Gajah Mada (translated as Elephant General) (circa 1290 – circa 1364) was, according toJavanese old manuscripts, poems and mythology, a powerful military leader and mahapatih or prime minister of the Majapahit Empire, credited with bringing the empire to its peak of glory. He delivered an oath called Sumpah Palapa, in which he vowed not to eat any food containing spices until he had conquered all of the Southeast Asian archipelago of Nusantara forMajapahit. In modern Indonesia, he serves as an important national hero and a symbol of patriotism.
Rise to Mahapatih
Not much is known about Gajah Mada’s early life. Some of the first accounts mention his career as commander of the Bhayangkara, an elite guard for Majapahit kings and their family. When Rakrian Kuti, one of the officials in Majapahit, rebelled against the Majapahit kingJayanegara (ruled 1309–1328) in 1321, Gajah Mada and the then-mahapatih Arya Tadah helped the king and his family to escape the capital city of Trowulan. Later Gajah Mada aided the king to return to the capital and crush the rebellion. Seven years later, Jayanegara was murdered by Rakrian Tanca, the court physician, one of Rakrian Kuti’s aides.
In another version, according to the Nagarakretagama (a Javanese language epic poem dating from the 14th century), and supported by inscriptions dating from the late 13th and early 14th century, Jayanagara was assassinated by Gajah Mada in 1328. It is said that Jayanagara was overprotective towards his two half sisters, born from Kertarajasa’s youngest queen, Dyah Dewi Gayatri. Complaints by the two young princesses led to the intervention of Gajah Mada. His drastic solution was to arrange for a surgeon to murder the king while pretending to perform an operation.
Jayanegara was immediately succeeded by his sister Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi (ruled 1328–1350). It was under her leadership that Gajah Mada was appointed mahapatih in 1329, after the retirement of Arya Tadah.
As mahapatih under Thribuwana Tunggadewi Gajah Mada went on to crush another rebellion by Sadeng and Keta in 1331.
It was during Gajah Mada’s reign as mahapatih, around the year 1345, that the famous Muslim traveller, Ibn Battuta visited Sumatera.
It is said that it was during his appointment as mahapatih under queen Tribhuwanatunggadewi that Gajah Mada took his famous oath,Sumpah Palapa. The telling of the oath is described in the Pararaton (Book of Kings), an account on Javanese history that dates from the 15th or 16th century:
“Sira Gajah Mada pepatih amungkubumi tan ayun amukita palapa, sira Gajah Mada : Lamun huwus kalah nusantara Ingsun amukti palapa, lamun kalah ring Gurun, ring Seram, Tanjungpura, ring Haru, ring Pahang, Dompo, ring Bali, Sunda, Palembang, Tumasik, samana ingsun amukti palapa “
“Gajah Mada, the prime minister, said he will not taste any spice. Said Gajah Mada : If Nusantara (Nusantara= Nusa antara= external territories) are lost, I will not taste “palapa” (“fruits and or spices”). I will not if the domain of Gurun, domain of Seram, domain ofTanjungpura, domain of Haru, Pahang, Dompo, domain of Bali, Sunda, Palembang, Tumasik, in which case I will never taste any spice.”
While often interpreted literally to mean that Gajah Mada would not allow his food to be spiced (palapa is the prose combination of pala apa= any fruits/spices) the oath is sometimes interpreted to mean that Gajah Mada would abstain from all earthly pleasures (fruits and spices) until he conquered the entire known archipelago for Majapahit.
Even his closest friends were at first doubtful of his oath, but Gajah Mada kept pursuing his dream to unify Nusantara under the glory of Majapahit. Soon he conquered the surrounding territory of Bedahulu (Bali) and Lombok (1343). He then sent the navy westward to attack the remnants of the thallassocrathic kingdom of Sriwijaya in Palembang. There he installed Adityawarman, a Majapahit prince as vassal ruler of the Minangkabau in West Sumatra.
He then conquered the first Islamic sultanate in Southeast Asia, Samudra Pasai, and another state in Svarnadvipa (Sumatra). Gajah Mada also conquered Bintan, Tumasik (Singapore), Melayu (now known as Jambi), and Kalimantan.
At the resignation of the queen, Tribuwanatunggadewi, her son, Hayam Wuruk (ruled 1350–1389) became king. Gajah Mada retained his position as mahapatih under the new king and continued his military campaign by expanding eastward into Logajah, Gurun, Seram,Hutankadali, Sasak, Makassar, Buton, Banggai, Kunir, Galiyan, Salayar, Sumba, Muar (Saparua), Solor, Bima, Wandan (Banda), Ambon,Timor, and Dompo.
He thus effectively brought the modern Indonesian archipelago under Majapahits’s control, which spanned not only the territory of today’sIndonesia, but also that of Tumasik (old name of Singapore), the states comprising modern-day Malaysia, Brunei and the southernPhilippines.
The Bubat Incident
In 1357, the only remaining state refusing to acknowledge Majapahit’s hegemony was Sunda, in West Java, bordering the Majapahit Empire. King Hayam Wuruk intended to marry Dyah Pitaloka Citraresmi, a princess of Sunda and the daughter of Sunda’s king. Gajah Mada was given the task to go to the Bubat square on northern part of Trowulan to welcome the princess as she arrived with her father and escort to Majapahit palace.
Gajah Mada took this opportunity to demand Sunda submission under Majapahit rule. While Sunda King thought that the royal marriage was a sign of a new alliance between Sunda and Majapahit, Gajah Mada thought otherwise. He stated that the Princess of Sunda is not to be hailed as the new queen consort of Majapahit, but merely as a concubine, as a sign of submission of Sunda to Majapahit. This misunderstanding led to embarrassment and hostility, which quickly rose into skirmish and full scale battle. The ensuing bloodshed saw the Sunda King with all of his guards and royal party were overwhelmed by Majapahit troops and later killed in the field of Bubat. Tradition mentioned that the heartbroken princess, Dyah Pitaloka Citraresmi, committed suicide.
Hayam Wuruk was deeply shocked about the tragedy. Majapahit courtiers, ministers and nobles blamed Gajah Mada for his recklesness, and all this brutalities is not to the taste of Majapahit royal family. Gajah Mada was promptly demoted and spent the rest of his days in the estate of Madakaripura in Probolinggo in East Java.
Gajah Mada died in obscurity in 1364. King Hayam Wuruk considered that the power Gajah Mada had accumulated during his time asmahapatih was too much to handle for a single person. Therefore the king split the responsibilities that had been Gajah Mada’s, between four separate new mahamantri (equal to ministries), thereby probably increasing his own power. King Hayam Wuruk, who is said to have been a wise leader, was able to maintain the hegemony of Majapahit in the region, gained during Gajah Mada’s service. However Majapahit slowly fell into decline after the death of Hayam Wuruk.
Gajah Mada’s legacy is important for Indonesian Nationalism, and invoked by Indonesian Nationalist movement in early 20th century. The Nationalists prior to the Japanese invasion, notably Sukarno, often cited Gajah Mada and his oath as an inspiration and a historical proof of Indonesian past greatness. That Indonesians could unite, despite vast territory and various cultures. Thus, Gajah Mada was a great inspiration during the Indonesian National Revolution for independence from Dutch colonization.
In 1942, only 230 Indonesian natives held a tertiary education. The Republicans sought to mend the Dutch apathy and established the first state university, which freely admitted native pribumi Indonesians Universitas Gadjah Mada, in Yogyakarta is named in honour of Gajah Mada and completed in 1945, and had the honour of the first Medicine Faculty freely open to natives. Indonesia’s first telecommunication satellite was called Satelit Palapa signifying its role in uniting the country. Many cities in Indonesia but West Java have streets named after Gajah Mada. There is a brand of badminton shuttlecock named after him as well.