Majapahit: the Peak of Indonesian Civilization

Indosphere Lifestyle
13 min readDec 29, 2019


Via: Indosphere

Image source: Didi Trowulanesia

The Majapahit empire was the last of the major Hindu empires of Dvipantara and the greatest state in Indonesian history. At its peak, the empire’s dominated all of today’s Indonesia and Malaysia.

A legendary kingdom

The history of Majapahit is shrouded in legends and mystery. It is known to us through the Pararaton (‘Book of Kings’) and Nagarakertagama, written in the Kawi language.

Majapahit is sen as a culmination of the high culture of the Indonesian Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms that had existed for more than a thousand years before it.

Majapahit had relationships with Champa, Cambodia, Siam, Burma and Vietnam, and sent missions to China. They controlled a large share of the commercial trade that passed through the archipelago.

The society of Majapahit was based on spiritual principles. At its top was the ruler, who occupied a place in his kingdom that was a reflection of God’s place in the cosmos. Majapahit is named after the maja tree which is sacred to Shiva.

The Javanese caste system was much milder than the Indian caste system, and much more similar to the flexible interpretation of castes seen in today’s Bali. Balinese society today is considered a continuation of Majapahit society.

Image source — Didi Trowulanesia

The Benda Majapahit: an inspiration for many

The Majapahit flag — still used by the Indonesian Navy today — has a design that would later be adopted by countless nations. It was the flag of victory of Raden Wijaya (first king of Majapahit) in the first battle against the Chinese Yuan Dynasty. It was first recorded in the Butak inscription in 1292.

In the second war in 1293, Raden Wijaya‘s forces successfully repelled Mongol troops from Java. The defeat of the Mongols by the Javanese army is recorded in Chinese history.

Therefore, Indonesia is considered to have been founded in 1293. The unification of the archipelago under the banner of the Majapahit empire had begun from the beginning of the Gayatri Rajapatni period, through Raden Wijaya, Jayanegara, Tribuanawijaya Tungga Dewi, until Hayam Wuruk.

Majapahit Architecture

The capital of Wilwatikta was known for its great religious festivals. Shaivism and Buddhism were practiced simultaneously and given equal status.

Although brick had already been used in the candi of Indonesia’s classical age, it was the Majapahit architects who mastered it, making use of a vine sap and palm sugar mortar.

Majapahit had a lasting influence on Indonesian architecture. The descriptions of the architecture of the capital’s pavilions (pendopo) is mentioned in the Nagarakertagama. Majapahit architecture was the basis of the Balinese temples of today.

Image source: Didi Trowulanesia

The kings of Majapahit

Raden Wijaya

Raden Wijaya was the founder and the first monarch of Majapahit. His formal name was Kerjarajasa Jayawarddhana. The founding of the empire is marked by the victory over the Mongol invaders in Java, and is described in the Pararaton and Negarakertagama.

Raden Wijaya had first allied himself with Yuan’s army to fight against Jayakatwang, a rebel from Kediri. 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.

Pura Sakti Raden Wijaya in Surabaya

The mahapati (prime minister) Halayudha then conspired to gain the highest position in the government. However, Halayudha was captured and sentenced to death.

To secure his dynastic position, Raden Wijaya married the four daughters of Kertanegara: Tribhuvana (the oldest) , Prajnaparamita, Narendra Duhita, and Gāyatrī Rajapatni (the youngest).

Raden Wijaya also married Indreswari, a princess of Malaysian Dharmasraya kingdom. Indreswari gave him a son, Jayanegara, and Gāyatrī Rajapatni gave him a daughter, Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi.

After his death, he was portrayed as Harihara, flanked with his two main pramesvari (queen consort), Gāyatrī and Tribhuvana.

The devarāja principle

According to the Javanese devarāja principle, the kings were seen as the representative of God (Shiva) on Earth, with the responsibility of upholding Dharmic laws during their reign.

After death, if their reign had been just, their soul was united with that aspect of God (generally Shiva-Mahadeva, Vishnu, or Harihara), and were revered as such in a mortuary temple.

The ritual of the Devaraja was based on four texts — Vinasikha, Nayottara, Sammoha, and Siraccheda. These scriptures are supposed to have been uttered by the four mouths of Shiva, represented by the gandharva Tumburu.

The essence of royalty was supposed to reside in a linga obtained from Shiva through a brahmin. The communion between the king and Shiva took place on a Javanese sacred mountain.

Gāyatrī Rajapatni: the Queen Mother

Gāyatrī Rajapatni was the queen consort of Majapahit’s first king Raden Wijaya and the daughter of the powerful king Kertanegara.

She was named after Gāyatrī, the goddess of mantras. Rajapatni means “Raja’s (the king’s) consort”, which praises her as a perfect match for the King, and likens the royal couple to the Cosmic couple: Shiva and Parvati.

She was an influential matriarchal figure during both the reigns of her husband and of her stepson, Jayanegara. During her later years, she renounced worldly affairs and retired as a Bhikkuni (Buddhist nun). After the death of Jayanegara in 1328, she appointed her daughter Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi to rule the kingdom.

The Nagarakretagama describes the Sraddha ceremony performed after her death. In posthumous statues, she is portrayed as Prajnaparamita, the Buddhist boddhisattva of transcendental wisdom.


Jayanegara was Wijaya’s son and successor, and notorious for immorality. He took his own step-sisters as wives. His name in Sanskrit-derived Old Javanese words: jaya (“glorious”) and nagara (“city” or “nation”), which means “glorious nation”.

His reign saw the beginning of Gajah Mada’s rise in the empire.

He died childfree, so Gāyatrī Rajapatni named her daughter Tribhuvana as regent, who married Chakresvara and bore a son, Hayam Wuruk, who became heir to the empire.

Majapahit ceremony in Trowulan

Tribuanawijaya Tungga Dewi

Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi was the third monarch of Majapahit. She pursued a massive expansion of the empire with the help of her prime minister Gajah Mada. In 1343 Majapahit conquered the island of Bali.

Her cousin Adityawarman was sent to conquer the rest of Sumatra and the Melayu Kingdom, and was then promoted as uparaja (lower king) of Sumatra.

She later abdicated her throne in favor to her son Hayam Wuruk.

Image source — Didi Trowulanesia

Gajah Mada

Gajahmada was the mahapatih (‘prime minister’) of Majapahit. He is the main ruler who brought Majapahit to the peak of its power and is today considered a patriotic hero in Indonesia. He was born a commoner with the birth name of Mada and became commander of the Bhayangkara, an elite guard for the Majapahit royal family.

During his appointment as mahapatih under Queen Tribhuwana Tungga Dewi, Gajah Mada took his famous Palapa Oath, where he promised that he would ”not allow his food to be spiced” — meaning that he would abstain from all earthly pleasures — until he ”conquered the entire known archipelago for Majapahit”.

He conquered Bali, Lombok, West Sumatra, Bintan, Temasek (Singapore), Melayu and Kalimantan. He also defeated the first Mohammedan sultanate in Southeast Asia, Samudra Pasai.

After the death of Queen Tribuwanatunggadewi, her son Hayam Wuruk became king. Gajah Mada retained his position as mahapatih and continued his military campaign by expanding eastward, all the way to Ambon, East Timor and the Southern Philipines.

Shrine to Gaja Madah at Pendopo Agung (‘Great Pavilion’) in Trowulan

In Java, there was a well-established Ganapatya religious tradition, and Gajah Mada was one of its many adherents. When he became mahapatih, he consecrated himself to Lord Ganesha and took the name “Gajah”, meaning “elephant”, and became Gajah Mada. His battle flag bore an embroidered golden elephant.

For the kshatriya, Ganesha was valued for his power as a destroyer of enemies, but for the common people he was valued as a deity who removed obstacles and provided wealth and good fortune.

It is during his reign that the Ramayana and Mahabharata became integrated in the Javanese through the Wayang kulit.

His life and political career are related in the Javanese Pararaton (‘Book of Kings’).

In 1357, the only remaining kingdom not submitted to Majapahit was Sunda, in West Java. To assimilate it, King Hayam Wuruk planned to marry the daughter of Sunda’s king, princess Dyah Pitaloka Citraresmi.

Gajah Mada waited the Sundanese king and his daughter in the Bubat square in Trowulan to welcome them. But while the Sunda King thought that the marriage was intended as a new alliance between Sunda and Majapahit, Gajah Mada stated that the Princess of Sunda was not to be the new queen consort of Majapahit, but merely a concubine, as a sign of submission.

This misunderstanding led to hostility, which developed in to a full-scale battle, the Battle of Bubat. The Sunda king was killed.

After the fiasco, the Majapahit court and nobles blamed Gajah Mada, who was demoted and spent the rest of his days in his estate of Madakaripura in Probolinggo.

Hayam Wuruk

Hayam Wuruk was called Tiktawilwa-pura-raja, ‘the king of the palace of Majapahit’ in the Nagarakrtagama. His mother, Queen Tribhuwana, had educated him to become the next monarch.

Hayam Wuruk was described as handsome, talented and exceptional in Javanese archery and fencing. He was mastering politics and scriptures, arts and music. He was even an accomplished ceremonial dancer.

He inherited the throne in 1350 at the age of 16 while the mahapatih (prime minister) Gajah Mada was still in charge.

Because he was so educated, his reign was marked by a greater participation in the cultural, religious and artistic exchanges with other Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Dvipantara. During his reign, Hindu spirituality, art and culture reached new heights.

The Civil War

Revolts and internal decay started spreaded at the margins of the Majapahit empire as foreign Moslem merchants became more influential. Some rogue princes were attracted to the economic benefits of Islam, which allowed them to declare themselves ”sultans” and repudiate their allegiance to the kings. As gradual islamization progressed, eventually religious propaganda turned to armed force.

A conflict over succession happened when Hayam Wuruk was succeeded by the princess Kusumawardhani, who married his relative, Prince Wikramawardhana. Hayam Wuruk also had a son from his previous marriage, prince Wirabhumi, who also claimed the throne.

A civil war, called Paregreg, occurred from 1405 to 1406. Wikramawardhana was victorious and Wirabhumi was decapitated.

Rebuilding in Majapahit style in Trowulan. Image source — Didi Trowulanesia

Wikramawardhana was succeeded by his daughter Suhita, who ruled from 1426 to 1447 AD. In 1447, Suhita died and was succeeded by her brother Kertawijaya. After Kertawijaya died, king Rajasawardhana ruled from Kahuripan.

In 1456, Girisawardhana, son of Kertawijaya, came to power. He died in 1466 AD and was succeeded by Singhawikramawardhana.

In 1468 AD Prince Kertabhumi rebelled against Singhawikramawardhana and proclaimed king of Majapahit.

Singhawikramawardhana moved the Kingdom’s capital to Daha where he continued his reign. He was succeeded by his son Ranawijaya, who ruled from 1474 AD to 1519 AD as King Girindrawardhana.

In 1478 AD Singhawikramawardhana defeated Kertabhumi and reunited Majapahit as one Kingdom.

But Majapahit’s power had declined through these succession conflicts and was challenged by the growing power of the cities of the North coast of Java, who by then were being heavily financed by the foreign Mohammedan traders.

Image source — Didi TrowulanesiaHolders of the Surya Majapahit emblem

Fall of Majapahit and Islamization

The succession of internal conflicts, combined with the increasing pressure from the Moslem merchants who had established settlements on the North Coast of Java saw the progressive decline and final collapse of the empire.

About the time when Majapahit was founded, some Moslems had already began to enter Dvipantara through trade exchanges. Yet the Nagarakertagama does not yet mention their presence at that time.

Enriched Moslem spice traders progressively became influential in Java, while Moslem prozelityzers sought to spread Islam to the locals. Once the Moslems felt strong enough, peaceful religious propaganda quickly turned to armed force.

Some rogue Majapahit princes also saw the economic and political benefits of joining the foreign religion. Many turned Moslem in order to declare themselves “sultans” and repudiate their allegiance to the empire. The islamic ideology allowed them to carve their own independent sultanates by allying with each other in fighting the ”infidel” lords of Majapahit.

This creeping islamization hastened the deterioration in Java. The combination of political ‘jihad’ warfare with religious infighting at the level of common people in every village meant this period was one of constant strife and infighting within the Empire.

Majapahit could not contain the well-funded sultanates, and finally crumbled under the Mohammedan pressure in 1527. The cream of Majapahit’s priests, scholars and intellectuals started migrating to safe places in East Java.

A very powerful Surya Majapahit design that combines the Dewata Nawa Sanga with the cosmic symbol of Kejawen

Resistance in Blambangan

The last ruler of Majapahit, Brawijaya V, turned himself Moslem in 1478. Most of his priests and kshatriyas (nobles) did not accept this, and established a new kraton (palace) at Daha near Kediri, which also succumbed to the Moslem hordes of Sultan Trenggana of Demak in 1527.

They then moved on to create the Kingdom of Blambangan further east, with its capital in Banyuwangi.

They would resist two more centuries to the Mohammedans, but from this point, Islam was the dominant religious force in Javanese society, although it would take much longer for the Semitic religion to establish a definitive hold in Java.

East Java remained Hindu until the 1700s. The Blambangan kingdom lost its political independence only during the 17th century and the region was Moslemized only in the late 1800s.

The loyalist nobles and priests then took all the kingdom’s scriptures, historical records, and knowledge with them to Bali. From then on, the sacred knowledge would survive and thrive in Bali, while a culturally and spiritually impoverished Java started its long descent into Islam. Bali then became the last refuge of Javanese culture.

Bali today is a survivance of Java during Majapahit’s golden age. Through it’s isolation, Bali kept the Javanese culture whole and continuously improved on it. Today, it is the world that comes to Bali to learn from the ancient Hindu-Javanese wisdom.

During these troubled times, all men were wearing the keris, a Hindu religious weapon and a symbol of social status. It is during that time that the keris was refined and developed all its final attributes as we know them today.

Image source — Didi Trowulanesia

The two Prophecies in Java

After the last ruler of the Mahajapit Kingdom in Java, Brawijaya V, converted to Islam he was cursed by his advisor Sabdapalon, who prophecized that he would reborn after 500 years, during a time of corrupt politics and natural disasters, to restore the Hindu-Buddhist Javanese religion and culture.

The second prophecy is that of Jayabaya, the Javanese King of Kediri. In the 1100s, he had predicted, “The Javanese will be ruled by whites for three centuries and by yellow dwarfs for the lifespan of a maize plant (one year) prior to the return of the Ratu Adil (a Dharmic king).” It is was said that Ratu Adil would return “when iron wagons drive without horses and ships sail through the sky.”

Indonesia was indeed ruled by the “white” Dutch from 1610, and ended with the “yellow” Japanese invasion in 1942.

Renaissance in Bali

Nirartha, a great Hindu sage from Kediri in east Java, arrived in Bali after the fall of Majapahit, and became a reformer of the Indonesian religion. He created, among other reformed principles, new rules to reorganize the Hindu village community as a microcosm of the larger order of the Universe. He also introduced the padmasana shrine found today everywhere in Bali.

In the 15th century, the capital of Bali was moved to the south coast at Gelgel in Klungkung Regency. Gelgel did not have direct political power over the other kingdoms, but became the spiritual center around which the other kingdoms revolved. Its rulers were called ‘Dewa Agung’ (“Great Lord”) in a continuation of the Javanese devaraja principle.

In Gelgel, for two centuries, the kings of Bali governed, developing extremely refined customs and institutions that welded together the traditions of East Java and old Bali. Complex death rituals, offerings and high ceremonial language were all renewed during this period.

Great numbers of court artisans, carvers, writers, poets, painters, architects refined the Balinese culture as we know it today. The fine arts flourished and became embedded in the life of the courts and the religious life of the commoners.

During Dalem Batu Renggong’s rule, the Hindu-Javanese saka calendar and the Balinese 30-week wuku calendar were combined into the intricate Balinese calendar that exists today and which very precisely indicates the optimal timings for religious ceremonies.

The Dewa Agung also constructed nine great protection temples throughout the land, with Pura Besakih as the island’s mother temple.

Cremations, which were until the Gelgel period a privilege of the nobility, began to be practiced by the common people.

Gelgel remained the island’s center of political and spiritual power until its defeat at the hands of the Dutch in 1906 and 1908. Yet the regents of Gelgel retained their autonomy into the 1950s, when the Indonesian government finally stripped them of their authority.