The modern-day Java Island of Indonesia now boasts diverse ethnic and religious communities, but the island was once divided by the bitter Battle of Bubat, when a royal wedding turned into a blood bath. The island is traditionally dominated by two of the nation’s largest ethnic groups, the Javanese and the Sundanese, who represent 41 and 15.5 percent of the total population of Indonesia respectively. Many Javanese settle in the central and eastern part of Java, while the western part of Java is known as the Sundanese-dominated Tanah Sunda (Sunda’s land). Although they share the same island, the Sundanese have a different language, traditional writing system and culture from the Javanese.
The Majapahit Kingdom, which existed in Southeast Asia from 1293 until about 1517, was a thalassocratic Javanese Hindu-Buddhist kingdom. During the era of King Hayam Wuruk who ruled from 1350 to 1389, the kingdom reached its pinnacle of prominence, as his reign was characterized by conquests that spread across Southeast Asia. Hayam Wuruk’s achievements is also attributed to his prime minister, Gajah Mada. The Pararaton (The Book of Kings) records that during his inauguration ceremony as the prime minister of Majapahit in 1334, Gajah Mada famously took an oath not to consume any spiced food until he had conquered the entire archipelago. He reportedly declared: “Lamun huwus kalah nusantara isun amukti palapa, lamun kalah ring Gurun, ring Seran, Tañjung Pura, ring Haru, ring Pahang, Dompo, ring Bali, Sunda, Palembang, Tumasik, samana isun amukti palapa” (“If I succeed in defeating Nusantara (Archipelago), then I will break my fast. If Gurun, Seram, Tanjung Pura, Haru, Pahang, Dompo, Bali, Sunda, Palembang, Tumasik, are all defeated, then I will break my fast”).
In 1357, King Hayam Wuruk proposed marriage to Dyah Pitaloka Citaresmi, a Sundanese princess. Her father Sunda King Lingga Buana gave his blessings and, accompanied by his queen and ministers, he travelled with his daughter to Trowulan, the capital of Majapahit, for her marriage to Majapahit ‘s king. As the Sunda king arrived in Majapahit, they were welcomed by none other than Gajah Mada himself. However, Gajah Mada unleashed the force of the Majapahit army on the small entourage. The greatly outnumbered Sundanese royal family and their entourage were quickly annihilated. King Lingga Buana was slain in battle and Princess Dyah Pitaloka and the wives of the slain noblemen committed suicide. This battle is then known as the Perang Bubat (‘Battle of Bubat’), named after the Bubat square where the battle took place.
The mighty kingdom of Majapahit fell in the 16th century. In 1364, just seven years after the Battle of Bubat, Gajah Mada died in relative obscurity, possibly due to an illness. However, the resentment between the Javanese and the Sundanese persisted for hundreds of years after the battle. From this tragedy emerged a tradition which forbade marriage between a Sundanese and a Javanese as it would only bring misery to the couple. A more contemporary example of the feud is that until 2018 there was no street name bearing the name ‘Gajah Mada’ or ‘Majapahit’ in Bandung, West Java, the cultural center of the Sundanese people. Likewise, there was no street bearing the names of ‘Siliwangi’ or ‘Sunda’ in Surabaya and Yogyakarta, major cities with a predominantly Javanese population. This changed in 2018, when the Governors of East and West Java, as well as the Governor of Yogyakarta (Central Java) held the Sunda-Java Cultural Harmony Political Reconciliation to end the post-Bubat issue by renaming the Surabaya, Yogyakarta and Bandung arterial routes.
The Battle of Bubat was mentioned in a section of a Pararaton’s Javanese chronicle of the 15th century, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that the story was told in Sundanese literature Carita Parahyangan (Parahyangan Tale), though this text only provides a brief snippet of information about the incident by mentioning it in a very short verse: “pan prang-rang di Majapahit” (“people fought a war in Majapahit“).
However, the Nagarakretagama, an Old Javanese eulogy to King Hayam Wuruk written by Mpu Prapanca in 1365, does not mention the event. This has led several historians to suggest that the Battle of Bubat never took place. However, it is useful to keep in mind that the Nagarakretagama is a pujasastra (a genre of Old Javanese literature of adoration and reverence which usually talks about kings and other great figures). Therefore, as the Battle of Bubat neither contributed to the greatness of Majapahit, and casts a shadow of dishonor upon the king, it might have been intentionally overlooked by the author.
The story of the Battle of Bubat began when Hayam Wuruk, the king of Majapahit, decided to take the Sundanese princess Dyah Pitaloka Citaresmi as his wife. Dyah Pitaloka Citaresmi was the daughter of Prabu Maharaja Lingga Buana Wisesa of the Sunda Kingdom. Hayam Wuruk sent a matchmaker from Majapahit to the Sunda kingdom to formally ask the Sunda king for his daughter’s hand in royal marriage. Seeing the opportunity to cultivate an alliance with Majapahit, the mightiest kingdom in the country at the time, the king of Sunda gave his blessing and accompanied his daughter to Majapahit for the wedding.
The Sundanese texts present a different point of view and a much less dramatic explanation of this historical incident by noting that the daughter of the Sunda king decided to marry a non-Sundanese, influential man – not the king, but just an influential man. Therefore, “many people went to Java“, and this culminated in the battle at Majapahit. These two different descriptions of the same event provide some insight to the relations between the Sundanese and the Javanese at the time. Although the Sundanese occupied a minority position, they appreciated Javanese culture and adopted quite a few cultural features from the Javanese. In about 1500, the Sundanese considered the Javanese culture and Javanese institutions as the primary sources for their higher religious education. Therefore, traveling to the east was a natural thing to do for a young Sundanese man who wanted to pursue advancement and learning. However, the Sundanese also always sought to stay independent of the Javanese.
After sailing across the Java Sea, the Sunda king and the royal family arrived in Majapahit. They landed at Hujung Galuh bay, sailed inland along the Brantas River and arrived at the river bay of Canggu. They then then encamped on Bubat square in the northern part of Trowulan, the capital city of Majapahit, in anticipation of the wedding ceremony. However, it soon became apparent that the Sundanese royal family had severely misjudged the Javanese’s view of their status. Although the Sundanese royal family seemed to view their kingdom as equal in status to the Majapahit kingdom, the Majapahits viewed them as a conquest. Gajah Mada, the ambitious prime minister of Majapahit, demanded Sunda’s submission to Majapahit and insisted that the Sundanese princess was to be presented as a token of submission and demoted to a mere concubine of the Majapahit king, instead of being crowned as his queen. Humiliated by this demand, the Sunda party promptly cancelled the royal wedding and turned back home. This prompted Gajah Mada to lay siege to the Sunda encampment.
A battle broke out at Bubat Square between the Majapahit army and the Sundanese royal family and their entourage. The numbers were uneven and unfairly matched as the armed guards stationed within Majapahit capital city under Gajah Mada’s command were estimated at several thousand well-armed and well-trained troops, while the number of people of the Sundanese party were far fewer and completely unprepared for combat, as they were composed mostly of the royal family, state officials, nobles, as well as servants and royal guards. Although the Sundanese managed to protect the square and strike back at the siege of Majapahit for a short time, due to their lack of soldiers the Sundanese were quickly exhausted and overwhelmed.
The Majapahit army defeated and annihilated the Sundanese royal family. The Sunda king was killed in a duel with a Majapahit general and almost all the Sundanese royal party were massacred. Tradition has it that the tragic princess and all the remaining Sundanese women took their own lives to protect their country’s honor and integrity. The women’s ritualized suicide in the ksatriya (warrior and ruling) caste after their men’s defeat is usually committed to preserve their pride and honor and protect their chastity, rather than face the risk of rape, subjugation or enslavement. This gained the approval of the Balinese. The Balinese respect and admiration for the Sundanese heroic act by courageously facing certain death was in keeping with the Hindu code of honor of the caste of ksatriya, namely that a ksatriya’s final and complete death is on the edge of the sword on the battlefield. The custom of demonstrating the act of bravery has its ancient Balinese equivalent in a battle to the death of men and a mass ritual suicide of women in preference to the humiliation of surrender.
A continuation of the story which seems to have been added later is that King Hayam Wuruk mourned the death of the Sundanese princes Diah Pitaloka. In Sundanese tradition, Pitaloka’s and her father’s bravery are regarded as noble acts of honor, courage and integrity. In contrast, Gajah Mada faced resistance and mistrust at the Majapahit court as a result of what was viewed as his reckless behavior, which was disapproved of by the Majapahit nobles. Despite his ambition which was in no way a secret and his famous inauguration oath which specifically included his intention to subjugate Sunda, Gajah Mada was viewed as having disgraced the prestige of Majapahit and undermined the authority of King Hayam Wuruk. This marked the end of Gajah Mada ‘s career as not long after this event the king forced Gajah Mada into early retirement by granting him the lands in Madakaripura (modern day Probolinggo), thus exiling him away from the court at the capital city. This disaster also severely damaged the relationship between the two kingdoms and led to animosity which lasted for centuries.
The story of the tragic death of their king and princess soon traveled back to the Sunda people and were passed down through generations. The Sunda king’s courage is revered in Sundanese tradition and he was posthumously given the title of Prabu Wangi (‘the king with pleasant fragrance’). Sunda ‘s later kings, were called Siliwangi (‘the substitution of the pleasant fragrance’). The princess’ and king ‘s bravery to protect their dignities in the face of a disaster are hailed as noble actions in Sundanese poems and tales.
The princess’ suicide after the death of her family was viewed as a noble act equal to that of a warrior. However, it was also a traditional act common to the Hindu ksatriya’s caste (warrior aristocracy). There are accounts of women’s final sacrifice among the ancient Scandinavians, Slavs, Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese after the death of their husbands or male family members to defend their honor. In Greek mythology, Aspalis, daughter of Argaeus, hanged herself rather than be violated. Androclia, daughter of Antipoenus, killed herself in place of her father. Althaea, mother of Meleager, killed Meleager who had slain his uncle and one of his brothers and then killed herself to save them both from dishonor. Amphinome, mother of Jason, and her husband were persecuted by King Pelas of Iolcus. After Pelias had killed her husband and younger son, Amphinome stabbed herself with a dagger. She cursed the king as she lay dying. Closer to the ancient Hindu tradition in Java was the practice of suttee in ancient India. Suttee is the practice of a wife’s immolation after the death of her husband.
A possible explanation of the association of women committing suicide in the name of their male family members within the ksatriya caste is that, as it was the warriors’ duty to protect the bodies and honor of their people on the battlefield, so it was their wives’ and daughters’ duty to protect their husband’s, fathers’ and sons’ bodies and honor at home. Therefore, the death of a man, even while he was away at war, would be seen as his wife’s responsibility – or even his mother or sister’s if the man was unmarried.
Throughout India the women who were thus sacrificing themselves were called Sati (“chaste wife”). The Satis were closely associated with the goddess Sati, Shiva’s first consort and also named after her. According to Hindu mythology, Sati threw herself into a fire, because she was unable to endure the insult to her husband Shiva by her father Daksha. It has been said that her faithfulness to her husband was such that she felt no pain from the flames. Because Shiva was believed to be an invincible deity and Sati immolated herself even when he was still alive, the myth never really matches the ritual as it evolved. However, because the reason for Sati’s self-immolation was in protecting the honor of her husband in her own way, the intention itself can be credited as a major premise of this ancient practice.
The Bubat Square massacre annihilated all except for one of the royal Sunda family. The only survivor of this tragedy was King Lingga Buana’s infant son, Prince Niskala Wastu Kancana, who had been left behind in Galuh’s Kawali Palace because he was too young to travel. This boy grew up to be the Sunda king’s sole surviving heir and ruled as king during the 15th century. His reign ushered in a long period of stability and prosperity in the Sunda Kingdom. As his family perished in his infancy, Prince Niskala Wastu Kancana was deemed too young to reign as a toddler. Consequently, his mentor, Hyang Bunisora, who was also an older relative, served as his regent until Niskala Wastu Kancana came of age. Hyang Bunisora ruled for 14 years, until he abdicated in favor of the young prince in 1371.
Thus, Prince Wastu Kancana was crowned as king, stylized as Prabu Raja Wastu Kancana. He resided at Galuh’s Kawali Palace which was also his childhood home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the young king concerned himself extensively with building defense walls and safety issues. Dating from the second half of the 14th century, the Kawali inscription states that King Wastu Kancana constructed defensive structures including walls and moats around Kawali city. His other actions following his ascension to the throne, among others, was to break the Sundanese diplomatic ties with Majapahit, effecting a policy of isolation on Majapahit, including the implementation of the law named Larangan Estri ti Luaran (‘prohibition to take (as a spouse) a foreigner’), which forbade Sundanese citizens to marry a foreigner, specifically a Javanese.
The new king was also devout. He proclaimed a tax-free status for devout citizens and institutions. The Kebantenan I (Jayagiri) copperplate inscription tells that King Wastu Kancana sent Pakuan Pajajaran’s order to protect the religious gathering place in Jayagiri and Sunda Sembawa, protecting the residents from tax collectors as they were knowledgeable about the Hindu faith and worshiped the Hindu gods.
Verses about Prabu Raja Wastu Kancana are all full of praise and adoration. His descendants are also listed in a Batutulis inscription dated from later time. The inscription mentions him as the father of Rahyang Dewa Niskala and the grandfather of Sri Baduga Maharaja, king of Pakuan Pajajaran.
King Wastu Kancana ruled for the next 104 years until he abdicated and retired to a life of a hermit. King Wastu Kancana was buried at Nusa Larang (Forbidden Island) when he died. Nusa Larang may now be known as Nusa Kambangan near the Ci Tanduy estuary which flows through the territory of Galuh Kingdom.
His son, Rahyang Dewa Niskala, succeeded King Wastu Kancana as the ruler of the Sunda Kingdom. However, Rahyang Dewa Niskala reigned only for seven years before he was demoted. Carita Parahyangan says that he was demoted “kena salah twah bogoh ka estri larangan ti kaluaran” (“because his wrongdoing in taking (for) a wife a forbidden outsider”). In other words, the new king was demoted because he took a Javanese woman as his wife. Thus, the law issued by King Wastu Kancana stemming from his grief due to the death of his family in Majapahit, was violated by his own son.