What Was the Majapahit Empire?

Prambanan temple in Java
The Prambanan Temple complex in Java, a Hindu site active during Majapahit times. Antonia Tozer, AWL Images via Getty

The Majapahit Empire, based on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia, was a wealthy trading state that controlled one of the key choke-points along the Indian Ocean trade routes, the Straits of Malacca. It lasted from 1293 to 1527. At its height, the Majapahit Empire ruled most of maritime Southeast Asia, from Sumatra in the west to New Guinea in the east, and also including areas that now make up Singapore, Brunei, East Timor, the southern Philippines, Malaysia, and southern Thailand.

Sources on Majapahit are scarce and none too explicit. Archaeological evidence is scanty, mostly because the ruins of this mighty empire have been swallowed up by the rainforest, and few sites have been excavated.  Historical sources from the region in the pre-Islamic period consist mainly of epic poems, which certainly give us some historical context, but which also tend to emphasize legendary or even mythological aspects of Majapahit's development.

We do know that Raden Wijaya, who defeated Kublai Khan's 1293 invasion of Java, founded the city of Majapahit on land that he received in payment for his services. It is clear that the empire slowly expanded from there, growing wealthy by levying duties on goods shipped through the area on the maritime Silk Road.

According to the epic poem Nagarakertagama, the empire's apogee came under the emperor Hayam Wuruk, who reigned from 1350 to 1389.  He was the fourth Majapahit emperor, and grandson of Raden Wijaya through his mother's side.

  Epic poems assure us that Hayam Wuruk was exceptionally bright, handsome, and talented, with skills in martial arts, music, ceremonial dancing, politics, and the Hindu scripture.  In one tragic incident, the emperor's fiancee, a princess of the Sunda Kingdom, was killed when her wedding party got into a fight with Majapahit troops.

  Despite such set-backs, Hayam Wuruk was able to expand his empire well beyond the borders of what is now Indonesia during his nearly forty-year reign.

We also have some later Chinese records of the empire, including those from the great Ming Dynasty admiral, Zheng He, who visited Majapahit lands early in the 1400s. The admiral's translator, Ma Huan, recorded an incident in which the Chinese intervened in a succession fight over the Majapahit throne.

The dispute that Zheng He settled was emblematic of problems during the last century of the Majapahit Empire's existence. The rulers had multiple wives and concubines, and with no clear laws about who was next in line for the throne, chaos broke out whenever a ruler died.

Another major factor in the decline of the Majapahit Empire was the rise of Islam in what is now Indonesia.  Traders and merchants were among the earliest converts, exposed to Islam by Arab and Muslim Indian traders on the maritime Silk Road.  Fellow membership in the Islamic world gave business partners a basis for mutual trust, as well as access to a sophisticated international credit system.  As power and wealth shifted to the newly-converted Muslim traders and princes, the predominantly Hindu rulers of the Majapahit Empire lost out.

By the mid-15th century, Majapahit had lost control of its major revenue source, the Malacca Straits, to the rising Sultanate of Malacca. Piece by piece, the lands under Majapahit power broke free.  By 1517, the last ruler of Majapahit had lost his throne.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Majapahit Empire?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 1, 2015, thoughtco.com/what-was-the-majapahit-empire-195364. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2015, July 1). What Was the Majapahit Empire? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-majapahit-empire-195364 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Majapahit Empire?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-majapahit-empire-195364 (accessed November 18, 2017).