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How a Javanese King Defeated One of the Most Powerful Rulers of the Mongolian Empire

How a Javanese King Defeated One of the Most Powerful Rulers of the Mongolian Empire

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Raden Wijaya (known also as Nararya Sangramawijaya) was the founder of the Majapahit Empire. Apart from being remembered as the man who established the Majapahit Empire, Raden Wijaya is also known for his victory (through cunning and deceit) over a Mongol expeditionary force sent by the Yuan Dynasty of China to the island of Java. After Raden Wijaya defeated the powerful army of Kublai Khan in an unexpected way he secured his footing as a strong ruler.

Naming an Empire

The Majapahit Empire was founded in 1293/1294 AD, with the ascension of its first king, Raden Wijaya, to the throne. As the ruler of this empire, he was known by his royal title as Kertarajasa Jayawardhana. The heart of the empire was located on the Indonesian island of Java, specifically in its eastern part. There is a story concerning how this maritime empire got its name.

In this tale, Raden Wijaya’s men, following their victory over the Yuan forces, were clearing the land, when they came across a bitter fruit called maja. In the Indonesian language, the word of ‘bitter’ is pahit, and the combination of this adjective, pahit, and the name of the fruit, maja, gave rise to the name Majapahit. This name can be used interchangeably with Wilwatikta, wilwa being another name for the fruit, whilst tikta is another word for bitter.

Location of the Majapahit Empire.

Location of the Majapahit Empire. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Prior to Raden Wijaya’s rise to power, the dominant power on the island of Java was the Kingdom of Singhasari. In 1268, Kertanagara became the new ruler of Singhasari. It was during his reign, in 1289, that a demand for tribute was sent by Kublai Khan to the king. This demand was refused, and the messenger was humiliated, prompting the Yuan Dynasty to launch a punitive expedition against the kingdom.

A painting of Shizu, better known as Kublai Khan

A painting of Shizu, better known as Kublai Khan (Public Domain)

Defeating Kublai Khan’s Forces

Kublai Khan’s forces only arrived in Java in 1292, and by that time changes had happened in the kingdom. Prior to the arrival of the Yuan expedition, a rebellion had broken out in Singhasari, which was led by Jayakatwang of Kendiri, a vassal of Kertanagara. Although Kertanagara tried to put down the rebellion, he was killed in battle, and Jayaakatwang established the Kediri Kingdom. One of the survivors of the Sighasari royal family was Raden, who fled to Madura, where he planned to establish a new kingdom.

Location of Madura island in East Java, Indonesia.

Location of Madura island in East Java, Indonesia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was the representatives of Raden Wijaya who met the expedition force, who told the commanders about the rebellion against, and the death of Kertanagara. An alliance was formed between Raden Wijaya and the Yuan forces, as they regarded Jayakatwang as the common enemy. In return for their military assistance against Jayakatwang, Raden Wijaya promised to pay tribute to the Yuan emperor.

Thus, in 1293, a campaign was launched against the Kediri capital, during which 5000 Kediri lives were recorded to have been lost, and Jayakatwang himself surrendered. Raden Wijaya then took leave of his new allies to return home, supposedly to prepare the tribute for them to take back to China.

Instead, Raden Wijaya mobilized his troops, and launched a surprise attack against the expedition force whilst they were celebrating their victory. Taken by surprise, many of the soldiers were killed, and the rest fled back to their ships. Having been weakened and demoralized even before arriving in Java, the expedition force was in no shape to launch a counter-attack, and sailed back to China.

Janggala and Panjalu (Kediri) kingdom, later unified as Kediri kingdom.

Janggala and Panjalu (Kediri) kingdom, later unified as Kediri kingdom. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A New King

Raden Wijaya was then crowned as king and he established the Majapahit Empire. In order to strengthen his position on the throne, he married four of Kertanagara’s daughters, Shri Parameshwari Dyah Dewi Tribhuwaneshwari, Shri Mahadewi Dyah Dewi Narendraduhita, Shri Jayendradewi Dyah Dewi Prajnaparamita and Shri Rajendradewi Dyah Dewi Gayatri.

During his reign, a number of rebellions broke out, though Raden Wijaya was successful in putting them down, hence preserving the fledgling Majapahit Empire. Raden Wijaya died in 1309, and was succeeded by Jayanagara, who was his son with Shri Parameshwari Dyah Dewi Tribhuwaneshwari.

The statue of Parvati as mortuary deified portrayal of Tribhuwanottunggadewi.

The statue of Parvati as mortuary deified portrayal of Tribhuwanottunggadewi. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Featured image: A statue of Harihara, the half Shiva, half Vishnu god. The statue is a mortuary deified portrayal of Raden Wijaya. Photo source: (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Wu Mingren


Bade, D., 2013. Of Palm Wine, Women and War: The Mongolian Naval Expedition to Java in the 13th Century. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing.

Memory of Majapahit, 2007. Raden Wijaya. [Online]
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Sedyawati, E., 2004. Majapahit (1293-ca. 1520s). In: O. K. Gin, ed. Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, pp. 822-824.

Sejarah, 2015. Sejarah Raden Wijaya pendiri Kerajaan Majapahit. [Online]
Available at:, 2017. Raden Wijaya and the foundation of Majapahit. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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