By Molly Bondan
Once there was a land that reached down from Asia to the north of Australia, sometimes stretching further south and west, sometimes broken up as the earths crust crumpled and land masses slowly shifted and were weathered away and broken down in the inexorable march of time. When Europe lay cold in wastes of ice, scoured by glaciers, what was left of that old land lay steaming in tropical down-pours, with great river valleys running east and north into the China Sea. Into these rivers the waters flowed as the great ice sheets melted and the islands of Indonesia were formed much as we know them today.
Even then, the land was inhabited. Pithecanthropus erectus, one of the earliest creatures to qualify as a man, inhabited an area in what is now Java and left his bones behind by a tributary of Bengawan Solo, which probably, in his day, joined the great river draining the land now under the Java Sea. We do not know what his relations might have been with the still older ancestors of modern man that have been found in Africa, or with his approximate contemporaries around Peking.
Between his time and ours, many cataclysms have rent the land. It is only the great ice melting that raises the seas 100 meters higher. Indonesia has been torn and scored in the holocausts of great volcanic eruptions that must have made the shattering roars and the tremendous waves of Tambor and Krakatau seems small indeed.
What became of Pithecanthropus erectus the almost man, the more than ape that walked erect on Indonesian soil three-quarters of a million years ago, this we do not know. Nor was he the only one. Meganthropus was a veritable giant, with a huge molar tooth and a shin bone showing he must have been eight feet tall. There was also Mojokerto Man and Ngandong Man and there was Wajak Man, who may have fathered the true line of descent to Homo sapiens, and who perhaps has relatives in the Australian aborigines.
About four thousand years from our own day, there was a sudden cultured change and the Bronze Age appeared, very well-developed it seems when it first came to Indonesian shores. Dongson, on the banks of the great Mekong River, not far from Luangprabang in modern Laos, is believed to be the cradle of the bronze culture for the whole of South East Asian, Indonesia included.
How this culture was transmitted is by no means clear. Skills may have been brought home by the seafaring peoples of the Indonesian islands of that time. It seems there was no great change in the languages of the earlier inhabitants of Indonesia, for there is no mark of the continental languages of that time in the tongues of today. But there may well have been a slow migration of peoples who assimilated with the local population, being in much smaller numbers. The different styles in the artifacts from this period indicate diversity; some seem to be indigenous; some are clearly Chinese, some appear even to have originated in the Indus Valley civilization, the towns of which were sacked at the beginning of this period by the onslaughts of the incoming Aryans.
Then, in the late Bronze Age, iron appears, applied on bronze as a cutting edge, or used as a precious metal for ornament and jewelry. The Indonesians of this culture produced some of the most remarkable craftsmen in metal the world have ever seen. They made moulds from stone, they made them from clay and used the lost wax processed, they engraved and embossed, they made alloys and knew how to apply one metal upon another. They produced huge kettledrums for the religious rites, the most renowned of which, being the largest kettledrum in the world, is still to be seen in Bali, where it is venerated as having fallen from the moon.
From this time onwards, it is possible to speak indubitably of a distinctive art and craft, of the appearance of a character in things that is typical of Indonesia and is not known on mainland Asia. Undoubtedly, we have here some first elements of nation building. And side by side with this, there is evidence enough of the diversity that was to mark Indonesia ever since.
Two types of agricultural pattern prevailed. One was a migratory clan or tribe, living in a long house, so constructed it could be taken apart, removed and then put up again. The clan lived from rain-fed fields, and removed to another site when crops no longer flourished. The second type irrigated its fields and built close together.
Both ways of life needed constant cooperation and mutual help and attitudes of fellowship began to produce recognized systems of the joint hearing of burdens and the common sharing of what was produced.
The beginnings of Indonesian history or written records seem to come very late. Non Indonesian records.
Perhaps the classical beginning of writing in the need for record keeping did not occur until later. If the people did not think of land and natural wealth as private property but as a loan from the Creator to community or clan with perceptual continuity from one generation to another, perhaps they did not feel the need for records. If there were no priests to collect temple dues, and no temples, either just sage elders able to call up the soul of the ancestors, conjure their shadows to appear at night and speak with their voices, here would be no need for temple records either. If there were no kings over large areas and demanding payment for their regulating, but only a man wise in agriculture to lead the planting, another knowledgeable in ship building to tell the rest of the community how to go about putting up their houses, then there would be no need for writing either.
But at least when kings and dynasties and monks and temples both seem in the land, writing appears in Indonesia on monumental stones.
Tarumnagera and possible predecessor in Java, and Sriwijaya in Sumatra
There never may have been a time when the peoples of the Indonesian archipelago did not trade from island to island and from island to mainland. Han dynasty ceramics from the first, second and third centuries of the Christian era have been found with later Chinese ceramics from many parts of the country, notable the large islands of Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi as well as from the Moluccas. Fine muslins from India, silk from Japan, perhaps as well as China, these may well have been among the earliest imports. About the exports, there is no doubt whatever spices and sandalwood, ivory and ebony and other precious timbers, gold and silver and precious stones, cockatoos and orangutan, all the small but costly ingredients that developed into the Asian Trade.
The trade winds, the Spice Islands, antimacassars, gutta percha
The great empires of Indonesia grew up amidst the great international concourse of people and the Asia trade, though we know of the process mainly through legend. A century or so after Fa Hshiens visit and the writing of inscription on the Kutai and Tarumanagera stones, at the time when France was being shaped by Clovis of the Franks and the Toltecs ruled in Mexico, kingdoms began to arise in Sumatra and Java that would produce the two great nation states of Sriwijaya and Mojopahit.
For a thousand years from the beginning of the sixth century of the Christian era, one or other of these great empires, sometimes both, were major powers in South East Asia, their courts frequented by foreign embassies, their colleges acknowledged for their learning, their commercial connections and their political influence far reaching.
Of course, these were not empires in the modern sense with the fast-tied bonds of the imperial hegemonies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Indonesian empires belonged to a day before such close knit structures were possible. Nor does it appear that day were based upon military might as with the Roman empire of the Mediterranean world. Probably they arose directly and simply out of the trade relations of great maritime states.
Legend tells of a magic light on Siguntang Mahameru, Great Mount of the Gods, with the paddy grain gold on it next morning with silver leaves and copper stalks gold inlaid. Three mystics youths were discovered by two women on the top of that hill, the middle one clad in a kings rich gown and seated on an ox so white it gleamed. He was Sang Suparba, who claimed descent from the great Iskandar, known to Europe as Alexander of Macedon, and from this youth a dynasty of kings was founded who ruled mighty Sriwijaya.
A part from legend, not much is known about the beginnings of Sriwijaya. If it is the same as the realm the Chinese recorded as Kan-to-li, then it was already sending delegations to the courts of China between 452 and 563 A.D. By the seventh century, records tell of monasteries to house a thousand monks and a great center of Buddhist learning and scholarship where people came from Eastern Asia to study languages and religion before journeying on to the holy places of the Lord Gautama in India.
The records made by Chinese scholars, some foundations on islands in an artificial lakes, many shards of Chinese ceramics, one or two inscriptions, an 11th century temple complex at Muara Takus in inland Riau, a fierce punitive raid by the Kingdom of Chola in Southern India to stop expansion. These and the golden glow of legend are almost all that we know of ancient Sriwijaya.
The Empire of Mojopahit that was centered on Mojokerto in East Java was preceded by a number of different kingdoms. Tarumanegara we know of and its possible predecessors; the early seventh century builders of the temples and courts of Dieng must have been at least a local power in their day; then came Matararam, which was Hindu, like Dien though Buddhist temples, including the great Borobudur, flourished in its midst in a way we do not fully understand. But fate overtook Mataram, almost certainly in the form of a tremendous explosion from Mount Merapi that poured ash upon the countryside until it lay meters deep and the people had to flee.
In East Java, the center of power shifted from Malang to Kediri, from Kediri to Singosari and from Singosari to near Mojokerto, where they remains of the capital of the Empire of Mojopahit can still be seen. From the founding of the Isana Dynasty under Mpu Sendok in 1928 A.D. to the formation of Mojopahit in 1293, there was much political turmoil, involving conflict with Sriwijaya in Sumatra as well, but there was a deal of cultural progress. Or is it simply that from this time onward we have some record in Old Javanese language written on palm leaves, not merely stone inscription?
Kertanegara of Singosari made a conscious attempt to unite the whole of the Indonesia archipelago in a single strong state, being faced by the expansionism of Kublai Khan, the Mongol who had China in his grasp. But Kertanegara was slain in a Palace revolt and it was left to his son in law to defeat the troops of Kublai Kahn and set up a new kingdom, Mojopahit, from which the dream of unity was carried forward.
Gajah Mada, Hayam Wuruk, Aditiawarman
These thousand years of the two great Indonesian empires was a period in which there flowered one of the worlds great civilizations and at the height of Mojopahits power and glory in the fourteenth cent Indonesia was one of the great powers of the world. The fourteenth century marked the beginning many changes in Europa as well as Asia. It was the time of the Great Schism, the preaching of Wycloffe and Huss and the Papal Court in Avignon; it was the time of the Black Death and the Great Fire of London and it the time of Wat Tylers Peasants Revolt. In China, the Mongol dynasty was at least evicted and the House of Ming was founded. In India, the Sultanate of Delhi broke up into many small kingdoms. The Moslem kingdoms in Iran and Mesopotamia were destroyed by Timurlane, whose empire making activities left little but destruction and terror behind him, though they stretched from Delhi to Smyrna. The Moslem hold on Spain was also under pressure and the old militancy of Islam seemed gone forever.
But as Mojopahit was weakened from within by palace conflicts, Islam took hold in Indonesia. Possible from the 11th century, Islam had been known, possibly mainly in the communities that traded up the Straits of Malacca, across the Bay of Bengal, around the southern foot of India, up into the Gulf of Persia and into the heart of the Arab world. In the fifteenth century Islam became militant of Java, and coastal Islamic stated were set up with Demak of north central Java the most famous of them. It seems that Islam supplied a new dynamism, a more democratic way of life that confronted and overcame the slow decadence that had crept into Hinduism in Indonesia with its castes and hierarchy of power.
When in 1453 the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople, they blocked the ancient land route from Asia to Europe at the Bosporus, and the Turks and Moors sealed off Christendom from the spices and all the silk and exotic goods from the East. So Europe ventured far to find another way to the islands where the spices grew that preserved foods and drink in the days before refrigeration was mechanized. Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Vasco da Gama found his way to India. Portugal and Spain were foremost among Europas adventurous, rivals and at war with each other. In their wake there came the Dutch and the British and the French. And there was black hatred between Catholic and Protestant in those days and bigoted narrow mindedness for other ways, other faiths, and other peoples.