The rulers of successive east Javan empires were able to combine the benefits of a strong agricultural economy with income from a lucrative overseas trade. In the process, the Javanesse became the master shipbuilders and mariners of Southeast Asia. During the 14th Century, at the height of the Majapahit Empire, they controlled the sea lanes throughout the Indonesian archipelago as well as to faraway India and China.
Despite this, our knowledge of the two great empires of the 13th and 14th centuries, Singasari and Majapahit, would be very sparse were it not for two Old Javanese texts dating from the 14th Century. The first, the Pararaton (Book of Kings), tells of the founding of the Singhasari dynasty by Ken Arok in 1222.
Ken Arok was an adventurer who managed to marry the beautiful Ken Dedes (heir to the throne of Janggala) after murdering her husband. As ruler of Janggala he next revolted against his sovereign, the ruler of Kediri with the full support of clergy, and set up his new capital at Singhasari, near present-day Malang.
The Pararaton goes on to tell of Ken Arok’s successors, particularly of the last king of the Singhasari line, Kertanegara. He was eventually murdered in 1292 by the king of Kediri. Kertanegara was an extraordinary figure, a scholar as well as a statesman, who belonged to the Tantric Bhairawa sect of Buddhism. In 1275 and again in 1291 he sent successful naval expeditions against Sriwijaya thus wresting control of the increasingly important maritime trade.
So powerful did become, in fact, that Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor of China sent ambassador, a gesture which so enraged the great Khan that in 1293 he sent a powerful fleet to Java to avenge the insult. The fleet landed only to discover that Kartanegara had already died at the hands of Jayakatwang, one of his vassals.
The Chinese remained on Javanese soil for about a year just long enough to defeat the muderous Jayakatwang. Battles raged back and forth across the Brantas valley for many months, eventually producing victory for Kertanegara’s son – in – low, Wijaya, and his Chinese allies. In the end Wijaya entrapped the Mongol generals and chased the foreign troops back to their ships. The Chinese fleet returned to China, and its commanders were severely punished by the great Khan for their failure to subdue Java.
Wijaya married four of Kertanegara’s daughters and established a new capital in 1294 on the bank of the Brantas River between Kediri and the sea (near present – day Trowulan). This was an area known for its pahit (bitter) maja fruits, and the new kingdom became known as Majapahit. The capital citu was constructed entirely of red bricks, only the foundations of which now remain. Aerial photographs reveal that the city had an extensive system of canals and barges were probably used to transport rice and other trade goods down the river from Majapahit to the seaport as the mouth of the Brantas.
–> Read Also : The Glory of Majapahit – An Age of Empires