Majapahit was a vast thalassocratic archipelagic empire based on the island of Java (modern-day Indonesia) from 1293 to around 1500. Majapahit reached its peak of glory during the era of Hayam Wuruk, whose reign from 1350 to 1389 marked by conquest which extended through Southeast Asia. His achievement is also credited to his prime minister, Gajah Mada. According to the Nagarakretagama (Desawarñana) written in 1365, Majapahit was an empire of 98 tributaries, stretching from Sumatra to New Guinea; consisting of present day Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand, the Philippines, and East Timor, although the true nature of Majapahit sphere of influence is still the subject of studies among historians.
Majapahit was one of the last major empires of the region and is considered to be one of the greatest and most powerful empires in the history of Indonesia and Southeast Asia, one that is sometimes seen as the precedent for Indonesia’s modern boundaries. Its influence extended beyond the modern territory of Indonesia and has been the subject of many studies. German orientalist Berthold Laufer suggested that maja came from the Javanese name of an Indonesian tree.
Little physical evidence of Majapahit remains, and some details of the history are rather abstract. The main sources used by historians are: the Pararaton (‘Book of Kings’) written in the Kawi language and Nagarakertagama in Old Javanese. Pararaton is focused upon Ken Arok (the founder of Singhasari) but includes a number of shorter narrative fragments about the formation of Majapahit. Nagarakertagama, is an old Javanese epic poem written during the Majapahit golden age under the reign of Hayam Wuruk after which some events are covered narratively. There are also some inscriptions in Old Javanese and Chinese.
The Javanese sources incorporate some poetic mythological elements, and scholars such as C. C. Berg, a Dutch nationalist, have considered the entire historical record to be not a record of the past, but a supernatural means by which the future can be determined. Despite Berg’s approach, most scholars do not accept this view, as the historical record corresponds with Chinese materials that could not have had similar intention. The list of rulers and details of the state structure show no sign of being invented.
Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He visited Majapahit. Zheng He’s translator Ma Huan wrote a detailed description about Majapahit and where the king of Java lived. New findings in April 2011, indicate the Majapahit capital was much larger than previously believed after some artifacts were uncovered.
After defeating the Melayu Kingdom in Sumatra in 1290, Singhasari became the most powerful kingdom in the region. Kublai Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and the Emperor of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, challenged Singhasari by sending emissaries demanding tribute. Kertanegara, the last ruler of Singhasari, refused to pay the tribute, insulted the Mongol envoy and challenged the Khan instead. As the response, in 1293, Kublai Khan sent a massive expedition of 1,000 ships to Java.
By that time, Jayakatwang, the Adipati (Duke) of Kediri, a vassal state of Singhasari, had usurped and killed Kertanagara. After being pardoned by Jayakatwang with the aid of Madura’s regent, Arya Wiraraja; Raden Wijaya, Kertanegara’s son-in-law, was given the land of Tarik timberland. He then opened that vast timberland and built a new village there. The village was named Majapahit, which was taken from a fruit name that had a bitter taste in that timberland (maja is the fruit name and pahit means bitter). When the Mongolian Yuan army sent by Kublai Khan arrived, Wijaya allied himself with the army to fight against Jayakatwang. Once Jayakatwang was destroyed, Raden Wijaya forced his allies to withdraw from Java by launching a surprise attack. Yuan’s army had to withdraw in confusion as they were in hostile territory. It was also their last chance to catch the monsoon winds home; otherwise, they would have had to wait for another six months on a hostile island.
In 1293, Raden Wijaya founded a stronghold with the capital Majapahit. The exact date used as the birth of the Majapahit kingdom is the day of his coronation, the 15th of Kartika month in the year 1215 using the Javanese çaka calendar, which equates to November 10, 1293. During his coronation he was given formal name Kertarajasa Jayawardhana. The new kingdom faced challenges. Some of Kertarajasa’s most trusted men, including Ranggalawe, Sora, and Nambi rebelled against him, though unsuccessfully. It was suspected that the mahapati (equal with prime minister) Halayudha set the conspiracy to overthrow all of the king’s opponents, to gain the highest position in the government. However, following the death of the last rebel Kuti, Halayudha was captured and jailed for his tricks, and then sentenced to death. Wijaya himself died in 1309.
According to tradition, Wijaya’s son and successor, Jayanegara was notorious for immorality. One of his sinful acts was his desire on taking his own stepsisters as wives. He was entitled Kala Gemet, or “weak villain”. Approximately during Jayanegara’s reign, the Italian Friar Odoric of Pordenone visited Majapahit court in Java. In 1328, Jayanegara was murdered by his doctor, Tanca. His stepmother, Gayatri Rajapatni, was supposed to replace him, but Rajapatni retired from court to become a Bhikkhuni. Rajapatni appointed her daughter, Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi, or known in her formal name as Tribhuwannottungadewi Jayawishnuwardhani, as the queen of Majapahit under Rajapatni’s auspices. Tribhuwana appointed Gajah Mada as the Prime Minister in 1336. During his inauguration Gajah Mada declared his Sumpah Palapa, revealing his plan to expand Majapahit realm and building an empire. During Tribhuwana’s rule, the Majapahit kingdom grew much larger and became famous in the area. Tribhuwana ruled Majapahit until the death of her mother in 1350. She abdicated the throne in favour of her son, Hayam Wuruk.
The graceful Bidadari Majapahit, golden celestial apsara in Majapahit style perfectly describes Majapahit as “the golden age” of the archipelago.
Hayam Wuruk, also known as Rajasanagara, ruled Majapahit in 1350–1389. During this period, Majapahit attained its peak with the help of prime minister, Gajah Mada. Under Gajah Mada’s command (1313–1364), Majapahit conquered more territories and become the regional power. According to the book of Nagarakertagama pupuh (canto) XIII and XIV mentioned several states in Sumatra, Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara islands, Maluku, New Guinea, and some parts of Philippines islands as under Majapahit realm of power. This source mentioned of Majapahit expansions has marked the greatest extent of Majapahit empire.This empire also serve as one of the most influence empire in the Indonesian history.It is considered as a commercial trading empire in the civilization of Asia.
Next to launching naval and military expeditions, the expansion of Majapahit Empire also involved diplomacy and alliance. Hayam Wuruk decided, probably for political reasons, to take princess Citra Rashmi (Pitaloka) of neighboring Sunda Kingdom as his consort. The Sundanese took this proposal as an alliance agreement. In 1357 the Sunda king and his royal family came to Majapahit, to accompany and marry his daughter with Hayam Wuruk. However Gajah Mada saw this event as an opportunity to demand Sunda’s submission to Majapahit overlordship. The skirmish between the Sunda royal family and the Majapahit troops on Bubat square were unevitable. Despite the courageous resistance, the royal family were overwhelmed and decimated. Almost whole of the Sundanese royal party were viciously massacred. Tradition mentioned that the heartbroken Princess committed suicide to defend the honour of her country. The Battle of Bubat or Pasunda Bubat tragedy become the main theme of Kidung Sunda, also mentioned in Carita Parahyangan and Pararaton, however it was never mentioned in Nagarakretagama.
The Nagarakertagama, written in 1365 depict a sophisticated court with refined taste in art and literature, and a complex system of religious rituals. The poet describes Majapahit as the centre of a huge mandala extending from New Guinea and Maluku to Sumatra and Malay Peninsula. Local traditions in many parts of Indonesia retain accounts in more or less legendary form from 14th century Majapahit’s power. Majapahit’s direct administration did not extend beyond east Java and Bali, but challenges to Majapahit’s claim to overlordship in outer islands drew forceful responses.
In 1377, a few years after Gajah Mada’s death, Majapahit sent a punitive naval attack against a rebellion in Palembang, contributing to the end of the Srivijayan kingdom. Gajah Mada’s other renowned general was Adityawarman, known for his conquest in Minangkabau.
The nature of the Majapahit empire and its extent is subject to debate. It may have had limited or entirely notional influence over some of the tributary states in included Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, Kalimantan and eastern Indonesia over which of authority was claimed in the Nagarakertagama. Geographical and economic constraints suggest that rather than a regular centralised authority, the outer states were most likely to have been connected mainly by trade connections, which was probably a royal monopoly. It also claimed relationships with Champa, Cambodia, Siam, southern Burma, and Vietnam, and even sent missions to China.
Although the Majapahit rulers extended their power over other islands and destroyed neighboring kingdoms, their focus seems to have been on controlling and gaining a larger share of the commercial trade that passed through the archipelago. About the time Majapahit was founded, Muslim traders and proselytizers began entering the area.
Following Hayam Wuruk’s death in 1389, Majapahit power entered a period of decline with conflict over succession. Hayam Wuruk was succeeded by the crown princess Kusumawardhani, who married a relative, Prince Wikramawardhana. Hayam Wuruk also had a son from his previous marriage, crown prince Wirabhumi, who also claimed the throne. A civil war, called Paregreg, is thought to have occurred from 1405 to 1406, of which Wikramawardhana was victorious and Wirabhumi was caught and decapitated. The civil war has weakened Majapahit grip on its outer vassals and colonies.
During the reign of Wikramawardhana, the series of Ming armada naval expeditions led by Zheng He, a Muslim Chinese admiral, arrived in Java for several times spanned the period from 1405 to 1433. By 1430 Zheng He’s expeditions has established Muslim Chinese and Arab communities in northern ports of Java such as in Semarang, Demak, Tuban, and Ampel, thus Islam began to gain foothold on Java’s northern coast.
Wikramawardhana ruled to 1426 and was succeeded by his daughter Suhita, who ruled from 1426 to 1447. She was the second child of Wikramawardhana by a concubine who was the daughter of Wirabhumi. In 1447, Suhita died and was succeeded by Kertawijaya, her brother. He ruled until 1451. After Kertawijaya died, Bhre Pamotan became a king with formal name Rajasawardhana and ruled at Kahuripan. He died in 1453. A three-year kingless period was possibly the result of a succession crisis. Girisawardhana, son of Kertawijaya, came to power 1456. He died in 1466 and was succeeded by Singhawikramawardhana. In 1468 Prince Kertabhumi rebelled against Singhawikramawardhana promoting himself king of Majapahit.
In western part of the crumbling empire, Majapahit found itself unable to control the rising power of the Sultanate of Malacca that in mid 15th century began to gain effective control of Malacca strait and expands its influence to Sumatra. Several other former Majapahit vassals and colonies began to released themself from Majapahit domination and suzerainty.
Singhawikramawardhana moved the Kingdom’s capital further inland to Daha (the former capital of Kediri kingdom) and continued his rule until he was succeeded by his son Ranawijaya in 1474. In 1478 he defeated Kertabhumi and reunited Majapahit as one Kingdom. Ranawijaya ruled from 1474 to 1519 with the formal name Girindrawardhana. Nevertheless, Majapahit’s power had declined through these dynastic conflicts and the growing power of the north-coastal kingdoms in Java.
Dates for the end of the Majapahit Empire range from 1478 (that is, 1400 Saka, the ends of centuries being considered a time when changes of dynasty or courts normally ended) to 1527. The year is marked among Javanese today with candrasengkala “sirna ilang kertaning bumi” (the wealth of earth disappeared and diminished) (sirna = 0, ilang = 0, kerta = 4, bumi = 1). According Jiyu and Petak inscription, Ranawijaya claimed that he already defeat Kertabhumi  and move capital to Daha. This event to led the war between Sultanate of Demak and Daha, since Demak ruler was the descendants of Kertabhumi. The battle was won by Demak in 1527. A large number of courtiers, artisans, priests, and members of the royalty moved east to the island of Bali. The refugees probably fled to avoid Demak retribution for their support for Ranawijaya against Kertabhumi.
With the fall of Daha crushed by Demak in 1527, the Muslim emerging forces finally defeated the remnants of the Majapahit kingdom in the early 16th century. Demak under the leadership of Raden (later crowned as Sultan) Patah (Arabic name: Fatah) was acknowledged as the legitimate successor of Majapahit. According to Babad Tanah Jawi and Demak tradition, the source of Patah’s legitimacy was because their first sultan, Raden Patah, was the son of Majapahit king Brawijaya V with a Chinese concubine. Another argument supports Demak as the successor of Majapahit; the rising Demak sultanate was easily accepted as the nominal regional ruler, as Demak was the former Majapahit vassal and located near the former Majapahit realm in Eastern Java.
Demak established itself as the regional power and the first Islamic sultanate in Java. After the fall of Majapahit, the Hindu kingdoms in Java only remained in Blambangan on eastern edge and Pajajaran in western part. Gradually Hindu communities began to retreat to mountain ranges in East Java and also to neighboring island of Bali. A small enclave of Hindu communities still remain in Tengger mountain range.
Culture, art and architecture
“Of all the buildings, none lack pillars, bearing fine carvings and coloured” [Within the wall compounds] “there were elegant pavilions roofed with aren fibre, like the scene in a painting… The petals of the katangga were sprinkled over the roofs for they had fallen in the wind. The roofs were like maidens with flowers arranged in their hair, delighting those who saw them”.
The main event of the administrative calendar took place on the first day of the month of Caitra (March–April) when representatives from all territories paying tax or tribute to Majapahit came to the capital to pay court. Majapahit’s territories were roughly divided into three types: the palace and its vicinity; the areas of east Java and Bali which were directly administered by officials appointed by the king; and the outer dependencies which enjoyed substantial internal autonomy.
The capital (Trowulan) was grand and known for its great annual festivities. Buddhism, Shaivism, and Vaishnavism were all practiced, and the king was regarded as the incarnation of the three. The Nagarakertagama does not mention Islam, but there were certainly Muslim courtiers by this time.
Although brick had been used in the candi of Indonesia’s classical age, it was Majapahit architects of the 14th and 15th centuries who mastered it. Making use of a vine sap and palm sugar mortar, their temples had a strong geometric quality. The example of Majapahit temples are Brahu temple in Trowulan, Pari in Sidoarjo, Jabung in Probolinggo, and Surawana temple near Kediri. Some of the temples are dated from earlier period but renovated and expanded during Majapahit era, such as Penataran, the largest temple in East Java dated back to Kediri era. This temple was identified in Nagarakretagama as Palah temple and reported being visited by King Hayam Wuruk during his royal tour across East Java.
Some of typical architectural style are believed to be developed during Majapahit era; such as tall and slender roofed red brick gate commonly called as kori agung or paduraksa, and also split gate of candi bentar. The large split gate of Wringin Lawang located at Jatipasar, Trowulan, Mojokerto, East Java, is one of the oldest and the largest surviving candi bentar dated from Majapahit era. The candi bentar took shape of typical Majapahit temple structure — consists of three parts; foot, body and tall roof — evenly split into two mirroring structures to make a passage in the center for people to walk through. This type of split gate has no doors and provides no real defensive purpose but narrowing the passage. It was probably only serve the ceremonial and aesthetic purpose, to create the sense of grandeur, before entering the next compound through tall roof paduraksa gate with enclosed door. The example of kori agung or paduraksa style gate is the elegant Bajang Ratu gate richly decorated with Kala demon, cyclops and also the bas-relief telling the story of Sri Tanjung. Those typical Majapahit architectural style has deeply influenced the Javanese and Balinese architecture of later period. The Majapahit Terracotta art also flourished in this period. Significant numbers of terracotta artifacts were discovered in Trowulan. The artifacts ranges from human and animal figurines, water containers, piggy banks, architectural ornaments, to pipes and roof tiles.
“….the King [of Java] has subject to himself seven crowned kings. [Yet] his island is populous, and is the second best of all island that exist…. The king of this island has a palace which is truly marvelous. For it is very great, the stairs and palace interior were coated with gold and silver, even the roof were gilded with gold. Now the Great Khan of China many a time engaged in war with this king; but this king always vanquished and get the better of him.”
The first European record about Majapahit came from the travel log of the Italian Mattiussi, a Franciscan monk. In his book: “Travels of Friar Odoric of Pordenone“, he visited several places in today’s Indonesia: Sumatra, Java, and Banjarmasin in Borneo, between 1318–1330. He was sent by the Pope to launch a misson into the Asian interiors. In 1318 he departed from Padua, crossed the Black Sea into Persia, all the way across Calcutta, Madras, and Srilanka. He then headed to Nicobar island all the way to Sumatra, before visiting Java and Banjarmasin. He returned to Italy by land through Vietnam, China, all the way through the silkroad to Europe in 1330.
In his book he mentioned that he visited Java without explaining the exact place he had visited. He said that king of Java ruled over seven other kings (vassals). He also mentioned that in this island was found a lot of clove, cubeb, nutmeg and many other spices. He mentioned that the King of Java had an impressive, grand, and luxurious palace. The stairs and palace interior were coated with gold and silver, and even the roof were gilded. He also recorded that the kings of the Mongol has repeatedly tried to attack Java, but always ended up in failure and managed to be sent back to the mainland. The Javanese kingdom mentioned in this record is Majapahit, and the time of his visit is between 1318–1330 during the reign of Jayanegara.
In later period near the fall of Majapahit, the art and architecture of Majapahit witnessed the revival of indigenous native Austronesian megalithic architectural elements, such as Sukuh and Cetho temples on western slopes of Mount Lawu. Unlike previous Majapahit temples that demonstrate typical Hindu architecture of high-rise towering structure, the shape of these temples are step pyramid, quite similar to Mesoamerican pyramids. The stepped pyramid structure called Punden Berundak (stepped mounds) is a common megalithic structure during Indonesian prehistoric era before the adoption of Hindu-Buddhist culture.
Taxes and fines were paid in cash. Javanese economy had been partly monetised since the late 8th century, using gold and silver coins. In about the year 1300, in the reign of Majapahit’s first king, an important change took place: the indigenous coinage was completely replaced by imported Chinese copper cash. About 10,388 ancient Chinese coins weighing about 40 kg were even unearthed from the backyard of a local commoner in Sidoarjo in November 2008. Indonesian Ancient Relics Conservation Bureau (BP3) of East Java verified that those coins dated as early as Majapahit era. The reason for using foreign currency is not given in any source, but most scholars assume it was due to the increasing complexity of Javanese economy and a desire for a currency system that used much smaller denominations suitable for use in everyday market transactions. This was a role for which gold and silver are not well suited.
Some idea of scale of the internal economy can be gathered from scattered data in inscriptions. The Canggu inscriptions dated 1358 mentions 78 ferry crossings in the country (mandala Java). Majapahit inscriptions mention a large number of occupational specialities, ranging from gold and silver smiths to drink vendors and butchers. Although many of these occupations had existed in earlier times, the proportion of the population earning an income from non-agrarian pursuits seems to have become even greater during the Majapahit era.
The great prosperity of Majapahit was probably due to two factors. Firstly, the northeast lowlands of Java were suitable for rice cultivation, and during Majapahit’s prime numerous irrigation projects were undertaken, some with government assistance. Secondly, Majapahit’s ports on the north coast were probably significant stations along the route to obtain the spices of Maluku, and as the spices passed through Java they would have provided an important source of income for Majapahit.
The Nagarakertagama states that the fame ruler of Wilwatikta (a synonym for Majapahit) attracted foreign merchants from far and wide, including Indians, Khmers, Siamese, and Chinese among others. A special tax was levied against some foreigners, possibly those who had taken up semi-permanent residence in Java and conducted some type of enterprise other than foreign trade.
During the reign of Hayam Wuruk, Majapahit employed a well-organized bureaucratic structure for administrative purposes. The hierarchy and structure relatively remain intact and unchanged throughout Majapahit history. The king is the paramount ruler, as the chakravartin he is considered as the universal ruler and believed to be the living god on earth. The king holds the highest political authority and legitimacy.
During his daily administration, the king is assisted by bureaucratic state officials that also included the close relatives of the kings that hold certain esteemed titles. The royal order or edict usually transmitted from the king to the high officials well to their subordinates. The officials in Majapahit courts are:
- Rakryan Mahamantri Katrini, usually reserved for the king’s heir
- Rakryan Mantri ri Pakira-kiran, the board of ministers that conduct the daily administration
- Dharmmadhyaksa, the officials of laws, state laws as well as religious laws
- Dharmma-upapatti, the officials concerning religious affairs
Within the ministers of Rakryan Mantri ri Pakira-kiran there is the most important and the highest minister titled Rakryan Mapatih or Patih Hamangkubhumi. This position is analogous to prime minister, and together with king, they determine the important state policies, including war or peace. Among the Dharmmadhyaksa officials there is Dharmmadhyaksa ring Kasewan (State’s highest Hindu Shivaist priest) and Dharmmadhyaksa ring Kasogatan (State’s highest Buddhist priest), both are the religious laws authorities of each dharmic faiths. There is also the board of advisors consist of the elders within royal family called Bhattara Saptaprabhu.
Majapahit recognize the hierarchy classifications of lands within its realm:
- Bhumi: the kingdom, ruled by the king
- Nagara: the province, ruled by the rajya (governor), or natha (lord), or bhre (prince or duke)
- Watek: the regency, administered by wiyasa,
- Kuwu: the district, administered by lurah,
- Wanua: the village, administered by thani,
- Kabuyutan: the hamlet or sanctuary place.
During its formation, Majapahit traditional realm only consists of lesser vassal kingdoms (provinces) in eastern and central Java. This region is ruled by provincial kings called Paduka Bhattara with the title Bhre. This title is the highest position below the monarch and similar to duke or duchess. Usually this position reserved for the close relatives of the king. Their duty is to administer their own provinces, collect taxes, send annual tributes to the capital, and manage the defenses of their borders.