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Book Review: Majapahit: Intrigue, Betrayal and War in Indonesia's Greatest Empire

18 Jun 2024
Reviewed by Duncan Graham

As it is with all legends, the more distant the memory, the greater the reverence and the sketchier the details. This pithy observation comes towards the close of Herald van der Linde’s new history Majapahit, the story of East Java’s golden century and its international clout. 

The alert should have been at the start, a warning to politicians everywhere prone to parading the imagined successes of yesteryear to stay in office, forgetting their messy failures and hoping voters do the same.

The Majapahit era (1293-1527)  named after the bitter maja (stone apple) fruit of the region, thrived under Emperor Hayam Wuruk (1350-1389), a relatively civilised leader. During his time the epic story/poems of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the wayang kulit puppets, defined Javanese culture and still do.

The Hindu-Buddhist empire circled the Brantas River trade route, no longer navigable and now dubbed Kali Plastik. Its fertile floodplains are still largely hand-cultivated. Majapahit rule probably stretched from what’s now Malaysia through the archipelago to the southern Philippines and even Thailand.

Reading of the past can cloud or clarify the present depending on whether the student has access to all views and not just an authority’s sanitised version. Indonesia is already planning its 2045 celebrations of a centenary of independence so there’s time to honestly ponder where the Republic is heading and where it has come from.

Here, Majapahit could be a splendid guide. Unfortunately when bureaucrats get busy thoughtful analysis is often swept aside by economic stats that are so much easier to deliver and grasp. For example, current president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo forecasts a population of 309 million, enjoying a per capita income of AUD 44,000 in the world’s fourth largest economy within the next 21 years. If there are any progressives around by then they’ll be urging historians to address the difficult along with the triumphs to ensure balance.

Van der Linde’s collected yarns of conquest, love, and mystery long ago are the difficult-to-disprove stories governments prefer. Recent histories, such as accounts of the genocide of the mid-1960s get shuffled aside as they still arouse great emotion. An estimated half-million real or imagined Communists were slaughtered; the dirty deals that felled founding president Soekarno and raised General Soeharto as his successor remain elusive.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley. Maybe for Westerners, not for Indonesians. Here the past is ever present. The story of the centuries past Majapahit rule only needs individual, date, and city name changes to be an account of politics today.

Fortunately backstabbing is now a metaphor so the Kris (the traditional wavy-blade Javanese dagger often used for murders and considered magical) isn’t needed to despatch rivals. The way to cripple an opponent today is by making allegations of corruption or leanings towards Communism.

The official version of Indonesia is of the secular democratic Republic born in 1945. Hidden are the scheming oligarchs forever working to amass fortunes, build feudal dynasties, and leave a legacy of great structures for future admirers.

Much of the little that we know comes from the Nagarakretagama, a eulogy and travel history written on lontar leaves by the court poet Mpu Prapanca in 1365, and now in the National Museum in Jakarta. In 1894, it was rescued by a Dutch philologist from a fire in a Lombok palace when attacked by the colonialists.

Other sources include inscriptions on monuments and the walls of abandoned temples including Borobudur.  The world’s largest Buddhist monument was rediscovered by Stamford Raffles when he was Governor of the Dutch East Indies between 1811 and 1817 and recounted in his History of  Java.

Pulling all the sources together with the gaps filled by an imaginative writer we have a well-written treasury of good research. Almost 20 percent of Majapahit is footnotes and bibliography, but no index – a gnawing frustration for dippers and recallers.

The crumbling empire finally fell around 1527, through a confluence of attacks by Islamic armies, factional feuds, fights over succession, incest, natural disasters, and the apparently bloodless death at 74 of the era’s architect Gadjah Mada. The “rutting elephant” was once the most powerful person in a court of thrusting schemers and betrayers.  An image shows a plump-faced man, not a Tom Cruise action adventurer, though that was also his role.

He was the low-born schemer of the time, able to out-think all around him and come out on top, advancing the empire and himself. A devious, ambitious military and political strategist, he’s now praised as the hero of Indonesia and his name embellishes the military and academia.

When militant Islam set out to cleanse the land of other faiths the Majapahit capital (now Trowulan and much restored) was trashed and the people fled east. Which is why Bali is now a majority-Hindu province.

Dutch banker/historian van der Linde spends much time in Indonesia when not in Hong Kong. His book is subtitled Intrigue, betrayal and war in Indonesia’s greatest empire. The plots are complex, the characters even more so, but although the events happened centuries ago they resonate still, much like Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Today we have a president abandoning a party and its matriarch that put him into power – then levering his son to take his place through a cunning plot worthy of a Majapahit conspiracy. This young businessman, Vice President Gibran Rakabuming, is linked for the next five years to a disgraced former military general twice his age. All the ingredients are here for a sinetron (TV soap opera) or a political crisis yet to unfold.

Centuries ago leaving a legacy meant building temples to honour the reigns of royals. Today it’s the construction of the Jakarta replacement Ibu Kota (capital) Nusantara in East Kalimantan dominated by a grand presidential palace.

It’s doubtful this will be as enduring as the temples of the Majapahit era and the tales of the time. Despite van der Linde’s meticulous squirreling among the archives and ruins, we’ll never know how much is true because victors write the first histories. Majapahit’s yarns are entertaining, often bloody, yet helpful in understanding Indonesia and the way its people think today.

This is a review of Herald van der Linde’s Majapahit Intrigue, Betrayal and War in Indonesia’s Greatest Empire. (Monsoon, 2024) ISBN:  9781915310286

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist in Indonesia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.