Indian Ocean & South East Asia

The late tenth century was a period of prosperity in the Indian Ocean Rim as trade boomed between the song Empire in China, the Cholas in southern India and the Shiite Fatimid caliphate that controlled Egypt and the Red Sea.

The maritime trade between India & China were becoming very lucrative and there were two main routes. The first passed through Straits of Malacca, between the Malay Peninsula & the Sumatra. The Sri Vijaya kingdom controlled this route. The Second more southern route passed through the Sunda straits between Sumatra & Java. Although it was a detour for those going to China or Champa, it had better access to the spice growing Maluka & Banda islands. This route was controlled by the Javans. Not surprisingly there was a constant rivalry between the Sri Vijaya & the Javanese Kingdoms.

Entry of China in the Indian Ocean

In AD 987, a Sri Vijaya diplomatic mission made its way to China. During its stay in China, the diplomats were informed that their country was under attack from the Javan Kingdom of Mataram. The diplomats pleaded with the Song Emperor to place Sri Vijaya under its protection. Thus China came to have influence in the region.

The Sri Vijaya would have been aware that the entry of the Chinese into the Indian Ocean could elicit a response from the Indian rulers of Chola Kingdom. Thus they simultaneously sent missions to Chola kings and made generous grants to Hindu & Buddhist temples in Chola ports. Amusingly Chinese records show that the Sri Vijaya was playing a double game because their diplomats were deliberately misrepresenting the situation by claiming that the Cholas paid tribute to them.

First Major Conflict in the Area

The Sri Vijaya seems to have used Chinese protection to build up their Strength. In 1016 Sri Vijaya and their allies defeated the Javanese and sacked the Mataram capital. This left the Sri Vijaya in control of both sea routes. We have evidence to suggest that it soon exploited this situation by exacting exorbitant tolls on merchant ships. Indian Chola King probably sent a small naval expedition to Sumatra in 1017 as a warning but it was not taken seriously. Thus, the Chola returned in 1025 with the much larger fleet.

Cholas decisively defeated the main Sri Vijaya army in Kadaram(now Kedah province in Malaysia). The invading force then withdrew, stopping by at the Nicobar Islands on their way home. The Chola raid significantly diminished Sri Vijaya power. But it is remarkable that the Chinese did not do anything to support their support vassals. The Sumatrans too seem to have accepted their reduced status. They continued to send ambassadors to the Chola court and even participated in a joint diplomatic mission to China. When a Chola naval fleet returned to Kadaram in 1068, it was in support of a Sri Vijaya King against his local rivals.

With external threats diminished, Java began to rebuild itself under a Balinese prince, Airlangga. The process of revival would culminate in the great Majapahit Empire in the fourteenth century.

(The article is based on the book “The ocean of churn” by Sanjeev Sanyal.)

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