Buddha, bandits and bondsmen: Some questions about ancient Javanese states

Javanese states

Stupas of Borobudur. Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, 2015 / CC BY-SA 3.0.

As a Seshat research assistant, I’ve been reading about the history of early Javanese states for several weeks now. In the mid-1st millennium CE, these self-proclaimed kingdoms began to emerge on the volcanic plateaus in the centre of the island. Rulers adopted Sanskrit titles and aspects of the religious traditions ‒ Buddhism, Shaivist and Vaishnavist Hinduism ‒ of the Indian subcontinent. Impressive stone temple complexes sprang up, including Candi Sewu (8th century) and the famous Borobudur (9th century), a monumental series of concentric terraces ascending to a high central stupa. Covered in intricate carvings depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha, it has been described as a ‘mandala in stone’.

As I was trying to get to grips with the political structure of these kingdoms, two points ‒ seemingly contradictory ‒ kept cropping up in the literature:

  • The royal court had considerable power to institute complicated tax arrangements, at least in the villages closer to the centre of authority. Villagers co-operated, providing officials with the necessary information. The labour required to build immense stone monuments like Borobudur is said to have come partly from ‘royal bondsmen’.[1]
  • Fertile land was plentiful, irrigation for rice farming was generally managed at the community level (i.e. the state didn’t control the means of production), and in general it would have been easy to leave.

Living in a world of territorially bounded nation states, we tend to forget that in the past, vast tracts of land (and sea) were not subject to any centralized authority. If demands for tax or labour became too onerous, there was usually the option to move beyond the reach of royal officials or local lords. In Java, moving into the forested uplands, or even just further away from the central court, would (at least in the earlier period) have been sufficient.

So what was the basis of this fairly extensive royal power ‒ if you have a choice, why comply with the tax demands of the king’s officials? How and why would you become a bondsman? Luckily, Prof. John Miksic, an archaeologist specialising in ancient Java, had agreed to meet Seshat’s Daniel Mullins and Pieter François in Singapore and share his expertise. I sent a question about these bondsmen, and Miksic’s reply touched on settlement patterns, patron-client relations and the dangers of living in these early kingdoms.

There were different levels of servitude, he said, and they were not clearly distinguished linguistically. The worst-off were war captives, who were under some compulsion to work the land. However, for a broader spectrum of society, becoming the ‘bondsman’ of a high-status official had its advantages. In exchange for your labour and a portion of your agricultural produce, the official was under some obligation to protect you. As in later periods, Miksic believes that villages at this time would have been fortified ‒ for example with thorny bamboo ‒ as protection from roving bandits (or even from the now-extinct Javan tiger). We do have evidence for royal investment in public safety: an inscription issued by King Balitung in the early 10th century records a gift of land to five royal officials, with the proviso that they protect the villagers and travellers along the ‘dangerous’ mountain path within the territory.[3]

Wet-rice farming in modern-day Java, near Yogyakarta. Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata, 2010 / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Wet-rice farming in modern-day Java, near Yogyakarta. Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata, 2010 / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Nor should we neglect the role of the perceived spiritual benefits to be gained from relations with a divinely sanctioned king, his court presented as the centre of the universe, and his officials. Miksic has written about this elsewhere.[4] With the help of learned Brahmins and Buddhist monks from beyond the Java Sea, monarchs could lay claim to a ‘ritual sovereignty’[5] that was surely as important as other forms of royal authority in this period. Take the words of the 11th-century King Airlangga, who after building a dam (in fact a very unusual undertaking for a Javanese monarch), took the opportunity to proclaim his royal beneficence:

‘This dam was built in order to bring about benefits for the world and the revival of all the holy religious foundations […] This was brought about through the command of His Majesty [Airlangga], who has his capital at Kahuripa, because he visibly showers upon the world the elixir of life that is his affection, causing a rain of merit. By this construction he will serve to perfect all the holy temple (dharma) foundations for the benefit of all his subjects, old and young, who dwell in the sanctified realm (mandala) of the island of Java. His reason for causing the source of devotion to spread is to provide a shining example for all the world, and also to add to the splendor (of the realm). This is his reason for conducting himself as a universal monarch (chakravartin) as he has in undertaking this construction which will bring about daily well-being for the world, thus providing a sign to the world that His Majesty is not interested solely in his own advantage’.[6]

Miksic’s thoughts on the potential benefits of becoming a bondsman to a Javanese official form an interesting counterpoint to the work of anthropologist James Scott on mainland Southeast Asia. In his fascinating (and controversial) 2009 book The Art of Not Being Governed, he emphasises the coercive power of early states to induce people to settle down and, instead of swidden agriculture or hunting and gathering, engage in wet-rice farming (easily taxable, but in many ways unhealthier and harder work). The large labour forces of the early states of mainland Southeast Asia, he argues, were obtained through physical force and slave-raiding:  ‘What is most striking … is that none of these padi states flourished except by slave-raiding on a substantial scale’.[7]

In this model, states use violence to create subjects from which to extract surplus; in the model of the Javanese kingdoms described above, villagers are almost seduced, through offers of protection and divinely bestowed prosperity, into relations with the centre. Were Javanese states ‒ the Medang and Kediri kingdoms, for instance ‒ less coercive, or is this a case of different historical goggles? Do inscriptions like Airlangga’s conceal a darker reality? Javanese villagers do seem to have had some negotiating clout when it came to taxes: the one inscription of 906 CE records the elders of Palepangan successfully petitioning a high official to reduce their tax burden by claiming that their land had been measured incorrectly.[8] But because our view of these kingdoms is still very ‘top-down’, derived from inscriptions issued by kings and rakrayan (local lords) rather than from archaeological excavation of ordinary settlements, many of these questions remain unanswered.

Works Cited

[1] Kenneth R. Hall. 2011. A History of Early Southeast Asia: Maritime Trade and Social Development, 100-1500. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, p. 141.

[2] Jan Wisseman-Christie. 1986. ‘Negara, Mandala, and Despotic State: Images of Early Java’, in Southeast Asia in the 9th to 14th Centuries, edited by David G. Marr and A. C. Milner, 65-94. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 78.

[3] J. G. de Casparis. 1986. ‘Some Notes on Relations between Central and Local Government in Ancient Java’, in Southeast Asia in the 9th to 14th Centuries, edited by David G. Marr and A. C. Milner, 49-63. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 54.

[4] John N. Miksic. 2004. ‘Mataram’, in Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, edited by Ooi Keat Gin, 863-66. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, p. 863.

[5] Kenneth R. Hall. 1992. ‘Economic History of Early Southeast Asia’, in The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Vol. I: From Early Times to c. 1800, edited by Nicholas Tarling, 183-275. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 207.

[6] Hall 2011, p. 148.

[7] James C. Scott. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 85.

[8] Anton O. Zakharov. 2012. ‘Epigraphy, Political History, and Collective Action in Ancient Java’, in Connecting Empires and States: Selected Papers from the 13th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, edited by Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz, Andreas Reinecke, and Dominik Bonatz, 82-89. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 85.


1 comment

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September 17, 2016

Interesting piece, raises good questions.

In ancient times “there was usually the option to move beyond the reach of royal officials or local lords” and this is a strategy still in use today to a greater or lesser degree of success.

Edward Snowdon found asylum in Russia. Issue was not about taxation but it was a dispute nonetheless with his ‘lords’. But Snowdon is an exception.

The main deterrent from moving away, in all eras, I believe, is that one’s local community is one’s primary support group, and this extends beyond the closest members of one’s family.

Ideally one does not simply move away alone, one takes one’s community along too.

Problem is the leader of your local community may be a fervent supporter of the Lord. He could be on the payroll.

Then the dilemma is if you had the support of the whole local community and its leader why go to the trouble of moving away when you could launch a separatist rebellion?

Very little in the world can be done alone!