Early Indonesia

[Excerpted from Indonesia: A Country Study. William H. Frederick and Robert L. Worden , eds. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1992]

Historical Setting

BEFORE EUROPEAN INTRUSIONS into the islands by Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch seeking to monopolize the lucrative trade in spices and other marketable products, the more than 13,000 islands constituting the Republic of Indonesia were home to a diverse array of cultures and civilizations that had been influenced by HinduBuddhist ideas from India and by Islam, as well as indigenous beliefs. Although the Portuguese and Spanish presence in the archipelago had limited impact, the Dutch United East India Company established a trading post on the north coast of Java--what later became known as Jakarta--seized control of the spice trade, and gradually asserted military and political control over the archipelago. This process of colonization was well advanced on Java by the mid-eighteenth century and largely completed in the rest of the archipelago by the first decade of the twentieth century.


Beginning in the 1890s, paleontologists discovered fossil remains of creatures on the island of Java that, while probably not the direct ancestors of modern humans, were closely related to them. These Javan hominids, known by scientists as Homo erectus, lived 500,000 years ago and some possibly as long as 1.7 million years ago. Their remains are identified as Jetis--the earlier specimens found in eastern Java--and Trinil--later specimens found in Central Java, including the Solo River area. Evidence of probable descendants of the Trinil erectus, known as Homo soloensis or Solo Man, was found at Ngandong, also in Central Java; these descendants are thought to have evolved between 500,000 and 100,000 years ago. Assemblages of stone tools have not clearly been tied to Homo soloensis, but there is evidence that these early Homo sapiens had a rudimentary social organization (small hunting and gathering bands) and used simple tools around 40,000 years ago.

Many observers agree that the modern inhabitants of Indonesia may be descended from Homo erectus. Although insufficient paleographical information makes it impossible to determine precisely the dates of migrations by modern Homo sapiens, contrary to earlier hypotheses of migration from the Malay Peninsula, many experts believe that Indonesia's early population-- comprised of the ancestors of most of its present inhabitants--was the product of continued hominid evolution within the archipelago. There was, of course, continuing seepage of other populations into the gene pool, contributing to the complex ethnographic picture of Indonesia. That the archipelago may have developed its own Homo sapiens line has not been ruled out by some scholars.

Although Indonesia is extremely diverse ethnically (more than 300 distinct ethnic groups are recognized), most Indonesians are linguistically--and culturally--part of a larger Indo-Malaysian world encompassing present-day Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and other parts of insular and mainland Asia. Early inhabitants had an agricultural economy based on cereals, and introduced pottery and stone tools during the period 2500 to 500 B.C. During the period between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500, as the peoples of the archipelago increasingly interacted with South and East Asia, metals and probably domesticated farm animals were introduced.

The Spread of Indian Civilization

During the early centuries A.D., elements of Indian civilization, especially Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, were brought to Sumatra and Java and stimulated the emergence of centralized states and highly organized societies. Scholars disagree on how this cultural transfer took place and who was involved. Apparently, traders and shippers, not just Indian but Indonesian as well, were primarily responsible. Small indigenous states existed in the coastal regions of western Indonesia at a time when Indian Ocean trade was flourishing.

But, unlike the Islamic culture that was to come to Indonesia nearly 1,000 years later, India in the first centuries A.D. was divided into a rigid caste hierarchy that would have denied many features of Indian tradition to relatively low-caste merchants and sailors. Historians have argued that the principal agents in Indianization were priests who were retained by indigenous rulers for the purpose of enhancing their power and prestige. Their role was largely, although not exclusively, ideological. In Hindu and Buddhist thought, the ruler occupied an exalted position as either the incarnation of a god or a bodhisattva (future Buddha). This position was in marked contrast to the indigenous view of the local chief as merely a "first among equals." Elaborate, Indian-style ceremonies confirmed the ruler's exalted status. Writing in Sanskrit brought literacy to the courts and with it an extensive literature on scientific, artistic, political, and religious subjects.

Some writers are skeptical about the role of priests because high-caste Brahmins would have been prohibited by Brahmanic codes from crossing the polluting waters of the ocean to the archipelago. Some must have gone, however, probably at the invitation of Southeast Asian courts, leading to the hypothesis that Hinduism may indeed have been a proselytizing religion. In the early nineteenth century, the British faced mutinies by their high-caste Indian troops who refused to board ships to fight a war in Burma. Perhaps such restrictions were less rigid in earlier times, or the major role in cultural diffusion was played by Buddhists, who would not have had such inhibitions.

Although the culture of India, largely embodied in insular Southeast Asia with the Sanskrit language and the Hindu and Buddhist religions, was eagerly grasped by the elite of the existing society, typically Indian concepts, such as caste and the inferior status of women, appear to have made little or no headway against existing Indonesian traditions. Nowhere was Indian civilization accepted without change; rather, the more elaborate Indian religious forms and linguistic terminology were used to refine and clothe indigenous concepts. In Java even these external forms of Indian origin were transformed into distinctively Indonesian shapes. The tradition of plays using Javanese shadow puppets, the origins of which may date to the neolithic age, was brought to a new level of sophistication in portraying complex Hindu dramas (lakon) during the period of Indianization. Even later Islam which forsakes pictorial representations of human brings, brought new developments to the wayang tradition through numerous refinements in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

Indianized Empires

Although historical records and archaeological evidence are scarce, it appears that by the seventh century A.D., the Indianized kingdom of Srivijaya, centered in the Palembang area of eastern Sumatra, established suzerainty over large areas of Sumatra, western Java, and much of the Malay Peninsula. Dominating the Malacca and Sunda straits, Srivijaya controlled the trade of the region and remained a formidable sea power until the thirteenth century. Serving as an entrepôt for Chinese, Indonesian, and Indian markets, the port of Palembang, accessible from the coast by way of a river, accumulated great wealth. A stronghold of Mahayana Buddhism, Srivijaya attracted pilgrims and scholars from other parts of Asia. These included the Chinese monk Yijing, who made several lengthy visits to Sumatra on his way to India in 671 and 695, and the eleventh-century Buddhist scholar Atisha, who played a major role in the development of Tibetan Buddhism.

During the early eighth century, the state of Mataram controlled Central Java, but apparently was soon subsumed under the Buddhist Sailendra kingdom. The Sailendra built the Borobudur temple complex, located northwest of Yogyakarta. The Borobudur is a huge stupa surmounting nine stone terraces into which a large number of Buddha images and stone bas-reliefs have been set. Considered one of the great monuments of world religious art, it was designed to be a place of pilgrimage and meditation. The basreliefs illustrate Buddhist ideas of karma and enlightenment but also give a vivid idea of what everyday life was like in eighthcentury Indonesia. Energetic builders, the Sailendra also erected candi, memorial structures in a temple form of original design, on the Kedu Plain near Yogyakarta.

The late ninth century witnessed the emergence of a second state that is noted for building a Hindu temple complex, the Prambanan, which is located east of Yogyakarta and was dedicated to Durga, the Hindu Divine Mother, consort of Shiva, the god of destruction. From the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, powerful Hindu-Javanese states rivalling Srivijaya emerged in the eastern part of the island. The kingdom of Kediri, established in eastern Java in 1049, collected spices from tributaries located in southern Kalimantan and the Maluku Islands, famed in the West as the Spice Islands or Moluccas. Indian and Southeast Asian merchants among others then transported the spices to Mediterranean markets by way of the Indian Ocean.

The golden age of Javanese Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms was in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although the eastern Javanese monarch Kertanagara (reigned 1268-92) was killed in the wake of an invasion ordered by the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan, his son-in-law, Prince Vijaya, established a new dynasty with its capital at Majapahit and succeeded in getting the hard-pressed Mongols to withdraw. The new state, whose expansion is described in the lengthy fourteenth-century Javanese poem Nagarakrtagama by Prapanca, cultivated both Shivaite Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. It established an empire that spread throughout much of the territory of modern Indonesia.

The empire building was accomplished not by the king but by his prime minister, Gajah Mada, who was virtual ruler from 1330 to his death in 1364. Possibly for as long as a generation, many of the Indonesian islands and part of the Malay Peninsula were drawn into a subordinate relationship with Majapahit in the sense that it commanded tribute from local chiefs rather than governing them directly. Some Indonesian historians have considered Gajah Mada as the country's first real nation-builder. It is significant that Gadjah Mada University (using the Dutch-era spelling of Gajah Mada's name), established by the revolutionary Republic of Indonesia at Yogyakarta in 1946, was--and remains--named after him.

By the late fourteenth century, Majapahit's power ebbed. A succession crisis broke out in the mid-fifteenth century, and Majapahit's disintegration was hastened by the economic competition of the Malay trading network that focused on the state of Melaka (Malacca), whose rulers had adopted Islam. Although the Majapahit royal family stabilized itself in 1486, warfare broke out with the Muslim state of Demak and the dynasty, then ruling only a portion of eastern Java, ended in the 1520s or 1530s.


The Indian Ocean continued to serve as both a commercial and a cultural link between Indonesia and the countries to the west. Thus Islam, which was established on the Arabian Peninsula by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century A.D., followed the Hindu and Buddhist religions into the archipelago. By the late twentieth century, approximately 85 percent of Indonesia's inhabitants considered themselves to be Muslim. Among some Indonesians, Islam is only an element in a syncretic belief system that also includes animist and Hindu-Buddhist concepts. Others are intensely committed to the faith. Like the introduction of Indian civilization, the process of Islamization is obscure because of the lack of adequate historical records and archeological evidence. The archipelago was not invaded by outsiders and forcibly converted. Yet states that had converted to Islam often waged war against those that adhered to the older, Hindu-Buddhist traditions. Religious lines, however, do not appear to have been clearly drawn in Javanese statecraft and war.

Over the centuries, merchants from Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean ports and mystics and literary figures propagated the faith. Because commerce was more prevalent along the coasts of Sumatra, Java, and the eastern archipelago than in inland areas of Java, it is not surprising that Islamization proceeded more rapidly in the former than the latter. According to historian M.C. Ricklefs, legends describe the conversion of rulers to Islam in coastal Malay regions as a "great turning point" marked by miracles (including the magical circumcision of converts), the confession of faith, and adoption of Arabic names. Javanese chroniclers tended to view it as a much less central event in the history of dynasties and states. But the Javanese chronicles mention the role of nine (or ten) saints (wali in Arabic), who converted rulers through the use of supernatural powers.

Doubtless small numbers of Muslims traveled through and resided in the archipelago at a very early date. Historical records of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) tell of Arab traders who must have stopped at Indonesian ports along the way to Guangzhou and other southern Chinese ports. Yet the conversion of rulers and significant numbers of indigenous peoples to Islam apparently did not begin until around the late thirteenth century.

Many areas of the archipelago resisted the religion's spread. Some, such as Ambon, were converted to Christianity by Europeans. Others preserved their distinctiveness despite powerful Islamic neighbors. These included small enclaves on Java and the adjacent island of Bali, where animist and Hindu beliefs created a distinct, inward-looking culture.

The first reliable evidence of Islam as an active force in the archipelago comes from the Venetian traveler Marco Polo. Landing in northern Sumatra on his way back to Europe from China in 1292, he discovered an Islamic town, Perlak, surrounded by non-Islamic neighbors. An inscription from a tombstone dated 1297 reveals that the first ruler of Samudra, another Sumatran state, was a Muslim; the Arab traveler Muhammad ibn-'Abdullah ibn-Battuta visited the same town in 1345-46 and wrote that its monarch was a Sunni rather than a Shia Muslim. By the late fourteenth century, inscriptions on Sumatra were written with Arabic letters rather than older, indigenous or Indian-based scripts.

There also were important Chinese contacts with Java and Sumatra during this period. Between 1405 and 1433, a Chinese Muslim military leader, the Grand Eunuch Zheng He, was commissioned by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1643) emperor to make seven naval expeditions, each comprising hundreds of ships and crews numbering more than 20,000. The various expeditions went from China to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. Rather than voyages of exploration, these expeditions followed established trade routes and were diplomatic in nature and helped expand contacts among and provide information about the regions visited. Zheng used Java and Sumatra as waystops and, on his first voyage, destroyed a Chinese pirate fleet based near Palembang on the north coast of Sumatra. He also is said to have developed close contacts with Melaka on the Malay Peninsula.

The major impetus to Islamization was provided by Melaka, a rich port city that dominated the Strait of Malacca and controlled much of the archipelago's trade during the fifteenth century. According to legend, Melaka was founded in 1400 by a princely descendant of the rulers of Srivijaya who fled Palembang after an attack by Majapahit. Originally a Hindu-Buddhist, this prince converted to Islam and assumed the name Iskandar Syah. Under his rule and that of his successors, Melaka's trading fleets brought Islam to coastal areas of the archipelago. According to the sixteenth century Portuguese chronicler Tomé Pires, whose Suma Oriental is perhaps the best account of early sixteenth century Indonesia, most of the Sumatran states were Muslim. The kingdom known as Aceh, founded in the early sixteenth century at the western tip of Sumatra, was a territory of strong Islamic allegiance. In Pires's time, the ruler of the Minangkabau people of central Sumatra and his court were Muslim, but their subjects were not.

In eastern Indonesia, Islamization proceeded through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, often in competition with the aggressive proselytization of Portuguese and other Christian missionaries. According to Pires, the island states of Ternate and Tidore, off the west coast of Halmahera in Maluku, had Muslim sultans, and Muslim merchants had settled in the Banda Islands. In 1605 the ruler of Gowa in southern Sulawesi (Celebes) converted to Islam and subsequently imposed Islam on neighboring rulers. Muslim missionaries were sent from the north coast of Java to Lombok, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan until the late seventeenth century.

Because of the antiquity of Java's civilizations and the relative isolation of some of its most powerful kingdoms, the process of Islamization there was both complex and protracted. The discovery of Muslim gravestones dating from the fourteenth century near the site of the Majapahit court suggests that members of the elite converted to Islam while the king remained an adherent of Indian religions. The early focus of conversion was the northern coastal region, known as the Pasisir (Javanese for coast). Melaka's domination of trade after 1400 promoted a substantial Islamic presence in the Pasisir region, which lay strategically between Melaka to the west and Maluku to the east. Muslim merchants were numerous, although their role in the conversion of royal courts is unclear. The north shore state of Gresik was ruled by one of the nine saints. During the sixteenth century, after Melaka had ceased to be an Islamic center following its capture by the Portuguese in 1511, the Malay trading network shifted to Johore and northwest Kalimantan.

In the early seventeenth century, the most powerful state in Central Java was Mataram, whose rulers cultivated friendly relations with the Pasisir states, especially Gresik, and tolerated the establishment of Islamic schools and communities in the countryside. Tolerance may have been motivated by the rulers' desire to use the schools to control village populations. Muslim groups in the interior were often mutually antagonistic, however, and sometimes experienced official persecution. The greatest of Mataram's rulers, Sultan Agung (reigned 1613-46), warred against various Javanese states and defeated as many as he could. Without shedding the Hindu-Buddhist or Javanese animist attributes of kingship, he sought and received permission from Mecca to assume the Islamic title of sultan in 1641.

Scholars have speculated on why Islam failed to gain a large number of converts until after the thirteenth century, even though Muslim merchants had arrived in the islands much earlier. Some have suggested that the Sufi tradition--a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes the ultimate reality of God and the illusoriness of the perceived world--may have been brought into the islands at this time. Given the mystical elements of both Sufism and indigenous beliefs, it may have been more appealing to Indonesians than earlier, more austere, and law-bound versions of Islam. Yet according to Ricklefs, no evidence of the existence of Sufi brotherhoods in the early centuries has been found.