PHA LIEM BANG
Capital of Srivijaya
By Peter J.M. Nas
" When the king goes out, he sits in a boat; his body has a mau-pu (sarong) wrapped around it. He is sheltered by a silk umbrella and guarded by men bearing golden lances.The people either lived scattered about outside the city, or on the water on rafts of boards covered over with reeds, and these are exempt from taxation. They are skilled at fighting on land or water. When they are about to make war on another state they assemble and send forth such a force as the occasion demands. They (then) appoint chiefs and leaders, and all provide their own military equipment and the necessary provisions. In facing the enemy and craving death they have not their equal among nations" (Nilakanta Sastri 1949: 88-89).
This is the way Chau Ju Kua describes the position of the ruler in Sriwijaya, the most important ancient kingdom in Sumatra, of which the capital was located near present-day Palembang, although Jambi was perhaps also capital of this kingdom for a period (Wolters 1967: 22, 1970: 96; Bronson and Wisseman 1976).
In a mixture of fantasy and fact he gives more details about the power which Sriwijaya exercised over foreign shipping.
"This country, lying in the ocean and controlling the straits through which the foreigners' sea and land traffic in either direction must pass, in olden times used an iron chain as a barrier to keep the pirates of other countries in check. It could be kept up or lowered by a cunning device. If a merchant ship arrived it was lowered. After a number of years of peace, during which there has been no use for it, it has been removed and (now) lies coiled upon the shore. The natives reverence it like a Buddha, and vessels coming there sacrifice to it. When rubbed with oil it shines like new. Crocodiles do not dare pass over it to do mischief. If a merchant ship passes by without entering, their boats go forth to make a combined attack, and all are ready to die (in the attempt). This is the reason why this country is a great shipping centre." (Nilakanta Sastri 1949: 90).
The influence of Sriwijaya was extremely far-reaching and it had its peak in the thirteenth century. At a certain time it was what is termed a binodal state consisting of the city of Sriwijaya in the south on the Straits of Malacca and Kedah in the north (Wheatley 1961: 300). As it owed its origins to a trading empire, the capital had an important function as entrepôt. The aim of Sriwijaya was to establish a monopoly and it established a hegemony over Jambi, Lampung, the littoral of the Malay Peninsula, and the isthmus of Kra.
Its importance can also be deduced from the fact that it sent ambassadors to China and maintained cloisters in South India (Wheatley 1961: 139). The ruler owned ships. Ruler and the aristocracy were engaged in trade and taxed the transit trade; as well as holding the staple rights. This meant that passing traders and ships were forced to sell their goods there. The trade commodities included tin, gold, ivory, spices, fine sorts of timber, and camphor (Schnitger 1939: 2). War and piracy contributed to the means of livelihood (Burger 1975: 3, 8). However, these activities also had a shadow side. In 1025, namely, the mighty Cola state of South India attacked Sriwijaya (Vlekke 1965: 41). The capital of Sriwijaya was not just a capital and commercial city, it also functioned as a cultural centre. In AD 671 there were already more than a thousand Buddhist monks there (Nilakanta Sastri 1949: 30).
Unfortunately very little is known about the morphological structure of Sriwijaya. The reason for this is that most of the buildings were made of perishable materials, little of which has survived. The city, most probably the palace area, was surrounded by a brick wall.
The ordinary population lived either outside the confines of the wall, or on rafts moored to the banks of the river (Nilakanta Sastri 1949: 38). The hinterland of the city was sparsely populated and was scarcely cultivated (McGee 1967: 32).
Sriwijaya probably evolved in the seventh century. At the end of the thirteenth century war broke out with East Java and Sriwijaya was forced to surrender some of its power. In the fourteenth century it even became a Javanese vassal. In the wake of an insurrection, it was punished by a Javanese fleet but, for the most part, the Javanese left the kingdom to its fate. Burger thinks that the Chinese then assumed power (Burger 1975: 11). A Chinese leader, who had roamed the seas for years, seized power and around 1400 the petty state was little more than a pirates' lair, with a capital called Kien-Kiang (Krom 1931: 412).
The decline of Sriwijaya can be largely attributed to its pursuance of exclusive trade policy. This engendered rivalry and conflict. The advent of Islam caused the final eclipse of this Hindu kingdom. Many left the capital and very few traders still came there (Nilakanta Sastri 1949: 101).
After this, Palembang fell under the sphere of influence of Bantam and for a very long while little is known about it.