The earliest inscriptions found in the archipelago are known as the Kutai-inscriptions and originate from East Kalimantan, dated around 375 AD when the Kutai Martadipura kingdom ruled. These inscriptions were written in Sanskrit (the liturgical language of Hinduism) using the Pallava script, a script developed in Southern India around the third century AD. In these inscriptions three rulers of Kutai Martadipura are mentioned and they describe a ritual that is characteristic of archaic Hinduism. Approximately one century later, the first (known) stone is inscripted on Java. This inscription, also in Sanskrit, states king Purnavarman of the Tarumanagara kingdom (fourth to seventh century) in West Java and associates him with a Hindu deity (Vishnu). Together, these inscriptions show evidence of major influences from Indian Hinduism within the ruling elites of the first known indigenous ancient kingdoms in the archipelago.
However, trade contacts between present-day India and the archipelago are known to have been established centuries prior to the Kutai inscriptions. The Strait of Malacca, a sea lane linking the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, has been the main shipping channel for seaborne trade between China, India and the Middle East since human memory. A large part of Sumatra’s coastline is conveniently located next to this sea lane causing merchants between India and China to stop over here or on the other side of the Strait (present-day Malaysia) to wait for the right monsoon winds that would carry them further. But it is assumed that Hinduism and Buddhism were not spread to the archipelago by these Indian traders. More likely, kings and emperors in the archipelago were drawn to the prestige of the Brahmans (the Hindu priestly class which forms the highest ranking of the four social classes). These Brahmans, supposedly, introduced a new religion to the archipelago which enabled the indigenous kings to identify themselves with a Hindu deity or a Buddhist Bodhisattva (an enlightened mystical being), thereby replacing the ancestor worship that was adhered to previously. This new religious doctrine, therefore, implied more prestige for the kings. Empires in the archipelago that copied such Indian concepts were found on the islands of Kalimantan, Java, Sumatra and Bali.
Due to the strategic position of Sumatra’s and Malaysia’s coastline next to the Strait of Malacca it is hardly surprising that we find the first major influential state in Indonesian history on the coastal area of Sumatra, and stretching a wide geographical area around the strait. This state was called Srivijaya and ruled the trade routes connecting the Indian Ocean, the South Chinese Sea and the Spice Islands of the Moluccas between the 7th and the 13th century. Srivijaya will also be remembered as Southeast Asia’s center for Buddhist studies with a major emphasis on the study of the Sanskrit language. From Chinese sources it is known that many Chinese Buddhist monks stayed in Srivijaya for more than a decade to pursue their study.
Hindu and Buddhist temple remnants dating from between the 8th and the 10th century indicate the ruling of two dynasties in Central Java. These were the Sailendra-dynasty (adherents of Mahayana Buddhism and most likely the dynasty that built the famous Borobudur temple nearby present-day Yogyakarta around 800 AD) and the Sanjaya-dynasty (adherents of Hinduism that built the temple complex of Prambanan around 850 AD not far from – and as a reaction to – the Borobudur temple). The slow demise of Srivijaya and the rise of these new powerful kingdoms on Java meant that political power was gradually turning away from Sumatra towards Java. But in the 10th century the lives of inhabitants in Central Java suddenly went unrecorded because of a lack of sources. It is assumed that a major volcano eruption shifted political power from Central to East Java where a number of new kingdoms developed. Two of these deserve special attention due to their legacy, namely Kediri (around 1042 to 1222) for its inscriptions and literary legacy, and its successor Singasari (between 1222 and 1292) for introducing a new chapter in Indonesian history, namely the syncretism of Hinduism and Buddhism. This new chapter found its peak in the East Javanese kingdom of Majapahit (1293 to around 1500), perhaps the greatest kingdom in the history of the archipelago which had a geographical area resembling the present- day boundaries of Indonesia (although it is still debated among scholars how much sovereignty this kingdom actually enjoyed outside of Java and Bali). Majapahit with its flourishing arts and literature is still an important concept and cause of national pride for Indonesians today as it is regarded as the basis of the modern state of Indonesia. The nationalist movement in the 20th century used this concept to justify both independence and the validity of territorial borders. Indonesia’s national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, meaning ‘Unity in Diversity’, originates from an Old Javanese poem written during the rule of Majapahit.