History & Culture / Southeast Asia

Why is this great Southeast Asian hero not recognized in West Java?

by Kirana Soerono
Length 7 min

Home to over 140 million people (nearly 60 percent of the Indonesian population), the Java island is the world’s most populated island. To put things into perspective, there are more people in Java than in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom combined. The Javanese Gajah Mada, a prime minister of the ancient Hindu empire of Majapahit, is considered as a national hero and credited for uniting the entire Nusantara under the empire. The Nusantara is a Malay-Indonesian term for the Indonesian archipelago—which at its prime glory included Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and East Timor. The Majapahit even had diplomatic relations with the Thai kingdom of Ayuthaya, Martaban (Myanmar), Cambodia, Vietnam and China. For his deed, various streets, buildings and even institutions are named after the prime minister, such as one of the oldest and largest institutions of higher education in the country: the Gadjah Mada University.

But if Gajah Mada is so great, why is there no place named after him in the western part of Java?

A forbidden love story

While modern day Java is now home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, it is historically dominated by two, the Javanese and the Sundanese. The Javanese is also the largest ethnic group in the nation, making up 40.1 percent of the total population. Most Javanese crowds the central and eastern part of Java. On the other hand, the western part of Java is known as Tanah Sunda (Sunda’s Homeland), and is dominated by the Sundanese, which is the second largest ethnic group in the nation at a mere 15.5 percent. Although they share a common island, the Sundanese has a distinct language, traditional writing system and culture from the Javanese.

To understand why Gajah Mada’s heroism is not honoured in Tanah Sunda, one must travel back to the 14th century and learn about a romantic tragedy far greater than Romeo and Juliet—and its subsequent consequences to modern day Indonesia.

It all began when a Majapahit emperor, Hayam Wuruk, proposed a Sundanese princess, Dyah Pitaloka Citaresmi, to marry him. While some say that Hayam Wuruk fell in love with the princess who were famed for her beauty, others speculate that the marriage proposal was political. At the time, the Majapahit Empire was expanding aggressively under the leadership of its prime minister Gajah Mada, who vowed not to eat food with spices until he has united the entire Nusantara. His oath would be known as the Sumpah Palapa (Palapa Oath), which stated:

“If (I succeed) in defeating (conquering) Nusantara, (then) I will break my fast. If Gurun, Seram, Tanjung Pura, Haru, Pahang, Dompo, Bali, Sunda, Palembang, Tumasik, are all defeated, (then) I will break my fast.”

Why is this great Southeast Asian hero not recognized in West Java?
Maritime Southeast Asia in the 14th century

Some notable places mentioned in Gajah Mada’s oath are Pahang (modern day Malaysia), Tumasik/Temasek (modern day Singapore) and last but not least, Sunda. The Sunda royal family, determined to protect their land from the conquesting Majapahit, saw the marriage proposal as an opportunity to foster an alliance. Thus, Sunda King Lingga Buana gave his blessings and accompanied his daughter to be wed at the Majapahit capital, Trowulan.

When the Sunda king and his royal entourage arrived in Majapahit in 1357, they were greeted by none other than Gajah Mada. Instead of forging an alliance, the ambitious prime minister saw the event as an opportunity to demand Sunda’s submission to Majapahit. He also insisted that the princess was to be presented as a concubine, instead of becoming the queen of Majapahit.

The Sunda royal family was angered and refused the demands, which prompted Gajah Mada to launch the Majapahit army on the small entourage. Despite showing great courage in resisting the garrison, the outnumbered Sunda royal family was quickly annihilated, and King Lingga Buana himself was slain in battle. Stories say that Princess Dyah Pitaloka then committed ritualistic suicide to defend the honor of her kingdom, rather than live through subjugation and enslavery. This battle will then be known as the Battle of Bubat, named after the Bubat square where the battle took place.

Why is this great Southeast Asian hero not recognized in West Java?

The story of the tragic death of their king and princess soon traveled back to the Sunda people and were passed down through generations. The princess’ and king’s courage to defend their honor in the face of a certain doom is revered as noble acts in Sundanese poems and stories. After his death, Lingga Buana was renamed as Prabu Wangi (the king with the pleasant scent), and his descendants were then known as the Siliwangi (successor of wangi).

Indonesia is now a democratic republic led by a president. The only royal family to hold jurisdiction over parts of the nation is the Yogyakarta Sultanate, a Javanese Islamic monarchy that rules over the special autonomy region of Yogyakarta. As for the mighty Majapahit? They collapsed in the 16th century, though their decline began much earlier after the death of Gajah Mada. He died in 1364, a mere seven years after the Battle of Bubat.

Despite this, tensions between the Sundanese and the Javanese remained. Some Sundanese still believe that a marriage between a Sundanese and a Javanese is forbidden—just like Romeo and Juliet.

Not all that it seemed to be

If you find it hard to believe how a 14th century battle can result in a seven centuries-long ethnic tension, you are not alone.

“The Battle of Bubat is real, but the details of the event are incomplete,” said West Java governor Ahmad Heryawan in an article by Indonesia’s national news media Kompas. “The story of the battle was revealed in the Pararaton (The Book of Kings, a Javanese chronicle) written 117 years after the battle. So of course (the story) is biased.”

Heryawan argued that the reason for the modern day Sunda-Java tension is not because of the Battle of Bubat itself, but because of Dutch colonial propaganda, which encouraged ethnic divide to better control its colony.

An illustration of the Battle of Bubat.

In August 2017, nearly 700 years since the Battle of Bubat, Yogyakarta’s Sultan Hamengkubuwono X—who also acts as the governor—officiated the Yogyakarta Ring Road. Despite being built on a former Majapahit territory, the ring road project consists of two arteries bearing Sundanese names—a first in Javanese history. The first artery is called Siliwangi, to honor the descendants of Prabu Wangi. The second artery is called Pajajaran, to honor the ancient capital of the Sunda Kingdom. It was a bold attempt to combat generations of resentment.

The move is praised by Heryawan, who stated that he is willing to reciprocate by naming two streets in West Java in honor of Gajah Mada and Hayam Wuruk. But with the 2018 West Java gubernatorial election taking place on 27 June 2018, it is unclear whether or not Heryawan can follow through with the plan.

Will this centuries old ethnic divide finally heal?

Illustration done by Anastasia Bisenty.


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