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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Sriwijaya-Nalanda Knowledge Trail

The Muaro Jambi temple complex was most likely built by the Royal Malay Kingdom in 7th century

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Consul General of India to Sumatra, Medan

INDONESIA: Having visited Nalanda two years ago in India, my newly acquired knowledge of its Sumatra connection was still fresh in my mind. When I visited Palembang (South Sumatra province) and Jambi province in Sumatra, it was with a heightened sense of expectation and excitement. The Muaro Jambi temple complex in Jambi presented a scattering of ruined and partially restored temples, much of it clearly required renovation and excavation. The Muaro Jambi temple complex was most likely built by the Royal Malay Kingdom in 7th century and later during the Hinduism-Buddhism era under the Sriwijaya Kingdom until the 14th.

Muaro Jambi Temple Complex. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Though not totally disappointed, it made me wonder as to whether visitors should be allowed to walk over these ancient and precious unexplored temple ruins.

Muaro Jambi Temple Complex. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Muaro Jambi, the largest Buddhist temple

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Discovered as late as in 1824 by a British army official, the site comprises 82 ancient relics, but strangely only nine of them have been renovated so far. In addition, several statues, bronze pots, and Buddhist mantras written on gold foil were unearthed.

The remaining 73 structures have been largely left unattended and neglected. I found that many of the relics have been run over by thick vegetation and the local community were actually living in closely vicinity of some of these ancient relics.

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In addition to these relics, water reservoirs and many man-made canals that skirted between these relics, were discovered, that pointed to the engineering skills and foresight of the people of those times to conserve water.

Muaro Jambi Complex. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Still, the Muara Jambi complex stands as a fine example of Buddhist heritage in Indonesia,   alongside the majestic Borobudur Temple in Central Java. It is not only eight times larger but also predates the Borobudur temple.

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Just 40 kms from Jambi city, the temple complex symbolizes the exchange of culture and human values during parts of the Hinduism-Buddhism era in Sriwijaya Empire, specifically in Jambi. It also alludes to the  existence of advanced engineering and architectural skills and technological know-how to construct such a fine example of brick temple architecture. Both these temple complexes were closely linked to Nalanda in India.

Controlling the Malacca Straits, the Sriwijaya Empire (probably named after King Vijaya) became a supreme maritime power in the island of gold “Suvarnadeepa’ (Sumatra Island) between the 8th and 13th centuries and held a strategic post on the vital India-China trade route. By the 7th century, Sriwijaya Kings had established absolute control over much of Sumatra, West Java and Malay peninsula, which included, modern day Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines.

Sriwijaya and Nalanda

With flourishing trade, the kings of Sriwijaya empire became prosperous, but more importantly played a defining role in the expansion of Buddhism across its empire. Strong trading and ensuing cultural contacts with India, China and Malay region, consolidated the presence of Buddha Mahayana and Vajrayana throughout its empire.

The kings entertained foreign traders, scholars and Buddhist monks from various countries, including India and China. Built by Shailendra dynasty, the fame and influence of Sriwijaya empire spread to India and China.

By then Nalanda had caught the imagination of Buddhist scholars who flocked to Sriwajaya for Buddhist studies. Built during the Gupta Empire, Nalanda was the location of an ancient university that attracted students from other countries, including China and Tibet. At that time, not only did students learn about Buddhism, but also astronomy, mathematics, medicine, Eastern philosophy and Greek philosophy.

Nalanda. Photo Credit: Google Images

Due to its pre-eminent position, Sriwijaya empire in Sumatra soon became a popular stopover for traders, scholars, students and monks on their journeys from China to India.  It was also the major centre for learning of Sanskrit. The fascinating evolution of  Sriwijaya and Nalanda into premier centres of learning in the same era has been documented by some historical scholarly accounts and a handful of archaeological discoveries. 

The Tibetan Buddhist scholar and guru Atisha Dipankara Buddha who lived and studied at Muarojambi Temple, Sumatra for 12 years between 1011-1023 AD, wrote about similarities of the education centres at both the places. Chinese merchant I Tsing was one of the earliest to spend time at the Muaro Jambi complex. On his way from China to India, he stopped at Muaro Jambi in 671 AD and spent six months to study Sanskrit grammer.

On his return from India in 685 AD, I Tsing spent many years in Sriwijaya empire translating Buddhist Sanskrit texts into Chinese. In his two famous works Nan-Hai Chi-Kuei Nei-fa Chuan (Notes on Buddhist teachings in South Sea) and Ta-T’ang Hsi-yu Ch’iu-fa Kao-seng Chuan (Notes of priests who studied in India during the Tang Dynasty), I Tsing provided valuable information about Sriwijaya’s location and situation.

It was I Tsing who advised other monks to first learn Sanskrit in Sriwijaya before visiting Nalanda for higher studies. This encouraged regular a migration of scholars from China to Sriwijaya and then to India, and vice versa. This came to be known as the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Knowledge Route.

The Buddhadhamma records that before I Tsing sailed to India to study the scriptures, he had already studied several Sanskrit texts like Pancavidya, Sabdavidy, Silapasthanavidya, Chikistavidya Hetuvidya and Adhyatmavidya at the Muaro Jambi temple complex. 

There are other archaeological discoveries that establishes the close connect between Nalanda and Sriwijaya.  A 9th century bronze inscription found in Nalanda narrates how Sriwijaya King Balaputradewa was allowed to build a monastery for Sriwijaya students studying in Nalanda. Even today this monastery, which contains a line of study rooms used to house Sriwijaya students and monks, can still be visited as a tourist in Nalanda.

The moonstone found in Nalanda bears similarities with the stone at Kalasan Temple in Central Java. It has also been assessed that the kind of cement used in the construction of Nalanda was found in Sari and Kalasan temples in Java. A ship wreck found near North-East Sumatra in 10th century found many bronze Buddhist artifacts which bore similarities to findings in Nalanda.

An inscription from Tanjore dated 1030-31 AD records the conquest of Srivijaya in 1025 by a Chola armies and the subsequent surrender by King of Srivijaya who was taken to India. A copy of the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita produced in 1071 mentions Java among important Buddhist centres.

Though the available body of evidence point to close linkages between Nalanda and Sumatra, much of it is anecdotal. The archaeological evidence has been mostly found in Nalanda but none in Sumatra. Surely, there appear to be missing links in this connection which is hindering a fuller appreciation of this unique knowledge trail between Nalanda and Sriwijaya.

Also Read: Indian Temples of Sumatra

There are several unanswered questions as well. What is mindboggling is the fact that a good number of Sanskrit texts were available in Sriwijaya Empire at that time. No doubt, there was a strong Buddhist network of several Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Javanese monks on this knowledge trail. Did revered Monks such as Subhakarasimha (637-735), Vajrabodhi (670-741), Amoghavajra (705-774), Huikuo (746-805), Kukai (774-835), Saicho(767-822) and Bianhong promote Buddhist concepts and texts ?

Even more confounding is who taught Sanskrit to the people in Sriwijaya empire at that time? How did the people of that age and region attain such high level of excellence in Sanskrit language? Were there regular language classes at Sanskrit schools? Not much literature or evidence is available to throw light on this. The answers may be found in Muaro Jambi, but only if extensive archaeological exploration and excavation are conducted jointly by experts from Nalanda and Jambi.

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