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Gajah Mada

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1329 - 1364c.

Gajah Mada

Political leader


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Gajah Mada (c. 1290 – c. 1364) was, according to Javanese 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 for Majapahit. In modern Indonesia, he serves as an important national hero, a symbol of patriotism and national unity.


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Account of his life, political career and administration was taken from several sources. Mainly Pararaton ("The Book of Kings"), the Nagarakretagama (a Javanese language epic poem dating from the 14th century), and inscriptions dating from the late 13th and early 14th century.

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Rise to power

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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 royal guard for Majapahit king and royal family.

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When Rakrian Kuti, one of the officials in Majapahit, rebelled against the Majapahit king Jayanegara (ruled 1309–1328) in 1321, Gajah Mada and then the 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.

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Another version suggested that 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 half-sister Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi (ruled 1328–1350). It was under her leadership that Gajah Mada was appointed mahapatih (Prime Minister) in 1329, after the retirement of Arya Tadah.

As mahapatih under Tribhuwana 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.

The Palapa Oath and Invasion

It is said that it was during his appointment as mahapatih under queen Tribhuwanatunggadewi that Gajah Mada took his famous oath, Palapa Oath or 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, Temasek, 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 of Tanjungpura, 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 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 (Prime Minister) under the new king and continued his military campaign by expanding eastward into Logajah, Gurun, Seram, Hutankadali, Sasak, 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's Indonesia, but also that of Temasek (old name of Singapore), the states comprising modern-day Malaysia, Brunei, the southern Philippines and East Timor.

The Battle Of Bubat

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 the 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 a skirmish and the full scale Battle of Bubat. The Sunda King with all of his guards and royal party were overwhelmed by Majapahit troops and subsequently 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 recklessness, and the brutal consequences were not to the taste of the Majapahit royal family. Gajah Mada was promptly demoted and spent the rest of his days at 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 as mahapatih 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.


The Blahbatuh royal house in Gianyar, Bali, has been performing Gajah Mada's mask dance drama ritually for the past 600 years. The mask of Gajah Mada has been protected and brought to life every couple of years to unite and harmonize the world, this sacred ritual was intended to bring peace to Bali.

Gajah Mada's legacy is important for Indonesian Nationalism, and invoked by Indonesian Nationalist movement in the early 20th century. The Nationalists prior to the Japanese invasion, notably Sukarno and Mohammad Yamin, often cited Gajah Mada's oath and Nagarakretagama as the inspiration and a historical proof of Indonesian past greatness — that Indonesians could unite, despite vast territory and various cultures. The Gajah Mada campaign that united the far flung islands within Indonesian archipelago under Majapahit suzerainty, was used by Indonesian nationalist to argue that an ancient form of unity was existed prior to Dutch colonialism. 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.

  • Gajah Mada is appeared in the expansion pack Brave New World for the PC video game Sid Meier's Civilization V as the leader of the Indonesian civilization.
  • Gajah Mada has a campaign for the Malay civilization in the Age of Empires II expansion pack, Rise of the Rajas. The campaign revolve around the establishment of Majapahit empire in Mongol invasion, the conquest of the archipelago after Palapa Oath and Bubat Tragedy that led to his downfall.
  • References

    Gajah Mada Wikipedia