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Pre-Islamic Indonesia

Accurate information about pre-Islamic Indonesia is very difficult to obtain. This is because of the lack of indigenous records, the comparatively low level of archaeological excavation in the more than 13,500 islands that make up the archipelago and the general disinterest in a period of history that is not Islamic. Nevertheless, the influence of the past is still strong in modern Indonesia. Javanese, for example, regularly refer to a mixture of magical charms and spells, sacrifices and appeals to gods that relate to the pre-Islamic past. One of the distinctive features of indigenous Southeast Asian cultures is a cosmography that includes conflicts between the people of the mountains and peoples of the sea or the lowlands and conflicts between creatures of the air and creatures of water and echoes of these are present in modern Javanese custom.

From hints and clues, therefore, together with the reports of outsiders (Europeans as well as Chinese) and the slowly increasing number of archaeological excavations, it is possible to piece together an idea of early Indonesia.

The Earliest Islanders
Occupation of the Indonesian archipelago is very ancient. Pithecanthropus erectus and Homo modjokertensis remains have been found and date to the Pleistocene age. These are considered to be similar to Sinanthropus (Peking man) and to have shared cultural characteristics with the Soan culture of north-west India and the Burmese Anyathian culture. Subsequent inhabitants included a dark-skinned short-statured race of Australoid-Veddoid type and Melanesoid peoples. These people used hollowed-out tree-trunk canoes for transport and the men hunted, gathered and fished for food, while women used a mattock for cultivation, in some cases. Ritual cannibalism was employed. Important technological developments that may or may not have accompanied subsequent waves of migration included the rectangular axe and the round-shouldered axe and the plank built canoe (Hall, 1994, pp.1-11).

Brian Fagan has linked migration with climate change and this is as persuasive an argument to explain why people moved to Indonesia when they did as any other. His argument is that, to maximise food security (which has always been critical to the survival of the species), people prefer to live in ecotone regions – that is, in the comparatively narrow regions in which different environmental types meet, since these provide distinctive food sources – hunted meat from one and gathered fruits from the other, for example. When climatic conditions change, as they have done many times in the course of history, the location of the ecotones moves and people move with them. The same argument explains the movements of the Germans into the Roman sphere of influence (Fagan, 2004).
In the nearby Philippines, five types of society had developed by the end of the BCE period:

“(1) sea-faring fishing and gathering communities, some living on boats, habitation subject to tidal changes;
(2) coastal communities living on dry land primarily fishing and secondarily agriculturists;
(3) riverine communities primarily agriculturists on the alluvial plain, but practising also slash and burn agriculture;
(4) inland forest primarily hunters and gatherers with horticulture; and
(5) upland mountain groups practising a combination of agriculture, hunting-gathering, horticulture and slash-and-burn” (Lim, 1987, p.49).
It is likely that Indonesian culture was similar in nature, with many types of economic interaction between neighbouring groups.

Elements of Indian culture are found throughout Southeast Asia. The extent and nature of this process has been a contested issue over the years since Southeast Asians argue the importance and distinctiveness of indigenous culture inventions and customs while outsiders, include colonisers and imperialists, wish to maintain that Indianisation was a much more extensive and pervasive process because this makes rule by outsiders more of a normal and accepted state of affairs.

However it happened, it is clear that there are distinctive pre-Indianisation cultural elements that are still important in Indonesia. These include the wayang or puppet-shadow theatre, the gamelan orchestra and batik textile work. Chinese referred to Indonesians as K’un-lun and Indians used the term Dvipantara – the ‘people of the islands.’ Yet these terms hide the great ethnic diversity of the islands, which included those peoples who had retained some measure of ethnic purity (the Alfurs of Celebes and the Moluccas, the Dyaks of Borneo and the Bataks of Sumatra) and those coastal Malays who had blended into different ethnicities such as Sundanese, Javanese, Balinese and others.

Indianisation involved the adoption of Hinduism, Brahmanical traditions, the role of the god-king and various other political ideas. However, traditions such as the caste system were never imported anywhere in the region. Selective adoption of customs implies, therefore, a measure of choice over the process rather than one of colonisation or domination.
It is said that Prince Aji Saka introduced writing to Java based on South Indian script around 100 CE, although the earliest extant inscriptions are not found until the Mulavarman kingdom which flourished on Kalimantan around c.400 CE. The first recognisable unitary state on Java probably did not arise until the Taruma state of C5th CE. These states deployed elephants as well as infantry, presumably armed in the same way that islander Chams or peninsular Malays were, with a mixture of bows, spears and machetes. Drums were also an important tool and some figures may be depicted with these. An excavation on southern Sumatra, which has been dated to the early first millennium CE, has revealed:

“… slab-lined burial chambers [which] contained a few glass beads and fragments of bronze and iron, and the most interesting of the carved boulders show men wearing a variety of ornaments and items of clothing, such as bracelets, anklets, necklaces, earplugs, helmets with peaks at the rear, loincloths, and tunics” (Bellwood, 1999, p.132).
It is from Sumatra that Srivijaya later emerged, at least partly because of the discovery of a new and direct trade route to China in the C5th CE. This inspired Indonesian commerce and Chinese records report the capital city of Kan-t’o-li is reported to have sent tribute to the Chinese emperor from 441 CE. Indonesian ships of the lashed-lug type are known to have made this voyage and have been described with this form of construction:

“The planks on lashed-lug craft are edge-joined by wooden dowels; they are carved, rather than bent, to shape; and they incorporate protruding cleats or lugs. Holes are carved out of the lugs so that they may be lashed to more-or-less flexible ribs and/or thwart beams, thereby holding the planks together, holes being drilled near the edges of the planks for stitches of vegetable fibre. They are usually drilled in pairs and occur within the seam, not being visible from outside the hull” (Flecker, 2001).
This route took sailors along the coast of Vietnam to southern China.

References and Further Reading
Bellwood, Peter, “Southeast Asia before History,” in Nicholas Tarling ed., The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Volume One, Part One (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp.55-136.
Fagan, Brian, The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization (London: Granta Books, 2004).
Flecker, Michael, “A Ninth-Century AD Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesia: First Evidence for Direct Trade with China,” World Archaeology, Vol.32, No.3 (February, 2001), pp.335-54.
Hall, D.G.E., A History of South-East Asia, fourth edition (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1994).
Lim, Roxas Aurora, The Evidence of Ceramics as an Aid in Understanding the Pattern of Trade in the Philippines and Southeast Asia (Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 1987).
Tesoro, José Manuel, The Invisible Palace (Jakarta and Singapore: Equinox Publishing, 2004).

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