The Buddhist Kingdoms of Indonesia
I am very excited to share with you the history of Buddhist kingdoms in my beloved country, Indonesia. Although today Indonesia is famous for having the highest rate of Muslim population in the world, I would like to take you back to a time when Buddhism played a dominant role in this region. During this period, most of the Buddhist Kings and Queens ruled with wisdom in accordance with the teachings of Lord Buddha. Buddhist kingdoms in Indonesia also produced some of the most impressive archeological sites such as Candi Borobudur (the Borobudur Temple) and Candi Sewu (the Sewu Temple). I hope this article will provide a depiction of the era when Buddhism thrived in Indonesia. Enjoy!
Buddhist teachings arrived in the country known today as Indonesia in the 2nd Century CE. Buddhism is the second oldest religion after Hinduism in this region. For the most part, Hinduism and Buddhism co-existed peacefully in Indonesia. Before their arrival, the people in this region believed in animism, the belief in the supernatural power of Mother Nature. They regarded trees and stones as sacred objects and used these for worship to connect with their higher power.
The Buddhist influence was first introduced by the traders and missionaries from Eastern India who travelled to this region via the ancient maritime Silk Road or Silk Route, a route that spanned from China to the Mediteranian Sea and was central to trading and cultural interaction. Over the centuries, for 2,000 years, the traders and missionaries who travelled along the Silk Road played a strategic role in the dissemination of religious beliefs across Eurasia. The traders often built shrines and temples of their own faith during their travels in order to worship their own gods.
Since its arrival, Buddhism had gathered a vast following in the area that would become known as Indonesia due to its universal message. Buddhism stems from the belief that earthly life is impermanent and full of suffering, but the painful cycle of birth, death and rebirth can end when one reaches enlightenment through the practice of the Buddha’s teachings.
In this article, I would like to provide information about the three main Buddhist kingdoms that existed in Indonesia: Kalingga, Medang and Srivijaya.
The Kalingga Kingdom
The Kalingga Kingdom existed between the 6th and 7th centuries and was located on the north coast of Central Java, Indonesia. It was the first Hindu-Buddhist kingdom in Central Java, and one of the oldest kingdoms in Indonesian history alongside the smaller Hindu kingdoms of Kutai and Tarumanagara. The precise location of the Kalingga Kingdom is still debated to this day, but it is generally believed to be somewhere between the present day Pekalongan and Jepara.
The Kalingga Kingdom was described as being surrounded by wooden fortresses, with the King residing in a multiple storied palace covered with a roof made of the leaves of Arengga Pinata trees, or commonly known as sugar palm trees. The kingdom produced commodities such as silver and gold as well as elephant tusks.
Most of the information on this Buddhist establishment can be obtained through a combination of Chinese sources, in which the Kingdom is referred to by the name Ho-Ling, local Indonesian folk tales and written inscriptions such as the Tukmas and Sojomerto. One of the sources of information was a Buddhist monk named Huining who arrived in the Kalingga Kingdom in 664 CE and stayed there for approximately three years. His mission was to reach out and spread Buddhist teachings to the native people. It was during his stay in that region that he translated numerous Buddhist Hinayana scriptures with the help of a Kalingga monk named Jnanabhadra.
According to local folktales and the Carita Pahrayangan – manuscript written in the 16th century, the kingdom was ruled by Queen Shima in 674 CE. She was famous for legalizing a law against thievery and her passion for truth and justice. Severe physical punishments were given to those who stole. Due to her firm rule, the people of Kalingga were well-known for their honesty. A story is told of a foreign King who tried to test the people’s honesty by placing a bag filled with gold at an intersection in Kalingga. None of the residents dared touch the bag because they were afraid of the consequences that would follow. The bag was left untouched for three years until Queen Shima’s son, the Crown Prince, accidentally touched the bag with his foot. When the news reached, Queen Shima, she issued a death sentence for her son, but the punishment was later lessened to cutting off the prince’s foot after hearing the appeals from her ministers who pleaded for the Prince’s life.
According to the Carita Parahyangan, Queen Shima was the great grandmother of Sanjaya, the king of the Sunda and Galuh Kingdoms, and the founder of the Medang Kingdom.
There were at least two temples built during the time of Kalingga Kingdom: Candi Angin (the Wind Temple) and Candi Bubrah (the Bubrah Temple). Both temples were located in Tempur Village, the present day Jepara. Candi Angin’s name originated from its resilience against the wind’s pressure although it was located in high altitude.
The Kalingga kingdom is also known to have produced at least two written inscriptions called the Tukmas and the Sojomerto. The Tukmas Inscription was discovered at the western slope of Mount Merapi in the present day Magelang Regency, Central Java, and it is written in the Pallava script of the Sanskrit language. The inscription describes sacred clear spring water that is said to be as purifying as the holy Ganges River in India. The inscription also contains Hindu signs and imagery.
The Sojomerto Inscription was discovered in Sojomerto village, located in present day Batang Regency, Central Java. It is written in the old Malay language of the 7th century. This inscription tells the story of a ruler named Dapunta Selendra, the son of Santanu and Bhadrawati, and the husband of Sampula. Dapunta Selendra is believed to be the ancestor of the Sailendra Dynasty, which would later rule as one of the most prominent Buddhist kingdoms in Indonesia, known as the Medang Kingdom.
The Medang Kingdom
The Medang or Mataram Kingdom was a Javanese Hindu-Buddhist kingdom. It was located in Central Java and then later moved to East Java. The kingdom was united by King Sanjaya, a Shivaist who came into power in 717 CE. He conquered the area around his kingdom and his reign was characterized with prosperity and peace. King Sanjaya’s name was first revealed in the Canggal Inscription, which dates back to 732 CE.
The kingdom reached its pinnacle of power between the 8th and 10th centuries under the ruling of the Sailendra dynasty. The people of the Medang Kingdom relied heavily on rice farming and maritime trading. According to archeological findings and other sources, the people of the Medang Kingdom were prosperous, sophisticated and civilized. The sophisticated civilization can be proven by various temple constructions. The Sailendra Dynasty were known to be enthusiastic temple builders. The most distinguished of these temples are the Sewu, Borobudur and Prambanan Temples.
Although initially the religion of the Medang Kingdom was predominantly Hinduism, they became a Buddhist kingdom when King Sanjaya’s successor, the Mahayana Buddhist King Panangkaran ascended the throne in 760 CE. The shift was said to have caused a split of loyalty within the kingdom between the Hindu-Shivaists and the Buddhist followers.
King Panangkaran ruled the kingdom from 760 CE to 775 CE. He was an ambitious builder who was dedicated to Buddhism. During his reign, he started at least five temple construction projects. According to the Kalasan Inscription (dated 778 CE), the Kalasan Temple was built under the guidance of Guru Sang Raja Sailendravamcatilaka, the spiritual guide of the Sailendra family. The spiritual guide also persuaded King Panangkaran to construct a holy building for the Goddess Tara (Boddhisattvadevi) and build a vihara (monastery) for Buddhist monks of the Sailendra’s territory. King Panangkaran offered Kalaca Village to the Buddhist Sangha in his kingdom.
King Panangkaran also constructed Abhayagiri Vihara. The Vihara was initially built strictly for worship, but the presence of gates, ramparts, fortified walls, dry moats, walled enclosures, terraces and building bases suggested that the place may have been used as a fortress or a palace instead.
King Panangkaran was considered the pioneer in constructing the grand Manjusrigrha Temple (The House of Manjushri – the Bodhisattva of Wisdom), the original name of the Sewu Temple complex as suggested in the Manjusrigrha Inscription dated 792 CE. However, King Panangkaran did not have the opportunity to see the completion of this grand project because he passed away in 780 CE, long before the temple complex was completed in 792 CE.
After King Panangkaran’s passing, the Medang Kingdom was ruled by King Dharanindra or King Indra of the Sailendra Dynasty who was ruled from 780 CE to 800 CE. King Indra was hailed as a great conqueror who embarked on foreign military naval expeditions and had won control over Ligor in the Malay Peninsula.
King Indra shared the same enthusiasm as his predecessors in temple construction. He continued the construction of the Manjusrigha Temple (Sewu Temple complex). Today, Sewu Temple complex is the second largest Buddhist complex in Indonesia after the Borobudur Temple. It consists of 249 temples built by the end of the 8th century. The Sewu Temple complex became the most magnificent temple complex of the period and was used as the official state temple to conduct important religious ceremonies. In addition, King Indra also started the construction of the Borobudur Temple, the Mendut Temple and the Pawon Temple. His great influence made him the Maharaja of Medang (the great king of Medang).
Following King Indra’s death, the Medang Kingdom’s throne was passed to King Samaragrawira, who ruled from 800 CE to 819 CE. Unlike his predecessor who travelled to conquer the neighboring kingdoms, King Samaragrawira was deeply inspired by the peaceful Mahayana Buddhist teachings and preferred to focus his attention within the existing area of his kingdom and to continue the construction of the Borobudur Temple. King Samaragrawira was married to Dewi Tara, the daughter of Dharmasetu, an 8th-century king of the Srivijaya Kingdom. This marriage created a political alliance between the Sailendra Dynasty of the Medang Kingdom and the Srivijaya Kingdom.
King Samaragrawira was succeeded by his son, King Samaratungga, who ruled from 792 to 835 CE. Following his father’s example, he chose to focus his effort within his dominion and dedicate his life to the prosperity of his subjects. He was famous for completing the massive stone mandala, the Borobudur Temple, during his reign in 825 CE.
Today, the Borobudur temple is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Borobudur Temple complex and mountain-like structure resembles a mandala layout, which consists of six square platforms. On the top, there are three circular terraces and 72 perforated stupas. Each stupa contains a statue of a seated Buddha inside the dome at the center. The design of the Borobudur Temple is thought to have followed the life journey of Bodhisattvas. On each level, the walls and balustrades are extensively decorated with 2,672 relief panels. Over 500 Buddha statues are found in the Borobudur Temple complex. In 1814, Sir Thomas Raffles, the British ruler of Java Island, discovered the site after being abandoned in the 14th century following the decline of Buddhism in Indonesia. Today, the Borobudur Temple complex is still visited by many pilgrims and used for the annual Wesak festival to celebrate Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death.
King Samaratungga was succeeded by Princess Pramodhawardhani, a Buddhist Mahayana princess who was married to the Hindu-Shivaist Rakai Pikatan, the son of a landlord in Central Java. Rakai Pikatan was enthroned as the King of the Medang Kingdom. During the reign of King Rakai Pikatan, Hinduism and Buddhism co-existed peacefully most of the time, and the construction of the Sewu Temple complex was finalized. Later, King Rakai Pikatan decided to abdicate his throne in favor of his youngest son, Dyah Lokapala who rule from 856 to 880s CE. Rakai Pikatan renounced worldly affairs and became a hermit known as Sang Prabhu Jatiningrat. The reign of King Rakai Pikatan also marked the decline of Mahayana Buddhist influence in the Medang Kingdom as it was slowly converted to Hindu-Shivaist.
King Lokapala constructed the Sojiwan Temple which is a 9th century Mahayana Buddhist temple located in Kebon Dalem Kidul Village in present day Klaten Regency, Central Java. He dedicated the Sojiwan Temple to his Mahayana Buddhist mother, Queen Pramodhawardhani. The temple was built between 842 CE and 850 CE. In 1813, the ruins of this temple were discovered by Colonel Mackenzie, a subordinate of Sir Stamford Raffles. It was not until 1996 the Indonesian government decided to reconstruct the temple. However, in 2006 the reconstruction project faced a challenge when an earthquake destroyed most of the efforts. Despite all the challenges, the temple reconstruction was eventually finalized in 2011. It took them 15 years and approximately IDR 8.27 billion (equivalent to USD 620 thousand) to complete the reconstruction process.
The Srivijaya Kingdom
The Srivijaya Kingdom was a Buddhist kingdom that existed on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia from 650 CE to 1377 CE. It was regarded as an important center for the expansion of Buddhism from the 8th to 12th century. Its existence was relatively unknown and the information gathered in bits and pieces from a number of stone inscriptions written in the old Malay language, such as Kedukan Bukit, Talang Tuwo, Telaga Batu and Kota Kapur Inscriptions.
According to the existing inscriptions, the city of Palembang, Sumatra was probably the center of the Srivijaya Kingdom. This evidence consists of a rectangular enclosure encircled by a moat, forming a fort known as the Bamboo Fort. The inscriptions tell a story of a war chief named Dapunta Hyang, who waged war against his rivals and won. He managed to gather the support from the neighboring cities along the Musi River that led to the formation of the Srivijaya Kingdom. He was the founder and the first king of the Srivijaya Kingdom. The Srivijaya Kingdom and its kings were influential factors in the spreading of Buddhism as they established and spread the religion in the places they conquered like Java, Malaya and so forth.
The Srivijaya Kingdom enjoyed prosperity due to its strategic location for maritime trading which provided a link between China, south-east Asia and India. In addition, its close proximity to the estuary of the Musi River had made the soil in the area fertile and ideal for farming. The Chinese often referred to the Srivijaya Kingdom as Jinzhou, or the “Gold Coast” because of the great reserves of gold found in the kingdom.
The Srivijaya Kingdom was also famous for being the center for the practice of Vajrayana Buddhism (the Tantric school of Mahayana Buddhism). According to the Talang Tuwo Inscription (684 CE), the king was a religious ruler who associated himself with the power of a Bodhisattva. Unlike the Medang Kingdom, Srivijaya did not leave much Buddhist archaeological remains, but it had become the Buddhist learning center for the scholars and monks, especially in the city of Palembang.
Evidence of its existence can be traced from the 7th century. A Tang dynasty Chinese monk, I-Tsing wrote that he visited the Srivijaya Kingdom in 671 CE for six months to learn Sanskrit grammar and the Malay language before continuing his journey to study Buddhism at the renowned Buddhist university of Nalanda, in Bihar, India. Upon finishing his 11 years’ worth of learning at the university, he returned to the Srivijaya Kingdom on his way back to China. He stayed in Palembang for two years to translate various original Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. He returned to Guangzhou, China, in 689 CE in order to get some paper and ink because he could not find them in Srivijaya. He returned to Srivijaya in the same year. In 695 CE, he returned to China and brought back approximately 400 translated texts of Buddhist teachings with him. He also wrote two travel diaries entitled Accounts of Buddhism sent from the South Seas and Buddhist Monk’s Pilgrimage of the Tang Dynasty to sum up his 25-year long adventure in the Srivijaya Kingdom and India.
“… Many kings and chieftains in the islands of the Southern Ocean admire and believe in [Buddhism], and their hearts are set on accumulating good actions. In the fortified city of Bhoga [Palembang, the Srivijaya’s capital] Buddhist priests numbered more than 1,000, whose minds are bent on learning and good practices. They investigate and study all the subjects that exist just as in the Middle Kingdom [Madhya-desa, India]; the rules and ceremonies are not at all different. If a Chinese priest wishes to go to the West in order to hear (lectures) and read [the original scriptures], he had better stay here for one or two years and practise the proper rules and then proceed to Central India.”
— From I-tsing’s A Record of Buddhist Practices Sent Home from the Southern Sea.
The Srivijaya Kingdom was a learning center for Buddhism that produced notable Buddhist scholars, including Dharmakirti, a Sailendran prince who was born in the 7th century. Dharmakirti was a Buddhist scholar in the Srivijaya Kingdom before moving to India to become a teacher at Nalanda University. He was the founder of Indian philosophical logic and perhaps one of the greatest Buddhist logicians, as says at the beginning of his work, “The wicked persons defeat even the one who argued rationally in debates by employing improper methods. We start this [work on the logic of debate] to repudiate them.” Dharmakirti believed that in every debate, winning was not important. To him, it was more important to correct the misconception on the issues in the arguments. Most of his works were based on the work of Dignāga, the pioneer of Buddhist logic who was very influential among the Brahmans and Buddhist logicians. His theories were actively advocated by his loyal students, and went on to become widely accepted in Tibet and are studied to this day as part of the basic monastic curriculum.
He created logical guidelines called “The Seven Treatises on Valid Cognition”:
- Saṃbandhaparikṣhāvrtti (Analysis of Relations)
- Pramāṇaviniścaya (Ascertainment of Valid Cognition)
- Pramāṇavārttikakārika (Commentary on Dignaga’s ‘Compendium of Valid Cognition’)
- Nyāyabinduprakaraṇa (Drop of Reasoning)
- Hetubindunāmaprakaraṇa (Drop of Reasons)
- Saṃtānāntarasiddhināmaprakaraṇa (Proof of Others’ Continuums)
- Vādanyāyanāmaprakaraṇa (Reasoning for Debate)
The Srivijaya Kingdom also attracted other prominent Buddhist monks such as Atiśa, an 11th century Bengali Buddhist scholar, who played a major role in the development of Vajrayana, Dharmapala, a professor of Nalanda, and the South Indian Buddhist Vajrabodhi.
Atiśa was recognized as one of the greatest figures of classical Buddhism and had inspired Buddhist thought from Sumatra to Tibet. Atiśa was born as a Pala Empire Prince of Bengal in 980 CE. Being an avid student, he studied almost all Buddhist and non-Buddhist subjects of his time. He was ordained into the Mahāsāṃghika lineage at the age of twenty-eight by the Abbot Śīlarakṣita. It was believed that Atiśa had more than 150 teachers, but Dharmakirti of Suvarnadvipa who lived in the 10th century was considered as Atiśa’s main teacher.
Srivijaya was the most influential Buddhist Kingdom ever formed in Indonesian history.
The decline of the Srivijaya Kingdom began in 1025 after Rajenra Chola, the Chola king from Tamil Nadu in South India, launched a series of foreign raids on this Kingdom. He was attracted to the great wealth of the Srivijaya Kingdom. King Rajenra’s continuous attacks greatly weakened the Srivijaya’s domination, and it eventually resulted in the formation of smaller regional kingdoms such as Kediri, which focused their economical activities on agricultural produce instead of coastal trading. The weakened Srivijaya Kingdom was finally defeated by the Majapahit Kingdom, with its predominantly Hindu culture, in the year of 1290.
For more interesting information:
- 6 Incredibly Stunning Big Buddha Statues in Malaysia!
- Vajravarahi Caves in China
- Ganden Sumtseling Monastery the beautiful
- Chupzang Nunnery
- Twenty-Four Holy Places & Eight Great Charnel Grounds
- The Great Council of Lhasa
Please support us so that we can continue to bring you more Dharma:
If you are in the United States, please note that your offerings and contributions are tax deductible. ~ the tsemrinpoche.com blog team