Kingdom of Majapahit – An Empire of Water – Extra History – #1


A canoe pushes up on the sand, and men step onto the shore. These are the Austronesians, the greatest mariners in history. They and their ancestors, the Polynesians, will make the Pacific their domain, using the stars and wind to settle nearly every speck of land from the Philippines to Hawaii. But this land is special, racked by volcanic eruptions, and at the crux of vital trade winds, It’s a place to found an empire. This is the island of Java. [INTRO SONG] A couple quick things up top: Please give a warm Extra History welcome to Ali who’s doing art for this series. Thanks Ali! And second, as we finalized this episode, a series of powerful earthquakes struck the Indonesian island of Lombok. We’ve linked two fundraising efforts in the description: one for international aid organizations… …and another for a local effort verified by GoFundMe Any help you could give would be deeply appreciated, and now back to the show. At first glance, the kingdom of Majapahit doesn’t seem like one of the great empires of history. Where other Southeast Asian kingdoms endured for centuries, Majapahit’s golden age… …only lasted a hundred years, from roughly 1293 to 1389 While other kings left great temples and palaces… …Majapahit left only the modest ruins of its capital Its scribes left few written records. But do you know who hasn’t forgotten Majapahit? Indonesia. In fact, Majapahit was so successful even right after its fall… …the Muslim states that conquered and replaced it tried to claim lineage from this Hindu Buddhist kingdom. And many in modern Indonesia look back on it as the historical example of why their country exists. Because Majapahit did something that no other native government did until the 20th century. It brought the Indonesian archipelago under one rule. And that was no mean feat. Because Indonesia has over 13,000 islands, many with unique cultures and languages. Its largest, Sumatra, is the size of Spain and the smallest are barely rocks sticking out of the ocean. The distance the archipelago stretches is immense. From northern Sumatra to Eastern Papua New Guinea is the same distance as between London and Istanbul. Yet Majapahit united them, though what form that unity took is still debated. What isn’t in dispute though, is that they changed what would become Indonesia… …the world’s fourth most populous nation, in ways that are still apparent today So how did they do? Well, the keys to Majapahit’s success actually lay in two kingdoms that preceded it. The Kingdom of Srivijaya and the Kingdom of Mataram And both of these kingdoms won power by control of the water. First, we’ll visit Srivijaya, a kingdom that was crucial to the development of the region… …but a kingdom that was also forgotten until about a century ago In the early 20th century, academics pieced together stone inscriptions and Chinese written accounts… …to discover that a thriving maritime kingdom existed in Sumatra from the 7th to the 14th centuries Srivijayan rulers were lords of water… …governing a coastal kingdom that controlled the trade routes through the Strait of Malacca They launched fleets of merchant vessels that brought products of Indonesia: gold, camphor resin, rice, aromatic sandalwood, and spice from the eastern islands to the markets of China and India It’s because of Srivijaya that the Indonesian archipelago became the famous Spice Islands Europeans whispered about A land of untold riches and exotic goods. In the days before refrigeration, anything that could preserve meat—or at least make it palatable when it was spoiled—was worth its weight in gold And these islands held the world’s only source of that most rare and mysterious spice… …a thing with medicinal, even hallucinogenic properties. A single nut that has caused more spilling of blood than any other spice in history Nutmeg People would kill for nutmeg In the later colonial period, the Dutch will torture, murder, and enslave to acquire it And Srivijaya controlled all access to it But trade had long been a part of life in the archipelago 2,500 years before Srivijaya was even founded… …sailors were plying the waters around the island… …following the trade winds that run South or North depending on the season Taking products to mainland Asia and bringing back influences such as Hinduism and Buddhism Actually, by the time Srivijaya was kicking around, it wasn’t unusual for Indonesian Kings to have an Indian Brahmin or two as advisors… …or a group of Buddhist monks wandering their kingdom Rather than running in competition, these religions fused with Buddha joining the Hindu Pantheon to create what’s known as Hindu Buddhism But unlike earlier trading states, Srivijaya had coordinated merchant fleets They would go North, stay for a season absorbing foreign influences… …then returned with cargoes of precious objects and travelers on commercial or religious missions As a result, Srivijaya’s coastal settlements became diverse cosmopolitan places… …with communities of Chinese, Malays, indigenous tribes, and others from Southeast Asia But Srivijaya’s real innovation was how it whipped the pirates and sea nomads along its coast… …into a merchant navy that locked down the sea lanes controlling the spice trade Srivijaya didn’t directly rule the spice producing islands in the East In fact, it didn’t even care who governed the interior of its home island of Sumatra As far as we can tell, they didn’t even produce their own food They extracted rice tributes from other islands that needed access to the Strait of Malacca Because spice and spice trading was that important The spice expanded tastiness The spice was vital for preserving meat The spice must flow So, Srivijaya controlled the Spice Islands by becoming lords of water But southeast of Sumatra, on the neighboring island of Java, was the kingdom of Mataram… …and they, too, were Lords of water Fresh water! Mataram served as Srivijaya’s upland ally… …though whether they were full partners or vassals is undetermined and probably varied At times, they fought While the rulers of Mataram controlled the ports on Java, their power center lay in the terraced rice fields on the volcanic slopes In fact, one of the kingdom’s most prominent dynasties literally ruled under the name Lord of the Mountain Where Srivijaya was dynamic and open to outside influences… …Mataram was conservative and traditionalist changing, slowly and deliberately Its strengths lay in agriculture and controlling the irrigation systems that fed its enormous rice terraces Centuries before, the Javanese had started using wet rice cultivation to boost their agricultural productivity While the islands sacred volcanoes sometimes made life hazardous… …they also gave Java some of the most fertile soil in the Pacific Meaning the Kingdom of Mataram could produce huge quantities of rice to support a large population and export via trade But rice terraces require irrigation, which is how the first Javanese government started Village leaders would control the irrigation systems with their power radiating out to wherever the water went Gradually, these irrigation systems solidified into small kingdoms… …which eventually coalesced under the kings of Mataram Lords of the Mountain and managers of rice fields While Srivijaya controlled the shipping lanes, Mataram had something just as crucial A large workforce that it used to plant, harvest, and maintain the irrigation networks And they could mobilize that manpower for other projects… …like conquest or temple construction The first temples on Java appeared in the 7th century on the upland plateaus… …with local kingdoms erecting beautiful, if modest, Hindu temples in the Indian style But the kings of Mataram had something much grander in mind… …something that would eclipse these little Hindu structures For unusually, the most prominent Mataram dynasty was Buddhist, and they wanted to build a monument that would endure forever It took generations, but they did it Borobudur remains to this day the largest Buddhist structure on the planet So big it looks like a stone mountain This hulking monument is actually a series of platforms, a mandala in stone… …where each level features bas-relief carvings on increasingly sacred topics Pilgrims would travel upward, walking around the outside of each level… …while meditating on the 2600 carved panels seeing tales of their ordinary world… …stories of Buddhist saints, previous incarnations of the Buddha, scenes from Buddha’s life… …and finally a summit of bell-shaped stupas representing the celestial realm Srivijaya couldn’t build anything like Borobudur Though in fairness, Mataram might not have really been able to do it either Because it may have cost them their kingdom Soon after its completion, this Buddhist dynasty abandoned their lands Perhaps due to revolts over the burden of temple construction Perhaps due to an eruption of their sacred mountain Perhaps both But the dynasty set a new bar for what a central Javanese kingdom could do And while their successor dynasty moved the capital to the east, one of their first actions… …was to one-up their Buddhist predecessors by building a similarly grand Hindu monument The temple of Prambanan The stage was set Whatever kingdom could fuse these two elements, the maritime trading empire of Srivijaya… …with the raw indolent power of Mataram would become the lords of the archipelago, an empire of water That kingdom was Majapahit

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