In the words of Sir Roland Braddell, “The earliest periods in the ancient history of the Malay Peninsula and the Straits of Malacca can only be visualized as a part of the general history of South-Eastern Asia and so of Greater India.”
Ancient Malaya should be spoken of in terms of the Malay Peninsula, a geographical entity in contrast with modern Malaya, a political entity. Like other countries her history is closely connected with that of her neighbours, Thailand in the north and Indonesia in the South.
The place-names such as Tambralinga, Kataha, Takkola etc are all to be located in the north, important for their harbours, connected by suitable routes with the hinterland of Malaya and serving as convenient links between India and China. The north was thus the more advanced region of Malaya, the development of the south being eclipsed by Sumatra, on which the traders concentrated because of her gold and her good harbours that served as convenient halting points before proceeding farther east or west. The architectural and sculptural remains of ancient Malaya are therefore concentrated in the north.
Earliest Chinese sources also bear testimony to the greater development of northern Malaya. Funan, founded in Indo-China in the first century A.D., was the earliest Hinduised empire of South-East Asia. The Liang Shu of the seventh century A.D. informs that in the third century her powerful king Fan Che Man “crossing right over the South China Sea” attacked more than ten kingdoms including Ch’u-tu-k’un (Tu-k’un of other texts ?), Chiu-chih and Tien-sun (Tun-hsun). Then he attacked the kingdom of Chin-lin (on the northern shores of the Gulf of Siam). The names of three of the ten kingdoms may be located on the Malay Peninsula. The tenth-century compendium the T’ai p’ing yu lan states that (Chu ?) Tu-k’un, Chu-Li (Chiu-chih ?), Pien-tou and Pi-sung were situated across the Gulf of Siam. Among the inhabitants were many with white complexions. These four places too were then on the Malay Peninsula, though their exact locations are a matter of conjecture. Chu-Li (Ptolemy’s Kole) may have been on the estuary of the Kuantan River on Malaya’s east-coast.
Of greatest importance to the Malayan historian is the mention of Tien-sun or Tun-hsun in the Chinese sources. Tun-hsun had five kings, all vassals of Funan. On the east the kingdom was in communication with Tong-king, on the west with India (T’ien-chu) and Parthia. All countries came to Tun-hsun for purposes of trade. At this mart (Tun-hsun) East and West met together so that daily there were more than 10,000 people. Precious goods and rare merchandise—there was nothing which was not there. The place was famous for a “wine tree”.
Some source indicates that Tun-hsun was originally an independent kingdom but Fan-Man (Fan Che Man) subdued it. The king of Tun-hsun, a dependency of Funan, was called K’un-lun. In the country there were five hundred families of hu (merchants ?) from India, two hundred fo-t’u (Buddhists ?) and more than a thousand Indian Brahmans. The people of Tun-hsun practiced the doctrine of the Brahmans and gave them their daughters in marriage so that the Brahmans settled there. The kingdom could be situated nowhere else but on the Malay Peninsula. The source indicates that Tun-hsun was a large kingdom and the fact that it was in contact with both India and Tongking would seem to imply that it stretched from coast to coast.
The information pertaining to Tun-hsun, a confederation of five units, testifies to the fact that political organization had developed considerably in Ancient Malaya in the early centuries of the Christian era. Tun-hsun’s trans-peninsular trade with a busy mart presupposes the existence of some legal and economic organization also.
Tun-hsun probably contained some of the states especially those of very early origin. P’an-p’an may be one such state and probably passed under the control of Funan when the latter annexed Tun-hsun and other kingdoms. P’an-p’an “lies to the south-west of Lin-I (Champa) in a corner of the sea. To the north it is parted from Lin-I by a small sea (Gulf of Siam). The country is conterminous with Lang-ya-hsiu (Langkasuka).” “the state of Tuo-ho-lo (Dvaravati) is bounded in the south by P’an-p’an”. South-east of P’an-p’an was Ko-Lo, also called Ko-lo-fu-sha-lo. The latter is placed “in the region of Kedah or of Kra”. The scholar says that P’an-p’an was situated in the Malay Peninsula, on a coastal place on the Gulf of Siam.
Langkasuka is another ancient kingdom of Malaya which figures several times in the Chinese annals and is also mentioned in Indian, Arab, Javanese, Malay and possibly European records. Langkasuka sent embassies to China in A.D. 515, 523, 531 and 568. The first envoys from Lang-ya-hsiu stated that, according to the tradition of their kingdom, it had been founded four hundred years before. If the statement be correct, the beginnings of Langkasuka may be traced back to early second century A.D.
I-tsing, who left his country for India by sea in A.D. 671-2, gives us the itinerary of some of the pilgrims who used Langkasuka as a halting place on their way to India. “Three pilgrims sailed from a small port near Canton passed Funan and reached the country of Lang-chia. The king of Lang-chia-shu treated them well”. Both the name forms stand for Langkasuka.
Cheng Ho (Zheng He), the eunuch admiral, made seven voyages to the West between 1403 and 1433. His collection map depicts the north-east coast of Malaya, Lang-his-chia (Langkasuka) is placed to the south of Singora. Its southern boundary appears to be at the Patani River.
An equally late Arab work (A.D. 1511) places Langkasuka between Kelantan and Singora in the vicinity of Patani.
The Tanjore temple prasati recording the exploits of Rajendra Chola I who invaded Sri Vijaya, also appears to place Langkasuka (Ilangasokam) somewhere in the north of the peninsula, since it groups it with Tambralinga and Takkola. Three other names, however, occur in between, one of which is possibly Panduranga in Indo-China.
The Javanese work, Nagarakritagama, composed in A.D. 1365, lists the Malay Peninsula states as subject to Majapahit in two groups. Langkasuka is grouped with the other east coast states like Kelantan and Terengganu, although also with Saimwang (Johore ?) and Hujang Medini.
The Kedah Annals stand alone in their claim that Langkasuka was a west coast state. It appears that a late annalist was giving written form to current legends and oral history. A fortress with a palace and hall built by Raja Marong Mahawangsa in Kedah is called Langkasuka. It is stated that the king’s son mounted an elephant and with his party set off towards the rising sun [east]. After crossing a vast forest they came to a plain. The king’s son crossed several hills and mountains. When he had almost reached the sea he came upon a great river flowing into the sea. On that plain he stopped. The princess consort said, “Go back to Kedah, to my royal father, and tell him that this is the country called Patani”. The memory of the ancient state of Langkasuka that lasted for a millennien and a half persists in Malay folk-lore. The Patani peasantry remember it as the spirit land of Lakwan Suka, while the Kedah Malays believe that Alang-ka-suka was ruled over by the fairy princess Sadong who never married. A rivulet flowing into the upper Perak was known as Langkasuka until the beginning of this centrury and is shown as such on a manuscript map in the Taiping Museum in Perak.
The cumulative result of the above evidence, except that provided by the Kedah Annals, places Langkasuka on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, south of Ligor. Its extent during the early period seems to have been larger that it was perhaps in the latter part of its existence, when its northern boundary seems to have shrunk. Patani appears to have occupied the position of its most important town and port, especially in the latter part of Langkasuka’s history.
The political history of Langkasuka may be reconstructed somewhat as follows. Founded early in the second century A.D. it almost certainly passed under the control of Funan when Fan Che Man made his southern conquests. Later, when unsettled conditions prevailed in Funan, Langkasuka restored its fortunes.