The Majapahit Empire was a vast empire on the island of Java from 1293 to 1527 CE, which later became part of modern Indonesia. It was an empire of 98 tributaries, stretching from the island of Sumatra to New Guinea, and it is said to have encompassed what are known now as the majority of Southeast Asia. Although the true nature of its scope of influence is still the subject of studies among historians, Majapahit was one of the last major empires of the region and is considered to be one of the greatest and most powerful empires in the history of Southeast Asia, as well as the empire that sets the precedent for Indonesia’s modern boundaries.
The picture of a powerful empire politically and culturally dominating the whole of the Indonesian Archipelago is attached to the “Golden Age” of Majapahit in the fourteenth century. It was the time of the famous poets Prapafica and Tantular, and of the sculptors of reliefs that have been preserved on the Surawana, Tigawangi and Kedaton temples. The two men largely credited for this success are the great king Hayam Wuruk (1350-1389 CE) and the prime minister Gajah Mada—both their names and likenesses are still venerated in the region today. Gajah Mada especially is credited with bringing the empire to its peak of glory and serves as an important national hero in modern Indonesia—a symbol of patriotism and national unity.
However, paving the way for the two men was a warrior queen who is, by contrast, rarely mentioned. Born as Dyah Gitarja, she was later known in history by her title Tribhuwana Tunggadewi (“The Exalted Goddess of the Three Worlds”), and she was the woman who set in motion Majapahit’s dominance.
It may seem strange that Tribhuwana Tunggadewi became relegated to a lesser known character in the story of the expansion of Majapahit. Indeed, her title alone should give an indication of the influence of the queen in her era. However, as with many other information about ancient Indonesia, very little information about her survived. Tribhuwana Tunggadewi’s name was given in Serat Pararaton (“The Book of Monarchs”), written c. 1600, which chronicles the early kingdoms of Java and their mythological beginnings.
Although Serat Pararaton is an important contemporary source, it is also important to note the incompleteness of its data as far as the names of the monarchs are concerned. As most of the people noted in the Serat Pararaton are indicated only by their titles instead of by their birth names, it is frequently uncertain who is who, especially where different princes, or princesses, successively held the same title. The prefixes and suffixes used in the west to indicate a title or rank, are used differently in this time period and were never used again in modern usage.
The prefix bhre (Sanskrit for “monarch”), for example, which the Serat Pararaton uses most often in such titles, indicates the noble status but not the gender of the person concerned. The title would also appear in more than one occasion. Bhre Daha (“the monarch of Daha”) is mentioned in the Pararaton as Tribhuwana Tunggadewi’s sister, Rajadewi, who died between 1371 and 1376. However, there was another Bhre Daha who died between 1413 and 1416 – there was no further distinction between these two Bhre Daha, apart from the fact that they were three generations apart.
The Waringin Pitu charter (1447 CE) gives us more indication of the governing system of Majapahit, which consisted of 14 smaller kingdoms led by monarchs bearing the title “Bhre”. For example, Kertawijaya is titled Bhre Tumapel (“Monarch of Tumapel”), and his wife Dyah Jayeswari is Bhre Daha (“Monarch of Daha”). This is significant as it gives us a window of the relationships of the kings and queens of that period, where they were considered as equals. Further, lines five to eight of a eulogy in the charter which is included in her praise, sheds interesting light on her function as queen in relation to her consort, the king, and to their joint subjects:
She who is the living image of the daughter of the Lord of
and whose body was created by Lokesha, Keshava and
to be embraced by the King, the Lord of Java,
to increase the prosperity of mankind to everyone’s delight.
This tribute, elevating the queen as equal to the king, makes the existence of Tribhuwana Tunggadewi very plausible. Not only that, the fact that the titles utilized in contemporary records are mostly genderless opens up the possibility of many other female monarchs in this empire which may be yet unrecognized.
Apart from the rather difficult written sources, little physical evidence of Majapahit remains. Nevertheless, local Javanese people evidently did not forget Majapahit completely, as Mojopait is mentioned vaguely in Babad Tanah Jawi, which was composed in the 18th century.
The main ruins dating from the Majapahit period are still clustered in the Trowulan area, which was noted as the royal capital of the kingdom. The Trowulan archaeological site was discovered in the 19th century by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the then Lieutenant-Governor of the British East India Company, who referred to Trowulan as “the pride of Java”. The Chinese historical sources on Majapahit, from Zeng He—a Ming Dynasty admiral who visited the empire, consists of a more detailed description of Majapahit and where the king of Java lived. The report provides a valuable insight on the culture, customs, also various social and economic aspects of Chao-Wa (“Java”) during the rule of Majapahit.
After defeating the Melayu kingdom in Sumatra in 1290 CE, Singasari became the most powerful kingdom in the region.
Kublai Khan of the Mongol Empire challenged Singasari by sending emissaries demanding tribute. Kertanegara, the last ruler of Singasari, refused to pay the tribute, insulted the Mongol envoy, and challenged the Khan instead. In response, Kublai Khan sent an expedition of 1000 ships to Java in 1293 CE.
By that time, Jayakatwang, an Adipati (“Duke”) of Kediri, a vassal state of Singasari, had usurped and killed Kertanagara. Jayakatwang gave Raden Wijaya, Kertanegara’s son-in-law, the land of Tarik timberland. Raden Wijaya then opened the vast timberland and built a new village which he named Majapahit (“Bitter Maja”), which was taken from Maja, the name of a fruit, that had a bitter taste.
This modest name belied Raden Wijaya’s ambition as, when the Mongolian army sent by Kublai Khan arrived, he allied himself with them to fight against his patron, Jayakatwang. As soon as he defeated Jayakatwang, Raden Wijaya then forced his allies, the Mongols, to withdraw from Java by launching a surprise attack. The Mongolian army withdrew in confusion as they suddenly found themselves in hostile territory. However, they had no opportunity to take their revenge on Raden Wijaya as it was also their last chance to catch the monsoon winds home— otherwise they would have had to wait for another six months.
After betraying both his patron and his ally, Raden Wijaya founded a stronghold with Majapahit as the capital. In his coronation, Raden Wijaya took the title Kertarajasa Jayawardhana, a name which he was henceforth known. Kertarajasa took all four daughters of Kertanegara as his wives: Tribhuwaneswari, Prajnaparamita, Narendraduhita, and Gayatri Rajapatni.
The new kingdom soon faced challenges. Some of Kertarajasa’s most trusted men rebelled against him, though unsuccessfully. It was suspected that the Mahapatih (“Great General”) Halayudha set the conspiracy to overthrow all of his rivals in the court, which led them to revolt against the king while he himself gained king’s favor. However, following the death of the last rebel, Halayudha’s treachery was exposed and he was subsequently captured and sentenced to death. Kertajasa himself died in 1309 CE.
Kertajasa’s son and successor, Jayanegara, was notorious for his desire to take his own stepsisters, Tribhuwana Tunggadewi and Rajadewi, as wives. The practice of half-siblings marriage was abhorred Javanese tradition; Subsequently the council of royal elders spoke strongly against the king’s wishes. Jayanegara then put his half-sisters in the custody of a fortified palace and left them unmarried beyond what was considered the marriageable age at the time. In Serat Pararaton, he named Kala Gemet (“Weak Villain”).
In 1328 CE, Jayanegara was murdered by his physician during a surgical operation. As the slain king was childless, his stepmother Gayatri Rajapatni, the most revered matriarch of Majapahit court at the time, was appointed as Queen. However, as Rajapatni had retired from worldly affairs to become a Bhikkhuni (a Buddhist nun). She appointed her elder daughter, Tribhuwana Tunggadewi as the queen of Majapahit.
A popular theory suspected that Gajah Mada was the mastermind behind the assassination of the king, as he was said to be the loyal and trusted advisor for Tribhuwana Tunggadewi. However, if this were true, subsequent events prove that the young queen was willing to make decisions without consulting Gajah Mada. In 1331 CE, Tribhuwana Tunggadewi led an army herself to the battlefield to crush rebellion in the areas of Sadeng and Keta. This decision was partly to resolve the competition between Gajah Mada and Ra Kembar for the army general position to defeat Sadeng.
Despite handling the conflicted areas in the empire herself, instead of utilizing her generals, Tribhuwana Tunggadewi evidently recognized the capability of Gajah Mada, as his name appeared as the Amangkubhumi (“Prime Minister”) of Majapahit in 1334 CE. In his inauguration, she had him take an oath. The oath is famously known as the Sumpah Palapa (“The Palapa Oath”):
“If the Nusantara (“external territories”) are lost, I will not taste palapa. If I lost the domain of Gurun, the domain of Seram, the domain of Tanjungpura, the domain of Haru, the domain of Pahang, Dompo, the domain of Bali, Sunda, Palemband, Tempasek, I will never taste palapa.”
While often interpreted literally to mean that Gajah Mada would not allow his food to be spiced (palapa is the prose combination of “pala” and “apa” which means any fruits or spices) the oath is also interpreted to mean that Gajah Mada would abstain from all earthly pleasures until he conquered the entire known archipelago for Majapahit.
This oath effectively put the strength of a great general under the queen, and Tribhuwana Tunggadewi’s reign became famous for the expansion of Majapahit. In 1343 CE, Majapahit conquered the Kingdom of Pejeng, Dalem Bedahulu and the entire island of Bali. Not leaving all of the business of conquering to her new prime minister, Tribhuwana Tunggadewi also employed her cousin Adityawarman to conquer the rest of the ailing Srivijaya empire and the Melayu Kingdom in 1347 CE – She then promoted him as the uparaja (“lower king”) of Sumatra. Majapahit expansion continued under the reign of her son, Hayam Wuruk, reaching Lamuri (present-day Aceh) in the West and Wanin (Onin Peninsula, Papua) in the East.
Although Tribhuwana Tunggadewi’s employed other warriors to expand her empire, perhaps even going into battle herself, the expansion of Majapahit is largely credited to Gajah Mada, and propelled his status not only as an example of loyalty, but also as one of the national heroes of modern day Indonesia.
However, no prime minister, ancient or modern, could freely act without the approval of their monarch – unless, of course, the monarch was too young or otherwise physically or mentally incapable of making imperial decisions—acting on their own without the approval of their monarch would have been treasonous. One may argue that Gajah Mada was given more liberty as Tribhuwana Tunggadewi was a female monarch and thus not very well-versed in warfare, but we know that was not the case. We already know that, in that period, a monarch was treated as such despite their gender, and Tribhuwana Tunggadewi had already proven herself in battle.
According to the Babad Arya Tabanan, in 1342 CE, Tribhuwana Tunggadewi sent an armada, led by Gajah Mada and Arya Dama (a regent of Palembang, one of Majapahit’s vassal states at the time), to conquer the neighboring island of Bali.
After seven months of battles, Majapahit forces defeated the Balinese king and captured the Balinese capital of Bedulu a year later. Evidently, Arya Dama made sufficient mark in this battle as, after the conquest of Bali, Tribhuwana Tunggadewi distributed the governing authority of Bali among Arya Damar’s younger brothers, Arya Kenceng, Arya Kutawandira, Arya Sentong, and Arya Belog. Arya Kenceng led his brothers to govern Bali under Majapahit suzerainty. He went on to become the progenitor of the Balinese kings of the Tabanan and Badung royal houses. Through this campaign and the subsequent distribution of power, Tribhuwana Tunggadewi planted a vassal dynasty of Majapahit that would rule Bali and stay loyal to her in the following centuries.
The events leading to the end of Tribhuwana Tunggadewi’s rule is unclear. A popular legend says that it was due to the death of her mother, Gayatri Rajapatni, in 1350 CE. As Tribhuwana Tunggadewi ruled Majapahit under her mother’s auspices, tradition dictated that she had to abdicate at the death of her patron. She was then obliged to relinquish her throne to her son, Hayam Wuruk.