Srivijaya – The Venice of Sumatra

An artical written by Guest Lecturer Ray Andrews

Australians are aware of the majesty of Italy’s Venice; its waterways and port attracting traders from across the western world for centuries, transforming the city into one of the most romantic destinations of Europe. Venice was the crux for religions, innovations and technology, along the way blending new foods from the Americas and spices from the exotic east. But did you know there was a Venetian-like empire in the Malay Archipelago that mimicked this cosmopolitan society? It was called Srivijaya, and it was based on the Indonesian Island of Sumatra, at the crossroads of the civilisations in the Far East. 

From the early 5th century AD and continuing for the next 600 years, this powerful maritime trading society flourished in South East Asia, before disappearing at the height of its powers. It’s still a mystery as to what happened to this Venice of Sumatra, but we do know that many competing civilisations envied Srivijaya’s monopolisation of the trade networks, that spanned between India and China through the Malacca Straits.

Academics still argue as to the precise seat of rule of Srivijaya, as the nobility seems to have changed residences over its many generations. What we do know is that the kingdom that Srivijaya was the maritime superpower of its day, with its roots in what is the present-day city of Palembang in southern Sumatra. Part of its success derived from its ability to suppress piracy to create safe passages for traders of all nationalities. Raffles also managed to accomplish this when he established Singapore. The Straits of Malacca have been, and continue to be, the funnel for a vast proportion of the worlds trade. 

The ancient site of Srivijaya was situated on the banks of the wide Musi River. Surviving accounts talk of a proud race of traders who lived out their lives surrounded by waterways, whilst living on floating rafts and sampans amongst warehouses that sat on stilts above the river. They built fast sailing praus and developed a vast navy to support their burgeoning empire. These were sea people, who made their livelihoods from trading. The renowned explorer and naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, visited Palembang in the 19th Century and described the city as 15 miles long by one house wide, in reference to a population housed on stilts along the Musi River. 

In this era, the island of Sumatra was a great source of such coveted riches as cloves, ivory, pepper, sandalwood, and gold. But it was the trade in goods flowing between India and Persia to the west and to China to the east, where Srivijaya made most of its wealth. Silks, porcelain, tea, hemp, camphor, glass, tin, pottery and a multitude of spices, all flowed through the prosperous storehouses that lined the Musi River.  

Novel religions and superior technologies entered the region via the Malacca Strait. Initially, Buddhists held sway and helped to define the social and political order. Soon Hinduism came through an influx of Indian trade, eventually dominating for a few centuries before being usurped by more modern Islamic teachings. Monks and other holy men flocked to Srivijaya and much of what we know today about this mysterious civilisation comes from their accounts. 

Around Sumatra other nearby settlements also flourished, including those of the Padang, Acehnese and Batak who dominated trade on the west coast, often setup by rivals looking for alternative routes and markets not yet controlled by the monopolising Srivijayans

Today, we can still see a lot of evidence of these previous cultures, and the Orang Laut (people of the sea) still live in their stilted houses along the coast and up the rivers, including the Musi River. This is an intriguing part of the world, and Coral Expeditions is at the forefront of exploring. Join us for our Circumnavigation of Sumatra in late November 2024 and let’s discover this fascinating region together.  



Ray Andrews. Guest Lecturer, Author and Naturalist.

Ray Andrews- Naturalist

An accomplished author, guide, public speaker and broadcaster, Ray Andrews is the travel companion to have by your side when you’re looking to add depth and wonder to your travels.

He is the author of several natural history books on Australia, is the founder of The Geographic Extremes Society, and a popular presenter of talks, podcasts and broadcasts that explore all aspects of Australia’s natural history. Moreover, Ray is a passionate narrator who uses his widespread knowledge and relaxed approach to bring the curiosities of the Australian bush to life.