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Ethnic Malays


Total population
c. 24.38 million
Regions with significant populations

Malaysia: 14,749,378[1]
Brunei: 261,902[2]

Indonesia 5,365,399[3]
Thailand 1,964,384[4]
Singapore 653,449[5]
Official: Dialects: Others:
Sunni Islam

Malays (Malay: Melayu, Jawi: ملايو) are an ethnic group of Austronesian peoples predominantly inhabiting the Malay Peninsula, eastern Sumatra and coastal Borneo, as well as the smaller islands which lie between these locations — areas that are collectively known as the Malay world. These locations today are part of the modern nations of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and southern Thailand.

There is considerable genetic, linguistic, cultural, and social diversity among the many Malay subgroups, mainly due to hundreds of years of immigration and assimilation of various regional ethnicity and tribes within Maritime Southeast Asia. Historically, the Malay population is descended primarily from the earlier Malayic-speaking tribes that settled in the region, who founded several ancient maritime trading states and kingdoms, notably Brunei, Kedah Kingdom, Langkasuka, Gangga Negara, Chi Tu, Nakhon Si Thammarat Kingdom, Melayu Kingdom and Srivijaya,[6] and the later Cham and Austronesian settlers.[7]

The advent of the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century triggered a major revolution in Malay history, the significance of which lies in its far-reaching political and cultural legacy. Common definitive markers of a Malayness - the religion of Islam, the Malay language and traditions - are thought to have been promulgated during this era, resulting in the ethnogenesis of the Malay as a major ethnoreligious group in the region.[8] In literature, architecture, culinary traditions, traditional dress, performing arts, martial arts, and royal court traditions, Malacca set a standard that later Malay sultanates emulated. The golden age of the Malay sultanates in the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo saw many of their inhabitants, particularly from various tribal communities like the Batak, Dayak, Orang Asli and the Orang laut become subject to Islamisation and Malayisation.[9] Today, some Malays have recent forbears from other parts of Maritime Southeast Asia, termed as anak dagang ("traders") and who predominantly consist of Javanese people, Bugis, Minangkabau people and Acehnese peoples, while some are also descended from more recent immigrants from other countries.[10]

Throughout their history, the Malays have been known as a coastal-trading community with fluid cultural characteristics.[11][12] They absorbed numerous cultural features of other local ethnic groups, such as those of Minang, Acehnese, and to some degree Javanese culture; however Malay culture differs by being more overtly Islamic than the multi-religious Javanese culture. Ethnic Malays are also the major source of the ethnocultural development of the related Betawi, Banjar, Cape Malay, Peranakan and Sri Lankan Malay cultures, as well as the development of Malay trade and creole languages like Ambonese Malay, Baba Malay, the Betawi language and Manado Malay.


  • Etymology 1
  • History 2
    • Origins 2.1
      • Proto-Malay models 2.1.1
        • Deutero-Malays
      • Expansion from Sundaland model 2.1.2
    • Indian influence 2.2
    • Islamisation 2.3
    • Colonisation 2.4
    • Malay nationalism 2.5
  • Culture 3
    • Language 3.1
    • Literature 3.2
    • Religion 3.3
    • Architecture 3.4
    • Visual art 3.5
    • Cuisine 3.6
    • Performing arts 3.7
    • Traditional dress 3.8
    • Martial arts 3.9
    • Traditional games 3.10
    • Names and Titles 3.11
  • Sub-ethnic groups 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7


Joget dance from the Malacca Sultanate; many aspects of Malay culture are derived from the Malaccan court.

The epic literature, the Malay Annals, associates the etymological origin of "Melayu" to Sungai Melayu ('Melayu river') in Sumatra. The term is thought to derived from the Malay word melaju, a combination of the verbal prefix 'me' and the root word 'laju', meaning "to accelerate", used to describe the accelerating strong current of the river.[13]

The word "Melayu" as an ethnonym, to allude to a clearly different ethnological cluster, is assumed to have been made fashionable throughout the integration of the Malacca Sultanate as a regional power in the 15th century. It was applied to report the social partialities of the Malaccans as opposed to foreigners as of the similar area, especially the Javanese and Thais[14] This is evidenced from the early 16th century Malay word-list by Antonio Pigafetta who joined the Magellan's circumnavigation, that made a reference to how the phrase chiara Malaiu ('Malay ways') was used in the maritime Southeast Asia, to refer to the al parlare de Malaea (Italian for “to speak of Malacca”).[15]

The English term “Malay” was adopted via the Dutch word Malayo, itself derived from Portuguese: Malaio, which originates from the original Malay word, Melayu.

Muaro Jambi Temple Compounds in Jambi, historically linked to pre-Islamic Melayu Kingdom.

Prior to the 15th century, the term “Melayu" and its similar sounding variants appear to apply as an old toponym to the Strait of Malacca region in general.[16]

  • Malaya Dwipa, "Malaya Dvipa", is described in chapter 48, Vayu Purana as one of the provinces in the eastern sea that was full of gold and silver. Some scholars equate the term with Sumatra,[17] but several Indian scholars believe the term should refer to the mountainous Malay peninsula, while Sumatra is more correctly associated with Suvarnadvipa.[18][19][20][21][22]
  • Maleu-kolon - appeared in Ptolemy's work, Geographia.[23]
  • Mo-lo-yu - mentioned by Yijing, a Tang dynasty Chinese Buddhist monk who visited the Southeast Asia between 688–695. According to Yijing, the Mo-Lo-Yu kingdom was located in a distance of 15 day sail from Bogha (Palembang), the capital of Sribhoga (Srivijaya). It took a 15-day sail as well to reach Ka-Cha (Kedah) from Mo-lo-yu; therefore, it can be reasoned that Mo-Lo-Yu would lie halfway between the two places.[24] A popular theory relates Mo-Lo-Yu with the Jambi in Sumatra,[25] however the geographical location of Jambi contradicts with Yi Jing's description of a "half way sail between Ka-Cha (Kedah) and Bogha (Palembang)". In the later Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the word Ma-La-Yu was mentioned often in Chinese historical texts - with changes in spelling due to the time span between the dynasties - to refer to a nation near the southern sea. Among the terms used was "Bok-la-yu", "Mok-la-yu" (木剌由), Ma-li-yu-er (麻里予兒), Oo-lai-yu (巫来由) - traced from the written source of monk Xuanzang), and Wu-lai-yu (無来由).
  • Malayur - inscribed on the south wall of the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Tamil Nadu. It was described as a kingdom that had "a strong mountain for its rampart" in Malay peninsula, that fell to the Chola invaders during Rajendra Chola I's campaign in the 11th century.
  • Bhūmi Mālayu - (literally "Land of Malayu"), a transcription from Padang Roco Inscription dated 1286 CE by Slamet Muljana.[26] The term is associated with Dharmasraya kingdom.
  • Ma-li-yu-er - mentioned in the chronicle of Yuan Dynasty, referring to a nation of Malay peninsula that faced the southward expansion of Sukhothai Kingdom, during the reign of Ram Khamhaeng.[27] The chronicle stated: "..Animosity occurred between Siam and Ma-li-yu-er with both killing each other...". In response to the Sukhothai's action, a Chinese envoy went to the Ram Khamhaeng's court in 1295 bearing an imperial decree: "Keep your promise and do no evil to Ma-li-yu-er".[28]
  • Malauir - mentioned in Marco Polo's account as a kingdom located in the Malay peninsula,[29][30] possibly similar to the one mentioned in Yuan chronicle.
  • Malayapura - (literally "city of Malaya" or "fortress of Malaya"), inscribed on the Amoghapasa inscription dated 1347 CE. The term was used by Adityawarman to refer to Dharmasraya.The word Malay refer to Mountain and Pura refer to Country in Tamil Language.

Other the Javanese word mlayu (to run) derived from mlaku (to walk or to travel), or the Malay term melaju (to steadily accelerate), to refer the high mobility and migratory nature of its people, however these suggestions remain as popular beliefs without corroborating evidence.



Proto-Malay models

Also known as Melayu asli (aboriginal Malays) or Melayu purba (ancient Malays), the Proto-Malays are of Austronesian origin and thought to have migrated to the Malay archipelago in a long series of migrations between 2500 and 1500 BC.[31] The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Early History, has pointed out a total of three theories of the origin of Malays:

  • The Yunnan theory, Mekong river migration (published in 1889) - The theory of Proto-Malays originating from Yunnan is supported by R.H Geldern, J.H.C Kern, J.R Foster, J.R Logen, Slamet Muljana and Asmah Haji Omar. Other evidences that support this theory include: stone tools found in Malay Archipelago are analogous to Central Asian tools, similarity of Malay customs and Assam customs.
  • The New Guinea theory (published in 1965) - The proto-Malays are believed to be seafarers knowledgeable in oceanography and possessing agricultural skills. They moved around from island to island in great distances between modern day New Zealand and Madagascar, and they served as navigation guides, crew and labour to Indian, Arab, Persian and Chinese traders for nearly 2000 years. Over the years they settled at various places and adopted various cultures and religions.
  • The Taiwan theory (published in 1997) - The migration of a certain group of Southern Chinese occurred 6,000 years ago, some moved to Taiwan (today's Taiwanese aborigines are their descendents), then to the Philippines and later to Borneo (roughly 4,500 years ago) (today's Dayak and other groups). These ancient people also split with some heading to Sulawesi and others progressing into Java, and Sumatra, all of which now speaks languages that belongs to the Austronesian Language family. The final migration was to the Malay Peninsula roughly 3,000 years ago. A sub-group from Borneo moved to Champa in modern-day Central and South Vietnam roughly 4,500 years ago. There are also traces of the Dong Son and Hoabinhian migration from Vietnam and Cambodia. All these groups share DNA and linguistic origins traceable to the island that is today Taiwan, and the ancestors of these ancient people are traceable to southern China.[32]

The Deutero-Malays are Iron Age people descended partly from the subsequent Austronesian peoples who came equipped with more advanced farming techniques and new knowledge of metals.[33] They are kindred but more Mongolised and greatly distinguished from the Proto-Malays which have shorter stature, darker skin, slightly higher frequency of wavy hair, much higher percentage of dolichocephaly and a markedly lower frequency of the epicanthic fold.[33] The Deutero-Malay settlers were not nomadic compared to their predecessors, instead they settled and established kampungs which serve as the main units in the society. These kampungs were normally situated on the riverbanks or coastal areas and generally self-sufficient in food and other necessities. By the end of the last century BC, these kampungs beginning to engage in some trade with the outside world.[34] The Deutero-Malays are considered the direct ancestors of present-day Malay people.[35] Notable Proto-Malays of today are Moken, Jakun, Orang Kuala, Temuan and Orang Kanaq.[36]

Expansion from Sundaland model

A more recent theory holds that rather than being populated by expansion from the mainland, the

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See also

Ethnic group Historical realms Regions with significant population
Bangka-Belitung Malay Bangka–Belitung Islands
Bangkok Malay[147][148] Min Buri, Nong Chok Lam Luk Ka, Mueang Pathum
Ayutthaya Province
Bengkulu Malay Bengkulu
Berau Malays Berau Regency
Bruneian Malay[149][150][151][152]  Brunei
 Labuan,  Sarawak,  Sabah
Buginese Malay[153]

Assimilated Malay group of Bugis descent

 Selangor,  Johor,  Pahang
Riau, Riau Islands
Cape Malay Western Cape, Gauteng
Cocos Malays Cocos Islands,  Sabah
Deli Malay North Sumatra
Jambi Malay Jambi
Javanese Malay[153][154]
Assimilated Malay group of Javanese descent
 Johor,  Selangor,  Perak,  Kedah
Johorean Malay[150][151][152]  Johor
Kedahan Malay[150][151][152][155]  Kedah,  Perlis,  Penang,  Perak
Satun, Trang, Krabi, Phuket, Phang Nga
Ranong, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phattalung
Songkhla, Yala
Tanintharyi Division
Kelantanese Malay[150][151][152]  Kelantan
Loloan Malay Jembrana Regency
Malaccan Malay[150][151][152]  Malacca
Minangkabau Malay[153][154]
Assimilated Malay group of Minangkabau descent
 Negeri Sembilan,  Selangor
Riau, Riau Islands
Pahangite Malay[150][151][152]  Pahang
Palembang Malay South Sumatra
Pattani Malay[150][151][152]

Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, Songkhla, Krabi
 Kedah,  Kelantan,  Perak

Perakian Malay[150][151][152]  Perak
Pontianak Malay West Kalimantan
Riau Malay
  • Riau-Lingga Sultanate (1824–1911)
  • Bintan Sultanate
  • Pelalawan Sultanate (1791–1946)
  • Kuntu Kampar Sultanate (1234-1933)
  • Indragiri Sultanate (1298–1963)
  • Rokan Sultanate (1569-1940)
Riau, Riau Islands, Limapuluh Koto, Pasaman
Sarawakian Malay
  • Sarawak Sultanate (1598–1641)
Singaporean Malay  Singapore
Sri Lankan Malay  Sri Lanka
Tamiang Malay
  • Bukit Karang Kingdom (1023–1330)
  • Benua Tamiang Sultanate (1330–1528)
Aceh Tamiang Regency
Terengganuan Malay[150][151][152]  Terengganu
Ethnic Malay among other ethnic groups in Indonesia. Although only constitute 3.4% of total population, Ethnic Malay is one of the most widely distributed ethnic in Indonesia, the realm of Malay is described in green and other related sub-ethnic is rendered in darker or lighter green. Malay ethnic groups is depicted to inhabit eastern coast of Sumatra and coastal Kalimantan.

Sub-ethnic groups

In addition to naming system, the Malay language also has a complex system of titles and honorifics, which are still extensively used in Malaysia and Brunei. By applying these Malay titles to a normal Malay name, a more complex name is produced. The current Prime Minister of Malaysia has the full name Dato' Seri Mohd Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak, where 'Dato' Seri' is a Malay title of honour, 'Mohd Najib' is his personal name, 'bin' is derived from an Arabic word Ibnu meaning "son of" if in case of daughter it is replaced with binti, an Arabic word "bintun" meaning "daughter of", introduces his father's titles and names, 'Tun' is a higher honour, 'Haji' denotes his father's Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and 'Abdul Razak' is his father's personal name. The more extremely complex Malay names however, belong to the Malay royalties. The reigning Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia has the full regnal name Duli Yang Maha Mulia Almu'tasimu Billahi Muhibbuddin Tuanku AlHaj Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah Ibni AlMarhum Sultan Badlishah, while the reigning Sultan of Brunei officially known as Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien.

Malay names are patronymic and can be consisted of up to four parts; a title, a given name, the family name, and a description of the individual’s male parentage. Some given names and father's names can be composed of double names and even triple names, therefore generating a longer name. For example, one of the Malaysian national footballer has the full name Mohd Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak, where 'Mohd Aidil Zafuan' is his triple given name and 'Abdul Radzak' is his father's double given name.

Malay personal names are complex, reflecting the hierarchical nature of the society, and titles are considered important. It has undergone tremendous change, evolving with the times to reflect the different influences that the Malays been subjected over the ages. Although some Malay names still retain parts of its indigenous Malay and Sanskrit influences, as Muslims, Malays have long favoured Arabic names as marks of their religion.

Names and Titles

The Malays also have a variant of Mancala board game known as Congkak. The game is played by moving stones, marbles, beads or shells around a wooden board consisting of twelve or more holes. Mancala is acknowledged as the oldest game in the world and can be traced its origin since Ancient Egypt. As the game dispersed around the globe, every culture has invented its own variation including the Malays.[146]

Possibly the most popular Malay games is the Wau (a unique kind of kite from east coast of Malay peninsular) or kite flying. Wau-flying competitions take place with judges awarding points for craftsmanship (Wau are beautiful, colourful objects set on bamboo frames), sound (all Malay kites are designed to create a specific sound as they are buffeted about in the wind) and altitude.[145]

Other popular game is Gasing spinning which usually played after the harvest season. A great skill of craftsmanship is required to produce the most competitive Gasing (top), some of which spin for two hours at a time.[145]

A close-up to two Malay style Gasings.

Sepak Raga is one of the most popular Malay games and has been played for centuries. Traditionally, Sepak raga was played in circle by kicking and keeps aloft the rattan ball using any part of the body except the arms and hands. It is now recognised as Malaysia’s national sport[143][144] and played in the international sporting events such as Asian Games and Southeast Asian Games.

Traditional Malay games usually require craft skills and manual dexterity and can be traced their origins since the days of Malacca Sultanate. Sepak Raga and kite flying are among traditional games that were mentioned in the Malay Annals being played by nobilities and royalties of the Malay sultanate.[140][141][142]

A Wau-maker's workshop in Kelantan, Malaysia.

Traditional games

Apart from Silat, Tomoi is also practised by the Malays mainly in the northern states of Malay peninsula. It is a variant of Indo-Chinese forms of kickboxing which is believed to have been spread in the Southeast Asian mainland since the time of Funan Empire (68 AD).

The influence of Malay sultanates of Malacca, Johor, Pattani and Brunei has contributed to the spread of this martial art in the Malay Archipelago. Through a complex maze of sea channels and river capillaries that facilitated exchange and trade throughout the region, Silat wound its way into the dense rainforest and up into the mountains. The legendary Laksamana Hang Tuah of Malacca is one of the most renowned pesilat (Silat practitioner) in history[136] and even considered by some as the father of Malay silat.[137] Since the classical era, Silat Melayu underwent great diversification and formed what is today traditionally recognised as the source of Indonesian Pencak Silat and other forms of Silat in Southeast Asia.[138][139]

Silat and its variants can be found throughout the Malay world; Malay peninsula, Singapore, Riau Islands, Sumatra and coastal areas of Borneo. Archaeological evidence reveals that, by the 6th century, formalised combat arts were being practised in Malay peninsular and Sumatra.[133] Earliest forms of Silat is believed to have been developed and used in the armed forces of ancient Malay kingdoms of Langkasuka (2nd century)[134][135] and Srivijaya (7th century).

Martial arts

In contrast to Baju Melayu which continued to be worn as ceremonial dress only, Baju Kurung is worn daily throughout the year by a majority of Malay women. Sighting of female civil servants, professional workers and students wearing Baju Kurung is common in Malaysia and Brunei.

Traditional Malay dress varies between different regions but the most popular traditional dress in modern-day are Baju Kurung (for women) and Baju Melayu (for men), which both recognised as the national dress for Malaysia and Brunei,[131][132] and also worn by Malay communities in Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand.

Common classical Malay attire for men consists of a baju (shirt) or tekua (a type of a long sleeve shirt), baju rompi (vest), kancing (button), a small leg celana (trousers), a sarong worn around the waist, capal (sandal), and a tanjak or tengkolok (headgear); for the aristocrats, the baju sikap or baju layang (a type of coat) and pending (ornamental belt buckle) are also synonymous to be worn. It was also common for a pendekar (Malay warrior) to have a Kris tucked into the front fold of sarong.

In Malay culture, clothes and textiles are revered items of beauty, power and status. Numerous accounts in Malay hikayats stressed the special place occupied by textiles.[129] The Malay handloom industry can be traced its origin since the 13th century when the eastern trade route flourished under Song dynasty. Mention of locally made textiles as well as the predominance of weaving in Malay peninsular was made in various Chinese and Arab accounts.[130] Among well-known Malay textiles are Songket and Batik.

Malay kids wearing the traditional dress during Eid al-Fitr.

Traditional dress

Other well-known Malay performing arts are; Bangsawan theatre, Dondang Sayang love ballad and Mak Inang dance from Malacca Sultanate, Jikey and Mek Mulung theatre from Kedah, Asyik dance and Menora dance drama from Patani and Kelantan, Ulek mayang and Rodat dance from Terengganu, Boria theatre from Penang, Canggung dance from Perlis, Mukun warble from Brunei and Sarawak[126][127][128] and Serampang Dua Belas dance from Serdang.[128]

Indian influences are strong in a traditional shadow play known as Wayang Kulit where stories from Hindu epics; Ramayana & Mahabharata form the main repertoire. There are four distinctive types of shadow puppet theatre that can be found in Malay peninsula; Wayang Gedek, Wayang Purwa, Wayang Melayu and Wayang Siam.[123][124][125]

Nobat music became part of the Royal Regalia of Malay courts since the arrival of Islam in the 12th century and only performed in important court ceremonies. Its orchestra includes the sacred and highly revered instruments of nehara (kettledrums), gendang (double-headed drums), nafiri (trumpet), serunai (oboe), and sometimes a knobbed gong and a pair of cymbals.[122]

Traditional Malay music is basically percussive. Various kinds of gongs provide the beat for many dances. There are also drums of various sizes, ranging from the large rebana ubi used to punctuate important events to the small jingled-rebana (frame drum) used as an accompaniment to vocal recitations in religious ceremonies.[121]

The Malays have a diverse kind of music and dance which are fusions of different cultural influences. Typical genres range from traditional Malay folk dances dramas like Mak Yong to the Arab-influenced Zapin dances. Choreographed movements also vary from simple steps and tunes in Dikir barat to the complicated moves in Joget Gamelan.

A troupe of Siamese Malay dancers performing the Mak Yong during the reign of King Rama V of Siam (c. 19th century), a dance theatre that owe its origin from the Pattani and Kelantanese palace courts. In 2005, it receives the recognition as among the Masterpiece Of The Oral And Intangible Heritage Of Humanity by UNESCO.

Performing arts

Another example is Ketupat or nasi himpit, glutinous compressed rice cooked in palm leafes, is popular especially during Hari Raya or Eid ul-Fitr. Various meats and vegetables could be made into Gulai or Kari, a type of curry dish with variations of spices mixtures that clearly display Indian influence already adopted by Malay people since ancient times. Laksa, a hybrid of Malay and Peranakan Chinese cuisine is also a popular dish. Malay cuisine also adopted some their neighbours' cuisine traditions, such as rendang adopted from Minangkabau in Sumatra, and satay from Java, however Malay people has developed their own distinctive taste and recipes.

Nasi lemak, rice cooked in rich coconut milk probably is the most popular dish ubiquitous in Malay town and villages. Nasi lemak is considered as Malaysia's national dish.[120]

Nearly every Malay meal is served with rice, the staple food in many other East Asian cultures. Although there are various type of dishes in a Malay meal, all are served at once, not in courses. Food is eaten delicately with the fingers of right hand, never with the left which is used for personal ablutions, and Malays rarely use utensils.[119] Because most of Malay people are Muslims, Malay cuisine follows Islamic halal dietary law rigorously. Protein intake are mostly taken from beef, water buffalo, goat, and lamb meat, and also includes poultry and fishes. Pork and any non-halal meats, also alcohol is prohibited and absent from Malay daily diet.

The main characteristic in traditional Malay cuisine is undoubtedly the generous use of spices. The coconut milk is also important in giving the Malay dishes their rich, creamy character. The other foundation is belacan (shrimp paste), which is used as a base for sambal, a rich sauce or condiment made from belacan, chillies, onions and garlic. Malay cooking also makes plentiful use of lemongrass and galangal.[118]

Different Malay regions are all known for their unique or signature dishes – Pattani, Terengganu and Kelantan for their Nasi dagang, Nasi kerabu and Keropok lekor, Negeri Sembilan for its lemak-based dishes, Pahang for its gulai tempoyak, Kedah for its northern-style Asam laksa, Melaka for its spicy Asam Pedas, Perlis and Satun for their Bunga kuda desert, Sarawak and Sambas for their Bubur pedas, Riau for their ikan patin (Pangasius fish) dishes; Gulai ikan patin and Asam Pedas ikan patin, Melayu Deli of Medan North Sumatra for their Nasi goreng teri Medan (Medan anchovy fried rice) and Gulai Ketam (gulai crab),[117] Jambi for its Panggang Ikan Mas, Palembang for its Mie celor and Pempek and Brunei for its unique Ambuyat dish.


A typical Malay traditional houses or mosque would have been adorned with more than 20 carved components The carving on the walls and the panels allow the air breeze to circulate effectively in and out of the building and can let the sunlight to light the interior of the structure. At the same time, the shadow cast by the panels would also create a shadow based on the motives adding the beauty on the floor. Thus, the carved components performed in both functional and aesthetic purposes.

The art form is mainly contributed due to the abundance of timber on the Malay Archipelago and also by the skilfulness of the woodcarvers that have allowed the Malays to practice woodcarving as a craft. The natural tropical settings where flora and fauna and cosmic forces is abundant has inspired the motives to be depict in abstract or styled form into the timber board. With the coming of Islam, geometric and Islamic calligraphy form were introduced in the wood carving. The woods used are typically from tropical hardwood species which is known to be durable and can resist the attacks of the fungi, power-boots beetles and termites.[116]

Wood carving is a part of classical Malay visual arts. The Malays had traditionally adorned their monuments, boats, weapons, tombs, musical instrument, and utensils by motives of flora, calligraphy, geometry and cosmic feature. The art is done by partially removing the wood using sharp tools and following specific patterns, composition and orders. The art form is seen as an act of devotion of the craftsmen to the creator and a gift to his fellowmen.[115]

Visual art

Throughout many decades, the traditional Malay architecture has been influenced by Bugis and Java from the south, Siamese, British, Arab and Indian from the north, Portuguese, Dutch, Aceh and Minangkabau from the west and Southern Chinese from the east.[114]

The traditional Malay houses are built using simple timber-frame structure. They have pitched roofs, porches in the front, high ceilings, many openings on the walls for ventilation,[112] and are often embellished with elaborate wood carvings. The beauty and quality of Malay wood carvings were meant to serve as visual indicators of the social rank and status of the owners themselves.[113]

The first detailed description of Malay architecture was on the great wooden Istana of Mansur Shah of Malacca (reigned 1458–1477).[104] According to Sejarah Melayu, the building had a raised seven bay structures on wooden pillars with a seven tiered roof in cooper shingles and decorated with gilded spires and Chinese glass mirrors.[111]

Early reference on Malay architecture in Malay peninsula can be found in several Chinese records. A 7th-century Chinese account tells of Buddhist pilgrims calling at Langkasuka and mentioned the city as being surrounded by a wall on which towers had been built and was approached through double gates.[109] Another 7th-century account of a special Chinese envoy to Red Earth Kingdom in Malay peninsular, recorded that the capital city had three gates more than hundred paces apart, which were decorated with paintings of Buddhist themes and female spirits.[110]

There is also evidence of Hindu shrines or Candi around south Kedah between the mount Jerai and the Muda River valley, an area known as Bujang Valley. Within an area of about 350 square kilometres, 87 early historic religious sites have been reported and there are 12 candis located on mountain tops, a feature which suggests may derive from pre-historic Malay beliefs regarding sanctity of high places.[108]

Candi Muara Takus and Candi Muaro Jambi in Sumatra are among the examples that associated with the architectural elements of Srivijaya Empire. However, the most of Srivijayan architecture was represented at Chaiya (now a province in Thailand) in Malay peninsular, which was without doubt a very important centre during the Srivijaya period.[105][106] The type of structure consists of a cell-chamber to house the Buddha image and the summit of structure was erected in the form of stupa with successive, superimposed terraces which is the best example at Wat Pra Borom That of Chaiya.[107]

Various cultural influences, notably Chinese, Indian and Europeans, played a major role in forming Malay architecture.[103] Until recent time, wood was the principal material used for all Malay traditional buildings.[104] However, numerous stone structures were also discovered particularly the religious complexes from the time of Srivijaya and ancient isthmian Malay kingdoms.

Anjung Seni Idrus Tintin in Pekanbaru, Riau. A major performing arts centre in Indonesia.
The replica of Malacca Sultanate's palace which was built from information and data obtained from the Malay Annals. This historical document had references to the construction and the architecture of palaces during the era of Sultan Mansur Shah, who ruled from 1458 to 1477.


A majority of modern ethnic Malays are the adherents of Sunni Islam[102] and the most important Malay festivals are those of Islamic origin - Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Hari Raya Aidiladha, Awal Muharram, and Maulidur Rasul. It is considered "apostasy" for Malays to convert out of Islam in Malaysia.

Nevertheless, the earlier beliefs having deeper roots, they have maintained themselves against the anathemas of Islam – and indeed Sufism or the mysticism of Shia Islam have become intertwined among the Malays, with the spirits of the earlier animistic world and some elements of Hinduism.[99] Following the 1970s, Islamic revival (also referred as re-Islamisation[100]) throughout the Muslim world, many traditions that contravene the teaching of Islam and contain elements of shirk were abandoned by the Malays. Among these traditions was the mandi safar festival (Safar bath), a bathing festival to achieve spiritual purity, in which can be discerned features similar to some of those of the Durga Puja of India.[101]

In the 15th century, Islam of the orthodox Sunni sect flourished in the Malay world under the Malacca Sultanate. In contrast with Hinduism, which transformed early Malay society only superficially, Islam can be said to have really taken root in the hearts and minds of the Malays.[97] Since this era, the Malays have traditionally had a close identification with Islam[98] and they have not changed their religion since.[97] This identity is so strong that it is said to become Muslim was to masuk Melayu (to enter Malayness).[56]

The early Malay communities were largely animists, believing in the existence of semangat (spirits) in everything.[44] Around the opening of the common era, Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced by Indian traders to the Malay Archipelago, where they flourished until the 13th century, just before the arrival of Islam brought by Arab, Indian and Chinese Muslim traders.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Brunei on the eve of Ramadhan. The wealthy kingdom adopted Melayu Islam Beraja (Malay Islamic Monarchy) as the national philosophy since its independence in 1984.


In the 19th century, the Malay literature received some notable additions through writings of Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, a famous Malacca-born munshi of Singapore.[93] Abdullah is regarded as the most cultured Malay who ever wrote,[93] one of the greatest innovators in Malay letters[82] and the father of modern Malay literature.[94] His most important works are the Hikayat Abdullah (an autobiography), Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke Kelantan (an account of his trip for the government to Kelantan), and Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke Mekah (a narrative of his pilgrimage to Mecca 1854). His work was an inspiration to future generations of writers and marks an early stage in the transition from classical Malay literature to modern Malay literature.[82]

The most important piece of Malay literary works is perhaps the famed Malay Annals or Sulalatus Salatin. It was called "the most famous, distinctive and best of all Malay literary works" by one of the most prominent scholars in Malay studies, Sir Richard O. Winstedt.[95] The exact date of its composition and the identity of its original author are uncertain, but under the order of Sultan Alauddin Riaayat Shah III of Johor in 1612, Tun Sri Lanang oversaw the editorial and compilation process of the Malay Annals.[96]

The era of classical Malay literature started after the arrival of Islam and the invention of Jawi script (Arabic based Malay script). Since then, Islamic beliefs and concepts began to make its mark on Malay literature. The Terengganu Inscription Stone, which is dated to 1303, is the earliest known narrative Malay writing. The stone is inscribed with an account of history, law, and romance in Jawi script.[94] At its height, the Malacca Sultanate was not only the center of Islamisation, but also the center of Malay cultural expressions including literature. During this era, notable Middle Eastern literary works were translated and religious books were written in Malay language. Among famous translated works are Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah and Hikayat Amir Hamzah. The rise of Malay literature during the period was also penned by other homegrown literary composition coloured by mystical Sufism of the middle-east, the notable works of Hamzah Fansuri such as Asrar al-Arifin (Rahsia Orang yang Bijaksana; The Secret of the Wise), Sharab al-Asyikin (Minuman Segala Orang yang Berahi; The Drink of All the Passionate) and Zinat al-Muwahidin (Perhiasan Sekalian Orang yang Mengesakan; The Ornament of All the Devoted) can be seen as the magna opera of the era.

When Indian influences made their way to the Malay Archipelago around 2000 years ago, Malay literature began incorporating Indian elements. Literature of this time is mostly translations of Sanskrit literature and romances, or at least some productions inspired by such, and is full of allusions to Hindu mythology. Probably to this early time may be traced such works as Hikayat Seri Rama (a free translation of the Ramayana), Hikayat Bayan Budiman (an adaptation of Śukasaptati) and Hikayat Panca Tanderan (an adaptation of Hitopadesha).[93]

Considering the softness and mellifluence of the Malay language, which lends itself easily to the requirements of rhyme and rhythm, the originality and beauty in Malay literature can be assessed in its poetical elements. Among the forms of poetry in Malay literature are – the Pantun, Syair and Gurindam. The earliest form of Malay literature was the oral literature and its central subjects are traditional folklore relating to nature, animals and people. The folklore were memorised and passed from one generation of storytellers to the next. Many of these tales were also written down by penglipur lara (storytellers) for example: Hikayat Malim Dewa, Hikayat Malim Deman, Hikayat Raja Donan, Hikayat Anggun Cik Tunggal, and Hikayat Awang Sulung Merah Muda.

The rich oral literature and classical literature of the Malays contain a great number of portraits of the people, from the servant to the minister, from the judge to the Rajas, from the ancient to the very contemporary periods, which together form the amorphous identity of the Malays.[92]

Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa in Jawi text. Also known as the Kedah Annals, it is an ancient Malay literature that chronicles the bloodline of Merong Mahawangsa and the foundation of Kedah.


The Malay language was historically written in Pallawa, Kawi and Rencong. After the arrival of Islam, Arabic-based Jawi script was adopted and is still in use today as one of the two official scripts in Brunei and as an alternative script in Malaysia.[90] Beginning from the 17th century, as a result of British and Dutch colonisation, Jawi was gradually replaced by Rumi script[91] and eventually became the official modern script for Malay language in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, and co-official script in Brunei.

Apart from the standard Malay, developed within the Malacca-Johor sphere, various local Malay dialects exist. For example, the Bangkanese, the Bruneian, the Jambian, the Kelantanese, the Kedahan, the Negeri Sembilanese, the Palembangnese, the Pattanese, the Sarawakian, the Terengganuan, and many others.

European writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Tavernier, Thomassin and Werndly describe Malay as "language of the learned in all the Indies, like Latin in Europe".[85] It is also the most widely used during British and Dutch colonial era in the Malay Archipelago.[86] The dialect of Johor Sultanate, the direct successor of Malacca, became the standard speech among Malays in Singapore and Malaysia, and it formed the original basis for the standardised Indonesian language.[82][87][88][89]

The Malaccan era marked with the transformation of the Malay language into an Islamic language, in similar fashion as the Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Swahili languages. An adapted Arabic script called Jawi was used replacing the Indian script, Islamic religious and cultural terminologies were abundantly assimilated, discarding many Hindu-Buddhist words, and Malay became the language of Islamic medium of instruction and dissemination throughout Southeast Asian region. At the height of Malacca's power in the 15th century, the Classical Malay spread beyond the traditional Malay speaking world[82] and resulted in a lingua franca that was called Bahasa Melayu pasar ("Bazaar Malay") or Bahasa Melayu rendah ("Low Malay") as opposed to the Bahasa Melayu tinggi ("High Malay") of Malacca.[83] It is generally believed that Bazaar Malay was a pidgin and the most important development, however, has been that pidgin creolised, creating several new languages such as the Ambonese Malay, Manado Malay and Betawi language.[84]

The oldest form of Malay is descended from the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian language spoken by the earliest Austronesian settlers in Southeast Asia. This form would later evolved into Old Malay when Indian cultures and religions began penetrating the region. Old Malay contained some terms last until today, but remained unintelligible to modern speakers, while the modern language is already largely recognisable in written Classical Malay, which the oldest form dating back to 1303 CE.[81] Malay evolved extensively into Classical Malay through the gradual influx of numerous Arabic and Persian vocabulary, when Islam made its way to the region. Initially, Classical Malay was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Malay kingdoms of Southeast Asia. One of these dialects that was developed in the literary tradition of the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century, eventually became predominant.

The Malay language is one of the major languages of the world and of the Austronesian family. Variants and dialects of Malay are used as an official language in Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. The language is also spoken in Thailand, Cocos Island, Christmas Island, Sri Lanka. It is spoken natively by approximately 33 million people throughout the Malay Archipelago and is used as a second language by an estimated 220 million.[80]

The Kedukan Bukit Inscription written in Pallava script. Dating back from 683, it is one of the oldest surviving Malay written artefact.



In Indonesian Kalimantan during the Fall of Suharto, there was a resurgence in Malay nationalism and identity and ethnic Malays and Dayaks in Sambas massacred Madurese during the Sambas riots.

Two years later the semi independent Federation of Malaya was born. The new constitutional arrangement largely reverted to the basic pattern of pre-war colonial rule and built on the supremacy of the individual Malay states. Malay rights and privileges were safeguarded. The traditional Malay rulers thus retained their prerogatives, while their English-educated descendants came to occupy positions of authority at the centre, which was being progressively decolonised. In August 1957, the Federation of Malaya, the West’s last major dependency in Southeast Asia, attained independence in a peaceful transfer of power.[79] The federation was reconstituted as Malaysia with the addition in 1963 of Singapore (separated in 1965), Sabah and Sarawak.

In March 1946, UMNO emerged with the full support of the Malay sultans from the Malayan Union plan. By July, UMNO succeeded in obtaining an agreement with the British to begin negotiations for a new constitution. Negotiations continued from August to November, between British officials on the one hand, and the Sultans' representatives and UMNO and the other.[79]

Since the foundation of Republic of Indonesia as a unitary state in 1950, all traditional Malay monarchies in Indonesia were abolished,[78] and the Sultans positions reduced to titular heads or pretenders. The violent demise of the Malay sultanates of Deli, Langkat, Serdang and Asahan in East Sumatra during the "Social revolution" of 1946, drastically influenced their Malayan counterparts and politically motivating them against the PKMM's ideal of Greater Indonesia and the Islamists' vision of Islamic Republic.

The Malay and Malayness has been a fundamental basis for Malay ideology and Malay nationalism in Malaysia. All three Malay nationalist factions believed in the idea of a "Malay Nation" (Bangsa Melayu) and the position of Malay language, but disagreed over the role of Islam and Malay rulers. The conservatives supported Malay language, Islam and Malay monarchy as constituting the key pillars of Malayness, but within a secular state that restricted the political role of Islam. The leftists concurred with the secular state but wanted to end feudalism, whereas the Islamic group favoured ending royalty but sought a much larger role of Islam.[77]

Federation of Malaya's commemorative stamp issued in 1957. The semi-independent federation was formed in 1948 from nine Malay states and two British Straits Settlements. It achieved independence in 1957.

The Malay Malay dominance over Malaya.[76]

The earliest and most influential instruments of Malay national awakening were the periodicals which politicised the position of the Malays in the face of colonialism and alien immigration of non-Malays. In spite of repressions imposed by the British colonial government, there were no less than 147 journals and newspapers published in Malaya between 1876 and 1941. Among notable periodicals were Al-Imam (1906), Pengasuh (1920), Majlis (1935) and Utusan Melayu (1939). The rise of Malay nationalism was largely mobilised by three nationalist factions – the radicals distinguishable into the Malay left and the Islamic group which were both opposed to the conservative elites.[76]

Despite the widespread distribution of the Malay population throughout the Malay archipelago, modern Malay nationalism was only significantly mobilised in the early twentieth century British Malaya i. e. the Malay Peninsula. In the Netherlands Indies, the struggle against colonisation was characterised by the trans-ethnic nationalism: the so-called "Indonesian National Awakening" united people from the various parts of the Dutch colony in the development of a national consciousness as "Indonesians".[75] In Brunei, despite some attempt made to arouse Malay political consciousness between 1942 and 1945, there was no significant history of ethnic-based nationalism. In Thailand however, Pattani separatism against Thai rule is regarded by some historians as a part of the wider sphere of peninsula Malay nationalism. Nevertheless, what follows is specific to the peninsula Malay nationalism that resulted in the formation of the Federation of Malaya, later reconstituted as Malaysia.

The bronze mural of the legendary Malay warrior, Hang Tuah with his renowned quote Ta' Melayu Hilang Di-Dunia (Malay for "Never shall the Malays vanish from the face of the earth") written on the top. The quote is a famous rallying cry for Malay nationalism.[73][74]

Malay nationalism

In the Pontianak incidents during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies, the Japanese massacred most of the Kalimantan Malay elite and beheaded all of the Kalimantan Malay Sultans.

Following the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 which divided the Malay Archipelago into a British zone in the north and a Dutch zone in the south, all Malay sultanates in Sumatra and Southern Borneo became part of the Dutch East Indies. Though some of Malay sultans maintain their power under Dutch control,[72] some were abolished by the Dutch colonial government, like the case of Riau Sultanate in 1911.

The twilight of the vast Bruneian Empire began after the Castille War against the Spanish conquistadors, resulting in the end of the empire's dominance in the present-day Philippine archipelago. The decline further culminated in the 19th century, when the kingdom lost most of its remaining territories in Borneo to the White Rajahs of Sarawak and North Borneo Chartered Company. Brunei was a British protectorate from 1888 to 1984.[2]

In 1786, the island of Penang was leased to East India Company by Kedah Sultanate in exchange of military assistance against the Siamese. In 1819, the company also acquired Singapore from Johor Empire, later in 1824, Dutch Malacca from the Dutch, and followed by Dindings from Perak by 1874. All these trading posts officially known as Straits Settlements in 1826 and became the crown colony of British Empire in 1867. British intervention in the affairs of Malay states was formalised in 1895, when Malay rulers accepted British Residents in administration, and the Federated Malay States was formed. In 1909, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis were handed over by Siam to the British. These states along with Johor, later became known as Unfederated Malay States. During the World War II, all these British possessions and protectorates that collectively known as British Malaya were occupied by the Empire of Japan.

Historically, Malay states of the peninsular had a hostile relation with the Siamese. Malacca sultanate herself fought two wars with the Siamese while northern Malay states came intermittently under Siamese dominance for centuries. In 1771, the Kingdom of Siam under the new Chakri Dynasty abolished the Pattani Sultanate and later annexed a large part of Kedah Sultanate. Earlier, the Siamese under Ayutthaya Kingdom have had already absorbed Tambralinga and overrun the Singgora Sultanate in the 17th century. In the early 19th century, the Siamese imposed a new administrative structure and created the semi-independent Malay kingdoms of Patani, Saiburi, Nongchik, Yaring, Yala, Reman and Rangae from Greater Pattani[68][69] and carved Satun, Perlis, Kubang Pasu from the Kedah Kingdom.[70][71]

The reigning elite of the Riau-Lingga Sultanate, together with the Sultan (being seated, in the middle) as depicted in this 1867 photograph. The sultanate would be abolished under the Dutch powers in almost half a century later in 1911.

Between 1511 and 1984, numerous Malay kingdoms and sultanates fell under direct colonisation or became the protectorates of different foreign powers, from European colonial powers like Portuguese, Dutch and British, to regional powers like Aceh, Siam and Japan. In 1511, the Portuguese Empire captured the capital city of Malacca Sultanate. The victorious Portuguese however, were unable to extend their political influence beyond the fort of Malacca. The Sultan maintained his overlordship on the lands outside Malacca and established the Johor Sultanate in 1528 to succeed Malacca. The Portuguese Malacca faced several unsuccessful retaliation attacks by Johor until 1614, when the combined forces of Johor and the Dutch Empire, ousted the Portuguese from the peninsular. As per agreement with Johor in 1606, the Dutch later took control of Malacca.[67]

The Malay Rulers and nobilities with British colonial officers during the first Durbar, 1897.


Other significant Malay sultanates were the Kedah Sultanate (1136–present), Kelantan Sultanate (1411–present) and Patani Sultanate (1516–1771) that dominated the northern part of the Malay peninsula. Jambi Sultanate (1460–1907), Palembang Sultanate (1550–1823) and Indragiri Sultanate (1298-1945) controlled much of the southeastern shores of Sumatra. While Deli Sultanate (1632–1946), Serdang Sultanate (1728-1948), Langkat Sultanate (1568-1948) and Asahan Sultanate (1630-1948) governed eastern Sumatra.

Across the South China Sea in the 14th century, another Malay realm, the Bruneian Empire was on the rise to become the most powerful polity in Borneo. By the middle of the 15th century, Brunei entered into a close relationship with Malacca Sultanate. The sultan married a Malaccan princess, adopted Islam as the court religion, and introduced an efficient administration modelled on Malacca.[64] Brunei profited from trade with Malacca but gained even greater prosperity after the great Malay port was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511. It reached its golden age in the mid-16th century when it controlled land as far south as present day Kuching in Sarawak, north towards the Philippine Archipelago.[65] The empire broaden its influence in Luzon by establishing an alliance with the Kingdom of Tondo and founded a satellite state, Kota Seludong in present-day Manila. Brunei's fairly loose river based governmental presence in Borneo projected the process of Malayisation. Fine Malay Muslim cultures, including the language, dress and single-family dwelling were introduced to the natives primarily from ethnic Dayaks, drawing them into the Sultanate. Dayak chiefs were incorporated into the Malay hierarchy, being given the official titles of Datuk, Temenggong and Orang Kaya. In West Kalimantan, the development of such sultanates of Sambas, Sukadana and Landak tells a similar tale of recruitment among Dayak people.[66]

In 1511, the Malaccan capital fell into the hands of Portuguese conquistadors. However, Malacca remained an institutional prototype: a paradigm of statecraft and a point of cultural reference for successor states such as Johor Sultanate (1528–present), Perak Sultanate (1528–present), Pahang Sultanate (1470–present), Siak Sri Indrapura Sultanate (1725–1946), Pelalawan Sultanate (1725–1946) and Riau-Lingga Sultanate (1528-1911).[63]

By the 15th century, the Malacca Sultanate, whose hegemony reached over much of the western Malay Archipelago, had become the centre of Islamisation in the east. As a Malaccan state religion, Islam brought many great transformation into the Malaccan society and culture, and It became the primary instrument in the evolution of a common Malay identity.The Malaccan era witnessed the close association of Islam with Malay society and how it developed into a definitive marker of Malay identity.[7][56][57][58] Over time, this common Malay cultural idiom came to characterise much of the Malay Archipelago through the Malayisation process. The expansion of Malaccan influence through trade and Dawah brought with it together the Classical Malay language,[59] the Islamic faith,[60] and the Malay Muslim culture;[61] the three core values of Kemelayuan ("Malayness").[62]

The Islamic faith arrived on the shores of what are now the states of Kedah, Perak, Kelantan and Terengganu, from around the 12th century.[55] The earliest archaeological evidence of Islam from the Malay peninsula is the Terengganu Inscription Stone dating from the 14th century found in Terengganu state, Malaysia.[54]

The period of the 12th and 15th centuries saw the arrival of Islam and the rise of the great port-city of the Malacca Sultanate on the southwestern coast of the Malay Peninsula[54] — two major developments that altered the course of Malay history.

The extent of Malaccan Sultanate in the 15th century. The powerful empire that has effectively moulded the Malay-Muslim socio-cultural identity until this day.


The cultivation of Malay polity system also diffused beyond the proper Sumatran-Peninsular border during this era. The age avowed by exploration and migration of the Malays to establish kingdoms beyond the traditional Srivijayan realm. Several exemplification are the enthronement of a Tambralingan prince to reign the Lavo Kingdom in present-day Bangkok, the foundation of Rajahnate of Cebu in the Visayas and the establishment of the Tanjungpura Kingdom in what is now West Kalimantan, Borneo. The expansion is also eminent as it shaped the Ethnoreligious development of the related Acehnese and Banjar people and further spread the Indian-influenced Malay ethos within the regional sphere.

Chandrabhanu was eventually defeated by the forces of the Pandyan dynasty from Tamil Nadu in 1263 and was killed by the brother of Emperor Sadayavarman Sundara Pandyan I.[53]

Another mighty Malay kingdom during this period is Tambralinga, once a subordinate of Srivijaya, the kingdom began to grow after the regression of the Srivijayan empire in the 12th century. Between the 13th to early 14th century, the kingdom managed to conquer most of the Malay Peninsula under its rule. The growth of the kingdom intensified under the reign of Chandrabhanu (1230–1263), in which he had succeeded in capturing the Jaffna kingdom in Sri Lanka between 1247-58. The invasion marked an unrivaled feature in the history of Southeast Asia as it was the only time there was an armed maritime expedition beyond the borders of the region.

The complete destruction of Srivijaya caused the diaspora of the Srivijayan princes and nobles. Rebellions against the Javanese rule ensued and attempts were made by the fleeing Malay princes to revive the empire, which left the area of southern Sumatra in chaos and desolation. In 1299, through the support of the loyal servants of the empire, the Orang lauts, a Malay prince of Srivijaya origin, Sang Nila Utama established the Kingdom of Singapura in Temasek.[48] His dynasty ruled the island kingdom until the end of the 14th century, when the Malay polity once again faced the wrath of Javanese invaders. In 1400, his great great grandson, Parameswara, headed north and established the Malacca Sultanate.[49] The new kingdom succeeded Srivijaya and inherited much of the royal and cultural traditions, including a large part of the territories of its predecessor.[50][51][52]

The Buddhist maritime empire of Srivijaya, the first vast Malay polity in the region

The glory of Srivijaya however began to wane after the series of raids by the Indian Chola dynasty in the 11th century. By the end of the 13th century, the remnants of the Malay empire in Sumatra was finally destroyed by the Javanese invaders during the Pamalayu expedition (Pamalayu means "war against the Malays").

Srivijaya’s influence spread over all the coastal areas of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, western Java and western Borneo, as well as the rest of the Malay Archipelago. Enjoying both Indian and Chinese patronage, its wealth was gained mostly through trade. At its height, the Old Malay language was used as its official language and became the lingua franca of the region, replacing Sanskrit, the language of Hinduism and Buddhism.[44] The Srivijayan era is considered the golden age of Malay culture.

The growth of trade with India brought coastal people in much of maritime Southeast Asia into contact with the major religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Thus, Indian religions, cultural traditions and Sanskrit began to spread across the land. Hindu temples were built in the Indian style, local kings began referring to themselves as "raja" and more desirable aspects of Indian government were adopted.[44] The beginning of the Common Era saw the rise of Malay states in the coastal areas of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra; Chi Tu, Nakhon Si Thammarat Kingdom, Gangga Negara, Langkasuka, Kedah, the Melayu Kingdom and Srivijaya. Between the 7th and 13th centuries, many of these small, often prosperous peninsula and sumatran maritime trading states, became part of the mandala of Srivijaya,[45] a great confederation of city-states centred in Palembang,[46] Kadaram,[47] Chaiya and Tambralinga.

There is no definite evidence which dates the first Indian voyages across the Bay of Bengal but conservative estimates place the earliest arrivals on Malay shores at least 2,000 years ago. The discovery of jetty remains, iron smelting sites, and a clay brick monument dating back to 110 CE in the Bujang Valley, shows that a maritime trading route with South Indian Tamil kingdoms was already established since the second century.[43]

Candi Bukit Batu Pahat of Bujang Valley. A Hindu-Buddhist kingdom ruled ancient Kedah possibly as early as 110 AD, the earliest evidence of strong Indian influence which was once prevalent among the pre-Islamic Kedahan Malays.

Indian influence

Proponent Stephen Oppenheimer has further theorised that the expansion of peoples occurred in three rapid surges due to rising sea levels at the end of the Ice Age, and that this diaspora spread the peoples and their associated cultures, myths, and technologies not just to mainland Southeast Asia, but as far as India, the Near East, and the Mediterranean. Reviewers have found his proposals for the original settlement and dispersal worthy of further study, but have been sceptical of his more diffusionist claims.[40][41][42]


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