The Triumph and Decline of the Majapahit

Indonesia consisted of diverse dynasties and is home to different cultures. But if there is one kingdom that comes to mind that influenced the culture of Indonesia more than anything, it is the Majapahit.

The majapahit is one of the most notable empires in Indonesian history. Today, the Majapahit is still seen as one of the, if not, the most important kingdom that was crucial for the subsistence of contemporary Indonesia. Constructed in 1293 it became one of the biggest Hindu-Javanese kingdoms in the fourteenth century. The Majapahit was dominated by the Javanese. The Javanese are part of the group of Austronesian peoples, that dominated the Pacific and Indian Ocean. This group of peoples was presumably, the first to invent technology capable of crossing the oceans. Contemporary Indonesia is dominated by these Austronesian peoples, it is estimated that around 260.6 million still populate the country.

Before the formation of the Majapahit

The kingdom could have been formed by the pre-existing rival empires. The kingdom of Srivijaya and the realm of Mataram. They were, like what Majapahit will later become, thalassocrat. Since the kingdoms existed on islands, it was crucial to have control over the seas. This is the meaning of thalassocracy, it is when an empire takes power over waters or pursues that anyway. In the 7th century, the waters controlled by Srivijaya was the Selat Malaka. The Selat Malaka is a strait of 930 km in length. Nowadays it is located between Malaysia and Sumatra. Next to the Selat Malaka, they also controlled the Selat Sunda, this strait is between Java and Sumatra. This allowed Srivijaya to dominate the region militarily and economically. They also had the luxury of controlling the spice trade, which will be of great interest to Chinese, Arab and Indian traders. Predominantly the Selat Malaka will be very important in the course of Indonesian history. Through these trade routes, these peoples also came into contact with other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. This empire fell for various reasons that we will not go into, but the real trigger was the devastating attack from the mighty South Indian kingdom of Chola, in 1025.

The rival and sometimes ally, Mataram or Medang, was also an enormously rich kingdom. This kingdom emerged on Central Java in the 8th century. It was founded by Sanjaya of Mataram and unlike Srivijaya, its economy was concentrated on agriculture. The agricultural type that dominated in Mataram was rice irrigation. The key to successful agriculture was a huge co-operating population as well as the rich soil that was key to producing rice. The high population was also used to construct religious buildings. Temples were often built during this period of the Mataram. One of these unique buildings was the Borobudur. This massive building was built around 750 – 850 AD. The name Borobudur, likely comes from Sanskrit “Vihara Buddha Ur” which roughly translated means “Buddhist temple on the mountain”. This Kingdom declined in the 10th century. The actual reason is unknown, but likely it declined as a result of environmental and socio-economic reasons.

How was the Kingdom formed?

The beginning of the kingdom can be understood by looking back to the invasions of the Mongols. On December 1292 to 1293, there was great efforts to take over Java by the ruler, Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan ruled over Yuan China. The invasions were due to a punishment for King Kertanagara of Singhasari. King Kertanagara, never honoured the Great Yuan in tributes thus it became inevitably, a target for conquest. They also wanted to include Singhasari as a vassal state, given its wealth and interesting geographical location. Of course, this didn’t work given the growing power of the kingdom. In the end the invasion was unsuccessful. In 1292, Kediri or Gelang-gelang, sent an army to capture Singhasari and kill the king if possible. He was assisted by Arya Wiraraja, a regent of Sumenep on the island of Madura.

Singhasari was attacked simultaneously from the north and south. The king reacted first to the invasion from the north and sent his son-in-law, Nararya Sanggramawijaya, famously known as Raden Wijaya, to the north to quell the rebellion. The northern attack was kept at bay but the southern attack went unnoticed until it reached the capital Kutaraja. Kertanagara was killed in prayer, which eventually led to the fall of the Singhasari kingdom.

Raden Wijaya, however, was a remaining ruler of the Singhasari kingdom. He survived by escaping to Madura. Unlike his predecessor, Kertanagara, Raden Wijaya was eager to pay tribute and become a vassal of the Yuan dynasty. With the help of the Yuan army, they were able to collectively fight down the Kediri. Wiraraja managed to reconcile Jayakatwang and Wijaya. Jayakatwang, Prince of Kediri, gave Wijaya a piece of land next to the Brantas in the Tarik forest as a gift. That’s the beginning of the Majapahit, since that’s where the kingdom was created. He then sent Yuan’s army that was still waiting for a tribute, to the capital of Kediri. There he could take the dynastic families as hostage. This allowed the Majapahit to expand further at rest.

What was the Majapahit’s success

Raden Wijaya died after 17 years leading the kingdom. However Wijaya married several other women of other dynasties. He eventually decided, however, to have a child with Indreswari. She was a Dharmasraya princess from Sumatra. That child was named Jayanagara. He will succeed his throne. However, now that the women of other dynasties, who were Javanese, were refused by Wijaya, many territories started to rebel. Jayanagara was left with an empire doomed by rebels and unrest. He was also not a good leader. The Majapahit was about to fragment.

Gajah Mada, however, was a militant, loyal to the empire. He was the one who kept Majapahit alive. He spread rumors that the king died which ironically will cause more ease, he tried to recreate trade contacts with China and will especially later become hugely important for the Golden age of the Majapahit. Finally Jayanagara died in 1328. Princess Gitarja then became the queen of the Majapahit. She was attached to Gajah Mada throughout her life. He then later was named the Mahapatih. Gajah Mada will then attempt to expand the Majapahite empire further west and east. The Majapahit then directly controlled the eastern part of Java and Bali. But it was also expanded to the Spice Islands, New Guinea and Sumatra, even going as far as the Malay Peninsula.

Later the throne was succeeded by Rajasanagara or also named Hayam Wuruk. Thanks to the Mahapatih, he had a massive kingdom. There was a later plan for the Majapahit leader to marry the Sundanese Princess. It was Gajah Mada’s idea for the Princess to get the status of a gundik. A gundik can accompany the king but never will have the status of being his wife nor get the status of being a queen. This of course, led to the attempt for the them to fight back. The attempt resulted in the inconvenience of Sunda never being part of the Majapahit. Gajah Mada was also put in a lower position by Hayam Wuruk. This was the time of the Golden age, since this is the age where the Javanese culture flourished. Not only was there a reintroduction of indigenous elements to religion, the government was also reshaped. Many cultural elements like the wayang, a form of puppet theatre play, even spread to other parts of the empire. This was also the time where many famous poets like Prapanca and Tantular popped up. All in all, these were the times when the Majapahite empire reached its climax. It will be a great peaceful kingdom for a long time until the death of Hayam Wuruk in 1389

Internal and external factors contributing to its decline

But that leads to the question. The Majapahit rose to a hegemonical empire throughout the centuries, but then why did it decline in the 15th century? There are many theories how the empire eventually declined in power and which led to its destruction.

According to Coèdes, an historian specialised in South Eastern Asian history, it is clear the decline started since the succession by Wikramawardhana. Stutterheim later also referred to this time as

A time of complete fragmentation

Many houses started coming up and internal conflicts became frequent. But why these sudden fragmentations? That is a combination between internal but also external conflicts.

Firstly, many descendants of King Krtawijaya’s eldest and youngest sons respectively, each had a claim for the throne. Meaning many Hindu-Javanese kings started getting control over their own area resulting in fragmentation. They resided in the old kraton of Majapahit. The decline still didn’t happen. Meaning the dynastic conflict weakened the kingdom, but it still is not the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. Bur according to Nicholaas Johannes Krom, one of the reasons was the civil war that broke out in the Majapahit. This was a war between Wikramawardhana and Wirabhumi. The war was called the Regreg war. It was a war between the Western and Eastern court. It split the island and due to economic failure, political failure, war exhaustion this could have led to the decline of the Majapahit.

But it is also important to mention the rise of the Malacca Sultanate. Malacca was an Islamic empire that was founded in the Malay Peninsula. Earlier in the article, we have already discussed the importance of this location. The Malacca was crucial for controlling trade. Thus the rise of this new sultanate, could mean a big treat for the Majapahit Kingdom.

Next to the immensely big athmosphere Malacca was creating, the religion head of the kingdom, Islam was also becoming more popular. The kingdom then battled with continual attacks of Muslim harbour and many started converting to the Islamic beliefs. This was also the time of the Ming dynasty in China. They started gaining an enormous influence in the South East. They supported the Malacca Sultanate, making Malacca the new hegemony in the archipelago.

Most likely there is no straight answer for what the exact reason was, many documents that described the empire in detail like the Katuturanira Ken Angrok or better called the Pararaton. The final chapters about this 15th to 16th century were vague. There were less people mentioned, less events and nowhere near a straight answer to the collapse of the empire. But whatever the exact reason may have been, it likely was a combination of complex coherent circumstances. The Majapahit finally ended in the 15th century and was succeeded by a Muslim state named the Demak Sultanate. later in history, the rich in Indonesia will have to wrestle with the colonising power of the Netherlands since 1598. Ultimately, like many countries in the 19th century and 20th century, through the influence of nationalism, the territories will form one unit – Indonesia.

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