Gajah Mada

From New World Encyclopedia

Gajah Mada (died c. 1364) was, according to Javanese old manuscripts, poems and mythology, a famous military leader and prime minister (mahapatih) of the Majapahit Empire, credited with bringing the empire to its peak of glory. Gajah Mada first rose to prominence as commander of the Bhayangkara, an elite royal guard, when he helped King Jayanegara, the son of Majahapit founder Kertarajasa, and his family escape the capital city of Trowulan during a revolt. Later, Gajah Mada aided the king to return to the capital and crush the rebellion.

Under the rule of Queen Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi, he was made “mahapit” (grand vizier) and undertook a campaign to bring all of the Indonesian archipelago under Majapahit's control. His conquests spanned not only the territory covered by modern Indonesia, but also that of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and the southern Philippines. He also served as majapahit under Queen Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi’s successor, Hayam Wuruk (ruled 1350-1389), the most powerful ruler of the Majapahit Empire.

Gajah Mada is famous for delivering an oath called Sumpah Palapa, in which he vowed not to eat any food containing spices until he had conquered all of Nusantara. In modern Indonesia, he is regarded as an important national hero and a nationalistic symbol.

Historical background

According to the Nagarakertagama (a Javanese language epic poem dating from the fourteenth century), and supported by inscriptions dating from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Raden Wijaya Sri Kertarajasa Jayawardhana, the founder of the Majapahit Empire, married the four daughters of Kertanagara. With his eldest and principal queen, Dyah Dewi Tribhuwaneshwari, he had a son, Jayanagara. Some of Kertarajasa's most trusted men, including Ranggalawe, Sora, and Nambi rebelled against him, though unsuccessfully. It was suspected that the mahapati (equivalent of a prime minister), Halayudha, had conspired to involve them in a rebellion and then overthrow them all, in order to gain the highest position in the government. Following the death of the last rebel, Kuti, Halayudha was captured and jailed for his tricks, and then sentenced to death.[1] Wijaya himself died in 1309 C.E., and Jayanagara succeeded to the throne.

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 (“that generates fear” or “to be feared by the enemies”), an elite guard for Majapahit kings and their family. When Rakrian Kuti, one of the officials in Majapahit, rebelled against the Majapahit king Jayanegara (ruled 1309-1328) in 1321, Gajah Mada and the then-mahapatih (grand vizier) Arya Tadah helped the king and his family to escape the capital city of Trowulan. Later, Gajah Mada aided the king in returning to the capital and crushed the rebellion. After these events, he assumed a position as “rake mapatih ring Jangala Kadiri” (head or chief minister of the provinces Janggala and Kadiri); he is mentioned in this capacity, under the name “Pu Mada,” in an undated inscription of Walandit.[2]

Seven years later, Jayanegara was poisoned to death by Rakrian Tanca, one of Rakrian Kuti's aides. In another version, according to the Nagarakretagama, and supported by inscriptions dating from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, Jayanagara, entitled Kala Gemet, or "weak villain," was immoral and took his own half-sisters, born from Kertarajasa's youngest queen, Dyah Dewi Gayatri, as wives. Complaints by the two young princesses led Gajah Mada to intervene and arrange for the royal surgeon to murder the king while pretending to perform an operation.

Jayanegara’s stepmother, Gayatri Rajapatni, was next in line for the throne, but she instead retired from court to become a bhiksuni (female Buddhist monk) in a monastery and appointed her daughter, Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi, formally known as Tribhuwannottungadewi Jayawishnuwardhani, to rule on her behalf as the queen of Majapahit (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 traveler, Ibn Battuta visited the Indonesian archipelago.

Sumpah Palapa

During his appointment as mahapatih under queen Tribhuwanatunggadewi, 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 fifteenth or sixteenth 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, he the prime minister, said he will not taste any spice, said Gajah Mada: As long as I not unify Nusantara, I will not taste any spice. Before I conquer Gurun, Seram, Tanjungpura, Haru, Pahang, Dompo, Bali, Sunda, Palembang, Tumasik, I will never taste any spice.

While often interpreted literally to mean that Gajah Mada would not allow his food to be spiced, the oath is sometimes interpreted to mean that Gajah Mada would abstain from all earthly happiness 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 of the Singhasari line, as vassal ruler of the Minangkabau in West Sumatra. An inscription from the year 1341, at the back of a statue of Manjusri found at Candi Jago in East Java, testifies that Adityawarman accompanied Mada on his campaigns to Bali.

Gajah Mada then conquered the first Islamic sultanate in Southeast Asia, Samudra Pasai, and another state in Swarnadwipa (Sumatra). He also conquered Bintan, Tumasik (Singapore), Melayu (now known as Jambi), and Kalimantan.

When the queen, Tribuwanatunggadewi, resigned after the death of her mother in 1350, 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.

Within twenty-eight years of his oath, Gajah Mada thus effectively brought the archipelago under Majapahit's control, spanning not only the territory covered by today's Indonesia, but also that of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and the southern Philippines.

The Bubat accident

In 1357, the only remaining state refusing to acknowledge Majapahit's supremacy was Sunda, in West Java, now bordering the Majapahit Empire. King Hayam Wuruk planned to marry Dyah Pitaloka, a princess of Sunda and the daughter of Sunda's king. Gajah Mada was sent to the village of Bubat to welcome the princess as she arrived with her father and escort in Majapahit.

The King of Sunda regarded the upcoming marriage as a sign of a new alliance between Sunda and Majapahit, Gajah Mada considered it as a sign of the submission of Sunda to Majapahit. This misunderstanding led to embarrassment and strife, which quickly developed into full scale battle. In the ensuing bloodshed, the king and all of his guards were killed in the fields of Bubat. Seeing this horror, the princess Dyah Pitaloka committed suicide.

Hayam Wuruk was deeply shocked by this debacle. Gajah Mada was promptly demoted and spent the rest of his days in the estate of Madangkara in Probolinggo, East Java.

Gajah Mada died in obscurity in 1364. The power which Gajah Mada had accumulated during his time as mahapatih was now considered by King Hayam Wuruk to be too much for a single person. The king divided the responsibilities that had been Gajah Mada's among four separate new ministries, increasing his own power over the government. Hayam Wuruk, who is said to have been a wise leader, was able to maintain the domains that Majapahit had gained during Gajah Mada's period as mahapatih, but a slow decline started after Hayam Wuruk's death.


Gajah Mada's legacy is highly visible in Indonesia. In the early days of the republic, leaders such as Sukarno often quoted Gajah Mada's oath as an inspiration and "proof" that the nation could unite, despite its vast territory and multiple cultures. Gajah Mada was a great inspiration during the Indonesian National Revolution for independence from Dutch colonization.

A state university, Universitas Gadjah Mada, in Yogyakarta is named after Gajah Mada. Indonesia's first telecommunication satellite is called Satelit Palapa signifying its role in uniting the country. Many cities in Indonesia have streets named after Gajah Mada.

Gajah Mada's life is the subject of a number of poems, dramas and works of historical fiction. Two seventeenth century works of fiction, Kidung Sunda and Kidung Sundayana, though not historically accurate, give detailed accounts of the events surrounding Gajah Mada’s conquests of Dompo and Sunda. A twentieth century poetic epic, Kakwin Gajah Mada, composed in Old Javanese, narrates the story of Gajah Mada from his divine birth to the height of his glory.[3] Gajahmada, a recent work by Langit Kresna Hariadi, is a fictionalized biography of Gajah Mada in five volumes.


  1. Slamet Muljana, Menuju Puncak Kemegahan (LKIS, 2005).
  2. Keat Gin Ooi, Southeast Asia a Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor (Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2004), p. 533
  3. Ibid. p. 534

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Friend, Theodore. Indonesian Destinies. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003. ISBN 0674011376
  • Mason, Colin. A Short History of Asia Stone Age to 2000 C.E. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. ISBN 0312230591
  • Muljana, Slamet. A Story of Majapahit. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1976.
  • Ooi, Keat Gin. Southeast Asia a Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2004. ISBN 1576077705
  • Pameran Kemegahan Majapahit. Majapahit Trowulan. Jakarta: Indonesian Heritage Society, 2006. ISBN 9799563461
  • Ricklefs, M. C. and M. C. Ricklefs. A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. ISBN 0333800990
  • Taylor, Jean Gelman. Indonesia Peoples and Histories. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN 0300097093

External links

All links retrieved April 17, 2024.


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