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


Canoe presses on the sand, and men step ashore. These are the Austronesians, the greatest sailors in history. They and their ancestors, the Polynersians, will make the Pacific Ocean their domain, using the stars and the wind to settle on almost every patch of land from the Philippines to Hawaii. But this country is special, tormented by volcanic eruptions, and at the center of major trade winds. It is a place to establish an empire.

This is the island of Java. [INTRO SONG] A few things to get you started: Please give a warm Extra History welcome to Ali, who makes the drawings for this series. Thanks Ali! And second, as we finished this episode, a series of powerful earthquakes hit the Indonesian island of Lombok.

We have linked two fundraisers in the description: one for international aid organizations.

… and another for local help verified by GoFundMe. Any help you can give will be so deeply appreciated.

And now, back to the show. At first glance, the kingdom of Majapahit does not resemble one of the great empires of history. Where other South East Asian kingdoms lasted for centuries, the Golden Age of Majapahit lasted …

… only a hundred years, from about 1293 to 1389. While other kingdoms left behind greatest temples and palaces.

.. …

Majapahit left only the modest ruins of their capital. Their writings left few written minutes. But do you know who has not forgotten Majapahit? Indonesia. In fact, Majapahit was so successful that even just after their fall.

The Muslim states that conquered and replaced it tried to claim descent from this Hindu Buddhist kingdom. And many in modern Indonesia look back to 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 small feat.

Because Indonesia has more than 13,000 islands, many with unique cultures and languages. The largest, Sumatra, is the same size as Spain, and the smallest are barely stones that rise above the ocean.

The distance that the archipelago covers is gigantic. From northern Sumatra to East Papua New Guinea is the same distance as between London and Istanbul. And yet Majapahit united them, although the form of that unity is still debated.

What is no disagreement, however, is that she would become what would become Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country … ..

. Are changing in ways that can still be seen today. So how did they do it? Well, the keys to Majapahit’s success lie in two kingdoms that preceded them. The kingdom of Srivijaya and the kingdom of Mataram.

And both these kingdoms gained power through control of the water. We will first visit Srivijaya, a kingdom that was crucial to the development of the region … .

.. But also a kingdom that was forgotten until about a century ago. In the early 20th century, academics puzzled stone inscriptions and Chinese written sources together ..

. … to find out that a seafaring kingdom existed in Sumatra from the 7th to the 14th century.

Srivijayase rulers were masters of the water … ..

. Who ruled a coastal kingdom that controlled the trade routes through the narrow Malacca.

They launched fleets of merchant ships selling Indonesian products: gold, camphor resin, brought rice, aromatic sandalwood, and spices from the oriental islands to the markets of China and India. It is through Srivijaya that the Indonesian archipelago became known as the “Spice Islands” that Europeans whispered about. A land of unprecedented wealth and exotic goods.

In the days before refrigeration, anything that could preserve meat – or make it bearable if spoiled – was worth its weight in gold.

And these islands held the world’s only source of that very rare and mysterious spice … .

.. A thing with medicinal, even hallucinogenic properties. A single nut that has caused more bloodshed than any other spice in history. Nutmeg.

People would kill for nutmeg. In the later colonial era, the Dutch would torture, murder, and enslave to get their hands on it. And Srivijaya had control over all access to it. But trade has long been a part of life in the archipelago.

2,500 years before Srivijaya was founded at all.

.. …

sailors into the water around the island … following the trade winds that are north or south depending on the season. They took products back to the Asian mainland and brought back influences such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

By the way, by the time Srivijaya was doing his thing, it was not uncommon for Indonesian kings to have one or two Indian Brahmins as advisers … ..

. or have a group of Buddhist monks traveling around their kingdom. Rather than competing with each other, the religions mingled. Buddha became part of the Hindu faith to form what is known as Hindu Buddhism. But unlike previous trading states, Srivijaya had coordinated its trading fleets.

They went north, stayed for a season to absorb foreign influences … ..

. and then went back with loads of precious objects and travelers on commercial or religious missions. As a result, the Srivijayan coastal settlements became diverse cosmopolitan places …

… with communities of Chinese, Malak, indigenous tribes, and others from South East Asia. But Srivijaya’s real innovation was how the pirates and sea nomads along their coast.

.. …

turned into a merchant fleet that the sea closed routes with control over the spice trade. Srivijaya did not directly rule the spice-producing islands in the east. In fact, they didn’t even care who ruled the interior of their home island of Sumatra. As far as we know, they didn’t even make their own food.

They withdrew payments of rice from other islands that needed access to Malacca.

Because the spice and spice trade was so important. Spices broadened flavor. Spices were vital for the preservation of meat. Spices have to flow. (Translator note: “The Spice must flow” is a reference to Dune (1965) that you will often see.

) So, Srivijaya ruled the “Spice Islands” by becoming masters of the water. But southeast of Sumatra, on the neighboring island of Java, was the kingdom of Mataram … and they too were masters of the water.

Fresh water! Mataram served as Srivijaya’s higher ally … .

.. Although it is not certain whether they were full partners or a vassal. It probably varied. Sometimes they fought.

Although the rulers of Mataram controlled the ports of Java, the center of their power lay in the terraced rice paddies on the volcanic slopes.

One of the 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, slowly and consciously changing. Their strengths lay in agriculture and controlling the irrigation systems that supplied their huge rice terraces.

Centuries earlier, the Javanese had started using wet rice cultivation to increase their agricultural productivity. Although the island’s sacred volcanoes made life dangerous at times … .

.. They also gave Java some of the most fertile soil in the Pacific. That meant that the kingdom of Mataram was able to produce enormous quantities of rice to support a large population and to export through trade. But rice terraces require irrigation, which is how the first Javanese government started.

Village leaders controlled the irrigation systems, radiating their power to where the water went. Slowly but surely, these irrigation systems took shape into small kingdoms … .

.. Who eventually converged under the kings of Mataram? Lords of the Berg and managers of rice fields. Although Srivijaya controlled the trade routes, there was something just as important about Mataram.

A large population, who used it to plant, harvest and maintain their irrigation networks. And they could mobilize that manpower for other projects … .

.. Like conquest or building temples. The first temples in Java appeared on the high plateaus in the 7th century ..

. … where local kingdoms raised beautiful, but modest, Indian-style Hindu temples.

But the kings of Mataram had something much bigger in mind. Something that would completely overshadow these little Hindu structures. Because strangely enough, the most prominent Mataramian dynasty was Buddhist, and they wanted a monument that would last forever. It took generations, but they succeeded. Borobodur remains the largest Buddhist structure on the planet to this day.

They big that it looks like a stone mountain. This plump monument is actually a series of platforms, a stone mandala … .

.. On which each level showed bas-relief carvings of increasingly sacred subjects. Pilgrims traveled up, circling the rim at every level ..

. … as they meditated on the 2,600 carved panels with stories about their ordinary world.

.. …

stories of Buddhist saints, previous incarnations of Buddha, scenes from Buddha’s life … ..

. and finally a top with bell-shaped stupas representing the heavenly realm. Srivijaya could not build anything like Borobodur. But to be fair, Mataram couldn’t really do it either. Because it could have cost them their kingdom.

Shortly after the completion of construction, this Buddhist dynasty left its lands. Maybe, because of riots over the pressure of the temple building. Maybe, from an eruption from their sacred mountain. Maybe both! But the dynasty set a new bar for what a central Javanese kingdom could do.

And although their successive dynasty shifted their capital to the east, one of their first actions was … ..

. Surpass their predecessors with an equally grand Hindu monument.

The Prambanan temple. The stage is set. A kingdom that combines these two elements, the seafaring trading empire of Srivijaya.

.. …

with the pure, sluggish power of Mataram would become ruler of the archipelago, a realm of water. That kingdom was Majapahit..


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