Discovering Majapahit. Article 2. A brief history of the Kingdom

The official history of Majapahit dates from 1293 until 1478. In the west we like to think of events as progressing in a linear manner, but in fact they were often fluid and swirling. Stories of betrayal and treachery as one rajah usurped another. The centres of power in what we now call Indonesia shifted over centuries from Sumatra to Java, from Central Java to East Java

The Majapahit kingdom was established by the prince Vijaya, also known as Krtarajasa, who overthrew the prince of Kadiri, Jayakatwang who had murdered the then Raja, Krtnagara, Vijaya's father-in-law.

According to Chinese records Raja Krtnagara had insulted a Chinese envoy and Kublai Khan sent an punitive expeditionary force to Java but it arrived to the changed situation. Prince Vijaya convinced the Chinese that he was the rightful king and formed an alliance with them.

This next part of the story I have not from books but from oral history in conversations with people in the area many years ago. I suspect that this is more of a legend than historically factual but the dry history you can read elsewhere.

In 1292, Vijaya, with a small force of his own, perhaps one thousand men, bolstered by the authority of the Chinese force which itself was only three hundred warriors, confronted Jayaktwang. Jayakatwang assembled his army and preparation was made to do battle. Vijaya was outnumbered ten to one and was facing defeat, however he had one extra weapon, adat. Adat in Java is the spiritual force, the force of righteousness.

During the night many of the warriors of Jayaktawang stealthily moved across to the encampment of Prince Vijaya so that when dawn came the majority were now on Vijaya's side. Realising that he had no hope Jayaktawang's surrendered and the battle was won without a fight.

So began the era of the Majapahit in 1293.

Centered in East Java around the place now called Trawullen, the power and influence of the kingdom grew. They claimed influence over most of what we now call Indonesia, extending as far as Sumatra and Malacca in the west and Borneo in the East.

The Nusantara Archipelago during the height of Majapahit Empire in XIV century. The red dot is Trowulan; Majapahit capital city. The dark orange area is core realm of Majapahit on eastern part of Java. The light orange area is vassal states of Majapahit mentioned in Nagarakretagama. The pale yellow is outer realm or independent states from Majapahit. The dark cyan is the sea area under influence or effective control of Majapahit. The light cyan is the extent of Majapahit naval expedition.

The kingdom had strong ties with China as evidenced by the many small figurines of Chinese traders we find. There is also evidence of Indian contact, once again seen in the depiction of turbaned travellers.There is very little written about this period and so much of what we know we have to surmise from the many terracotta artefacts that we are still finding in the fields of East Java.

This one is a head of a high official. I am guessing that this may be a portrate of Gajah Madah, the prime minister of Hayam Wuruk. If so, thos dates it to the mid 14th century

Gajah Mada. Catalogue TC 223 Balique Arts of Indonesia

Ht 10.5 x 7 x 8.2cm

Another artifact that we did collect, now sold to a collector in America is a complete frieze of ten bricks showing a procession of a king.


The  only written text that we have from the time is the Nagarakretagama  or  Nagarakrtagama, also known as Desawarñana or Deshavarñana, is an old Javanese eulogy to Hayam Wuruk, a Javanese king of the Majapahit Empire. It was written on lontar as a kakawin by Mpu Prapanca in 1365 (1287 Saka year). The Nagarakretagama contains detailed descriptions of the Majapahit Empire during its greatest extent. The poem affirms the importance of Hindu-Buddhism in the Majapahit empire by describing temples and palaces and several ceremonial observances.

One of the religious practices of the Majapahit royal family described by Prapanca was the "royal walkabout". They visited cornerstones of the empire and paid homage to the ancestors of the king. Possibly this frieze depicts such an event.


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