A majority of Malays are content to look only as far as the Sultanate of Malacca in the 15th and the 16th century, apparently accepting the era as the golden age of ancient, classical or medieval Malay civilization. Thanks to the education I received through the Malaysian system, I had the same perception too and I do think even Malaysians as a society in one way or another accept Malacca was the greatest civilization in ancient, classical or medieval Malaysian history. My love for history has allowed me to delve far beyond Malaysian textbooks. While Malacca was a great empire, a greater civilization was Srivijaya, an empire that was almost forgotten. I truly believe that Srivijaya was that brilliant light that stayed bright from nearly a millennium. Malacca was a just spark, though brilliant as it may be.
The Malaysian education system fails to give Srivijaya the respect it deserves. So many Malaysian textbook pages concentrate on Malacca and successive minor Malay states but ignored that one large Malay empire that spanned from the Isthmus of Kra all the way down to Central Java and, at one point in time, even the banks of the Mekong. Admittedly, Srivijayan border was porous unlike modern states but its sphere of influence was far wider than that of Malacca or even of Malaysia.
Perhaps part of the reason why the Malays stress so much on Malacca is the fact that so little information is known about Malay history earlier than the 14th century. Relatively modern Malays have been so ingrained with the notion that their history starts with Malacca. That misconception pushes Srivijaya into that one book in a section of a library that nobody goes to.
Srivijaya, despite its status, was only discovered by historians in the early 20th century. The reason why it was so easy to overlook Srivijaya’s existence is the material used for Srivijayan architecture; many of Srivijayan structures were made out of wood. In harsh tropical climate, wood would not last for too long, definitely not for one thousand years. Malacca itself did not leave too much behind to be marveled at by tourists and so, one could not hope too much for Srivijaya. The rain and the sun conspired to erase a chapter of a history book, hushing Srivijaya from history to myth to total obscurity.
That does not mean Srivijaya failed to leave its mark in history. The Sailendra, under the auspice of the Srivijayan Emperor Samaratunga, constructed the Borobudur which still stands today in the middle of Java. But even that monument was only rediscovered in the 19th century by Stamford Raffles. As for the Sailendra, the East Javanese pushed them out of central Java, causing the Srivijayan ally to migrate to the west and built a new hope under the protection of Srivijaya. The royal court of Sailendra was finally eliminated by Srivijayan Emperor Culamanivarmadeva after the Sailendra betrayed the emperor. That act led to the loss to Srivijayan capital, Palembang, to the East Javanese in the early 11th century. Palembang was reconquered by Culamanivarmadeva but by that time, Srivijaya had gone over its hill. It was dusk time.
Notice the names? Yes. The Malays were Hindus then. And Buddhists, and animists, despite whatever the religious conservatives might assert, despite how our history is being rewritten by those that have no respect for truth.
The Sultanate of Malacca itself was founded by an heir to the Srivijayan throne. The struggle between the Malays and the Javanese continued well into the 14th century and sometimes by the late 1300s, Parameswara, a Malay Srivijaya prince, fled Sumatra when Majapahit finally crushed the last remnant of a Malay empire that started humbly by the Musi River.
In a way, Malacca was the successor of the glorious Srivijaya. If Malacca could be seen as a sultanate that later led to Malaya and Malaysia, then Srivijaya could be seen as such as well.
While I was in Bangkok, I visited some of the museums there. It is truly sad to find out that the Thais are more appreciative of the Malay empire than the Malays and Malaysians in Malaysia themselves. Perhaps, that could be explained by the presence of Srivijayan temples, biaras, in Thailand, reminding the Thais of an empire long ago. In Malaysia, almost nothing.
Almost nothing but the Bujang Valley which was under the control of Old Kedah, a state within the realm of Srivijaya. Is it not odd that Bujang Valley, itself being far richer in historical terms, has been outshone by relatively young ruins (if it could be called as such) of Malacca?
Something must explain this bias that sides with Malacca. Could it be religion?