“There is a great island called Yava,
abundantly supplied with rice grains and other seeds, and rich in gold mines,
That is acquired by the immortals and by other means:
Where there is a wonderful place dedicated to Sambu (Śiva)
a heaven of heavens surrounded by the Ganges and other holy resorts
and laid in a beautiful woodland inhabited by elephants,
existing for the good of the world.”

― The Candi Canggal Inscription

The following article includes selected material from Borobudur: Pyramid of the Cosmic Buddha by Caesar Voûte and Mark Long.

The earliest Indonesians in the anthropological sense probably arrived in the islands of Southeast Asia between three and four thousand years ago, with the linguistic and archaeological evidence suggesting that these natives may have crossed over from the Chinese mainland via Taiwan and the Philippines. More than five hundred years before Columbus set sail on his inaugural voyage of discovery, the natives of island Southeast Asia ― together with their Polynesian descendants ― explored and occupied an area that spanned from Madagascar in the west to the islands of the South Pacific in the east, an area that represents more than 206 of the Earth’s 360 degrees of longitude. Anthropologists believe that the natives of island Southeast Asia first began their exploration of the South Pacific about 3,500 to 4,000 years ago. To navigate from island to island, these early sailors had to memorize the vertical star path for any given destination and then sail in the direction of that path by holding the ship’s mast to fix the boat’s direction onto one or more of the stars in the constellation. It is only at locations relatively near the Earth’s equator that the constellations present star paths that are nearly perpendicular to the horizon. This may account for the fact that these native Indonesian explorers were able to navigate over vast distances long before Europeans were able to perform similar maritime feats.

South east asia mapPliny the Elder was the first western historian to mention the accomplishments of these amazing seafarers. Composed during the first century of the Common Era (CE), Pliny’s Natural History refers to merchant ships out of Asia who were engaged in trade with the East Coast of Africa. Modern anthropologists have been able to assemble a body of linguistic and genetic evidence that strongly supports the proposition that the island of Madagascar was colonized nearly two thousand years ago by natives from island Southeast Asia.

The earliest known attempt to map world geography was undertaken toward the end of the first century CE by the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy. In the “Geographia”, Ptolemy wrote about an island located to the east of the Indian subcontinent called Labadius. The island “… is said to be a most fruitful one, and to produce much gold,” wrote Ptolemy. “It has a metropolis on the north side toward the west called Argentea….” The name Labadius probably was derived from the Indian Sanskrit word Yavadvipa, the name that the natives of the Indian subcontinent first used to refer to the island of Java in religious texts that were written in the third century BCE (Before Common Era). Archaeological digs in western Java have produced Chinese ceramics that date from the period of the Han dynasty that once ruled China during the opening centuries of the Common Era. These important discoveries demonstrate that western Java had indeed once been a stop-over point along the maritime trade route that connected China with India and Persia. In addition, a Chinese text has been found that describes a mission to China from an undisclosed port that was ruled by King Devavarman. Some scholars believe that this port city may have been located on the coast of western Java. [1]

Several early Hindu texts refer to a place in Southeast Asia called the “Land of Gold” (Suvarnabhumi). However, the name does not necessarily imply that this was a place that necessarily possessed an abundance of precious metal. Cloves and nutmeg were so valuable to the mainlanders that their worth far exceeded their weight in gold. It is more likely that the name “Suvarnadvipa” had a more general significance–referring to anything that produces wealth. [2]

For thousands of years, the natives of island Southeast Asia exercised total control over the world’s only source of cloves and nutmeg, which they traded in exchange for goods from the Asian mainland. Historians have suggested that these rare spices may have made their way to Mesopotamia as early as 1700 BCE and consumed in China as well as Rome by the opening years of the first century BCE. [3]

The region’s reputation as a land of opportunity acted as a lure for attracting a large number of fortune seekers to the islands. Their arrival provided the natives of these islands with their first introduction to the religious beliefs, literature and culture of the Indian subcontinent. By the 5th century CE, the indigenous rulers of the islands of Borneo, Java and Sumatra had all adopted the Indian kingship model, which must have appealed to the local rulers because it reinforced the divine role of the sovereign in virtually every aspect of human life–from architecture and legal rights to religious practices, language and dance.

It would be short-sighted, however, to attribute the appeal of Indian culture to political considerations alone. The natives undoubtedly embraced this cultural infusion from the north because it presented highly refined extensions of certain religious ideas and principles that the indigenous natives had previously incorporated into their worship of local mountain divinities and ancestral spirits. Numerous mountaintop sites featuring stone megalithic structures have been discovered throughout the Indonesian islands. Featuring terraced stone platforms and large, roughly dressed stones, these sites once served as the focus of indigenous religious rites involving ancestor worship. Although it is not possible to date these structures with certainty, archaeologists believe that at least some of them predate the archipelago’s Hindu/Buddhist period.

“Indian influence in Indonesia was not primarily the result of Indian efforts to expand their sphere of influence and to export their own culture, but the fruit of Indonesian initiatives to assimilate those Indian elements that appealed to them and that seemed to fit best into the pattern of their own culture. The approach of the Indonesian who visited the Holy Land of Buddhism and Hinduism was an eclectic approach, one of picking and choosing instead of absorbing indiscriminately.” [4]

The predominantly religious nature of this assimilation of foreign influences is illustrated by the way that the Javanese adopted words of Indian origin for their own use. This particular cultural borrowing consisted of words from an ancient Indian language called Sanskrit, which had already become a “dead” language on the Indian subcontinent itself, only spoken during religious rites or used to record various religious scriptures. That the Javanese preferred to adopt thousands of Sanskrit terms instead of words from the commonly spoken dialects of India demonstrates the strong roles that spiritual teachers from the mainland must have once played on the island. [5]

Island Southeast Asia’s wholesale adoption of thousands of Sanskrit words has provided scholars with the means for separating cultural borrowings from India from indigenous beliefs that must have been developed prior to island Southeast Asia’s first contacts with the Indian subcontinent. For example, scholars believe that the natives of this region first learned the skills of rice cultivation, pottery making, cattle breeding, weaving and navigation–including a practical knowledge of rudimentary astronomy–prior to leaving the Asian mainland in search of their new homeland in the south. This deduction is based on the fact that in the local languages of the islands, common terms are used to describe all of these operations that were not derived from Sanskrit. The sharing of these terms among the natives of the various Indonesian islands also demonstrates that they must be among the oldest words to have been introduced, which pushes their origin backwards in time to the second millennium BCE. [6]

The Reports of Pious Pilgrims

The reports of various Buddhist monks tell us that the islands of Java and Sumatra once served as way stations for pious travelers journeying between China and the Holy Land of India. At the turn of the fifth century CE, the Buddhist pilgrim Fa-hien stopped on the island of Java while on the way back to China. According to Fa-hien, in the country of Java-dvipa “…various forms of error and Brahmanism were flourishing, while Buddhism there is not worth speaking of.” [7]

Fa-hein also provides us with a vivid account of just how perilous the sea journeys between China and India could be. “On the sea thereabouts there were many pirates, to meet with whom is speedy death. The great ocean spreads out, a boundless expanse. There is no knowing east or west; only by observing the sun, moon and stars was it possible to go forward. And if the weather were dark and rainy, the ship went as she was carried by the wind, without any definite course. In the darkness of the night, only the great waves were to be seen, breaking on one another, and emitting a brightness like that of fire, with huge turtles and other monsters of the deep all about. The merchants were full of terror, not knowing where they were going. The sea was deep and bottomless, and there was no place where they could drop anchor and stop. But when the sky became clear, they could tell east and west, and the ship again went forward in the right direction. If she had come upon any hidden rock there would have been no escape.” [8]

Avadana ship
Prior to the twelfth century CE, when the use of compass was not known, the mariners of southern Asia “…had to determine the position of their boats by Sun during day and by stars during night. If the weather was cloudy, the dangers multiplied and the sailors had to sail from one short land-mark to another; if they were in mid-sea, divine mercy was their only shelter. Pliny (A.D. 77) tells us that mariners from Taprobane (Sri Lanka) ‘…take birds out to the sea with them, which they let loose from time to time and follow their direction of flight as they make for land.'” [9]

In 414 CE, the monk Guṇavarman, formely a prince of Kashmir, visited a kingdom that the fifth century Chinese Chronicles called Cho-po. Scholars have provisionally identified this kingdom with the remains of Buddhist temples found in West Java. Visiting Cho-po just a few years after Fa-hein had departed Java for China, Guṇavarman succeeded in converting the king and queen to Buddhism. He is also credited with the first translation of a Buddhist text by Dharmagupta into the local language of the kingdom. [10]

Guṇavarman is reported to have arrived in the Javanese capital in either 422 or 423 CE. During the night preceding the monk’s arrival, the mother of the Javanese king had a dream in which she saw a monk arriving in a sailing vessel. When Guṇavarman appeared the next morning, the queen mother immediately became a convert to the Buddhist faith and not long thereafter the king was persuaded to do likewise. When Java was attacked by hostile troops, the king asked Guṇavarman whether it would be contrary to Buddhist law if he were to fight against the enemy. When Guṇavarman responded that it was certainly the king’s duty to punish the invaders, the ruler immediately entered the fray and obtained a great victory. According to the Biography of Famous Monks, when the king’s ministers attempted to dissuade their monarch from renouncing the throne to pursue a spiritual life, the king relented “on the express condition that henceforth no living creatures should be killed throughout the length and breadth of the country.” [11]

In 664 CE, the Chinese monk Hui-neng visited the Javanese port city of Ho-ling, where he translated various Buddhist scriptures into Chinese with the assistance of the Javanese Buddhist monk Jñanabhadra. This report of the existence of a local monk who was competent enough to render assistance with the translation of Buddhist scriptures suggests that, by the middle of the seventh century, the seeds of Buddhism that Gunavarman had previously planted on the island were finally beginning to flourish.

Although Ho-ling’s geographic location is never expressly mentioned in the reports of the pilgrims who had visited the kingdom, there are several reasons that suggest a location on Java’s northwestern coast, which is precisely where the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy said that the main port city of Labadius was located during the first century CE.

According to the Chinese Chronicles, at Ho-ling on the day of the summer (June) solstice, an eight-foot vertical stake would cast a shadow that was two feet long at the time of local noon that fell to the south side of the stake. This information provides us with a mathematical means for determining that Ho-ling had a latitude of 6 degrees, 8 minutes south. The only part of Java that reaches this particular latitude is located on the island’s northwest tip. [12]

In addition to the Han dynasty Chinese ceramics that have been discovered in the area, archaeologists have located a few Sanskrit inscriptions, one of which commemorates the canal-building efforts of King Purnavarman, the Hindu ruler of the kingdom of Taruma. Dated epigraphically to the middle of the fifth century CE, the Stone of Taruma features a carved set of the king’s footprints, which are compared to the divine feet of the Hindu god Viṣṇu. [13]

In 671 CE, the Chinese monk I-Tsing decided to embark on his own voyage to India. After sailing for twenty days, his ship arrived at the Buddhist kingdom of Bhoga on the island of Sumatra, where the monk “…landed and stayed six months, gradually learning the Sanskrit grammar. The king gave me some support and sent me to the country of Malayu (Srivijaya)….” [14]

I-Tsing also praises the high level of Buddhist scholarship that existed in Srivijaya, advising Chinese monks to study there prior to making the journey to India. “In the fortified city of Bhoga, Buddhist priests number more than 1,000, whose minds are bent on learning and good practice. They investigate and study all the subjects that exist just as in (India); the rules and ceremonies are not at all different. If a Chinese priest wishes to go to the West in order to hear and read (the original scriptures), he had better stay here one or two years and practice the proper rules….” [15]

I-Tsing’s visits to Sumatra gave him the opportunity to meet with others who had come from other neighboring islands. According to the Chinese monk, the Javanese kingdom of Ho-ling was due east of the city of Bhoga at a distance that could be spanned by a four- or five-day journey by sea. He also wrote that Buddhism was flourishing throughout island Southeast Asia. “Many of the kings and chieftains in the islands of the Southern Sea admire and believe (in Buddhism), and their hearts are set on accumulating good actions.” [16]

In 718 CE, the venerable Buddhist monk Vajrabodhi departed India for China on a ship of the Persian fleet. While waiting on the island of Sumatra for the next ship to disembark for the Chinese mainland, he met a 14-year-old boy from Sri Lanka who would eventually become one of the most important translators of the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. After agreeing to allow the boy to serve as his disciple, the two sailed to China, where they were responsible for translating a large number of Buddhist texts into Chinese. Following Vajrabodhi’s death, his faithful disciple Amoghavajra traveled to Sri Lanka and India by way of Java at the behest of the Chinese emperor, who wished to acquire additional Buddhist scriptures.

In the opening years of the ninth century CE, the Japanese monk Ku-kai traveled to China in order to study at the feet of the Chinese Buddhist master Hui-ko. While living at his master’s monastery in China, he met a Javanese monk called Pien-hung who was also studying there. The encounter demonstrates that the Javanese were capable of traveling great distances in order to learn at the feet of the great teachers of Buddhism during the very period in which Borobudur was under construction. [17]

The Dawn of Central Java’s Classic Age

Starting from almost nothing, Javanese civilization reached a phenomenal degree of maturity within a period of just 200 golden years. The burst of artistic effervescence that radiated outward from the island’s interior ultimately culminated in the building of some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring temples to be found anywhere in the world, which is why the entire period between the eighth and tenth centuries is generally known today as the ‘Classic Age’ of Hindu-Javanese culture.

The Chinese records of the period cite Ho-lo-tan, Cho-p’o and Ho-ling as the names for various Javanese trade missions that had sailed to China to visit the royal court of the Chinese emperor. We do not know to what extent these Chinese transliterations of the original, indigenous Javanese place names might refer to the existence, side-by-side, of multiple Hinduized kingdoms on the island. The political landscape of the entire region was highly volatile during the seventh and eighth centuries and it is possible that the different locales mentioned in the Chinese histories may have been part of the same Javanese state at certain points in time while on other occasions had been totally independent kingdoms.

There are several entries in the Chinese History of the T’ang that provide the names of individual Javanese rulers as well as other information about their respective kingdoms. Javanese trade representatives must have told Chinese court officials a few details about their native land, with the Chinese dutifully recording the information without making any attempt to separate legend from fact. For this reason historians often must search elsewhere for corroborating evidence in order to weigh the historical value of the ancient Chinese chronicles, as the following account demonstrates. “In 674-675 A.D. the [Javanese] people…took as their ruler a woman of the name Sima. Her rule was most excellent. Even things dropped on the road were not taken up. The Prince of the Arabs (Tazi), hearing of this, sent a bag with gold to be laid down within her frontiers; the people who passed that road avoided it in walking, and it remained there for three years. Once the heir apparent stepped over that gold and Queen Sima became so incensed that she wanted to kill him. Her ministers interceded and the queen said: “Your fault lies in your feet, therefore it will be sufficient to cut them off.” The ministers interceded again, and so she only had his toes cut off, in order to give an example to the whole nation. When the prince of Tazi heard of this, he became afraid and dared not attack her.” [18].

The queen’s obsession with law and order is certainly consistent with what we would expect from a Javanese ruler. It compels us to recall a line from Central Java’s earliest inscription to include a year date, which concludes by praising the reigning monarch for rendering his kingdom so safe that “…people can sleep on the roadside without being troubled by thieves or other fears.” A legend about Queen Sima continues to be told in the wayang purwa performances of Sundanese West Java, which leads us to suspect that there is a kernel of truth in the Chinese report after all. It credits the Queen with the contruction of Candi Gendong Songo, which is located in north-central Java.

A long time ago there was a Kalinga Kingdom at Keling City, Jepara in North-Central Java that had a queen by the name of Simha (Sanskrit for the “Lion”). She was very famous throughout the land because she was known to be very fair and wise. She always taught the people of the kingdom to be honest, sincere, pious and persevering, as well as to believe and always pray to the Supreme Being (Sang Hyang Widi Wasesa). One night, the queen received a dream that inspired her, together with her subjects and soldiers, to migrate eastwards for the purpose of building a house of worship. The new temple would bring them closer to Hyang Tunggal — the singular God whose sons Hyang Manikmaya and Hyang Ismaya symbolize the forces of light and darkness amongst the Javanese. For this purpose the queen called upon the assistance of the ascetics (Resi) Kihajar Selakantara and Kihajar Watangrana.
After a few days of walking they came to a place near the top of Suralaya Mountain where the air was fresh and where the hills offered a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Kihajar Watangrana began to construct the temple at that very place. When the other Resi learned of this, he felt injured because Kihajar Watangrana had not consulted with him first. He also wanted the temple to be built closer to the top of the Suralaya Mountain. Because of their difference of opinion, the two Resi fought until the Kihajar Selakantara emerged as the winner. Kihajar Watangrana and his soldiers fled to the top of the mountain, where the Resi caused additional temples to be built in that place.
When Kihajar Selakantara heard about the other temples he became very angry and tried to bring their construction to a halt. During the ensuing war between the two factions, the troops of both parties depleted their water stocks and began to suffer from thirst. The disagreement ended with the arrival of the beautiful Endang Puspasari, who became the servant of Kihajar Selakantara. Distraught over failing to gain the girl’s affections, Kihajar Watangrana decided to leave. Kihajar Selakantara continued his climb to the top of Suralaya, so that he could complete his task according to Queen Sima’s wishes. On his way to the top he smelled a fragrance like flowers, which inspired him to pray to Sang Hyang Widi Wasesa at that very place. He then realized that this was the very place for building the temple for Queen Simha. For this reason it is called Ndarum (Gondo arom), the fragrant smell like flowers, even today.
The very next day, they began to construct the temple with the assistance of the gods. During the process of erecting the temple, they learned that if human beings wished to obtain the peaceful life, they would need to gain control over the nine passions, which gain influence over human character by entering nine orifices or “gates” within the human body. This is the meaning behind the construction of the Nine Temples. It is the bridge for praying or performing sujud (bowing from a kneeling position so that forehead touches the floor) before Sang Hyang Tunggal. Kihajar Selakantara also sent a message to Kihajar Watangrana that ordered him to stay around the last temple (i.e., the ninth temple) together with his soldiers. After Kihajar Selakantara appeared before Queen Simha, Kihajar Watangrana went to meditate in the ninth temple and stayed there until his body had finished.

Java’s earliest dated inscription commemorates King Sañjaya’s installation of a stone lingam near the top of the Gunung Wukir (‘Carving Mountain’) on 6 October 732. The inscription was discovered in the vicinity of a small Hindu temple that the Javanese call Candi Canggal. Near the end of the inscription the composer states Central Java had formerly been ruled by King Sanna, who in the fullness of time had subsequently passed on to enjoy the bliss of heaven. He was succeeded by his son King Sañjaya “…whose upraised feet form the shelter for those kings who rule the Earth’s stable dynasties. While he rules the Earth, which has the ocean waves for a girdle and mountains as her breasts, people can sleep on the roadside without being troubled by thieves or other fears.” [19]

Several ninth century inscriptions refer back to Sañjaya in ways which suggest that his realm not only had incorporated the Kedu area in which Candi Canggal still stands, but also may have extended as far as the Prambanan plain to the East. Sañjaya’s descendants may have expanded their illustrious ancestor’s realm all the way up to modern-day Semarang on Java’s North Coast, where one of Sañjaya’s close relations is known to have established a Buddhist religious foundation. Sañjaya’s role in the forging of a united Javanese state is further confirmed by certain tenth century inscriptions that honor him as the founding monarch of the kingdom that the authors shall designate henceforward as ‘Old Mataram’ to distinguish the ancient Hinduized State of Central Java from the much later Islamic State of Mataram.

Something unusual must have happened between the reign of Sañjaya and the next known Javanese ruler. The History of the T’ang reports that between 742 and 755 the royal palace (kraton) of the Cho-p’o kingdom had been transferred to the East. Unfortunately, however, the Chinese report does not cite the cause of the displacement. Perhaps the potential vulnerability of the island’s coastline to attacks by sea had inspired the relocation. In any event, an eight-day journey was required to reach the new kraton with respect to its previous location, which must have placed it at a distance of somewhere between 100 and 150 miles eastward from the old kraton’s location.

Even during the early ninth century it appears that there were at least two Javanese kingdoms in close proximity to one another. The information comes from yet another Chinese report that refers to the visit of a Burmese delegation to the court of the Maharaja of Java. As they traveled overland to visit the royal kraton, the Burmese delegates passed beyond two large mountains. Perhaps they had taken a well-known trade route running from North to South that parallels the course of the Progo River. This would have caused them to pass by the prominent mountain peaks of Sumbing and Sindoro to the Northwest of Borobudur or Merbabu and Merapi on Borobudur’s Northeast side. The Burmese were able to observe that the royal members of the Javanese court followed the same customs that the foreign delegation had encountered previously at the court of the Buddhist king of Srivijaya. The Burmese delegates also heard about yet another Javanese kingdom that could be reached by means of an overland journey of just a few days. Yet another royal center had been active in East Java in and around this period.

Go to: History of Central Java, Part Two


[1] Ptolemy, Claudius. The Geographica. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1966):157. See also Sarkar, Himansu Bhusan. Trade and commercial activities of Southern India in the Malayo-Indonesian world. Calcutta: Firma KLM (1986):282-283.

[2] Sarkar, Himansu Bhusan. Some contributions of Indian to the ancient civilization of Indonesia and Malaysia. Calcutta: Punthi Pustak (1970):6-7.

[3] Miksic, John et. al. Indonesian heritage: Ancient history. Singapore: Archipelago Press (1996):26.

[4] Fontein, Jan, Soekmono R. & Sedyawati, Edi. The sculpture of Indonesia. Washington, D.C.-New York: National Gallery of Art-H.N. Abrams (1990):34.

[5]  Dr. F. D. K. Bosch as cited in Sarkar (1970): 29-30.

[6]  Sarkar, Himansu Bhusan. Glimpses of early Indo-Indonesian culture: Collected papers of Himansu Bhusan Sarkar. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts-Aryan Books International (2001): 57-58.

[7] I-Tsing. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms: being an account by the Chinese monk Fâ-hien of his travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414) in search of the Buddhist books of discipline. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1886):111-113 [James Legge, tr.].

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sarkar, Himansu Bhusan. Trade and commercial activities of Southern India in the Malayo-Indonesian world. Calcutta: Firma KLM (1986):344.

[10] At the invitation of Chinese Emperor, Gunavarman left Cho-po for China in 424 CE. Gunavarman finally arrived in Nanking, China in 431 CE, shortly after which he died. See Sarkar, Himansu Bhusan. Some contributions of Indian to the ancient civilization of Indonesia and Malaysia. Calcutta: Punthi Pustak (1970):60.

[11] Majumdar, R. C. Suvarnadvipa. Calcutta: Modern Pub. Syndicate (1937-38):104 [vol. I].

[12] See the citation given in A Record of Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago by I-Tsing translated by J. Takakusu, page xlvii, in which Legg quotes from The New History of the T’ang (618-906) book 222, part ii).

[13] See Sarkar, Himansu Bhusan. Some Contributions of Indian to the Ancient Civilization of Indonesia and Malaysia by H. B. Sarkar. Calcutta: Punthi Pustak, Calcutta (1970):58-59.

[14] I-Tsing. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms: being an account by the Chinese monk Fâ-hien of his travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414) in search of the Buddhist books of discipline. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1886):xxix-xxx [James Legge, tr.].

[15] Ibid. p. xxxiv.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kandahjaya, Hudaya. The Master Key For Reading Borobudur Symbolism. Bandung: Yayasan Penerbit Karaniya (1995):12.

[18] Majumdar, R. C. Suvarnadvipa. Calcutta: Modern Pub. Syndicate (1937-38):113 [vol. I].
[19] De Casparis, J.G. Prasasti Indonesia. Bandung: Nix (1956):19 [vol. II].