The Majapahit Empire: The Short Life of an Empire that Once Defeated the Mongols
The Mongols are perhaps best known as one of history’s greatest conquerors. As they extended their borders, numerous empires were destroyed and dynasties replaced. Perhaps less well-known is the Mongol (under Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty of China) expedition to Java. This expedition ended in a Mongol defeat, and gave rise to one of the last major powers in the Southeast Asian region, the Majapahit Empire.
Usurpation and a Mixed Story
The story of the Majapahit Empire begins at the end of the 13th century AD in the Singhasari Kingdom with Raden Wijaya (the founder of the Majapahit Empire), and Jayakatwang (the last ruler of the Singhasari Kingdom). Raden Wijaya’s father-in-law was Kertanegara, whose throne was usurped by Jayakatwang. Raden Wijaya, however, was pardoned, and was given Trowulan in East Java. This site would later serve as the capital of the Majapahit Empire.
The Bajang Ratu Gate and Wringin Lawang, two examples of Majapahit Architecture, Trowulan, East Java, Indonesia (Wikimedia Commons)
According to the Chinese sources, prior to Jayakatwang’s treachery, Kertanegara had incurred the anger of Kublai Khan. Kertanegara had refused to pay tribute to the Yuan Dynasty, mistreated the Yuan envoy, and even challenged Kublai Khan. As a result, the Emperor decided to punish Kertanegara by dispatching 1000 ships to subdue his kingdom.
The Javanese sources, however, paint an alternate picture. Instead of depicting Kertanegara as refusing to pay tribute to the Mongols, the king is said to have been a friendly vassal. The expedition sent by Kublai Khan to Java was not meant to punish Kertanegara, but to aid Raden Wijaya. This is because Raden Wijaya had sent an urgent envoy to the Emperor requesting for aid against Jayakatwang. Furthermore, Raden Wijaya also promised to offer Kublai Khan the pick of the most beautiful princesses in the Singhasari Kingdom.
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Raden Wijaya Tricks and Defeats the Mongols
Regardless of the different versions of events, a Mongol expedition led by Shi-bi, Ike Mese and Gaoxing was sent to Java in 1293. Raden Wijaya allied himself with the Mongol forces, and defeated Jayakatwang. After this victory, Raden Wijaya was allowed to return to his capital for the alleged purpose of preparing the tribute due to the Yuan Dynasty. Raden Wijaya had no intention of becoming a vassal of the Mongols and decided to drive the expedition force out of Java. He succeeded in doing so by launching a surprise attack on the army’s camp. The demoralized Mongols withdrew to their ships and sailed back to China, after losing over 3000 men.
Deified portrayal of Raden Wijaya as Harihara (the half Shiva, half Krishna god). Jakarta, Indonesia. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Rise of the Wealthy and Powerful Majapahit Empire
Raden Wijaya was crowned as the Majapahit Emperor, and the Empire began to expand slowly. Additionally, due to its strategic position on the spice trade route, the Majapahit Empire grew immensely wealthy by levying duties on goods shipped through its area of control. The golden age of the Majapahit Empire, however, is said to have been during the reign of Hayam Wuruk, the fourth ruler of the empire. Hayam Wuruk, who ruled from 1350 to 1389, was assisted by an equally formidable prime minister, Gajah Mada.
Terracotta head believed to be a representation of Gajah Mada, Trowulan, East Java, Indonesia (Wikimedia Commons)
During his premiership, Gajah Mada had successfully added Bali, Java and Sumatra to the Majapahit Empire. Although Gajah Mada died around 1364, the expansion of the empire continued. By 1365, the entire Malay Archipelago, with the exception of Sri-Vijaya and two of its colonies, were conquered by the Majapahit Empire. In 1377, Palembang, the capital of Sri-Vijaya, fell to Hayam Wuruk’s troops. The Kingdom of Singapura, an offshoot of Sri-Vijaya, was also later conquered. Nevertheless, this rival was not entirely destroyed, and its descendants would later return to cause trouble to the Majapahit Empire.
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Pura Maospahit "Majapahit Temple." Denpasar, Bali. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Short-Lived Majapahit Empire Falls
The Majapahit Empire was short-lived, as its power began to shortly after Hayam Wuruk’s death. At the beginning of the 15th century AD, a war of succession that lasted for four years broke out. At the same time, Islam was spreading in the region, and many kingdoms were converting to this faith. Amongst these was the rising Sultanate of Malacca, founded by the last Raja of Singapura.
A map showing the Majapahit Empire during its heyday in the 14th century AD. (Wikimedia Commons)
Remaining as Hindu-Buddhists, the Majapahit Empire was unable to compete with its Muslim neighbors, and continued to disintegrate, finally collapsing in either 1478 or the early 16th century AD.
Featured image: The northeastern corner of an Indonesian national monument. In this section the Majapahit Empire is depicted including Gajah Mada at the nearest right. Jakarta, Indonesia. (Wikimedia Commons)
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