The Shailendra Kingdom of Java

Aerial view of Borobudur Temple, Java
Borobudur Temple, the Shailendra Kingdom's masterpiece on Java, Indonesia. Philippe Boursellier via Getty Images

In the 8th century CE, a Mahayana Buddhist kingdom sprang up on the central plain of Java, now in Indonesia. Soon, glorious Buddhist monuments flowered across the Kedu Plain - and the most incredible of them all was the massive stupa of Borobudur. But who were these great builders and believers? Unfortunately, we do not have many primary historical sources about the Shailendra Kingdom of Java. Here is what we know, or suspect, about this kingdom.

Like their neighbors, the Srivijaya Kingdom of the island of Sumatra, the Shailendra Kingdom was a great ocean-going and trading empire. Also known as a thalassocracy, this form of government made perfect sense for a people located at the linch-pin point of the great Indian Ocean maritime trade. Java is midway between the silks, tea, and porcelains of China, to the east, and the spices, gold, and jewels of India, to the west. In addition, of course, the Indonesian islands themselves were famous for their exotic spices, sought after all around the Indian Ocean basin and beyond.

Archaeological evidence suggests, however, that the people of Shailendra did not rely entirely upon the sea for their living. The rich, volcanic soil of Java also yielded bountiful harvests of rice, which could have been consumed by the farmers themselves or traded to passing merchant ships for a tidy profit. 

Where did the Shailendra people come from? In the past, historians and archaeologists have suggested various points of origin for them based on their artistic style, material culture, and languages. Some said they came from Cambodia, others India, still others that they were one and the same with the Srivijaya of Sumatra. It seems most likely, however, that they were native to Java, and were influenced by far-flung Asian cultures through the sea-borne trade. The Shailendra seem to have emerged around the year 778 CE. It was around this same time that gamelan music became popular in Java and throughout Indonesia.

Interestingly, at that time there was already another great kingdom in Central Java. The Sanjaya dynasty was Hindu rather than Buddhist, but the two seem to have gotten along well for decades. Both also had ties with the Champa Kingdom of the Southeast Asian mainland, the Chola Kingdom of southern India, and with Srivijaya, on the nearby island of Sumatra.

The ruling family of Shailendra does seem to have intermarried with the rulers of Srivijaya, in fact. For example, the Shailendra ruler Samaragrawira made a marriage alliance with the daughter of a Maharaja of Srivijaya, a woman called Dewi Tara. This would have cemented trade and political ties with her father, the Maharaja Dharmasetu.

For around 100 years, the two great trading kingdoms in Java seem to have peacefully coexisted. However, by the year 852, the Sanjaya seem to have pushed the Sailendra out of Central Java. Some inscriptions suggest that the Sanjaya ruler Rakai Pikatan (r. 838 - 850) overthrew the Shailendra king Balaputra, who fled to the Srivijaya court in Sumatra. According to legend, Balaputra then took power in Srivijaya. The last known inscription mentioning any member of the Shailendra dynasty is from the year 1025, when the great Chola emperor Rajendra Chola I launched a devastating invasion of Srivijaya, and took the last Shailendra king back to India as a hostage.

It is terribly frustrating that we do not have more information about this fascinating kingdom and its people. After all, the Shailendra were quite obviously literate - they left inscriptions in three different languages, Old Malay, Old Javanese, and Sanskrit. However, these carved stone inscriptions are fairly fragmentary, and don't provide a very complete picture of even the kings of Shailendra, let alone the daily lives of ordinary people.

Thankfully, though, they did leave us the magnificent Borobudur Temple as a lasting monument to their presence in Central Java.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Shailendra Kingdom of Java." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 26). The Shailendra Kingdom of Java. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Shailendra Kingdom of Java." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).