Malay religion


Religion and commerce in the Malay world

Brian E. Colless

The Malay Peninsula and Archipelago have long been visited by merchants from the other side of the Indian Ocean, carrying in their hands the wherewithal for trade, and in their heads the fundamentals of such religions as Brahmanism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity (Colless 1970, 1971). The attraction of these islands was primarily the spices and aromatics they produced, and also their gold and tin. Local rulers became rajas and sultans under the influence of these prestigious visitors from abroad, and in some cases Indians ascended to South-East Asian thrones. In the medieval period the Sailendra dynasty of Maharajas was established, controlling commerce in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and fostering Mahayana Buddhism in the region; the Borobudur stupa of Java is their most enduring legacy (Jordaan and Colless 2009). It portrays in its bas-reliefs the lives of the Buddha, and at one point depicts a trading ship, complete with the stabilizing outrigger of Malayo-Polynesian boats.

The strange connections between spirituality and commerce will be explored here, concentrating on the period before the 16th century of the current era (C.E.) and focusing on significant trading ports of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra.


In the 3rd century, Chinese reports describe a southern country they called Tun-sun, where international trade and religion were flourishing (Wheatley 1961, 15-21, for source texts). It was a confederation with five kings, under the dominion of the Bnam kingdom in Indochina (Coedès 1968, 36-42; Wolters 1967, 37-48; Hall 1985, 48-77), specifically southern Cambodia. Bnam, modern Khmer Phnom, meaning ‘mountain’, was transcribed in Chinese characters as Fu-nan (ancient B’iu-nam) or Po-nan. Tun-sun was 3,000 li (1,000 miles) distant from the Bnam kingdom, and 1,000 li in extent, curving around the South China Sea (Chang-hai). On these specifications it would have been located on the isthmus of the Malay Peninsula, around the Bay of Bandon, on the gulf of Thailand. The western frontier of Tun-sun was in communication with T’ien-chu (India) and An-hsi (Parthia, Iran). People from far and wide came in pursuit of trade. ‘At their emporium’, we are told, ‘East and West meet together, so that innumerable people are there every day; everything in the way of precious goods and rare merchandise is available.’

            Possibly this city was present-day Chaiya on the east-coast Bay of Bandon; and Takuapa (above Phuket on the western side of the isthmus) was presumably its gateway to the path across the mountains (about 100 km); this portage route has been tested in recent times, with a boat as well as goods being dragged by elephants along the rivers. In the country there were five hundred Hu families from India; the term hu in later times meant Iranians, and the stated connection of Tun-sun with Iran would seem to confirm that sense for hu in the present context; perhaps the phrase ‘from India’ means that they came by sea via India, rather than over land through central Asia and China.  In addition, there were more than a thousand Indian Brahmans, who studied their sacred books, bathed themselves in scents and flowers, and practised piety constantly. The people of Tun-sun gave them their daughters to marry, which led the Brahmans to become permanent residents. There is also mention of two (unexplained) fo-t’u, perhaps meaning living Buddhas, or notable Buddha images, or simply Buddhists (two being an error for two hundred?).

Here, then, in the 3rd century, was a thriving centre of religion and international trade, on the Malay Peninsula. The people would not have been Thai (Thailand comes into being a millennium later), nor Malay, but apparently Mon (related to the Khmer). 


In the 5th century the name P’an-p’an (Wheatley 1961, 47-51, for source texts) is given to a kingdom that is apparently in the same geographical position as Tun-sun: ‘south of Dvaravati’ (a Mon country, central Thailand), ‘in the north of a large island’ (the Malay Peninsula), and ‘on a bay of the sea’ (the Bay of Bandon, where, perhaps significantly, a toponym P’unpin is found). Both Tun-sun and P’an-p’an have a place in the history of the Liang Dynasty (Liang shu ch. 54: f 7r and f 15v-16r).  A 14th-century compilation of earlier knowledge of P’an-p’an is provided by Ma Tuan-lin, and he has a detail which is consonant with what we know about Tun-sun: ‘There are numerous brahmans who have come from India in search of ...’ enlightenment? nirvana? recreation? no, ‘...wealth’. ‘They are in high favour with the king’, presumably because they had the rituals for imparting power and prestige to rulers; for transmogrifying chiefs into rajas, for a price. Even the Buddhist king of modern Thailand has brahmans at his court. The island of Bali, which, as P’o-li, was also in communication with China as early as the 5th century (Coedès 1968, 53), still has Hindu priests, alongside Tantric Buddhist priests.

And the Chinese sources give a clear picture of the Buddhist situation in P’an-p’an: ‘There are ten monasteries where Buddhist monks and nuns study their canon.’ The presence of nuns is an important detail, as they were eventually pushed out of the picture in Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhist countries, though not in China. ‘They eat all types of meat, but abstain from wine.’This is true; Buddhists are not required to be vegetarian, but intoxicants are prohibited. ‘The Buddhist priests are commonly called pi-ch’iu’, a recognizable transcription of Sanskrit bhikshu, ‘mendicant’.

Our texts now pose a puzzle to us. ‘There is also a monastery of religious devotees who eschew meat and wine. They study the classic of the Asura king, but they enjoy no great respect. They are called t’an.’ The possibilities in the 5th century are: Christians, or Zoroastrians (the Asura king is reminiscent of Ahura Mazda), or Manicheans, or Taoists. Or could these T’an be Jains (with Mahavira as the Asura king)?

            Embassies bearing pious tribute (a form of trade mission) were sent from P’an-p’an to China. In this exchange of goods the Buddhist Liang Dynasty (502-556) received such prestigious presents as: Buddha relics, including a tooth of the Buddha; miniature painted stupas; ten varieties of perfume; and crystallized sweetmeats  (confectionery to sweeten the emperor).

            The Liang History tells of an incident involving King Kaundinya (II) and P’an-p’an. ‘Chiao-chen-ju was originally an Indian Brahman who received a divine call to reign over the Bnam kingdom (Fu-nan, on the southern coast of Indochina, as noted earlier). He rejoiced in his heart and went to P’an-p’an in the south. When the Bnam people heard, they all welcomed him heartily as their king. He modified all the laws to conform to the usage of India’ (Coedès 1968, 56). Here we have a Brahman actually sitting on a royal throne, not simply officiating as a priest at the court of a Kshatriya raja.

            The presence of Brahmans at court is attested elsewhere in that region. Further south on the peninsula lay the kingdom called by the Chinese Ch’ih-t’u (‘Red Earth’, possibly Kelantan, which had ready access to the gold fields in the interior); Chinese envoys visited this country in 607; they noted several hundred Brahmans sitting in rows in the king’s throne room (Wheatley 1961, 26-36).  Tan-tan (apparently in Pahang) had eight high officers of state who were Brahmans (Wheatley 1961, 51-55).  In 530 their ruler sent an envoy with a message couched in fervent Buddhist terms, and two stupas, two ivory images, perfumes and drugs (local luxury products much desired in China), and cotton fabrics.


The mysterious kingdom of Kan-t’o-li (Wolters 1967, 160-168, 221-225, 262) also has a place in the Liang History (Book 54). The only information given on its geographical position is that it was ‘situated on an island in the southern sea’. Possibilities are at Kedah on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, or on the southeast coast of Sumatra in the region of Palembang and Jambi, where the famous kingdom of Srivijaya would emerge in the 7th century. Much later, the Ming History (Ming shih, 324, 24b) would make this latter connection, stating that San-fo-ch’i (Srivijaya) was formerly called Kan-t’o-li. However, Kedah was also involved in the Srivijaya empire, as its peninsular node (Wheatley 1961, 280, 300). In either case, we would be looking at an early Malay kingdom. This country had sent valuable articles of gold and silver to the emperor Hsiau-wu (454-464), in the era of the first Sung dynasty.

            Then, in the year 502, the king of this country had a dream (watch for this recurring motif). The Liang History relates that a Buddhist monk appeared to him in a dream, saying:

‘China now has a holy ruler, and within ten years the Buddha’s law will flourish. If you send envoys with tribute and show reverence, your country will become prosperous and happy; merchants and visitors will multiply a hundredfold’(Wolters 1967,  165). That is: if you open commercial and religious relations with China, your foreign trade and your tourism industry will expand prodigiously.

            502 was the year when the Southern Ch’i dynasty was replaced by the Liang dynasty, and the new emperor was Wu Ti, a keen Buddhist. The king of Kan-t’o-li, we are told, was not convinced, so, in a subsequent dream, the soothsayer monk transported him to China and showed him the emperor. When the king awoke, he painted from memory a picture of the emperor’s face; he then sent his envoys to China with tribute; there they made a portrait of the son of heaven, and when they returned home they found that the two likenesses matched perfectly.

            The Kan-t’o-li king in 502 was named Gautama Subadhra (if the Chinese transcription has been correctly decoded); he was doubtless a good Theravada Buddhist; the Mahayana had not made inroads into the region at that time. His son and successor was Vijayavarman (Pi-ya-pa-mo), and in 519 he sent tribute of ‘various perfumes and drugs/medicines’, together with a letter which extolled ‘the Son of Heaven at Yang-chou in the great Liang country’ (China) as protector of the true light (bodhi) and of the relics of the Buddha’s body, as maker of pagodas and images, thereby transforming his realm into Mount Sumeru and Indra’s celestial paradise. (We need to keep in mind that from time to time Buddhism has been suppressed in China.)

            In 1319, Ma Tuan-lin, in his Wen Hsien T’ung K’ao (2602A), commented on the politics of the Kan-t’o-li kings (Groeneveldt 1876, 61; Wang 1958, 118; Wolters 1967, 165, and 317, n. 40). ‘The Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty was a great admirer of Buddhism; this was known in China and abroad; when envoys of Kan-t’o-li came to bring him tribute, crafty ministers and priests introduced them with this story, to flatter him; but it was not true.’ Ma Tuan-lin then passes judgement on the ulterior motives of fawning foreigners who kowtowed to the Dragon Throne. ‘The barbarians of the island only bring tribute because they want trade profits and imperial presents.’ In this particular case he acknowledges that the Kan-t’o-li ruler was a Buddhist and might have ‘conceived this idea himself to meet the wishes of the emperor’. Be that as it may, we have here a nice entwining of religion and commerce.


In the 7th century, the first century of the T’ang dynasty, East Asian scholar-monks embarked on mercantile ships and travelled as pilgrims to the Holy Land (northeastern India) to see where the Buddha had lived, and to study at the Mahayana Buddhist ‘university’ of Nalanda. I-Ching was the most celebrated of these, and he recorded the stories of his fellow-pilgrims (Wheatley 1961, 41-45).  He stayed for several years in Nalanda, but also in Srivijaya (Shih-li-fo-shih, Palembang in southeastern Sumatra) and Malayu (Mo-lo-yu, Jambi, north of Palembang). Both were centres of trade and Buddhist scholarship (Coedès 1968, 81-85). In the 8th and 9th centuries, in central Java, the kingdom of the Sailendras flourished in symbiosis with Srivijaya, and the profits from international commerce paid for the Mahayana Buddhist monuments (notably the massive Borobudur stupa) that are still objects of wonder to tourists (Coedès 1968, 87-93).  The Sailendras (‘mountain-lords’), whose origins are obscure (possibly migrants from India, or descendants of the expelled Buddhist royal family of the Bnam kingdom) were driven out of Java in the middle of the 9th century, and they moved to Sumatra to reign over Srivijaya (Coedès 1968, 107-109; Jordaan and Colless 2009). Srivijaya was thereafter known to the Chinese as San-fo-ch’i (Coedès 1968, 130-132).

In the year 1003, according to the Sung History, King Chudamanivarmadeva of San-fo-ch’i sent two envoys bearing tribute. They reported that in their country a Buddhist temple had been erected to pray for a long life for the emperor; their request for a name and some bells for it was granted. This act of homage seems eminently pious and sincere, yet observers in our time suspect that the bells would have been melted down to ease the local shortage of copper.  The question remains whether the temple was intended for use by Chinese visitors to the capital city of Srivijaya. They certainly took part in religious festivals elsewhere in the region.


The Chu-fan-chih (1226) of Chao Ju-kua has a description of Fo-lo-an (Hirth and Rockhill 1911, 69-70; Wheatley 1961, 68-70), one of the Srivijayan dependencies on the east side of the Malay Peninsula (to be identified with Satingpra; Colless 1989). Its Buddhist temples had tiles of bronze and ornaments of gold, indications of the successful trade that is attested in archaeological remains. Chao informs us that ‘two Buddhas flew into this country, one with six arms, the other with four arms’. The multiplicity of protecting arms suggests the bodhisattvas, particularly Avalokita (Kuan-yin in China), rather than buddhas. Their power generated winds to drive away pirate ships that tried to enter this territory. At the full moon of the sixth month the Buddha’s birthday was celebrated with music and processions, in which foreign traders also participated. The day was said to be important for sailors for obtaining good weather for the voyage back to China, and the same festival was held in P’o-ni (Brunei, Borneo) (Hirth and Rockhill 1911, 157).

            Thus, we cannot disentangle religion from commerce in this region, and at the beginning of the 13th century Buddhism was still the driving force, or at least the essential lubricator, in international trade in the Malay world.  Surprisingly, when Marco Polo arrived there, at the end of that century, he found that the situation was changing.


Returning from China by sea in 1292, Marco Polo came to Bintan, the Singapore Strait (Coedès 1968, 202-203). He apparently did not visit the kingdom of the Sailendras in southern Sumatra, but he speaks of ‘Malayur’ (Jambi) as a large and splendid city that plied a flourishing trade in spices. What he calls ‘lesser Java’ (Java minor) we now call Sumatra. When he says Sumatra he means Samudra, a city at the top end of Sumatra, where he stayed for five months waiting for the monsoon wind.  He characterizes its people as idolaters, meaning Buddhists and Hindus, who use statues in their worship.

            With reference to Perlak, a country further south, he states: ‘the people of Ferlec (Perlak) used to be idolaters, but because of their contact with Saracen merchants, who continually resort here in their ships, they have all been converted to the law of Mahomet’(Coedès 1968, 202). This is a reasonable observation; after all, the founder of Islam had been a travelling trader with his base in Makka, the great Arab emporium.  Yet the indigenous view on the conversion of Sumatra to Islam attributes it to Muslim missionaries. The Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals, Chapter 6; Winstedt 1938, Brown 1952) relates that the prophet Muhammad had said to his Companions: ‘In the latter days there will be a city below the wind, called Semudra; when you hear tell of this Semudra go there with all speed and bring the people of that city into the Faith of Islam, for in that city shall be born many saints of God’. In the fulness of time a ship set sail from Arabia, and on reaching Sumatra their chief missionary (a former sultan) successfully and successively converted Fansur (Barus, NW coast), Lamiri (NW tip), Haru (Deli, south of Perlak), Perlak, and finally Semudra (NE corner).

            The local ruler of Semudra had a dream (that recurring motif) in which the Apostle of God spat into his mouth. Next morning he was able to recite the Qur’an when a copy of the Holy Book was given to him by the missionary. So the rajas in the region became sultans. In 1292 the Polos had found Islam in Perlak, but not in Semudra. The Malay story certainly has Perlak converted before Semudra (the ship bypasses Semudra and then returns); and it names Sultan Maliku’s-Saleh (1270-1297) as the first Muslim ruler of Semudra. His tombstone is extant, dated 1297. He founded Pasai, near Semudra, and ‘Pasai grew greater from day to day and its population increased’, presumably because of its trade, and the religion it fostered, which attracted Muslim merchants and missionaries from India and the Arab world.


Malaka (Melaka, Malacca) was the seat of the Malay sultans in the 15th century; it was seized by the Portuguese in 1511, later by the Hollanders, and subsequently by the British. Malaka was founded at the beginning of the 15th century, by Paramesvara, who was acknowledged as a scion of the ancient Malay kings (Wolters 1970, 108-127), though it is nowhere said in our sources that he was of the Sailendra dynasty, and no connection is made between Palembang and ancient Srivijaya. Paramesvara fled from Palembang after an abortive rebellion against his overlord, the emperor of Majapahit in Java.  He spent a few years on the island of Singapura, until he was driven out by the forces of Theravada Buddhist Thailand. He fled up the Malaka Strait (pardon the anachronism) and eventually made his new home at a place he named Malaka. In the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals, Chapter 6) he is not called by the Sanskrit name Paramesvara (known from other sources collected by Europeans, and in Chinese records), but Sultan Iskandar Shah. The title Sultan, and perhaps also the name Iskandar (Alexander), would imply that he was a Muslim; but it is actually the third ruler of Malaka who is credited with the Islamicization of Malaka. Sultan Iskandar Shah was succeeded by Sultan Megat, and later Raja Tengah came to the throne. Two sultans, who are not said to be Muslims, are succeeded by a raja, who is converted to Islam.

            Raja Tengah had a dream (a recurring theme, you will have noticed) in which the Prophet Muhammad (’God’s chosen, may God bless him and give him peace’, the story-teller piously interjects) appeared and told him that the next day a ship would come from Jeddah (the gateway to Makka in Arabia). When Raja Tengah awoke, he was astonished to find that he had been circumcised, and he kept repeating the Muslim confession of faith, in Arabic. The missionary instructed Raja Tengah in the Faith, and every citizen was commanded to accept Islam.

            Raja Tengah became Sultan Muhammad Shah, ‘Malaka became famous as a very great city, with a raja (sic, the Arabic word malik, ‘king’, was not taken over into Malay, though it is found in the name of the first Muslim ruler of Samudra, Sultan Maliku’s-Saleh) who was sprung from the line of Sultan Iskandar Dzu’l Karnain’ (Alexander the Great, the double horned). ‘Foreigners flocked there’, for trade, naturally. ‘Princes from every country came to present themselves before Sultan Muhammad Shah, who treated them with due respect, bestowing on them robes of high honour together with rich presents of jewels, gold, and silver.’ He is here acting like the emperor of China. In fact he had sent tribute missions earlier in his reign, and had gone to China in person, being stranded there from 1433 to 1435 (Wolters 1970, 158-164). His conversion would have occurred in 1436, when he was about forty years old. He saw the advantages that Islam gave to Samudra-Pasai, as a centre of trade and religious scholarship, and he worked to achieve this for Malaka. In so doing he was upholding the tradition of his ancestors in Southern Sumatra. In the 7th and 8th centuries, Srivijaya at Palembang had been a thriving port and a meeting place for Hinayana Buddhist monks and pilgrims between China and the Holy Land.  In the 9th century, after the expulsion of the Sailendra maharajas from Java, Jambi-Malayu became the capital of Srivijaya and a place where international scholars could study Mahayana Buddhism.

            But in 1511, the Franks (Portuguese) came seeking gold, spices, and converts to Christianity. They were not simply traders but invaders. They were religious, and, like the Brahmans and Buddhists and Muslims, they studied their sacred canon, but also trained their ships’ cannon on the army of Malaka: ‘the cannon balls came like rain; the noise of the cannon was like sound of thunder in the heavens’. They seized Malaka, and its last Sultan fled across the Peninsula. The Dutch and the British would also bring their version of Christian commercial imperialism to Malaka and the archipelago. The sovereignty of the ancient Malay line was restored on the large island of Bintan, south of Singapura, and then on the mainland, in Johor, on the other side of Singapura. And in 1819, Malay Singapura began to flourish again as Singapore, and its prosperity continues to this day, with a Chinese majority in its population.   

As the writer of the Malay Annals would say devoutly in Arabic at the end of his chapters:

Wa’Llahu a‘lam bi’s-sawab.

God knows the truth.


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