Rise of the Sailendra Family Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The significant number of Buddhist temples dating from the eighth and ninth centuries in Central Java, Indonesia, has been associated with the rise of the Sailendra (Lord of the Mountain) family, credited with establishing Buddhism in modern Indonesia and constructing, among other temples, the world-famous Borobuḍur.

Summary of Event

Writing an ancient history of Indonesia Indonesia is very difficult because of the paucity of written sources. In fact, scholars still do not agree on the exact details of most historical events in ancient Indonesia. Several issues surrounding the Sailendra family, which ruled Indonesia in the eighth and ninth centuries, remain uncertain. It is still difficult to determine who the Sailendras really were, where they originated, and where their kingdom was actually located. [kw]Rise of the Sailendra Family (780) [kw]Sailendra Family, Rise of the (780) Sailendra family Southeast Asia;780: Rise of the Sailendra Family[0730] Cultural and intellectual history;780: Rise of the Sailendra Family[0730] Government and politics;780: Rise of the Sailendra Family[0730] Religion;780: Rise of the Sailendra Family[0730] Panamkarana Sanggrāmadhanaňjaya

In the early stages of their studies of the Sailendra family, scholars noticed that two Central Javanese inscriptions written in Sanskrit in the late eighth century contained a brief narrative of the Sailendras’s Buddhist activities; this activity was roughly contemporaneous with the period when most Buddhist monuments in Central Java were beginning to be built. Thus, most scholars believe this to be the moment when the Sailendras first appeared in Javanese history. However, it is still unclear how they suddenly appeared without any hint of their presence prior to 778, when the Sailendra family is first mentioned in a Sanskrit inscription.

In fact, the existence of the Sailendra family can be traced back to the seventh century by looking at various Chinese sources, such as Ouyang Xiu’s Xin Tang shu Xin Tang shu (Ouyang) (1060; the new Tang history) and Yijing’ Yijing (Buddhist pilgrim) (I-Ching’) Datang xiyu qiufa gaoseng zhuan (wr. c. seventh century; Chinese Monks in India: Biography of Eminent Monks Who Went to the Western World in Search of the Law During the Great Tang Dynasty, 1986). Chinese Monks in India (Yijing) From these Chinese sources, scholars infer the existence of a country named Heling Heling (Ho-ling) in Java, which sent missionaries ten times to the Chinese court from 640 to the Daihe era (827-835), which was a kingdom of the Sailendras in Java. From the fact that Heling is usually used as a translation of Kaliṅga, a region in East India, it was once suggested that Heling might have been built by immigrants from Kaliṅga.

However, this theory of considering the Sailendras as Indian immigrants was soon rejected by scholars who sought the origin of the Sailendras in Malaysia, Cambodia, or Java. George Coedès, an eminent scholar in the field, tried to relate the Sailendras with Funan, an ancient kingdom in southern Cambodia, by arguing that the name of the kingdom, Funan (its ancient pronunciation is bu-nam), bears a meaning of “mountain” in Khmer and is related to “Sailendra,” meaning “king of the mountain.”

Most Indonesian scholars have tried to find the Sailendras’s origin in the local context by using the inscription discovered in 1963 at Sodjomerto, Central Java, as evidence. This inscription, written in Old Malay, mentions a person, an ardent Sivaite, named Selenda with a title of dapunta. The historian Sidi Ibrahim Boechari, who first reported this inscription, suggested that Selenda could have been an Indonesianized form of Sailendra. The inscription is sometimes dated back to as early as the fifth or sixth century, yet it is reasonable to date it to the seventh to early eighth centuries, if one considers its paleographical characteristics. If this interpretation is correct, the inscription at Sodjomerto could be considered as valuable evidence to prove the fact that the Sailendra family was locally evolved and converted from Hinduism to Buddhism at some point. For now, however, the question of the Sailendras’s origin must be left open until further studies can provide more information on their political, economic, and artistic activities.

Although scholars still do not have exact dates of when the Sailendras founded their kingdom, two Sanskrit inscriptions discovered in Central Java clearly show that the Buddhist Sailendras already were powerful enough in Central Java to build many astonishing Buddhist temples from the late eighth century. The earliest inscription was discovered in the village of Kalasan, to the east of Yogyakarta. It tells about a group of people who met in 778 to build a Tārā temple on a site that had been granted by the Sailendra kings in a village named Kālasa. These Sailendra kings called themselves rājasimha (the lion of kings) and appointed three local officials as witnesses to this gathering. At the end of the inscription, it is written that Mahārāja (a great king) Panamkarana Panamkarana requested future kings of Sailendra to maintain the Tārā temple in a proper way. For many years, Panamkarana has been read as one of Sailendra kings. Yet, if one considers the context, it is more reasonable to read him not as a Sailendra king but as a king of a different family.

The second inscription, dated to 782, also contains the word “Sailendra.” This inscription, called the Kelurak inscription, was discovered north of Candi Loro Jonggrong in Prambanan (Central Java). Interestingly, it designates a specific Sailendra king, Sanggrāmadhanaňjaya Sanggrāmadhanaňjaya (the killer of enemy heroes), as the person who erected a Buddhist image of Manjuśrī.

In addition to these two early inscriptions, much Buddhist architecture Architecture;Sailendra family and sculpture date stylistically to this period. Not only did the number of Buddhist temples increased dramatically from the late eighth century, but these temples also became more complex in their architectural plan and more elaborately decorated in their artistic design when compared with Hindu temples dated prior to 780.

How to define the relationship of the Sailendra rulers with their neighboring kingdoms is another focus of study. The unfinished Sanskrit inscription discovered at Ligor (775) on the Malay Peninsula suggests that the kings from Śrivijaya Śrivijaya[Srivijaya] , a maritime kingdom in Sumatra, and the Sailendra family in Java were related somehow, although the nature of that relationship is still a topic of debate. Whereas one side of the inscription says that an anonymous king of Śrivijaya built a Buddhist foundation in 775, its other, unfinished side states that a king Viṣṇu with the title mahārāja is a descendant of the Sailendra. If the two sides were written at the same time, one can presume that the power of the Sailendra king in Java had reached into Sumatra in the late eighth century.

However, many unanswered questions remain to call this interpretation into question: whether the two sides of the inscription were contemporaneously written, who the two kings mentioned in the inscription were, and how these two kings were related. Unfortunately, none of these questions has been answered clearly. Many scholars have attempted to connect the identities of the two kings with rulers mentioned in other inscriptions, such as the Kalasan and Kelurak inscriptions and the Nalanda Copper Plate (c. 860); yet, the interpretation of the Ligor inscription and the definition of the Sailendras’s relation to the Sumatran kingdom are still open to discussion.


The emergence of the Sailendra family in Indonesian history had a major impact on the establishment of Buddhism Buddhism;Java and Buddhist art in Java. The astonishing examples of Buddhist temples dating from the late eighth century to the ninth century in Central Java show unique features of art and architecture under the Sailendras’s rule. Borobuḍur Borobuḍur[Borobudur] (c. 785-c. 845), located in the Kedu plain, is the best-known example among them. This monument, a stepped pyramid crowned by a large stupa, is decorated with 1,460 stone reliefs, 432 Buddha images, and 72 small stupas. Unique in scale and architectural and artistic styles, it is often regarded as the pinnacle of the Sailendras’s ardent devotion to Buddhism and the embodiment of their understanding of Buddhism. The Sailendra kings were actively involved in the promotion of Buddhism in Java in other ways as well, providing Buddhist pilgrims with a place to stay and making a donation for the construction of the monastery at Nalanda, a center of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India, as is stated in the Nalanda Copper Plate.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coedès, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Edited by Walter F. Vella, translated by Sue Brown Cowing. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1968. A history of Southeast Asia from the beginning of the Christian era up to the early sixteenth century, written by an eminent historian in the field who used extensive Chinese and Sanskrit sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fontein, Jan. The Sculpture of Indonesia. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1990. The catalog for a 1990 exhibition, including three very good introductory essays on Indonesian art and architecture by three eminent scholars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sakar, H. B. Corpus of the Inscriptions of Java up to 928 A.D. Vols. 1-2. Calcutta: K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1971. Useful if somewhat dated; includes full translations of major Javanese inscriptions to 928. Footnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tarling, Nicholas, ed. From Early Times to c. 1800. Vol. 1 in The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. An excellent survey of Southeast Asian history with several different thematic approaches.

Categories: History