Was Bujang Valley a Kingdom?

by Marie-Andree Abt

In our museum, Bujang valley (BV) is presented as the first Malay kingdom in the Peninsula, but, as far as I know before beginning this research, we have yet to find any artefact showing it was indeed a kingdom. I wanted to be sure and began to investigate. During my research, I learned a lot about BV, not always directly related to my research but I will share it anyway.

A kingdom is a country ruled by a king or a queen, as per Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary 7th edition.
Bujang valley (Malay: Lembah Bujang) “is a sprawling historical complex and has an area of approximately 224 square kilometres (86 sq mi) situated near Merbok, Kedah, between Gunung Jerai in the north and Muda River in the south. It is the richest archaeological area in Malaysia.” (Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bujang_Valley)
Srivijaya Kingdom was situated in South Sumatra, with its capital at present day Palembang. It was founded in the seventh century by Dapunta Hyang who led twenty thousand troops from Minanga Tamwan to Palambang, Jambi and Bengkulu. This event is recorded in the Kedukan Bukit inscription dated 16th June 683, setting its birth in the seventh century. Chinese sources called Srivijaya “Shi Li Fo Shi” and the Arabs “Sribuza”. Its wealth comes from trade with China, India and the Arabs. It extends to the Strait of Malacca up to Burma and part of Java, over kingdoms that had existed since the second century, if one believes Chinese sources. These kingdoms were trading local products such as benzoin, camphor, dammar, spices, aromatic woods, ivory, tin and gold with Srivijaya, who then sent all that farther. This way of ruling is often described as a mandala (explained later in this article).

In the eighth century, Srivijaya had links with the Sailendra, a Javanese dynasty (which built Borobodur). Srivijaya was a centre of Mahayana Buddhism studies and Sanskrit at least until the twelfth century. Some kings gave money not only to build a temple in South Thailand, but also to repair temples in India and Guangzhou. It had a very good administration with a datu (minister) for each kingdom.

The Indian Tamil Chola king attacked first Kedah then Srivijaya in the eleventh century. Srivijaya was clever enough to make believe that it was the other way around; Chinese envoys always thought that Chola was under Srivijaya rule! In a memorial presented to the Song emperor Huizong in 1106, the Song Shi (Song Annals) records: ‘The Chola kingdom is subject to Srivijaya. We wrote to its ruler on coarse paper’.

The capital of Srivijaya was moved from Palembang to Jambi, centre of the Melayu kingdom, which gave its name to the Malay language. It marks the beginning of the decline of Srivijaya who shared its power between Kedah, Kota Cina and Jambi, becoming Three Vijaya according to Chinese accounts. In 1292, Three Vijaya fell under the Singarasi (another kingdom of which little is known) who then quickly fell to Majapahit. Majapahit founded its wealth not only on trade but also on agriculture, being based on Java, a volcanic fertile soil area. It lasted until 1520 with the rise of Islam in Java.

Srivijaya around the 8th century. Image credit: Gunawan Kartapranata (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Indian written sources

The first to write about BV were the Indian. As early as the second century BCE, Indian writing related trade between BV and some ports of South India that lasted until the 10th century CE. Later, the inscriptions of Tanjore speak of a king of Kedah and Srivijaya and, in 1007, the Chola seemed to have already attacked Kedah. Scholars do not know why.

However, in 1025 the Chola king Rajendra, lobbied by Indian trading guilds fed-up of paying taxes to Srivijaya each time they send a boat in these waters, attacked Srivijaya. The description of this attack informed, “the Maharaja of Kedah and Srivijaya, named Samgramavijayottungavarman, was taken prisoner during the attack of Palembang”. Hence, it seems that, at this time, there was a king of Kedah, but ruling from Srivijaya since he obviously lived in Palembang. After the sacking of Srivijaya, a new Maharaja was enthroned – Sri Deva.

This new king could not “pay” anymore for the allegiance of his vassals and hence they sought independence. Among the first to do so was Kedah, who openly revolted in 1060. Sri Devi chose to make peace with the Chola Kingdom and sought their help to bring Kedah back into the Srivijaya mandala. In 1068, Virajendra, the ruler of Chola, attacked only Kedah, looted it and returned it, graciously, to Srivijaya. This uncommon event confused the Chinese who thought that Chola was under the rule of Srivijaya.

Candi Bukit Batu Pahat; the Merbok Archaeological Museum was built next to this candi

Chinese written sources

Chinese writings mention tributes given to China by the BV polity. In the Sui Shu (History of the Sui, completed in 636 CE), Kedah was called Chitu, Jietu, Geluo or Geluofashaluo. Two missions were sent from China in 607 and in 610. The first one left from Guangzou under the command of Chang Jun. It was bound for Chitu and Luocha. These two were the only destinations for the mission, showing the growing importance, at that time, of these transhipment centres for long distance Persian Gulf-India-China trade.

Chang Jun mentions that the capital of Chitu was named Sengzhi, perhaps located near the Muda River in what is now Kampung Sungai Mas. He describes it as a city surrounded by three concentric walls separated by one hundred paces each. “At each gate, there are painted flying spirits, fairies and Bodhisattva images… The king, we are told, is Li-Fu-Duo-Sai Qu-Tan (Riputro Gautama?). Behind his throne is  a golden crouching  bull and above it , one bejewel parasol and bejewelled fans left and right…Hundreds of Brahmans seated in rows facing each other on left and right. The practice of the residents was to respect Buddha and give special reverence to Brahmans. Indian music was played during the audience with the ruler. When the king sent a nayaka (leader or protector) as an emissary to China, with local products, he also sent a gold leaf letter”. Hence, it appears to be a Buddhist kingdom where Brahmans were key players advising the ruler and performing Indian-based ceremonies.

What is bothering me in this description is the presence of a triple enceinte. As far as I know, archaeologists never found any traces of these walls. Even, if their construction materials were used later as a source of stones or bricks for other constructions, they would have had some sort of foundations … that have not, yet, been found. So was Chitu really Kedah? In my opinion, it still needs to be proven. Other sources, including the Encyclopaedia of Malaysia: Early History, places Chitu in Kelantan. This makes more sense.

In the chronicles of the Tang dynasty (619 to 916 CE) translated by Winstedt, it seems that Kedah was called Kalah or Kora or Kala. It is said that this Kora has a king named Misi Pura Sri Pura and the customs of the people were the same as in Siam. But in the same book, Winstedt writes that Langkasuka was the former name of Kedah and that under the Liang dynasty (502 to 665 CE) people dated the birth of the country four hundred years earlier.

Seventy years after the Chitu mission, yet another name for Kedah in Chinese writing appears – Jietu, again a phonetic rendering of Kedah. In 671, the Chinese monk Yijing left Guangzhou and stopped over at Srivijaya where he studied Sanskrit. He then went to Kacha (probably Kedah) to board a boat to India. This was the first proof that Kedah may have been a major port of embarkation for the long journey to India. When he came back in 685, he noted that Kedah was now under Srivijayan rule. He explains that BV was the northern capital of Srivijaya, levying taxes on the merchandises coming from the West with Palembang, the southern capital, took care of the goods coming from the East.

There are also other sources showing that Jietu was an important port for merchants and monks on their way to India. The Xin Tang Shu notes that south of Panpan lay Geluo. Around 800, Jia Dan writes about Geluo, recording that it had 24 provinces – “It was a major trading port since the 9th century or earlier”. There is no evidence of diplomatic contact between Geluo and Tang China.

Bujang Valley pottery on display at the Merbok Archaeological Museum. Image credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Arab written sources

As early as the 8th century, Arabic navigational treaties mention Kalah. Several archaeologists have studied the writings of Arab or Persian merchants. According to as-Sin wa’l-Hind, Kalah was a kingdom located near the coast. Kalah-bar (government) was a kingdom under the control of al-Zabaj (Srivijaya). Sulayman describes Kalah as a colony of Srivijaya and an entrepôt trade centre where the traders called to obtain supplies of clean water. Abu Dalaf Misar stated that Kalah was a huge kingdom surrounded by walls, gardens, water, market and houses with a large population…”Kalah has its own social system that is really organised in terms of justice, treatment of offences and matters related to fines”… Katacha entrepôt developed rapidly since the fifth century and it is believed that the port existed since the early century CE. Kataha’s centre at that time was situated at today’s Sungai Mas. Various types of temple architecture and thousands of foreign ceramics are the best proof of it. Relative dating on inscriptions showed that Sungai Mas prospered since the fifth century. Later, the entrepôt was moved to Kampung Pengkalan Bujang.

Modern research

The discovery of glass fragments at site 18, Pengkalan Bujang, was reported by Quaritch-Wales in 1940. With the discovery of laterite stone blocks and bricks in the vicinity, Quaritch-Wales expects them to belong to a palace hall or a building structure in a palace. Ah! Finally proof of Kedah as a kingdom? … Not so sure.

Michel Jacq-Hergoualc’h explains in his Arts Asiatiques article in 1992 that Quaritch thought the main Indianisation of Kedah and South East Asia dated from 550 to 750 with a Pallava colonisation. Alastair Lamb restudied the same areas as Quaritch plus some others and concluded, “We can definitely not use periodization influenced by the too approximate and too partisan Quatrich work. For us, South Kedah is not a small kingdom created by Pallava, it is not even a Malay kingdom Indianised as Quatrich suggested.”

Overall, the study of Chinese ceramics shows that the trading activity moved to Kampung Sireh on Sungai Mudah for a few decades only. Then it moved to Melaka. Hence, from the fifth to eleventh century, BV was centred in Kampung Sungai Mas, South of Merbok River; it was mostly Buddhist if we believe the artefacts found at the candi. From the eleventh to early fourteenth century, the centre moved to Pengkalan Bujang, north of Merbok River and it became mainly Hindu. Beginning of the fourteenth century, it was moved again to Kampong Sireh, which silted at the same time Melaka became the predominant kingdom; so Kedah, as a port, started to decline.

In 2014, John Guy wrote on the formation of states in South East Asia. He does not know exactly how they functioned in term of political organization “whether they are best characterized by fiefdoms, polities, kingdoms or states is open to discussion”. O.W. Walters was the first to suggest they might work as a mandala-negara, an Indian model described in regional inscriptions as “radiating zone, strongest in its centre, weakest at the periphery with porous frontiers that intercepted adjacent tributary”. The peripheral states trade their local product with the more powerful one in the centre, who concentrate and finally send the goods further, creating a kind of loose federation based on trade.

I conclude by referring to Dr Nasha Rodziadi Khaw’s talk to the MV on 6th January 2021. He told us that Kedah trading ports existed from 6th century BC to 1371. It consisted of a confederation of trading polities for which no proof currently exists that they were kingdoms. Hence, so far, it seems we cannot conclude yet if BV was indeed a kingdom.

A sitting Buddha terracotta statue recovered at Site 21 Candi Pengkalan Bujang

References

Dr Cheah Boon Kheng, Early modern history, Archipelago press, 2001

Baker, Jim. Crossroads, Marshall Cavendish editions, 2008

Winstedt. R.O, History of Kedah

Guy John, Last kingdoms. Introducing early Southeast Asia, 2014

Wade Geoff. Beyond the Southern Borders: Southeast Asia in Chinese texts to the 9th century

Sulitiyono, Journal of marine cultures, volume 7

Ramli, Shuaimi Nik Abdul Rhaman, Zain Musa, Samsudin, Rodzi Abdul Razak. Arab-Persian merchants in the Malay peninsula based on foreign sources and archaeological data, Institute of Malay world and civilisation, Faculty of social sciences and humanities, School of history, politics and strategy, The national university of Malaysia.

Selvakumar, V. Commercial interactions between India and Southeast Asia during medieval period and future Interactions between ASEAN and India.

Jacq-Hergoualc’h Michel. Art asiatiques. 1992

Oxford advanced learners’ Dictionary ,7th edition

Munoz, Paul Michel. Early kingdoms of the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay peninsula. Dr Nasha Rodziadi Khaw. MV focus: History and archaeology of ancient Kedah, a reflection of multiculturalism in the Malay Peninsula.

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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