Complete Early History of Malaysia

Candi Bukit Batu Pahat - Hinduism in Malaysia

Malaysia is an Asian country consisting of thirteen states and three federal territories, separated by the South China Sea into two regions, Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo’s East Malaysia. Peninsular Malaysia shares a land and marine border with Thailand and maritime borders with Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia. East Malaysia shares land and maritime borders with Brunei and Indonesia and a maritime border with the Philippines and Vietnam. Kuala Lumpur is the national capital and most populous city. Putrajaya is the seat of the federal government.

History of Malaysia Until the Medieval Era

Stone hand-axes from ancient hominoids, presumably Homo erectus, have been unearthed in Lenggong. They record back 1.83 million years, the earliest indication of hominid habitation in Southeast Asia. The earliest evidence of modern human habitation in Malaysia is the 40,000-year-old skull unearthed from the Niah Caves in today’s Sarawak, nicknamed “Deep Skull”. It was unearthed from a deep trench uncovered by Barbara and Tom Harrisson (a British ethnologist) in 1958. The skull probably belongs to a 16-to 17-year-old teenage girl. The first foragers traveled the West Mouth of Niah Caves (located 110 kilometers (68 mi) southwest of Miri)40,000 years ago when Borneo a part of the mainland of Southeast Asia. The panorama around the Niah Caves was drier and more apparent than it is now. Prehistorically, the Niah Caves were enclosed by a blend of closed forests with bush, parkland, swamps, and rivers. The foragers were able to survive in the rainforest through hunting, fishing, and gathering mollusks and edible plants. Mesolithic and Neolithic burial sites have also been found in the area. The area around the Niah Caves has been designated the Niah National Park.

Hinduism and Buddism

In the first millennium CE, Hinduism became the dominant religion on the peninsula. The small early states that were founded were greatly influenced by Indian culture, as was most of Southeast Asia. Indian influence in the region dates back to at least the 3rd century BCE. South Indian culture was spread to Southeast Asia by the Indian Pallava dynasty.

In ancient Indian literature, the term Suvarnadvipa or the “Golden Peninsula” is written in Ramayana, and some claimed that it might be a citation to the Malay Peninsula. The ancient Indian text Vayu Purana also named a place named Malayadvipa where gold mines could be found, and this term has been proposed to mean possibly Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.

There were various Malay kingdoms in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, as many as 30, mainly based on the Eastern side of the Malay peninsula. Among the earliest kingdom known to have been based in the Malay Peninsula is the ancient kingdom of Langkasuka, located in the northern Malay Peninsula and based somewhere on the west coast It was closely tied to Funan in Cambodia, which also ruled part of northern Malaysia until the 6th century. In the 5th century, the Kingdom of Pahang was mentioned in the Book of Song. According to the Sejarah Melayu (“Malay Annals”), the Khmer prince Raja Ganji Sarjuna established the state of Gangga Negara (modern-day Beruas, Perak) in the 700s. Chinese chronicles of the 5th century CE speak of a great port in the south called Guantoli, which is thought to have been in the Straits of Malacca.


Between the 7th and the 13th century, much of the Malay peninsula was under the Buddhist Srivijaya empire. The site of Srivijaya’s centre is thought be at a river mouth in eastern Sumatra, based near what is now Palembang. For over six centuries the Maharajahs of Srivijaya ruled a maritime empire that became the primary power in the archipelago. The empire was based around trade, with local kings (dhatus or community leaders) swearing loyalty to the central lord for mutual profit.

The relation between Srivijaya and the Chola Empire of south India was close during the reign of Raja Raja Chola I but in the reign of Rajendra Chola I the Chola Empire penetrated Srivijaya cities. In 1025 and 1026 Gangga Negara was pushed by Rajendra Chola I of the Chola Empire. Kedah—known as Kedaram, Cheh-Cha (according to I-Ching) or Kataha, in ancient Pallava or Sanskrit—was in the direct route of the invasions and was ruled by the Cholas from 1025. A second invasion was led by Virarajendra Chola of the Chola dynasty who conquered Kedah in the late 11th century. The senior Chola’s successor, Vira Rajendra Chola, had to put down a Kedah rebellion to overthrow other enemies. The coming of the Chola reduced the majesty of Srivijaya, which had exerted control over Kedah, Pattani, and as far as Ligor. During the reign of Kulothunga Chola I Chola overlordship was established over the Srivijaya province Kedah in the late 11th century. The expedition of the Chola Emperors had such a great impression to the Malay people of the medieval period that their name was mentioned in the medieval Malay account Sejarah Melaya. Even today the Chola rule is remembered in Malaysia as many Malaysian princes have names ending with Cholan or Chulan.

Decline and Islamic Invasion

At times, the Khmer kingdom, the Siamese kingdom, and even Cholas kingdom tried to exercise control over the smaller Malay states. The power of Srivijaya descended from the 12th century as the relationship between the capital and its vassals crashed down. Wars with the Javanese caused it to request assistance from China, and wars with Indian states are also assumed. In the 11th century, the center of power shifted to Malayu, a port possibly located further up the Sumatran coast near the Jambi River. The power of the Buddhist Maharajas was further threatened by the spread of Islam. Areas that were forcibly converted to Islam early, such as Aceh, broke away from Srivijaya’s control. By the late 13th century, the Siamese kings of Sukhothai had brought most of Malaya under their rule. In the 14th century, the Hindu Java-based Majapahit empire came into ownership of the peninsula.

Part 1 Concludes. We will explore the rise of Islam in part-2.

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