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A brief history of the Majapahit Empire, an Indianized maritime power based in Java that united ancient Indonesia through trade and conquest.

The large stage of Southeast Asia has hosted several notable cultures and empires that have risen and endured for centuries before their fall, others many others have burned bright and fast before fading away. The Majapahit Empire is one such kingdom. Although the state itself only lasted through the reign of a handful of kings, its legacy went on to inspire the national identity of modern Indonesia.

What Is the Majapahit Empire?

The Majapahit Empire was a nation near Indonesia and founded in the 13th century with an interesting history. After being forced to abdicate his throne, King Vijaya returned with the Mongols to regain his rightful place. After kicking the Mongols back up, Vijaya started the empire of Majapahit.

The Majapahit may have a short piece of history to work with, but they certainly left their mark with a great story for their origins. This article will look at who the Majapahit people are, how they started, where they got their name, and their culture and beliefs.

Origins of the Majapahit Empire

The founder of the Majapahit Empire was named Vijaya, a prince from the Singhasari Kingdom, one of the successor kingdoms of Java’s ancient Mataram Kingdom. Vijaya’s father-in-law was Kertanagara, the former king of Singhasari. Kertanagara had been previously been killed by the rival rulers of the Kediri Kingdom (led by King Jayakatwang), which had rebelled and overtaken Singhasari. 

However, Vijaya had escaped the fate of his father-in-law, Kertanagara

Of course, all of this royal and political rivalry was isolated to the island of Java itself. Prior to this conflict, Singhasari had made an enemy of the Yuan dynasty, the ruling Mongolian government of China. At this time, China’s Yuan dynasty was the most powerful state in the world, and not an entity to be made an enemy of. 

In 1292, Mongol troops came to Java to help avenge an insult that happened to their emperor of China, Kublai Khan, by Kertanagara, the king of Singhasari, who was now under the new rule. In retaliation for losing his throne, Vijaya decided to work with the Mongol troops to defeat Jayakatwang, who overthrew him.

While Vijaya had worked with the Mongols to get his throne back, as soon as it was accomplished, he turned against the Mongols. In the end, he was able to expel them out of Java and regained control over the area.

Majapahit Name Origins

There are several thoughts on where the name of Majapahit came from. It comes from the local Javanese language and means “bitter Maja.” Maja is believed to be the name of a popular tree in Indonesia.

Originally, the name was meant to refer to the area found near the Trowulan, the cradle of the Majapahit empire, and was linked back to the villages that started there. Since this is where the empire started, and it was a common practice in this area to name a village or a settlement based on the most abundant fruit and tree species in the area, this likely is where these people gained their name.

Culture and Beliefs of the Majapahit Empire

This era produced a number of literary works. There are two periods based on the early years and later, and the types of literature were very different. There were historical books about the kings, essays about the culture, and even poetry and tales for others to enjoy.

Religion was also an important part of the culture of these people. They often considered their relics and temples as important parts of their daily life. For example, Candi Pari was a great time during that time that helps to show off the architecture of the area and how high religion was held as well.

Ceremonies were held, both for religious reasons and for honoring the king. These were big events that encouraged the whole city to celebrate and come out and may take a few days to prepare. Farming, agriculture, and trading with other big powers of the area were common professions that were held in this culture.

Religion in Majapahit

In this society, the government was responsible for managing religious orders when they appointed officials who regulated religious life. These officials were known as the Dharmadhyaksa, and they were assigned to one of the three religions, including Buddhism, Shiva, and Resi. These three religions were known as Tripaksa.

Hayam Wuruk tried to enforce the order of the Tripitaka by warning the people to stick to the rules the best they can. The absence of any crime helped give the people some security and created a bit of national stability.

For the most part, as long as individuals did not fight amongst themselves over religion and were willing to serve the king, they were left alone to practice the way they wanted. At one point, advisors of Hayam Wuruk tried to convince the people their religions were the same to unify them, but no one national religion was enforced.

Architecture in Majapahit

Majapahit did not produce the large number of lasting monuments that many of their Javanese ancestors or mainland counterparts. However, there are still many notable traces of the grand thalassocracy to be found scattered around Java, and even nearby islands, such as Bali.

Perhaps the signature of the Majapahit were their large and ornamental gateways. These gateways were usually used to mark the entraceways of sacred sites, such as the state Hindu temples of the empire. In a similar capacity, they were used in royal and state buildings, in which the king, like other Indianized kingdoms, was revered as a divine or semi-divine being.

In the early stages of the kingdom, these gateways took the form of towering constructs bearing over the subject entering the doorway. In later phases of the empire, as more ingigeous beliefs were woven into the hindu faith, these gateways evolved into split gates, called candi bentar. 

The oldest of these candi bentar gates is found in Trowulan, the Majapahit capital city. However, they were incorporated into several Majapahit temples on Java, and are still used as part of the iconic construction of Balinese temples to this day.

History of the Majapahit Empire

The Majapahit empire was the final Indianized kingdom in Indonesia. It was based in eastern Java during the 13th to the 16th centuries. This was a group developed after the royal heir Vijaya worked together with the Mongols to regain his throne.

Vijaya had a grudge. He had once been in the palace before it was taken over by Jayakatwang. After fleeing and waiting for the right time, Vijaya was ready to get back the throne, and when he was successful, he was able to start a new civilization known as the Majapahit.

The Mongols were only around for a little bit, though. As soon as they helped Vijaya get his kingdom back, they were expelled and sent back home.

Early Years of Majapahit

Under the rule of Vijaya over the new kingdom, the Majapahit empire was able to control a few other big powers as well, including the Tanjungpura, the Malayu, the Madura, and Bali. The power of Majapahit continued to grow and reached its height during the middle of the 14th century. It was during this time that King Hayam Wuruk ruled along with his prime minister, Gajah Mada.

The empire of Majapahit continued to grow. They took over land well into the Asian continent, developing more influence with their culture and religion as time went on. 

Decline of Majapahit

Majapahit’s empire became a very powerful player in the region. They were able to trade with other big powers of that time, including Thailand, Annam, Cambodia, Champa, and China. This trading helped to make the empire richer and they used that to fund their wars to continue growing. 

The Majapahit culture may have only enjoyed a brief period compared to many other dynasties of the area, but they have an interesting history and grew quickly. 

While only around for a few centuries, they were able to grow into a vast territory, trade with China, Thailand, and other major powers of the area. They allowed for a big culture to grow in the area while encouraging religious freedom as well. 

Geography of Majapahit Empire

Majapahit in Negara Agung

These are the provinces in East and Central Java. The provinces were ruled by the Bhres, who were close relatives to the king. They were required to pay annual tributes to the empire. The Majapahit would often place their officers and officials here to collect taxes and to monitor foreign trade. However, the people of this area still enjoyed quite a bit of internal autonomy. 

Even though they were on their own, because of the influence of Majapahit, they started to have a similar culture. 

Majapahit in Nusantara

Nusantara is the collective  name of the outer islands in the Malay Archipelago. These islands did not include the Javanese culture as the core Majapahit region did. Instead, these polities were primarily colonies and vassals of Majapahit and used for trading and had to pay an annual tribute. They were allowed to keep their native politics in place and retained much of their own freedom. 

The Majapahit did not station military or officials there. However, any challenges to the Majapahit empire’s oversight could draw out a swift and harsh response for the area.

What Happened to the Majapahit Empire?

All good empires must come to an end at some point, and the same was true of the Majapahit. Several things caused this civilization to struggle. First, the golden era of the empire started to decline when Gaha Mada died in 1364.

The empire was weakened more after the death of Hayam Wuruk in 1389. With both powers dead and the war on who should take the throne, the country was in turmoil without a decisive or definitive leader.

This was just one of the issues that the empire faced at the time. It was during these years that Islam began to spread, and the rise of several Islamic states along the northern part of Java started to cause problems.

There were several wars between Islamic people and those who practiced Buddhism in the area, and this caused unrest and more decline to the empire of Majapahit. The empire finally came to an end sometime during the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Cities of the Majapahit Empire

Trowulan
East Java, Indonesia
GPS:

Monuments of the Majapahit Empire

Candi Wringin Lawang
East Java, Indonesia
GPS: -7.54199, 112.39108

Candi Tegowangi
East Java, Indonesia
GPS: -7.7347, 112.16125

Jabung temple
East Java, Indonesia
GPS: -7.73528, 113.47171

Candi Brahu
East Java, Indonesia
GPS: -7.54301, 112.37434

Candi Cetho
East Java, Indonesia
GPS: -7.59546, 111.15726

Candi Sukuh
East Java, Indonesia
GPS: -7.62721, 111.13127

Pura Maospahit
Bali, Indonesia
GPS: -8.65377, 115.2105

Fast Facts


Fast Facts

Name: Majapahit Empire

Origin: Origin: Re-emergence of Singhasari royalty after fighting off Mongolian fleets.

Language: Javanese

Religion: Hinduism

Period: 1293-1520

Location: Indonesia, centered on Central-Eastern Java

Capital: Trowulan, East Java, Indonesia

Decline: Decline: Internal and regional instability caused by the rise of Islamic sultanates, including the Sultanate of Malacca.


Glossary

Bali

Java

Mataram Kingdom

Nusanatara

Srivijaya Empire

Sumatra

Sunda

Yuan dynasty

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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