Rediscovering Kalimantan’s Ancient Hindu-Buddhist Civilization


The rich tapestry of Hindu-Buddhist civilization on the island of Kalimantan is deeply intertwined with the historical narrative of the Kingdom of Kutai. This kingdom, often highlighted as the oldest in Indonesia, features prominently in school history books, shaping the early historical understanding of many. Most people assume the Kingdom of Kutai is the oldest Hindu kingdom in the archipelago. However, recent studies and historical sources indicate a more complex and nuanced story.

Agus Aris Munandar, in his book Kaladesa: Awal Sejarah Nusantara (2017), points out that the seven yupa inscriptions, which are thought to represent the Kingdom of Kutai, actually suggest the presence of Vedic religion rather than Trimurti Hinduism, which is more commonly associated with modern Hindu teachings. According to Munandar, the Vedic religion predates both Trimurti Hinduism and Buddhism. Unlike Trimurti Hinduism, which venerates the three principal deities of the life cycle—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—the Vedic religion emphasizes the worship of natural element gods such as Indra (God of Rain), Agni (God of Fire), and Vayu (God of Wind).

Hariani Santiko, in her work The Vedic Religion in Nusantara (2013), traces the emergence of the Vedic religion in the Kingdom of Kutai to King Mulawarman’s sacrificial rituals at Vaprakeśvara. This area was home to a sacred fire representing Agni, the connector between the human world and the divine.

The popular narrative of Kutai as the oldest Hindu kingdom not only misinforms but also overshadows the Buddhist archaeological remains found across Borneo. While contemporary Buddhist communities in Kalimantan are concentrated in areas with dense Chinese populations, such as West Kalimantan, ancient Buddhist remains are scattered throughout the island. These relics uniquely blend Sumatran and Javanese Buddhist styles with local Kalimantan traditions, some dating back to the earliest periods of Buddhism’s arrival in the archipelago.

One of the most monumental and potentially earliest Buddhist sites in Kalimantan is Batu Pait, located in Nanga Mahap District, Sekadau Regency, West Kalimantan. Discovered near the Tekarik and Mahap rivers and first reported in 1914, Batu Pait features a large granite inscription flanked by stupa reliefs. Unlike Java or Sumatra, where stupas were constructed, the monks at Batu Pait opted for creating reliefs.

The inscriptions, read by M.M. Soekarto K. Atmodjo, indicate that Batu Pait was a residence for sramanas (ascetics) and had developed by 578 Saka or 656 CE. Researchers believe Batu Pait is closely related to another distant site, Gunung Totek, on Maya Island, southwest of mainland Kalimantan.

Eko Herwanto’s Pulau Maya dan Hubungannya dengan Segitiga Emas Sumatera-Jawa-Kalimantan pada Masa Klasik (2010) notes that Gunung Totek also features stupa reliefs similar to Batu Pait, suggesting a historical Buddhist community. However, the site also contains a Nandi statue, indicative of Shaivism, and several other statues showing Khmer/Champa influences.

The discoveries at Gunung Totek and Batu Pait suggest a Hindu-Buddhist religious route spanning from Sumatra’s east coast to Java’s north coast. The iconography found resembles those from Kota Kapur on Bangka Island and Batujaya in Karawang, likely linked to the rise of Srivijaya around the 7th century, known for its invasions into Java as recorded in the Kota Kapur inscription (688 CE).

Despite Srivijaya’s influence, Buddhism in Kalimantan underwent significant local adaptation. For instance, in East Kalimantan’s Gua Gunung Kombeng, 8th-9th century statues depict Shiva’s family deities alongside Vajrapani, a Bodhisattva in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. This integration of Hindu and Buddhist elements in worship sites reflects the local wisdom and religious harmony of ancient Kalimantan society.

The history of Kalimantan’s ancient civilizations is complex and multifaceted, with significant influences from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The archaeological sites of Batu Pait and Gunung Totek, among others, offer a glimpse into this rich heritage. As new findings continue to emerge, they challenge and enrich our understanding of Indonesia’s early historical landscape, highlighting the need for a broader and more inclusive historical narrative.