Jambi: The Mystery of A River

While provinces across Indonesia welcome a growing number of tourists each year, Jambi and its ancient treasures seem to have quietly slipped under the radar.

I arrive early in the morning at the eponymous capital of Jambi. The Batanghari River stretches around the outskirts of the city, and small boats, called getek, are docking on the edges. “So, what do you want to see in Jambi?” asks Nurul Fahmi, a Jambi historian, and a good friend of mine in the city. I was quiet at first, certain Nurul was asking rhetorically.

While the rest of Indonesia is busy inviting tourists in from around the globe, it seems Jambi province has all but fallen off the tourist trail, except for the Kerinci regency, one of Jambi’s nine regencies and home to the popular national park and the mighty Mt Kerinci, Southeast Asia’s tallest volcano (at 3,805m) and one of Sumatra’s most active.

“Jambi is spoiled with an abundance of nature,” says Nurul. However, the Kerinci regency is more easily accessible from Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, than from Jambi City. It is no wonder that the capital seems like it’s slowly disappearing from the domestic and international tourism map.

Driving around the city, which is currently in rapid development, you’ll often pass by trucks full of palm oil. This commodity has turned Jambi from a marginally poor city into a wealthy Central Sumatran city in the 21st century – similar to rubber during the time of the Dutch East Indies, which transformed the Sultanate of Jambi into a prosperous kingdom. Rubber, palm oil, coal and even gold are excavated in Jambi. The resource-rich province is investing in developing its infrastructure and improving the state of its public parks and lakes – such as Singles Park, Lake Sipin and Lake Buluran – as well as areas named and modelled after areas in Jakarta: Ancol, Pal Merah and Kebun Jeruk.

As the city pools its resources to remake itself, it is interesting to recall its former historic glory. My guide tells me it was mentioned in the records of the Chinese Song dynasty (10th to 13th centuries). Their records called it Zhanbei, other records refer to it as San-bo-Zhai, while modern historians now use ‘Jambi’: a vital port city in the once-prosperous Malayu Kingdom.

The citizens of the city, as noted in the hinese records compiled by W.P. Groeneveldt in the book Nusantara dalam Catatan Tionghoa (The Archipelago in Chinese Records), enjoyed making a traditional intoxicating drink called arak distilled from local flowers, coconuts, areca palm and honey. The citizens were spread across the outskirts of the city and didn’t pay tax. They also made music by stamping their feet and singing merrily. They built a city surrounded by a solid stronghold made out of red brick.

Jambi in the past was located on a busy sailing route between China and India. The port city played a vital role in the first maritime trades between the two countries. The records of the Tang dynasty, the strongest dynasty in 7th-century China, notes that between the 7th and the 9th centuries, Jambi repeatedly sent envoys to China. Chinese envoys also visited several times, and they exchanged tributes and gifts. I-Tsing, a Chinese traveller, recorded that the port city was crowded, always bustling with great trading ships.

Chinese pilgrims to India and Indian pilgrims to China spent long stopovers, awaiting the sailing season in Jambi, as it was protected from the ocean’s vortex. Centres of Buddhism studies then developed in cities visited by Indian pilgrims, including in Jambi. However, such records are nowhere to be found today.

After a thorough history lesson driving around the city, Nurul takes me into the heart of the capital, where a long suspension bridge stretches over the Batanghari River. At the end of the bridge stands a tower, the Gentala Arasy. Completed in 2014, the tower houses a cultural museum, has a public square and is an icon of modern Jambi. Nurul tells me to enjoy the modern sights and sounds before he takes me back into the past tomorrow at the ancient Muaro Jambi temple complex.

In the early 20th century, archaeologists found something strange buried in the soil 22km downstream from Jambi city. As they carefully brushed away the earth, endless red bricks were exposed, spread across a massive plot. Huge rock sculptures were also recovered. This is Muaro Jambi. In 2009, according to UNESCO, the Muaro Jambi complex consisted of 82 sites across 12km2, stretching 7.5km alongside the Batanghari River.

“God was kind to Jambi,” says Zubaidi, the groundskeeper of the temple complex. According to Zubaidi, God not only blessed Jambi with fertile soil for farming, but also ‘brought down’ temples from the heavens.

We arrive before sunrise. All I can hear is the sound of a few chirping birds and the slow sway of the big trees surrounding the area. While anthropologists still debate the temple complex’s precise origin and function, most believe that it was a boarding school of sorts, resulting in a cultural network with thousands of students welcomed from around Asia, including China, countries along the Southeast Asian peninsula such as Cambodia and India, cities within the Malayu Kingdom such as Palembang and Jambi, and Campa.

The expansive network built by 7th-century merchants, pilgrims and students is still remembered today. A Bodhi tree was planted by a Tibetan monk who visited Muaro Jambi a few years ago. Under the holy tree, where Buddha Gautama obtained enlightenment, I sit down to take it all in. As the sun begins to rise, shining brightly over me, I explore the site. The Gumpung Temple is at the gate, followed by the Astano Temple, in front of which a canal flows. Two years ago, I came here and took the small boat along the canal, as the Buddhist students had done centuries ago.

The temples of Muaro Jambi differ from the ones in Java; most of the temples here are made of brick, so are more susceptible to the ravages of time. It’s hard to find intact temples, not even the Astano Temple, which is cracked, crumbled and broken in many places. The historical narrative has gaps in many places, as speculations arise without any historical certainty or completely intact temples.

I go to the nearby temple compound museum to learn more and am welcomed by the museum guide, Bujang. Near the entrance is a stone statue,as tall as a grown man, holding a shield with his right hand and a broken mace with his left.

On the other side of the small museum is a stone statue of Prajnaparamita personified. Prajnaparamita means ‘The Perfection of Wisdom’ in Mahayana Buddhism. The statue sits with her legs crossed and her hands held close to her chest in a meditative position. Her body is complete, but her head is gone. “That was how we found it,” says Bujang. “She’s been meditating for a long time.”

I exit the museum to the small, quiet roads around the temple compound while thinking about Prajnaparamita’s meditation. In Jambi, this temple compound is certainly the best place to go for quiet, thoughtful reflection.

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