At its height, the Buddhist-Hindu kingdom of Majapahit (in what is now Indonesia) flexed its might across 98 regional tributaries, a formidable state which once resisted the mighty Mongol Empire. Here, the monarch was not only its ruler, but its guardian, empowered by the people. But what if the people felt the leader no longer deserved being empowered?
Between 1293 and 1500, the Southeast Asian kingdom of Majapahit encompassed what is now parts of modern-day Indonesia, with its center in Nusantara (regions throughout Maluku and Sumatra). Theirs was an absurdly wealthy kingdom, which, of course, earned them both regional enemies and internal rivals.
We know that the Majapahit emerged from the Javanese-Hindu Singhasari Kingdom (1222-1292), who were themselves preceded by the Kediri (1042-1222).
As for the Kingdom’s origins, we can use the historical record from their many temples, as well as the documentation from their regional rivals. But some of the most important primary sources about the Majapahit are translations of the epic poem 'Nagarakretagama' (also known as 'The Book of Kings'). Given that the 'Nagarakretagama' was composed by a Majapahit court poet, one should assume that some of the details might have been slightly embellished in the cause of a great story.
According to legend, the Majapahit rulers were descended from the orphan Ken Arok, born to a human mother and the god Brahma. Ken Arok made a name for himself ruling the Kediri—before he was assassinated.
And yet his line survived, down through Raden Wijaya, who was crowned the first king of the Majapahit in 1293 (known by his royal name Kertarajasa Jayawardhana). Wijaya would begin his empire in a small village named for its local bitter maja fruit.
Instead of settling into village life, Wijaya would marry the four daughters of Kertanegara, last king of the Singhasari. Singhasari's closest advisors weren't partial to an insider coming in, marrying all of the eligible princesses, and taking over the kingdom, and so Raden Wijaya's rule was largely marked by putting down rebellions, while also repelling the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty, who sent some 100,000 men aboard 1,000 ships to halt his predecessor's expansion. All this in order to avoid being the first and last Majapahit king.
The Majapahit would build their empire with grains of rice (some research suggests that up to 80 percent of the population was involved in rice production) and the spice trade. Their seaways would provide links between India and China, and the kingdom kept the coffers filled by charging duties on goods traveling its throughways.
And they weren't afraid to flex their naval might: bas relief carvings from the period depict Majapahit naval raids against nearby kingdoms using impressive armadas. Using their massive jong ships, the Majapahit would move people and products, spreading rice from Eastern Java as well as the Malay language.
Under the negara or mandala style of governance, divine power emanated from the king outward, extending military protection as well as participation in the religious life of the capital. Villagers and regional nobles would send tribute to the Majapahit capital, Trowulan, and in return the king would restore temples, grant gifts, and send members of his family to far-flung regions to rule.
The kingdom would, for a time, survive regional rivalries with the Johor Sultanate and Siam (Thailand), by staging numerous raids on Malay Sultans in the 15th century. At their height, the Majapahit’s reach would make it the largest pre-modern state in the region.
After his death in 1309, Raden Wijaya would be succeeded by his son, Jayanegara, whose own reign between 1309 and 1328 was cut short by a small case of assassination. He was succeeded by his half-sister Dyah Gitarja, who would then hand the throne over to her son, Hayam Wuruk in 1350.
And it's here that we enter the golden age of the Majapahit Kingdom one hears so much about. Hayam Wuruk (also known as Rajasanagara) would begin his reign at the age of 16 and with the help of his 'pati' (prime minister/grand vizier) Gajah Mada, would expand the reach of the Rajasa dynasty across the continent.
A skilled archer raised to be king by his mother (and said to be very, very good-looking), Hayam Wuruk would extend the power of his family and become the center of Majapahit’s mandala.
But the love between the people and their king would not be enough to save the kingdom from a bloody (and expensive) civil war of succession, wherein the king's concubine-born son, Bhre Wirabumi would attempt to wrest the crown away from his recently coroneted brother-in-law in the years 1404 to 1406.
If that's not enough, its trade routes - for so long the source of its power - would become its ultimate undoing. The eastern islands became ports for European traders, moving the consolidation of power away from the empire to these smaller communities. The port city of Melaka (on what is now the Malay Peninsula) would rise to replace Majapahit and become the most important trade center in Southeast Asia, as the Majapahit merchant class would turn to Islam in order to better ingratiate themselves to the commercial life of Melaka’s Muslim majority.
The people, it seemed, would no longer need their leader.
Successive years would see traces of the Majapahit wiped away: by the Sixteenth Century, the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom would be completely replaced by a sultanate, drawing Islamic influences from the Western islands such as Aceh and Melaka. The sultans, too, would struggle to keep control of the region. Their reign would ultimately be cut short by incursions from Dutch and Portuguese colonialists, hopelessly addicted to Southeast Asian spices and vying for empire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.