bali, was believed to have been home to the people of the Ice Age, proven by the discovery of stone axes and adzes. Further discoveries of more sophisticated stone tools, agricultural techniques and basic pottery at Cekik in Bali’s far west, point to the people of the Neolithic era. At Cekik, there is evidence of a settlement together with burial sites of around a hundred people thought to be from the Neolithic through to the Bronze Age. The massive drums of the Bronze Age, together with their stone moulds have been discovered throughout the Indonesian archipelago, including the most famous and largest drum in Southeast Asia, the Moon of Pejeng, nearly two meters wide, now housed in a temple in east Ubud. In East Java and Bali, there has also been a concentration of carved stone sarcophagi, which we can see in the Bali Museum in Denpasar and Purbakala Museum in Pejeng.

Bali was busy with trade from as early as 200 BC. The prasasti, or metal inscriptions, Bali’s earliest written records from the ninth century AD, show a significant Buddhist and Hindu influence; especially in the statues, bronzes and rock-cut caves around Mount Kawi and Gajah Cave. Balinese society was pretty sophisticated by about 900 AD. Their marriage portrait of the Balinese King Udayana to East Java’s Princess Mahendratta is captured in a stone carving in the Pura Korah Tegipan in the Batur area. Their son, Erlangga, born around 991 AD, later succeeded to the throne of the Javanese kingdom and brought Java and Bali together until his death in 1049.

In 1284, Bali was conquered by Kertanegara, the ruler of the Singasari; until the turn of the century, saw Bali under its own rule under the hands of King Bedaulu of Pejeng, east of Ubud. 1343 AD, is an important date in Bali’s history. It was then that the whole island was conquered by East Java under the mighty Hindu Majapahit kingdom. This resulted in massive changes in Balinese society, including the introduction of the caste system.

The Hindu and Balinese Goddess of Rice, Dewi Sri

The Hindu and Balinese Goddess of Rice, Dewi Sri

Balinese who did not embrace the changes fled to the isolated and remote mountainous areas and hill areas. Their descendants are known today as Bali Aga or Bali Mula that means the “original Balinese”. They still live separately in villages like Tenganan near Dasa Temple and Trunyan on the shores of Batur Lake, and maintain their ancient laws and traditional ways. When Majapahit in East Java fell in 1515, the many small Islamic kingdoms in the island merged into the Islamic Mataram empire, Majapahit’s most dedicated Hindu priests, craftsmen, soldiers, nobles and artists fled east to Bali, and flooded the island with Javanese culture and Hindu practices. Considering the huge influence and power of Islam at the time, it is worth pondering why and how Bali still remained strongly Hindu and Buddhist.

Batu Renggong, also known as Dewa Agung, means great god, became king in 1550, and this title became hereditary through the succeeding generations of the kingdom of Gelgel, and later Klungkung, until the twentieth century. Bali reached the pinnacle of its Golden Era under the reign of the Batu Renggong, the great god ruler. Bali’s decline started when Batu Renggong’s grandson, Di Made Bekung, lost Blambangan, Lombok and Sumbawa. DI Made Bekung’s chief minister, Gusti Agung Maruti, eventually rebelled and reigned from 1650 till 1686, when he in turn was killed by DI Made Bekung’s son, Dewa Agung Jambe, who then moved the court to Klungkung, and named his new palace the Semarapura, Abode of the God of Love.

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The Temples of Prambanan

The Prambanan Temple Complex, a masterwork of Indonesian Architecture

Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple compound in Central Java in Indonesia, located approximately 18 km east of Yogyakarta. And it is characterised by its tall and pointed architecture, typical of Hindu temple architecture, and by the 47m high central building inside a large complex of individual temples. Prambanan was built around 850 CE by either Rakai Pikatan, king of the second Mataram dynasty, or Balitung Maha Sambu, during the Sanjaya Dynasty. Not long after its construction, the temple was abandoned and began to deteriorate. Reconstruction of the compound began in 1918.

The Prambanan temple complex consists of three zones. The outer zone is a large space marked by a rectangular wall (destroyed). The original function is unknown; possibilities are that it was a sacred park, or priests’ boarding school (ashram). The supporting buildings for the temple complex were made from organic material; as a consequence no remains occur.

The middle zone consisted of four rows of 224 individual small shrines and these concentric rows of temples were made in identical design. These shrines are called “Candi Perwara” or complementary temples, the additional buildings of the main temple. Some believed it was offered to the king as a sign of submission. The Perwara are arranged in four rows around the central temples, some believed it has something to do with four castes, made according to the rank of the people allowed to enter them; the row nearest to the central compound was accessible to the priests only, the other three were reserved for the nobles, the knights, and the simple people respectively.

The central compound is the holiest among the three zones. Its the square elevated platform surrounded by square stone wall with stone gates on each four cardinal points. This holiest compound is assembled of eight main shrines or candi. The three main shrines, called Trimurti (“three forms”), are dedicated to the three gods: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Keeper, and Shiva the Destroyer. The other three shrine in front of three main temples is dedicated to vahana of each gods.

The Prambanan Temple with it's central spires is dedicated to Shiva

The Prambanan Temple with it’s central spires is dedicated to Shiva

The Shiva shrine at the center contains five chambers, four small chamber in every cardinal direction and one bigger main chamber in central part of the temple. The east chamber connect to central chamber that houses a three meter high statue of Shiva Mahadeva. The statue of Shiva stands on Yoni pedestal that bears the carving of Naga serpents on north side of pedestal. The other three smaller chambers contain statues of Hindu Gods related to Shiva; his consort Durga, the rishi Agastya, and Ganesha, his son. Statue of Agastya occupy the south chamber, the west chamber houses the statue of Ganesha, while the north chamber contains the statue of Durga Mahisasuramardini depicting Durga as the slayer of Bull demon. The shrine of Durga is also called the temple of Lara Jonggrang (Javanese: slender virgin), after a Javanese legend of princess Lara Jonggrang.

The two other main shrines are that of Vishnu on the north side of Shiva shrine, and the one of Brahma on the south. In front of each main temple is a smaller temples on the east side, dedicated to the mounts (vahana)of the respective gods – the bull Nandi for Shiva, the gander Angsa for Brahma, and Vishnu’s Eagle Garuda. Garuda holds important role for Indonesia, which serves as the national symbol of Indonesia till this day.

The bas-reliefs along the balustrades on the gallery around Shiva and Brahma temple depict the Ramayana legend. They illustrate how Sita, the wife of Rama, is abducted by Ravana. The monkey king Hanuman brings his army to help Rama and rescue Sita. This story is also shown by the Ramayana Ballet, regularly performed at full moon at Trimurti open air theater in west side of the illuminated Prambanan complex. On the balsutrades in Vishnu temple there is series of bas-relief depict the story of lord Krishna.

The popular legend of Lara Jonggrang is what connects the site of the Ratu Boko Palace, the origin of the Durga statue in northern cell/chamber of the main shrine, and the origin of the Sewu temple complex nearby. The legend tells of the story about Prince Bandung Bondowoso who fell in love with Princess Lara Jonggrang, the daughter of King Boko. But the princess rejected his proposal of marriage because Bandung Bondowoso had killed King Boko and ruled her kingdom. Bandung Bondowoso insisted on the union, and finally Lara Jonggrang was forced to agree for a union in marriage, but she posed one impossible condition: Bandung must build her a thousand temples in only one night.

The Prince entered into meditation and conjured up a multitude of spirits (demons) from the earth. Helped by supernatural beings, he succeeded in building 999 temples. When the prince was about to complete the condition, the princess woke her palace maids and ordered the women of the village to begin pounding rice and set a fire in the east of the temple, attempting to make the prince and the spirits believe that the sun was about to rise. As the cocks began to crow, fooled by the light and the sounds of morning time, the supernatural helpers fled back into the ground. The prince was furious about the trick and in revenge he cursed Lara Jonggrang to stone. She became the last and the most beautiful of the thousand statues. According to the traditions, the unfinished thousandth temple created by the demons become the Sewu temple compounds nearby (Sewu means “thousands” in Javanese), and the Princess is the image of Durga in the north cell of the Shiva temple at Prambanan, which is still known as Lara Jonggrang or Slender Virgin.

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