Episode 7, The Khmers


The episode you have been waiting for has arrived!  This time we look at Cambodia from 550 to 1431, the golden age of the Khmers.  This was Southeast Asia’s most impressive civilization before the modern era.  The Khmers built Angkor, a city that was home to a million people, and Angkor Wat, the largest temple of all time.  That is the same temple shown in the picture above.  Then suddenly in 1431 they abandoned it all to the jungle, and the world outside Cambodia forgot about the place, until a French explorer stumbled upon the ruins in 1860.  Listen and download this episode to hear all about it!



(Transcript, added 11/3/2019)


Episode 7: The Khmers


Greetings, dear listeners! This is it, the big one! If you have listened to any of the other episodes in this podcast, then here is the episode you’ve been waiting for. You probably know already that an ancient civilization lived in Cambodia hundreds of years ago, it built a spectacular city, and after that civilization fell, the city’s ruins were abandoned to the jungle, until 1860, when a French explorer alerted the outside world to the ruins. Since then the jungle has been cleared away, and the ruins of this city are Cambodia’s foremost tourist attraction. Today we call the ruins Angkor, which is Cambodian for “city,” or Angkor Wat, meaning “temple city,” and chances are you’ve seen pictures of the five pinecone-shaped towers in the middle of the whole thing. Indeed, the first picture I chose to use as artwork with this podcast is a picture of those towers; you can see it on the Blubrry.com page that hosts the episodes, on my WordPress.com blog, and it is embedded as cover art into the MP3 files you are downloading. Chances are that when you saw that picture, you didn’t need to be told what it was.


At its height, Angkor was home to an estimated 1 million people. This makes it one of the largest cities of the Middle Ages, competitive with Baghdad, Constantinople, Teotihuacan, and Chinese cities like Changan. And Angkor was the only city in Southeast Asia to grow that big, before the twentieth century. Now we are going to look at Southeast Asia’s greatest civilization before the modern era, the builders of Angkor, the ancestors of today’s Cambodians, the Khmers. Today I don’t have any preliminary announcements, so let’s get into the story of the Khmers right away.




First of all, if you haven’t yet listened to Episode 3, I strongly recommend that you do so. There we looked at Funan, the oldest known state in Cambodia. For this narrative we will be picking up from where we left off in that episode. In Episode 3 we also learned about the Mandala system that characterized most Southeast Asian governments in ancient and medieval times, and I will be mentioning Mandalas again in this episode.


Now when we last saw Cambodia, Funan was on its last legs, and remember, I said that the rulers of Funan were Malays, relatives of the people that live on Southeast Asia’s islands. The ancestors of the Khmers migrated out of China back in Episode 2, and then lived for several centuries on the middle to upper part of the Mekong River valley, in what is now Laos. They had to stay there while Funan was running the show to the south, and it looks like the Khmers were vassals of Funan during that kingdom’s peak years. However, in the middle of the sixth century, Funan started to decline, so the Khmers regained their independence and started moving into northern Cambodia. The first Khmer king whose name has come down to us is Bhavavarman I, and his reign began around the year 550. Those of you who listened to Episode 3 will remember I threw several names at you ending in “varman,” and in this episode I will be doing it again. You have been warned! Bhavavarman’s name tells us that the Khmers had already adopted the culture of Funan for themselves, and the Funan culture was in turn heavily influenced by Indian culture, hence the Sanskrit names. It also tells us that like on Java and in Champa, the Khmer kings at this stage practiced Hinduism.


For the first Khmer kingdom, we have two sources of information, inscriptions found by archaeologists in various parts of Cambodia and Laos, and Chinese records dated to the seventh and eighth centuries. The inscriptions, like those we have from Funan, were written in the Sanskrit language, and are either religious texts, or messages praising the king, like this one. Quote: “He is like the sun in the sky, radiating an intolerable majesty, the issue of the revered kings of earth. He was annointed with sacred water, provided blessings, and was foremost among the virtuous.” End quote. As time went on, we never hear from the inscriptions about the kings having any problems, though we know they must have had some. And because of the official religion, which taught that the king was an avatar of the Hindu god Shiva, the messages grew bolder in that affirmation, until by 800 they were calling the king things like quote, “an incarnate portion of the god.” End quote.


Records from Chinese travelers give the name Zhenla to the Khmer state; it is spelled with a CH at the beginning of the name in older history texts, and with a ZH nowadays. Whichever you prefer, we use the Chinese name because we don’t know what the Khmers called their realm. Later on, after 800, we will hear the Khmers call their country Kambuja or Kambujadesa, from which we get the name we use now, Cambodia, but we don’t know if they used those names this early.


Bhavavarman was succeeded by a close relative named Chitrasena, who changed his name to Mahendravarman. He was in turn followed by his son Isanavarman, who ruled from 611 to 635, and expanded the kingdom both to the west and to the south. In 613 he established a new capital for Zhenla at Isanpura. This was located in the middle of Cambodia, in modern Kompong Thom province; the site is now called Sambor Prei Kuk. Then in 627, Isanavarman finished off Funan by conquering the rest of Cambodia. Finally, we hear of expansion on the west bank of the Mekong River, so it looks like he conquered at least part of the Khorat plateau, in what is now eastern Thailand; no other kingdom ruled this area yet, anyway. After Isanavarman, we hear of kings named Bhavavarman II and Jayavarman I, and then near the end of the seventh century, Jayavarman’s widow, Queen Jayadevi, took charge.


If anyone had drawn a map of Southeast Asia in the late seventh century, it would have shown Zhenla as the largest state in the region, so far. Zhenla was larger than Funan, Champa, the Pyu confederation in Burma, and the Mon states in Thailand and southern Burma. It may have even been larger at Srivijaya at this stage, because that Indonesian state had just gotten its act together. The area Zhenla ruled included modern-day Cambodia, Laos, and part of eastern Thailand. Veteran listeners will remember that in previous episodes I mentioned that the Mekong delta used to be considered part of Cambodia, until the Vietnamese moved in around 1700, so the southernmost part of present-day Vietnam would have belonged to Zhenla, too. And it looks like Zhenla made a good living from trade, rice agriculture, or both. Later on, the Chinese had a proverb describing someone or something as “rich as Zhenla.”


Both the Chinese and the royal sources give the impression that in the seventh century, Zhenla was a coherent, unified state. If that was the case, then Zhenla would have been the second unified state in Southeast Asia; the Vietnamese established the first one. However, today most scholars don’t trust that impression. First, Zhenla doesn’t seem to have had the infrastructure needed, to maintain a state that was both large and tightly knit. All their cities were near the Mekong River, so the Mekong would have acted as the country’s only highway, just as centuries later, Rudyard Kipling would call the Irrawaddy River “the Road to Mandalay.” Away from the Mekong, the land would have been covered by jungle, as it usually is today. The Khmers may have claimed this land as part of their property, but the people living there would have come from other ethnic groups, what we call hill tribes. Second, as we saw in previous episodes, the typical early Southeast Asian state was loosely organized, where it was not always clear which rulers outranked others — we called this system a Mandala. At best, there was a family of monarchs in the capital, but when one looks at their actual power over the minor kings of the other cities, and the chiefs of the hill tribes, “first among equals” might be the best way to describe the official king’s status. So when Zhenla broke up in the eighth century, the cause may have been a case of the central government coming apart, rather than because the leaders of cities and provinces rose up in revolt.


This happened when Javadevi, the queen mentioned a few minutes ago, was the one in charge. In 706 Zhenla split in two. Again, we have to depend on Chinese records for names. The Chinese called the northern half of the kingdom “Land Zhenla,” and the southern half “Water Zhenla.” Because the previous capital was now in Water Zhenla, Land Zhenla built itself a new capital somewhere in Champassak province; this is in the southwest corner of modern Laos. Meanwhile to the south, the rulers of Water Zhenla moved their capital to the Lower Mekong, between modern Phnom Penh and the delta; this was the area where Funan had its capital. Land Zhenla managed to stay in one piece, and even sent embassies to the Chinese emperor, but constant intrigues for the throne shattered Water Zhenla into no less than five smaller states. Water Zhenla was also exposed to pirate raids on its coast. There was an especially bad invasion in 795, from Mataram, the kingdom based on Java.


The Khmer Empire


The raid from Java in 795 dealt Water Zhenla a crushing blow, but it was also the first step in the creation of the Khmer Empire. The story of how this happened was written around the year 916 by an Arab traveler, Abu Zaid Hassan. It tells of a rash young Khmer king, his prime minister, and the king of Java. No names are given in the story, but Lawrence Palmer Briggs, a scholar from the mid-twentieth century, proposed that the unlucky king was Mahipativarman, the last recorded king of Water Zhenla. As for the name of the king of Java, in the last episode I suggested that Dharanindra of the Sailendra dynasty was the king who started construction on the great Borobudur temple, so if I have my dates right, he is the same king who led this raid.


According to the story, one day the young king and his prime minister were discussing what to do about Java, then the strongest naval power in Southeast Asia. The king said, “I have one desire I would like to satisfy.”
“What is this desire, O King?” his minister asked.
“I want to see before me on a plate the head of the Maharaja of Zabag.” (“Maharaja of Zabag” is old Arabic for “king of Java”)


The Khmer monarch’s wish was passed by word of mouth until it reached the Javanese monarch.

(insert Bugs Bunny quote here.)

Whether or not the king of Java really said that, he led a fleet of a thousand ships up the Mekong River, launched a surprise attack on the Khmer king’s capital, and routed the Khmers defending it. Capturing the young king, he said, “You have manifested the desire to see before you my head on a plate. If you had also wished to seize my country or only ravage part of it, I would have done the same thing to Khmer. As you have expressed only the first of these desires, I am going to apply to you the treatment you wished to apply to me, and I will then return to my country without taking anything belonging to the Khmers . . . My victory will serve as a lesson to your successors.” He then chopped off the Khmer king’s head. So it was the king of Java who got a head that day.


Yeah, bad joke, sorry. Now the Javanese king said to the Khmer prime minister, “Look now for someone who will make a good king after this fool, and put him in the place of the latter.”


I should mention before we go on that I just told you the conventional version of the story. It was good enough for twentieth century historians, and it’s good enough for me, but nowadays some scholars don’t take it at face value. They insist that Java is awfully far away from Cambodia, and when the Arabs said “Zabag” at this date, they must have been talking about a closer place, possibly Champa. I hope not; we’ll see enough fighting between the Khmers and Chams later in this episode, and even more fighting between the Chams and Vietnamese in the next episode.


Anyway, the new king picked by the prime minister was an excellent choice: Jayavarman II, a relative of the late king who had been living on Java for several years. We’re not sure what he was doing there. One of my sources suggested he fled to Java to escape the fighting between the Water Zhenla kings, but he could also have been a prisoner captured in a raid, or a royal hostage. The king of Java must have thought Jayavarman would be a loyal vassal, because he approved of Jayavaman’s elevation.


Although we know more about Jayavarman II than we know about any of the Zhenla monarchs, we still don’t know as much about him as we would like. Most of what we know comes from the Sdok Kak Thom inscription, which was carved in 1053, more than 200 years after Jayavarman’s death. This caused the French historian Claude Jacques to make the following remark. Quote: “Because of this, Jayavarman II is probably the Khmer king whose life we know the best — or the least badly.” End quote.


First, Jayavarman sailed up the Mekong, subduing the rivals he met on the way, and set up a capital for himself at Indrapura, a site near the modern city of Kompong Cham. Although he appears to have reunited Water Zhenla under his rule, he also seems to have been an insecure monarch, because he had at least three, and possibly five capitals, during his reign. In 802 he made his big move, traveling to the Phnom Kulen plateau, which was northeast of Cambodia’s great lake, the Tonle Sap, and nowhere near the Mekong. Here he built a temple to the god Shiva, hired a brahman to serve as his high priest, and took part in what Hindus call the Devaraja, or god-king ceremony. You can see a picture of this ceremony, which I scanned from the April 1960 issue of National Geographic. It’s in the program notes, on the Blubrry.com page where this episode is hosted. This declared Jayavarman not only a king, but also a god worthy of worship, a living incarnation of Shiva, who was independent of and supreme over all other monarchs, especially the king of Java. And now that he was on top of a high hill, he gave himself the title “King of the Mountain.” Long-time listeners will remember that used to be the title of the kings of Funan. More recently, Java’s Sailendra kings had called themselves that. Now Jayavarman was declaring his right to the title.


The 802 ceremony was a turning point in Jayavarman’s career; after that everything seems to have gone his way. On Phnom Kulen he also built a new capital city, Mahendraparvata. While the ruins of the Shiva temple were discovered many years ago, the ruins of Mahendraparvata are an exciting new discovery. Archaeologists scanned this part of Cambodia with LIDAR, a form of radar that uses laser beams instead of radio waves, from 2000 to 2012, to find the ruins beneath the jungle and get pictures of how the capital was laid out. In fact, as an aside, I will tell you that it was a discussion on Facebook about this lost city, which gave me the idea that I should talk about Southeast Asia, when I was wondering what subject my history podcast would cover.


Jayavarman may have been king of the mountain, or at least king of the hill, but he did not stay there. Eventually his confidence grew to the point that he returned to the lowlands, and established one more capital city, Hariharalaya, to the north of the Tonle Sap. It looks like he finally achieved peace of mind with this move, for he stayed here for the rest of his reign. In this he also set a precedent; for the next six hundred years the Khmer capital would be in Cambodia’s northwest corner, culminating in Angkor.


The next two Khmer kings, Jayavarman III and Indravarman I, also built temples, to reinforce the idea that they were the rightful rulers. They also expanded the country’s irrigation system by digging canals, showing that they had learned the waterworks techniques perfected in the age of Funan. Then came a king you should remember — Yasovarman I, who ruled from 889 to 900. A few miles north of the Tonle Sap he built a new city, called it Yasodharapura, and it became Cambodia’s permanent capital. This is the same city we now call Angkor. The oldest temple in the city, Phnom Bakheng, was left by Yasovarman, and he also constructed an excellent system of canals and enormous reservoirs around the city. Those canals would later be used to feed the large number of laborers used in Angkor’s massive building projects; you could say that Angkor was built on water, and not be far from the truth. Fortunately for historians, Yasovarman, like all Khmer monarchs, was a great braggart, and he left plenty of inscriptions boasting of his achievements. Typically they would use phrases like “The best of kings . . . unique bundle of splendors”, or they might say, quote: “In all the sciences and all the sports . . . in dancing, singing, and all the rest, he was as clever as if he had been the first inventor of them.” End quote. And here is the ultimate boast. Quote: “In seeing him, the creator was astonished and seemed to say to himself, `Why did I create a rival for myself in this king?'” End quote.


The Khmer Masterpieces, and the Decline


During the 10th and 11th centuries our only source of information is the inscriptions. For reasons unclear to us, a civil war disrupted the royal family in the early tenth century, forcing King Jayavarman IV to move the capital in 928, to Koh Ker, a site about 60 miles to the north. It stayed there for twenty years, and then a later king, Rajendravarman II, returned to Angkor. Aside from that bad spell, the Khmer Empire enjoyed growth, in size, power, and cultural sophistication. Land Zhenla submitted peacefully to Angkor’s rule. To the west, it appears that the Mon state of Dvaravati, located in central Thailand, and the Malay states to the south of it, also submitted, during the reign of Suryavarman I, between 1002 and 1050. However, the other Mon state in Thailand, Haripunjaya, managed to remain independent. Suryavarman’s son, Udayadityavarman II, ruled from 1050 to 1066, and fought an inconclusive war with the Burmese, who thought the Khmers were getting too close to Thaton, a Burmese frontier city.


But the western frontier wasn’t the only place to experience conflict. By now there were also petty wars between the Khmers and their eastern neighbor, the kingdom of Champa. There also was more infighting between Khmer kings and those who wanted to be king. In all cases the rebels were led by a senior aristocrat, either somebody from the royal family, somebody from the queen’s family, or a minor king from one of the other cities. Peasant revolts, like the Wat Tyler Rebellion in fourteenth-century England, were unheard of in Southeast Asia before the modern era.


The greatest of the usurpers would go down in history as Suryavarman II, the “Protegé of Surya,” the Hindu son god. According to one inscription, Suryavarman became king when he was only fourteen years old, by persuading some troops to support his claim. Together they ambushed his uncle, the current king, whereupon Suryavarman leaped onto the elephant he was riding and killed him. Suryavarman went on to rule from 1113 to 1150, during which he conquered Champa and then went on to fight the Vietnamese; at one point there was a Khmer army in Thanh Hoa, just 80 miles south of Hanoi.


Now let’s step back at take a look at how big the Khmer Empire had become. Here, in the mid-twelfth century, it had reached its greatest size. It ruled all of Cambodia and Laos, all of Thailand except the northwest corner of the present-day country, and two thirds of present-day Vietnam. It that doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what will.


But it takes more than acquiring land to make a great empire. If all an empire does is grow, eventually that will stop, the empire will then shrink, and after it disappears, people will forget about it. For example, the Middle Elamite Empire’s greatest achievement was the taking away of Hammurabi’s law code from Babylon, and how many of you have heard from the Middle Elamite Empire lately? How many of you know anything about the Middle Elamite Empire, besides what I just told you? I rest my case.


Well, Suryavarman II had cultural achievements to match his military victories. At home he felt the need to build a new temple, for two reasons. First, we saw previous kings build temples to legitimize their rule, and Suryavarman certainly needed to prove the gods were on his side, so nobody would get ideas about seizing power by force, the way Suryavarman had. Second, Suryavarman was a follower of the Hindu god Vishnu, whereas all but one of the kings before him had followed Shiva, and the other was a Buddhist, so a new temple was key to promoting the new faith.


There were two other things Suryavarman wanted with the new temple. It had to be finished during his lifetime, because he could not count on anyone else to finish it after his reign ended. And it had to be grander than any other temple the Khmers had built so far. The capital city was now two hundred years old, and full of houses, canals and older temples, so Suryavarman would have to build the new temple outside the current city limits. What he ended up building was the largest religious structure of all time, covering 500 acres and using 455 nillion cubic yards of stone, brought from miles away because there were no quarries at Angkor itself. Because it was as big as a city, modern Cambodians call it Angkor Wat, the “temple city.” The entire structure is covered with endless reliefs showing battles, scenes from Hindu epics, and events in everyday Khmer life. The overall temple design was meant to be a representation of Heaven on Earth; it has five towers to make it look like Mt. Meru, the sacred five-peaked mountain in Hindu mythology. Each tower is shaped like a lotus bud; to my Western eyes the towers resemble pine cones, as I mentioned at the beginning of the episode. And what may be the most amazing feat of all, one modern engineer has calculated that it would take 300 years to build Angkor Wat today, but Suryavarman committed enough laborers to get the project finished around the end of his 37-year reign. By contrast, the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, many of which were being built at the same time, typically took a a century or two to finish, though each was much smaller than Angkor Wat. The central tower of Angkor Wat also became Suryavarman’s tomb; his ashes were placed here when he died.


The cost of Suryavarman’s wars and building Angkor Wat drained the treasury, and left the army overextended. After the Khmer sun king was gone, Champa successfully revolted, and in 1177 the Chams sailed up the Mekong River and plundered Angkor itself. Four years of anarchy followed, but remarkably, the best years of Cambodia’s history were yet to come. Royal authority was reestablished by Jayavarman VII, a middle-aged prince who had refused the throne when it was first offered to him years before. Jayavarman defeated the Chams, drove them back to their home, and was crowned the new king of Angkor. Champa would be a Khmer vassal, not the other way around.


A man of uncommon vigor, Jayavarman VII ruled from 1181 to 1219, meaning he lived well into his 90s. Most of that reign was spent in building projects, and he ended up building more monuments than all the other Khmer kings put together. Chief among these was a remodeled capital city, now called Angkor Thom, which means “big city” in modern Cambodian. Angkor Thom was so big and elaborate that only nearby Angkor Wat could rival it. The city’s largest temple was another mountain of stone, called the Bayon, with fifty towers, each carved with four faces to watch in all directions. A convert to the Mahayana Buddhist sect, Jayavarman erected Buddhist shrines and images all over the city. You can tell he built them because of the distinctive art style; the sculptors carved the Buddhas and the faces on the Bayon to look like Jayavarman himself. And then he converted the temples of his Hindu predecessors into Buddhist ones.


Around the country Jayavarman built roads, put rest houses on them for the comfort of travelers, and he built and maintained 102 hospitals, because Mahayana Buddhism has a strong emphasis on caring for the common man. One inscription describes Jayavarman’s feelings about health care with this quote: “He suffered from the sickness of his subjects more than from his own; for it is the public grief that causes the grief of kings, and not their grief.” End quote.

Some historians believe that Jayavarman’s building projects exhausted the kingdom. The demands the god-kings imposed on their people, even a kind king like Jayavarman VII, ended up being too much. In the words of a French archaeologist, Bernard-Philippe Groslier, the Khmers, quote, “died of too much glory.” End quote. None of the kings after Jayavarman built anything important; they lived in luxury, performed their god-king duties, but accomplished little.


By the way, I was amused to read in one of my sources that the king’s duties included sex every day, for the Khmers believed that their land would only remain fertile as long as the king was fertile. Every night when the king went to bed, whether he wanted it or not, a wife or concubine had to go with him. This makes me wonder: If the king said, “Not tonight, I have a headache,” would somebody see that as a good reason to get rid of him?


Meanwhile, Champa declared independence again as soon as it heard the news of Jayavarman’s death, and in the west the Menam River valley was lost to newcomers in the region, the Thais. Yes, I said the Thais! I mentioned in the past that the Thais were the last major ethnic group to migrate from China to Southeast Asia, and now in the thirteenth century, they finally show up! At the same time Theravada Buddhism became the most popular religion, undermining the god-king cult. In the middle of the 13th century the Khmer king himself converted to Theravada Buddhism, perhaps because of the success of the Thais, who were Theravadists already.


In 1292 Marco Polo sailed past Southeast Asia, on his way home from Kublai Khan’s court in Cathay. The only stops he made here were in Champa and Sumatra. He did not visit Cambodia, but he heard about a fabulously wealthy kingdom south of China called Lokak, and he wrote down that hearsay in his famous travel guide. In Lokak, quote: “gold is so plentiful that no one who did not see it could believe it.” End quote. Lokak may be Cambodia under another name.


Around the same time, Kublai Khan sent an embassy to the Khmers, and the current king, Jayavarman VIII, executed the ambassador. In the last episode we saw that when Java mistreated a Mongol ambassador, that became an excuse for the Mongols to invade Indonesia. This time, before Kublai could retaliate, Jayavarman changed his mind and sent tribute; he wisely decided not to start a war with the Mongols, while he was waging another war with the Thais. When we get to our first episode about the Thais, you will meet the Thai king at this time, Ramkhamhaeng, and I think you’ll agree that Jayavarman did the right thing. In 1296 a Chinese visitor, Zhou Daguan, visited Angkor and took home a glowing report of the city; although the Khmer Empire was now eighty years past its peak, to him it was still Southeast Asia’s foremost state. Angkor remained Cambodia’s glittering capital until 1431, when a Thai invasion sacked the city. Instead of repairing Angkor, the Khmers fled south, and built a new capital on the other end of the Tonle Sap — Phnom Penh. Angkor was thus abandoned to a nonhuman enemy that now closed in from all sides, the jungle. But long before the end came, the political initiative had passed from Cambodia to its neighbors.


We’re done for this episode, but things won’t be dull after this. If anything, the narrative is going to get more exciting, as more primary sources become available and more players enter the show. For the next episode, we’re going to return to Vietnam, where we were in Episode 4, and chronicle the great rivalry between the two kingdoms that sprang up there: the Vietnamese state, now called Dai Viet, and the Indianized state of Champa. Who won? Unless you want to cheat and look up the answer, you’ll have to come back after Episode 8 is uploaded, on or around October 16, 2016. Like I said in previous episodes, if you like what you heard, consider making a donation to support the podcast, using the Paypal button on the Blubrry.com page where you played or downloaded this episode. That is my online tip jar. And if you listen to this podcast on iTunes, consider writing a review. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Now There Are Eight


I have discovered the History of Southeast Asia Podcast on three new websites:  MyTuner, Player.fm, and Podfanatic.  Unlike previous announcements like this, I did not submit the podcast to them, vis RSS feed or anything else; someone besides me put them up there!  Indeed, Player.fm was the only I had heard of previously.  Well, I salute whoever did it.  Now there are eight places online where you can listen to or download the episodes:

Google Play

Episode 6, Pre-Islamic Indonesia


Episode 6 of the podcast was uploaded this morning.  This time the podcast covers Indonesia from the year 600 to 1500, the years when historical records become available, but before most Indonesians converted to Islam (that will be a topic for a future episode).  Five major kingdoms dominated the islands during this time:  Srivijaya, Mataram, Kediri, Singosari, and Majapahit.  Also, the episode takes a detailed look at Borobudur, Indonesia’s greatest monument.



(Transcript, added 10/17/2019)

Episode 6: Pre-Islamic Indonesia

Greetings, dear listeners! Before we begin, I want to give you an update about how this podcast is continuing to grow. Back in June, when I was looking for a website to host the episodes, the first one I considered was Acast, a Swedish company with a good-sized stable of podcasts. They turned me away, saying they were too busy to consider me, with so many other aspiring podcasters beating a path to their door. Mind you, that was before I recorded even my introductory episode. Now that I have six episodes and more than three hours of recording under my belt, I submitted the RSS feed to Acast, from Blubrry.com, the website that ended up becoming the host. This time they accepted the podcast, on September 20. I guess this means nothing succeeds like success! Now there are five places online where you can listen to this show: Blubrry, iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play and Acast!


I also want to give a shout-out to a podcaster on the other side of the globe, Anthony Frisina in Australia. He launched his podcast, “A History of Indonesia,” just two weeks before I launched this one, and as you might expect, we are covering similar ground, the main difference being that he is covering just the largest Southeast Asian country, and I am covering all eleven of them. When I got started, I had to change my music at the last minute, because both of us had chosen recordings of gamelans, metal percussion orchestras, and both were playing music from east Java; after all, we can’t sound THAT much alike! Run-ins are especially likely right now; as I record this, Anthony is also recording his episode on the kingdom of Srivijaya. In order to avoid stealing too much of his thunder, I will go for a summary, and attempt to cover all of Indonesia’s history between the years 600 and 1400 in one episode, even if it makes this recording my longest yet, while Anthony will delve into more detail; he has informed me that he will devote at least two episodes to the subject. Oh yes, and check out Anthony’s podcast after you listen to this, if you haven’t already. More power to you, Anthony!


And now, let’s get into the narrative . . .


(gamelan sound bit)


This is the first time we have looked at Indonesia since Episode 2, when we covered the prehistoric migrations among Southeast Asia’s islands. In case you did not listen to that episode, here is a quick recap. The peoples who now live in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei all have the same ancestors; we call them various names, like Austronesians, Malayo-Polynesians, or simply Malays. Four thousand or five thousand years ago their ancestors learned to sail on the ocean, and left their oldest known home, Taiwan. The first islands they found to the south of Taiwan were the Philippines. This archipelago proved to be an ideal place for them to explore and settle, because there was land suitable for growing rice, the islands were large enough to support prosperous communities, and they were close enough together to be used as stepping stones, when traveling from one island to the next. Below the Philippines they first came upon two of Indonesia’s largest islands, Borneo and Sulawesi, and then they found some islands that were smaller but more attractive places to settle: Bali, Lombok, and most of all, Java. At that point they ran out of places worth settling to the south, so the next generations pushed west and east instead, going west as far as Sumatra, and east as far as New Guinea. Eventually some Malays colonized Madagascar and Polynesia, but those expeditions are beyond the scope of this podcast.


I said the Malays ran out of places worth settling to the south, but there is one item I neglected to tell you in Episode 2; it now looks like the Malays did a bit more exploring in that direction anyway. We think the Malays visited the north coast of Australia at least once, either on purpose or because they were blown there accidentally. However, they did not stick around, presumably because they did not like the place, and it’s easy to see why – northern Australia is a barren, uninviting land. To outsiders, the only part of Australia that looks attractive is the southeast coast – modern-day Victoria and New South Wales; the rest is either too hot, too cold, too dry, or in the case of Queensland, too hot & wet. The reason why we think the Malays dropped in is because the dingo, the wild dog of Australia, looks like it is descended from Asian dog breeds. The current theory about the dingo’s origin is that the Malays brought their dogs as pets, and when they made landfall in Australia, a few of them ran away. The new environment proved favorable, and some became companions of the Aborigines. However, they also became destructive; we now believe that some of the Australian animals that became extinct over the past few thousand years were victims of dingoes. This included Australia’s last marsupial carnivores, the Tasmanian devil and the thylacine (also called the Tasmanian wolf or tiger); in terms of diet and hunting ability, both of these animals were less flexible than the dingo. The devil became extinct on the Australian mainland around 1600, but survived to our time on the island of Tasmania; that’s what makes it Tasmanian. The thylacine wasn’t so lucky; it fell victim to disease and humans who saw them as pests, and the last one died in captivity in 1936.


And now, back to our narrative. Because of Southeast Asia’s geography, when traders began sailing between India and China, they came to the islands of Indonesia, and they were likely to stop there, if the winds and currents were not on their side for a prolonged period. This was especially the case with Sumatra; whether the traders used the Malacca Strait or the Sunda Strait, they had to pass this huge island. Thus, just like on most of the Southeast Asian mainland, Indian culture took root on Sumatra and the islands next to it, and Indian-style city-states sprang up on the coastlines by 200 A.D.


For what it’s worth, here are the ancient Indian names for Southeast Asia. The mainland was called Suvarnabhumi, which is Sanskrit for “Golden Land.” Nowadays, the Thais take this to mean their country, and as a result, one of the airports in Bangkok is named Suvarnabhumi Airport. Likewise, the Indians saw Southeast Asia’s islands as a rich place, and called them Suvarnadvipa, meaning “Islands of Gold.”

Gosh, if I am going to share Sanskrit words with every episode, maybe I should give this podcast a new name: “Let’s Have Fun With Sanskrit!” Here is another word. Srivijaya, the first Indonesian kingdom we know of, is Sanskrit for “Shining Victory.”

But seriously, Episode 2 ended right when the city-states appeared. Now we believe the critical period, when the island city-states came together to form kingdoms, happened between the years 200 and 500, just like on the mainland. Unfortunately this period is a totally blank chapter for us. We have no records, either local, Chinese, or Indian, telling us what went on at this time. The Chinese mention contacts with one Sumatran king in the fifth century, and three more in the sixth, but they don’t give any more details, like what cities the kings were in, and the names given are Chinese names, not native ones.


Veteran listeners to this podcast will remember than in Episode 3, I described what we call the Mandala system of government. Throughout most of early Southeast Asia, every community called its leader a chief or king, but a few great kings ruled over the rest in loosely organized states. Of course we pay attention to the great kings most of the time, but they only remained “great” as long as most of the little kings under them remained cooperative vassals. In Indonesia, two power centers, and thus two Mandalas, emerged in the seventh century, one on Sumatra and one on Java. The Sumatran Mandala will become the Srivijaya kingdom. Real estate salesmen will tell you that the three most important factors for their business are location, location and location, and likewise, Srivijaya prospered because of its crucial location on the trade routes. But as we shall see, that prosperity couldn’t last, so the Sumatran Mandala faded away in the thirteenth century. By contrast, the main advantage of the kingdoms on Java was that Java had more good farmland than any other Indonesian island. Large crops made large families and large communities possible; that is why more people live on Java than anywhere else in Indonesia, or anywhere else in Southeast Asia, for that matter. Because of that, the Javan Mandala was longer lasting; it continued to go strong until the fifteenth century, when Islam arrived in the islands and changed the rules of the game.


During the centuries after Srivijaya disappeared, when first Javan rajahs, and then Moslem sultans dominated Indonesia, the peoples of the region forgot about Srivijaya completely. Because that kingdom left so few records and inscriptions, and foreign powers like China were not inclined to talk about it, a big chunk of Indonesia’s past had to be re-discovered by Europeans in the twentieth century. Credit for that is given to a French scholar named George Coedès. I hope I pronounced his last name right; it’s spelled C-O-E-D-E with a left-pointing accent-S. Anyway, he proposed in 1918 that Malay inscriptions mentioning a great empire based in south Sumatra, and Chinese records of a kingdom named Shri Bhoja, were talking about the same nation. Supposedly the capital of this state was on the same spot as the modern Indonesian city of Palembang, but artifacts from it were hard to find, because Palembang is built along a river and all of its buildings are as close to the river as possible. Alfred Russel Wallace, the nineteenth century naturalist that I mentioned in the introduction episode of this podcast, visited Palembang and described it as a populous city several miles long but only one house wide! If the inhabitants of ancient Palembang built their city the same way, and we have no reason to doubt that they did, the ruins of the Srivijayan capital are either under modern Palembang, or under a lot of mud and water. Convincing evidence that the ancient city existed was only found in 1984, when a photograph taken from an airplane revealed the remains of canals, moats, ponds, and artificial islands, on the southwest side of the city. This site is now called the Srivijayan Kingdom Archaeological Park.


Some of my sources call Srivijaya a thalassocracy, meaning a sea-based empire, because from the start its strength came from its navy. For this reason, we believe the Indonesians got the lucky break they needed to get ahead in the seventh century, with the collapse of Funan, the previous naval power in Southeast Asia. Chinese records from the seventh century mention two Indonesian states on Sumatra, and three on Java. The first Chinese person to mention Srivijaya was Yijing, a Buddhist monk who spent twenty-four years traveling between China and India, from 671 to 695. More than once on those trips, he stopped at Palembang, and praised it for having a thousand monks and an excellent library of holy texts. In fact, on his first visit he stayed for six months, making sure he knew how to read Sanskrit before going on to India.

The oldest local inscription which mentions Srivijaya by name is the Kedukan Bukit inscription, found at Palembang. Dated to the year 683, the inscription declared that in 682, an unnamed king assembled a force of 20,000 men somewhere in western Sumatra, and they went forth to conquer three city-states on the island: Palembang in the southeast, Melayu in the northeast, and Bencoolen on the west coast. We believe this king’s name was Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, because that is the name on the oldest inscription mentioning a Srivijayan king, dated 684. Likewise, in his diary Yijing reported that Melayu “is now the country of Srivijaya.” If all this is true, the Srivijayan empire was just getting started while Yijing was there. Palembang gave Srivijaya control over the Sunda Strait, between Sumatra and Java, and Jambi, the main city of the Melayu state, gave Srivijaya control over the Strait of Malacca. Thus, Jambi was Srivijaya’s number two city from here on, and whether a ship used the Sunda Strait or the Malacca Strait, when sailing between India and China, it had to go past Srivijayan ports, and the captain had to pay a toll.

Srivijaya reached its greatest size in the eighth century, when it ruled not only Sumatra but also the western third of Java, the west coast of Borneo, and all of the Malay peninsula. This means that Srivijaya gained control over Pan Pan, Langkasuka, and Tambralinga, the three Malay states we saw on the peninsula in Episode 3. Today the Malay peninsula is divided between Thailand and Malaysia, and in Chaiya, one of Thailand’s southernmost cities, there are the remains of some Buddhist temples built by Srivijaya. The Thais have restored one of the temples, Wat Phra Borom That, so you can see what Srivijayan architecture looked like in its heyday.

Srivijaya never forgot that its prosperity came from abroad. The rise of Srivijaya came just a few years after the rise of two great empires on opposite ends of Asia, China under the Tang dynasty and the Arab caliphates in the Middle East. The Chinese and the Arabs were eager to trade with each other, so as long as the Srivijayans had good relations with both, they could look forward to a rich future. They kept the Chinese friendly with diplomacy, sending merchants to the Chinese court disguised as vassals offering tribute. To supplement their income as middlemen, local industries were developed in pepper, nipa mats, tortoiseshell, beeswax, aromatic woods, and camphor. The Orang Asli, or Forest People, were hired to gather the wood and locate the diseased trees that camphor comes from, and the Malaccan pirates, called the Orang Laut or Sea People, were recruited into the Srivijayan navy, to defend the straits rather than plunder them. All of their vassals and allies, on land and sea, were taught that the Srivijayan kings were sons of the gods, and that they had the power to strike down anyone guilty of treason. This idea soon became so widely believed that servants of the king routinely committed suicide upon his death.


Even during its best years, Srivijaya had competitors abroad. We met one of them in Episode 4, the kingdom of Champa in southern Vietnam. An even more serious challenge came from the kingdom of Mataram, in central Java. Mataram’s first important king was Sanjaya, who ruled from 732 to 746. He conquered eastern Java and went forth with his fleet to raid everyone within reach, including Srivijaya, Champa, and Chinese-ruled Vietnam. By themselves the Srivijayans could not defeat this threat, but soon they found a rival dynasty in central Java to ally themselves with, the Sailendras. Religion was a factor in this; the Sailendras, like the Srivijayans, were Buddhists, while Sanjaya and his successors followed the Saivite sect of Hinduism, which teaches that the king is an avatar or living incarnation of the god Shiva. The Sailendras probably received aid from Srivijaya when they overthrew the Sanjaya dynasty in 778. Then Srivijaya and Mataram’s new ruler cemented good relations with a treaty and a royal marriage; the Sailendra king married the Srivijayan king’s daughter. And over the next few generations, there would be more marriages between the two royal families.

Whereas Srivijaya depended on trade for its wealth, Mataram was an agriculture-oriented society, thanks to the abundant farmland on Java that I mentioned a few minutes ago. And after the Sailendras took over, they did a bit of raiding, too, launching devastating raids on the Malay peninsula and Cambodia in the 790s. We will come back to the Cambodian raid in the next episode, because it played a critical role in the development of the Khmer civilization. At some point between 775 and 800, the Sailendras showed their devotion to Buddhism with their greatest achievement, the construction of Borobudur, in the center of Java. The world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobudur is a five-layered pyramid or ziggurat, 409 feet wide and 137 feet high. It contains two million cubic feet of stone, fitted together without mortar, with 73 bell-shaped shrines (“stupas”), and 1,460 bas-reliefs. I have posted a picture of the whole structure in the program notes, on the Blubrry.com page where this episode is hosted, so you may want to check it out, to get a better idea of the layout. We don’t have any record of a king taking credit for building it, but our guess is that Dharanindra, the Sailendra king who ruled between 775 and 800, started the project, and after that, we estimate that the monument took seventy years to finish, so it was a multi-generational job. By contrast, Srivijaya was so preoccupied with commerce that the only monuments we have found from it were those temples in southern Thailand.

Borobudur was not meant to be a place of worship, but a guide to enlightenment. It has no sanctuary for crowds of worshippers, nor is there an altar for prayers and offerings. For that reason, I find the term “temple” misleading, and I prefer to think of Borobudur as the world’s first educational theme park. Going around the rim on each level is a sunken pathway, lined on both sides with reliefs showing scenes from the Buddha’s life. Each time the pilgrim goes up a level, the new reliefs show the Buddha less involved with the things of this world. The pilgrim who follows all five corridors will complete a three-mile walk, and emerge on a platform open to the sky, leaving the earth behind. The five levels are square-shaped, to represent the earth, but on the top level are three more platforms, stacked one on top of another; these platforms are round to represent perfection. These three platforms are where the stupas stand; each shrine contains an image of the Buddha, and has holes in it to form a stone screen. The visitor can see the Buddha inside, but not easily, because a mortal can only half understand the Buddha. The highest and largest shrine has solid walls; this represents the realm of Nirvana, and visitors cannot look at the image in this shrine because Nirvana is beyond human understanding.

Because of the jungle environment, and because Borobudur was built covering a hill, a move that reduced the number of stones needed to build it, it is a bit less stable than pyramid-like structures in other parts of the world. The archaeologist who examined Borobudur in 1885 found that the wall going around the lowest level was not part of the original project; it covered another wall that had more relief sculptures on it, which the pilgrims should have been able to see before climbing onto the first level. It turns out the outermost wall was an embankment, added a few years after the whole thing was finished to keep it from collapsing, due to the weight of the stones on the upper levels. Apparently parts of the structure were showing disturbing amounts of stress almost immediately after their completion. There are also threats to the site from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions like the one that dumped ash on it in 2010, soil erosion, and vandalism from today’s visitors. Therefore, from 1975 to 1982, the Indonesian government and UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, took part in a major restoration project, costing almost $7 million, to repair the damage done to Borobudur by time and nature. Today Indonesia’s population is 87.2% Moslem, but the whole country rejoiced when its most impressive monument was saved.

Despite all the effort the Sailendra kings put into Borobudur, devotion to the Buddha was on the way out. In India, the last strong Buddhist king died in 647, and afterwards a Hindu revival displaced and absorbed Buddhism in most of the subcontinent. Within a couple centuries, the only places left in the Buddha’s homeland for Buddhism were Sri Lanka and the Himalayas. And when word of the Hindu revival got to Southeast Asia, Southeast Asians began converting to Hinduism, too, except in Burma, where the Burmese weren’t finished converting to Buddhism yet.


What this means for us is that the descendants of Sanjaya now got a second chance. After their defeat, they had parked themselves in north-central Java and co-existed peacefully with the Sailendras during the early ninth century. There are a few theories concerning how they managed to get along; my favorite is that the Sanjaya dynasty acted as minor kings, vassals of the Sailendras in the Mandala system I have described previously. But with the people switching religions, from Buddhism to Hinduism, the Sanjaya kings became more popular, until a revolt in 855 or 856 toppled the Sailendra king, Balaputradeva, and the Sanjaya king regained Java’s most important throne.

This wasn’t the end of the Sailendras, though. Balaputradeva fled to Sumatra, and the Srivijayan royal family took him in as a refugee, since his mother was a Srivijayan princess. Then around 860, he suddenly became the king of Srivijaya. None of my sources told me how it happened, and it appears that he took over peacefully, so my guess is that the previous king died without leaving an heir, and the crown was offered Balaputradeva, since he was now the closest living relative. Thus, from 860 onwards, the rulers of Srivijaya were Sailendras, who boasted of their Javanese ancestors.

Back on Java, the new rulers of Mataram built tall, majestic Hindu temples at Prambanan, 32 miles southeast of Borobudur. Because their old enemies and former lords were now running Srivijaya, relations between the two kingdoms cooled.

For Srivijaya, the tenth century was full of bad news. Near the beginning, Srivijaya’s principal customers, China and the Abbasid Caliphate, went to pieces, and that caused an economic slump. Then in 928, Mataram was overthrown by a rival, the prince of Kediri, a city in east Java, and the new rulers revived the sport of raiding. So hostile did relations become that Srivijayan ambassadors went to China in 992, pleading for aid against the Javanese pirates. The Chinese did not get involved, and it’s easy to understand why. First, Java was too far away; any intervention over that distance would not be an easy proposition. Second, the rulers of China at this date, the Song dynasty, were pacifists who believed in following Confucian doctrine to the letter.

More trouble came from an unexpected direction – India. A powerful nation, the Chola Empire, had risen up in south India, and in 1025 its emperor, Rajendra Chola I, launched a raid on Srivijaya. He did it with three goals in mind: (1) get lots of loot, (2) knock out a trade rival, and (3) pump up his ego. It shouldn’t have been possible to transport an Indian army overseas, but Rajendra had already conquered Sri Lanka with another expedition, and this time, he even managed to get war elephants on his ships for the 1,200-mile trip across the Bay of Bengal. They stopped in a port on the west side of Sumatra to resupply, and then sailed around the south end of Sumatra, passed through the Sunda Strait, and attacked Palembang from the south. The Srivijayan navy was ready for an attack by a foreign power, but it wasn’t here. It was patrolling the Strait of Malacca, because most of the traffic from India passed through that strait, not the Sunda Strait. Therefore the attack caught Palembang by surprise, and it was a complete success. Srivijaya was forced to pay tribute to the Cholas until 1190. Srivijaya never got over the raid, and afterwards we hear more from the city of Jambi than we do from Palembang, so it is likely the capital was moved to there.

There was some recovery in the 12th-early 13th centuries, but the kingdom did not prosper the way it did before. The Orang Laut became pirates again, since they could no longer make an honest living. The end came sometime after 1230, when Srivijaya lost control over the all-important waterways. No details are available, but when Marco Polo visited Sumatra in 1292, he found the island divided into eight states, none of them claiming to be the old trading empire.

(interlude music)


While Srivijaya was falling apart, Java was undergoing problems of its own. In 1016 Kediri was destroyed; no details are available to describe what happened, but an inscription written in 1041 called it “the destruction of the world.” The kingdom was restored by the dead king’s son-in-law Airlangga, but then four years before his death, he divided his kingdom between his two sons to keep them from quarreling over a single throne, and then he abdicated to become an ascetic. Not the wisest way to end one’s career! Nearly two centuries of strife followed.

Conditions began to improve at last when an adventurer named Ken Angrok (also known as Ken Arok) overthrew the last Kediri prince in 1222, and founded a new kingdom called Singosari. At this time a political and economic vacuum existed in Indonesia, and the new Javanese kings eagerly filled it.

The most powerful Singosari king was the fifth, Kertanagara, who ruled from 1268 to 1292. He imposed his authority over a larger area than any Javanese king before him. Besides all of Java, he could claim Madura, Bali, the lesser Sundas, the southern coasts of Borneo and Sulawesi, part of the Moluccas and Timor, the southern half of Sumatra, and the east coast of the Malay peninsula. To gain control over the sea, he made an alliance with the other naval power in Southeast Asia, Champa. But he went too far by mistreating Kublai Khan’s envoy, who came from China to demand submission to the Mongol Empire. The Mongols sent envoys in 1280 and 1281, and Kertanagara rejected the demand each time. When the third envoy came, in 1289, Kertanagara cut his face, so the envoy returned to China with the Javanese king’s answer, in the form of a facial scar.

The Mongols organized a naval expedition to punish Kertanagara. The size of their force was reported at 20,000 to 30,000 men, in a thousand ships. Before they arrived, though, Kertanagara was killed by Jayakatwang, a rebel from Kediri. One of Kertanagara’s armies was commanded by his son-in-law, Kertarajasa; some sources call him Raden Vijaya. When the son-in-law learned that Singosari had fallen to the rebel leader, he pretended to submit to the new king. Jayakatwang in turn granted Kertarajasa permission to found a new community, in the Tarik forest. When he arrived on the site, Kertarajasa found many trees bearing bitter maja fruits, so he named the city Majapahit, meaning “Bitter Maja.” Remember the name Majapahit, even if you forget all the other names I just threw at you; it will become important in a minute.

It was at this point, in 1293, when the Mongols showed up on the coast of Java. Kertarajasa allied himself with the Mongols, and together they defeated Jayakatwang, who surrendered and was executed. Then Kertarajasa turned against the Mongols and drove them back into the sea. Few enemies of the Mongols were able to defeat the grandsons of Genghis Khan; Java is one of them, along with Japan, Vietnam, and the Mamelukes in Egypt. Now that Kertarajasa was in charge, the capital moved to his city, Majapahit. This marked the beginning of the Majapahit Empire, a time that present-day Indonesians see as a short-lived golden age.

(musical interlude)

The Majapahit Empire

At first the only minor king who supported Kertarajasa was an old friend of his, the governor of Madura, the nearest island to Java. Therefore Kertarajasa spent his whole reign putting down rebellions. And remember how I mentioned that he was the son-in-law of his predecessor, Kertanagara? Well, now he married all four of Kertanagara’s other daughters as well, to make sure people would see him as the rightful king, and that the only legitimate heirs would be his kids. This worked out better than you might think, because his first wife was childless.

Kertarajasa was succeeded by his son Jayanegara, who ruled from 1309 to 1328. He also had to deal with rebellions. During the worst, in 1319, he lost the capital to the rebel leader, Kuti, and only escaped with the help of the captain of his bodyguards, Gajah Mada. Once the king was hidden in a safe place, Gajah Mada returned and spread a rumor that the king was dead. In response, he heard officers say that they preferred the old king and the people didn’t like Kuti. This told him that if the king returned, he would have followers, so Gajah Mada secretly organized a counter-rebellion, which killed Kuti and restored the king. Sometime after Jayanegara’s reinstatement, an Italian friar, Odoric of Pordenone, visited Java while traveling to China. I am mentioning this because Odoric was the second European to give us a written account of any Southeast Asian state; Marco Polo was the first.

Unfortunately, Jayanegara was a notorious sinner, who took the wives and daughters of his subordinates for himself; one of the women who ended up in his harem was Gajah Mada’s wife. Big stupid mistake! The next time the king needed an operation, Gajah Mada made sure the doctor cut too deeply. Jayanegara had no sons, so the throne passed to a half-sister, Tribhuvana Wijayatunggadewi, and she ruled as queen from 1328 to 1350.

Tribhuvana’s reign was a roaring success because Gajah Mada was her right-hand man. In 1331 Gajah Mada sent an army to crush another rebellion, this time in east Java, and after he won, he was appointed prime minister; he held that job for at least twenty-six years, and maybe until the end of his life. At the beginning of his term, he swore a famous oath, the Sumpah Palapa, in which he vowed not to eat any spicy food until he had conquered all of Nusantara. Now Nusantara is not the name of a place, it simply means “archipelago”; modern Indonesians think he meant all of Indonesia. It works for me, inasmuch as Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago. If you have ever tried Indonesian food, you know they love to pile on the spices, so Gajah Mada was forcing a strict diet upon himself. Apparently he kept the oath. By 1350 Majapahit claimed an empire that encompassed all of Indonesia, the Malay peninsula, Singapore, Timor, and the Sulu islands in the southern Philippines. Because it only held onto all this for one generation, historians debate whether Majapahit really ruled it all, or whether it only ruled a few key islands directly, like Java, Madura, and Bali, and merely dominated the seas around the rest.

At that point, Tribhuvana abdicated and her sixteen-year-old son, Hayam Wuruk, was crowned. He ruled from 1350 to 1389, and his reign saw the Majapahit Empire’s peak. However, not everything went well, and there was a particularly bad incident in 1357. The last Indonesian state that claimed to be independent from the empire was Sunda, in west Java. In response, Hayam Wuruk asked the king of Sunda for a daughter to marry. Delighted at the prospect of becoming father-in-law to Indonesia’s most powerful monarch, the king accepted. He came with the princess and a splendid retinue to a field named Bubat, just outside Majapahit, where both kings agreed to have the wedding. But just before it was to take place, Gajah Mada told the king of Sunda that the bride was not the object of a political alliance, but an object of tribute being given by a vassal to his overlord. In other words, she would not become the next queen of Majapahit, but just another wife in the harem. Realizing that he had been tricked, the king tried to back out of the marriage with the help of his guards, but Hayam Wuruk’s guards were prepared for this. The king of Sunda and his retinue were overpowered and slain. It is not clear what happened to the bride; one tradition says that she committed suicide. If she lived through the massacre to take part in the wedding, she must have died soon afterwards, for she is not mentioned in any inscriptions.

The “Bubat bloodbath,” the “Battle of Bubat,” or whatever you want to call it, was a terrible shock to Hayam Wuruk. He devoted the rest of his reign to building new temples, to show that a new age of peace had begun. The next king of Sunda appears to have acknowledged the overlordship of Majapahit for the time being; he made no trouble, anyway. Gajah Mada was demoted for his part in the affair. It looks like he lost his job as prime minister, but the King could not completely get rid of somebody so multi-talented, for Gajah Mada continued to keep himself busy with many tasks. The most famous one was the creation of a legacy for the king; he hired a poet named Prapanca to compose an epic poem, the Nagarakertagama, in praise of the “misunderstood empire-builder.”

In one way Gajah Mada reminds me of Vasili Alexeiev, the Russian weightlifting champion; at the Olympics Alexiev lifted a barbell weighing 534 pounds, and then it took four ordinary men to remove it when he was done. Likewise, when Gajah Mada died in 1364, a state council decided that no one could replace him, and divided his responsibilities among four ministers. Today, the oldest university in Indonesia is named Gajah Mada University, in memory of this Renaissance man. Meanwhile, Java enjoyed trade and good relations with every part of the Far East except Sumatra, which launched a short-lived rebellion to restore Srivijaya in 1377.

Because the Majapahit Empire was largely the work of one man, one who was not king, it began to decline soon after Gajah Mada was gone. Hayam Wuruk left no son by his queen, so the throne passed to the husband of his daughter. However, a son of a concubine disputed this sucession, and this led to a civil war that lasted from 1404 to 1406. In Sumatra, a Chinese pirate named Liang Daoming took Palembang and made it his base of operations, raiding local shipping until a Chinese fleet came and removed him in 1407. This fleet was commanded by Zheng He, the famous Chinese Admiral. If you listen to the podcast called “Our Fake History” you will recognize Zheng He; Sebastian Major just completed a two part series on Zheng He’s expeditions. Zheng He returned Palembang to Majapahit, and wrote down a detailed description of the empire for us, which tells us that by the time of his visit, the empire existed in name only. Almost no records exist to tell us about Indonesia’s history in the 15th century, but what we have suggests that there was civil strife quite often. Javanese tradition asserts that Moslems overran all of Java in 1478, but this is not entirely true; while the capital city was lost, an inscription mentions a Hindu king named Ranavijaya, ruling as late as 1486. When the Portuguese arrived in the early 1500s, they wrote that the coast of Java had a number of petty Moslem states, while a heathen named Pateudra, or Pati Udara, ruled the interior. Pateudra’s reign ended in 1518 or 1527, when he was overthrown by a nearby sultan, and with that event Indonesia’s pre-Islamic history comes to an end. However, the culture of Majapahit survived on Bali. Today Bali is an island of ancient traditions in an Islamic sea.

Well! That was quite a task, covering the history of such a large country over such a long period, but we did it. The next episode will also be a big one, but in a different way. Next time the topic will be the Khmer civilization, the builders of Angkor, the most spectacular city in ancient Southeast Asia. If you enjoyed today’s episode, you will not want to miss the next one!

That’s all for today. As I have said other times, if you like what you heard, consider making a donation to support the podcast, using the Paypal button on the Blubrry.com page where you played or downloaded this episode. And if you listen on iTunes, consider writing a review; I hope it’s a good review, but it will get the attention of other potential listeners even if it isn’t. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!