The Rise and Fall of Gajah Mada

Posted on June 15th, 2010 at 9:54 am by Alitha


Hello GNFI readers,

Here I am, a very new GNFI contributor, contemplating on what to write for my very first post. Then, I remembered that I have an assignment at school–a research paper on an Asian Achievement. Because I am attending an International School in China, everyone automatically chooses either a Chinese or Korean achievement. I, however, being the proud Indonesian that I am, decided to do a little research on Indonesian heroes, and chose Gajah Mada as my topic. When I think of it, this can be a good topic for GNFI, too, since it does portray a great Indonesian. So even if this might be a little random, this is my paper on Gajah Mada.

I. Introduction


In the late 13th century, one of the most powerful ancient Hindu kingdoms of Indonesia was established. In 1293, the Majapahit Kingdom was founded by Raden Wijaya, who was known to be a very wise man. The capital city of the kingdom was in Trowulan, East Java, and this was where one of the most famous national heroes of Indonesia rose to power (Marsudi et al. 61).

After King Wijaya died, his son, Jayanagara, replaced him as king. Though King Wijaya was a wise ruler, his son was very different from him. He was far from wise and the people of Majapahit disliked him. Therefore, a lot of rebellions happened during his reign. This led to a major rebellion in 1319, where Gajah Mada—the first man to unite Indonesia—began his rise to power. He was the most important figure in Majapahit history and an Indonesian national hero (Marsudi et al. 61-62).

Gajah Mada’s determination, intelligence and loyalty were not the only things that made him an important historical figure; the fact that he united Indonesia gave inspiration to Indonesians even in the 21st century.

II. Gajah Mada’s Rise to Power

  1. A. The Kuti Rebellion

In 1319, a major rebellion hit Majapahit, which forced King Jayanagara to evacuate from Trowulan to the village of Bedander. He was escorted by the royal bodyguard, consisting of fifteen soldiers who happened to be on duty that night. At this time, Gajah Mada was head of the bodyguard (Marsudi et al. 62).

After he assured that the king was safe in Bedander, he returned to the capital, which Kuti—the leader of the rebellion—had captured. There, he spread the rumor that the king was kidnapped by one of Kuti’s servants. Officials who were faithful to the king became very furious, and decided to kill Kuti (Tejabuwana). They succeeded, and the king went back to Trowulan and ruled the kingdom for the rest of his life.

Because of this incident, Gajah Mada was able to earn the king’s trust, which led to a gain in power. A few years after, Gajah Mada was appointed minister of Kahuripan and Daha (Tejabuwana). This gave him the title of Patih, which made him a member of Majapahit’s elite (McHenry 78).

  1. B. The Reign of Queen Tribuwanatunggadewi

It was during Queen Tribuwanatunggadewi’s reign that Gajah Mada became the most powerful figure in Majapahit. He gained the queen’s trust by suppressing yet another rebellion in 1331. When he returned to Trowulan, the queen appointed him as prime minister of Majapahit, which gave him the title of Mahapatih (McHenry 78).

A ceremony was held to indicate that he officially became prime minister. During this ceremony, Gajah Mada made an important vow which ultimately made him a national hero in Indonesia (McHenry 78).


III. The Palapa Oath

  1. A. The Spread of Majapahit Rule  

The Palapa Oath—or Sumpah Palapa in Indonesian—was a solemn oath Gajah Mada made for the kingdom. He vowed to unite the whole archipelago under Majapahit rule (McHenry 78). This is the literal translation of the actual oath:

“As long as I have not unified Nusantara, I will not taste any spice. Before I conquer Gurun, Seram, Tanjungpura, Haru, Pahang, Dompo, Bali, Sunda, Palembang, Tumasik, I will never taste any spice.” (“Reference”)

Here, ‘Nusantara’ referred to the regions Gajah Mada listed in the oath, which included the Indonesian archipelago and Singapore.

Although some people interprets the oath literally, others say that the real interpretation of the oath is that Gajah Mada would not rest or take any time off before he conquered Nusantara (“Nusantara”). This shows how valuable spices were in that period of time; it was possibly considered a royal pleasure to eat spiced food.

A lot of officials doubted him and thought that he would never accomplish his goal. However, with support from the queen, he eventually proved them wrong (Tejabuwana).

In order to unite the archipelago, Gajah Mada built a powerful armada. This armada helped a lot in the capture of most territories. In 1343, Gajah Mada led the armada on an expedition to conquer Bali and Lombok and succeeded in doing so (Marsudi et al. 62).

In 1350, Queen Tribuwanatunggadewi resigned and her son, Hayam Wuruk, replaced her as ruler (McHenry 78). It was during King Hayam Wuruk’s reign when Gajah Mada conquered the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. Soon, not only did Majapahit rule the archipelago, but the kingdom also had power over Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Southern Philippines (“Nusantara”).

  1. B. The Battle of Bubat

The year after the queen abdicated, Gajah Mada attempted to spread Majapahit’s power to the kingdom of Sunda in western Java. King Hayam Wuruk wished to marry the princess of Sunda, Dyah Pitaloka Citraresmi. The Sundanese king agreed, thinking that this was an opportunity to gain a little bit of power from Majapahit. However, Gajah Mada treated the agreement as surrender (Tejabuwana).

When they arrived at Bubat, where the wedding was to take place, Gajah Mada insisted that the Sundanese let King Hayam Wuruk marry the princess as a sign of surrender to Majapahit. However, the Sundanese would rather die than surrender, and this led to the Battle of Bubat (McHenry 78).

At the end of the battle, Majapahit defeated Sunda. Majapahit then ruled Sunda for a brief period of time. However, the Sunda Kingdom soon regained its power again (McHenry 78).

This battle is an example of Gajah Mada’s mistakes. He was too focused on conquering and uniting the archipelago that he caused a bloody battle where a lot of people died. The battle also did not benefit the Majapahit kingdom since the Sundanese eventually got their independence back. However, Gajah Mada can still be considered admirable because of his concept of a united Indonesia.

IV. Gajah Mada’s Death


11 years after he became prime minister, Gajah Mada accomplished his goal and decided to take some time off. He then resumed his job as prime minister for the rest of his life (Tejabuwana). During this time, Majapahit was at the height of its power. The economy improved and Majapahit trading posts were popular among Indians and Persians. Agricultural systems were improved under Gajah Mada’s supervision (Marsudi et al. 63). The prime minister also instructed famous poets, such as Prapanca, to write books such as the epic Nagarakertagama and an important law book (McHenry 78). Both of these documents became important during the 21st century because they helped people understand Javanese history.

In 1364, Gajah Mada died (Marsudi et al. 63). The cause of death is still unknown. Some writers say that King Hayam Wuruk poisoned him because he was afraid that his prime minister was more powerful than himself (McHenry 78). However, no one knows for sure.


V. The Concept of Nusantara


The first known mention of the word ‘nusantara’ was in Gajah Mada’s Palapa Oath. In the context of the oath, the word means all of the territory that he managed to conquer, which includes Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Southern Philippines (“Nusantara”). His oath—more importantly, the word ‘nusantara’—became a big influence on Indonesian nationalists during Dutch occupation.

Dr. Setiabudi, also known as Ernest Douwes Dekker, and was of both European and Indonesian descent. Unlike other Europeans, however, he opposed colonialism and became an independence activist in Indonesia. He was the first one to introduce a name for Indonesia that did not have any ‘India’ connotation to it (“Nusantara”). This word was ‘nusantara’, which he got from Gajah Mada’s oath.

Nowadays, the word ‘nusantara’ refers to the famous Indonesian phrase “dari Sabang sampai Merauke” or “from Sabang to Merauke” (“Nusantara”). It represents the whole Indonesian archipelago, with Sabang at the northern tip of Sumatra Island and Merauke at the southern edge of Papua Island.

VI. Conclusion

Gajah Mada was the first person known to unite the whole archipelago. He was also the reason Majapahit became a powerful kingdom. When he died, the kingdom slowly declined, which shows how much influence he had on the kingdom.

Not only that, he also became an important figure in Indonesian history. Nusantara became a very important concept for Indonesia, and it all started with Gajah Mada’s Palapa Oath. Indonesian nationalists were largely influenced by Gajah Mada and his accomplishments. A lot of people even consider his oath as the “embryo of the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia.” (“Nusantara”)

His determination and effort to accomplish his goals of uniting Indonesia is truly worthy of being called Asian Achievement and is still relevant to Indonesians nowadays.

Works Cited

“Kitab Pararaton (terjemahan).” Scribd. 13 Sept. 2009. Web. 16 Apr. 2010. .

Marsudi, Budi Handoyo, Cyrilus Kisworo, and Dwi T. Utami. “Kerajaan Hindu-Buddha.” Wawasan Ilmu Pengetahuan Sosial Untuk Sekolah Dasar Kelas 4. Jakarta: Erlangga, 2003. 61-63. Print.

McHenry, Robert, ed. “Gajah Mada.” The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th ed. 2005. Print.

“Reference for Nusantara –” Metasearch Search Engine – Web. 13 Apr. 2010. .

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