Indonesia's Spice Kingdom | The Mark Of Majapahit Empire


Southeast Asia is one of the most diverse places on the planet. With so many different cultures, and religions, all living side by side. And I'm an example of just that.

My name is Peter Lee. I'm a Singaporean scholar of Peranakan descent, Chinese with a dash of Malay blood. I celebrate being mixed up, it's in my DNA.

My passion is collecting artefacts that offer a fresh narrative.

I'm setting off on a new journey, travelling further back in time.

Oh my god! We see this everywhere in Southeast Asia. To explore how the region's mighty empires have shaped our collective identity. This is a gold mine! No culture exists in isolation.

In this episode, I'm travelling to Indonesia to learn about a 700-year-old empire that once dominated these islands. They built a trading empire so vast that it stretched across much of the Spice Route.

I'm probing the secrets of how it grew into one of Southeast Asia's greatest powers, and how its legacy lives on today.

The world's largest island state of Indonesia is an archipelago of over 17,000 islands, more than six religions and 300 different ethnicities, all once unified by the Majapahit Empire.

To find out how it all comes together as one nation today, I'm in a 4th grade civics education class.

My name is Peter Lee. I'm from Singapore. -Do you all know where Singapore is? -Yes.

Singapore is a small island and Indonesia is so big. And we have only four main races. So today, I want to learn a little bit more about Indonesia.

Can you tell me where your family is from?

We think we're a melting pot in Singapore, but right here, I've just found over 10 ethnicities. I want to find out how their teacher, Neni Herawati, bridges these differences. 


Bhinneka Tunggal Ika or 'unity in diversity' is Indonesia's national motto. But where did this phrase come from? And what's the story behind this call to unity?

Yudhi Irawan is showing me the "Sutasoma", a 700-year-old poem, written on dried palm leaves. I've handled so many ancient and archaic materials, but I've never handled anything of such great national importance.

Sutasoma was an Indian prince with no interest in ruling. So he left his kingdom to travel.

One story records a clash between religions. A wicked king called Purushada lived off the flesh of his subjects. To help them, Buddha reincarnate, Prince Sutasoma offered his own body. But this offended Purushada, who called on Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, to kill Sutasoma.

The Buddha and Lord Shiva battled. But both were equally strong. The battle continued until the priests told them to stop fighting. Because although they looked different, in reality, they were one.

-So this the famous Bhinneka Tunggal Ika? -Yes. That's wonderful. It's a parable of religious harmony during the 200-year rule of the Majapahit, that stood for how Buddhism and Hinduism were often practised side by side. An idea of acceptance that continues to have resonance today.

The Majapahit is said to have been the first kingdom to unite the diverse archipelago. To understand how it flourished, I'm starting at the very beginning.

In 1289, an envoy from the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan landed in Java to demand allegiance. But King Kertanegara sent them packing, by mutilating their faces.

In retaliation, Kublai Khan sent a mighty fleet of 1,000 ships and 20,000 men to unseat the Javanese king. But when they landed in Java three years later, King Kertanegara had been assassinated, and in his place was a different king. 


A prince called Raden Wijaya saw his chance. He offered to help the Mongols overthrow the new king, and swear allegiance to the Great Khan. Together, they attacked, and captured the king. But then, Raden Wijaya turned on his allies with a surprise attack, and the Mongols fled, never to return.

In 1294, Raden Wijaya became the first king of the Majapahit, and built his capital in the hinterlands of Java, in the city of Trowulan. 

Centuries ago, this was one of its most important gateways.
Split gates such as these were built to impress and intimidate. And I can really feel that standing here.

I want to see what else is left of the Majapahit Empire. The people of Majapahit worshipped in places like these called "candis". They were usually either Hindu or Buddhist temples, but people often visited both.

This one was re-discovered in 1905. Sumariyanto heads a local effort to restore the temple to its former glory. The work is being done at the top, but I suffer a bit from vertigo. Rickety stairs, not my favourite thing. I can't look down. An amazing view up here!

The design is based on surviving remnants of the bricks on one side, and there even some carved bricks that have survived. They are just going to leave this like this so you can clearly see what is original and what has been replaced.

But there's still plenty left to be done, and I want to help. I'm trying to do this carefully because I don't want to waste their precious bricks. The next step is to grind the bricks down. Look at how wonderfully and perfectly aligned these bricks are.

So, this new one on the top has to be ground until it's a perfect and snug fit. It takes ages. It's not easy to do. I'm 20 minutes in and nowhere close to meeting Pak Surmariyanto's standards. I'm getting some help to do the final touches. The last step is to set it with some mortar. That's a perfect fit!

It's great to see this Majapahit heritage being cared for especially since nearly 90% of Indonesians today are no longer Hindu or Buddhist.


There is a Muslim cemetery here, there is a mosque, there's a school on the other side. This is really part of the neighbourhood. I just love the way this is so integrated. It's one of the most beautiful things to experience. Majapahit's religious tolerance resulted in peace throughout the kingdom.

But it was geography, its position on the island of Java between India and China that saw the Majapahit grow into a trading power.

I've been allowed access to a dig site in the old capital that can provide evidence of just how wealthy the Empire once was. Yusmaini Eriawati and her team have uncovered the base of a house with 700-year-old artefacts.

This is a very precious, old part of some ceramic pot. It's actually beautifully rendered, and it's more typical to see a lotus flower, not the leaf. This is very beautiful. The team has made a variety of finds that tell an exciting story of the Empire's reach. I'm blown away by how cosmopolitan the Majapahit were.

Religious and ethnic tolerance, combined with its strategic location, were the building blocks for an empire. But the secret to its wealth was born from the island's treacherous terrain.

I'm in Java exploring how the Majapahit grew into an empire.

Just look at this. The quiet majesty of rice fields and volcanoes. This island is part of what geologists call the Ring of Fire. Of the 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia, the largest cluster exists here in Java, so the people have lived here for centuries on that very fine line between sublime beauty and utter destruction. It was this particular geography that gave the Majapahit a great advantage.

I'm helping Darso Widodo, a third-generation farmer from Karangpandan, Central Java, plant vegetables. Everyone should start their morning like this. It's so good for the soul. It's almost enough to make me forget about the ominous shape in the distance. I would be very scared to live so close to a volcano.


Mount Lawu has been dormant since 1885. But in 2014, another volcano erupted just 140 kilometres away. So it really has its positive effect on farming. Volcanic ash is rich in minerals that stimulate plant growth, making Java the most fertile of all of Indonesia's islands and giving the Majapahit Empire massive rice harvests, more than enough to feed the local population and trade with merchants from the Spice Islands, who would travel here on monsoon trade winds that blew from the east between June and September.

Their boats were laden with spices like clove, nutmeg and mace that they traded for rice. They would sail home when the winds changed direction three months later. These west winds brought a new set of merchants, who came to Java to trade their porcelain, beads and textiles for spices. This trade turned Java's coastline into thriving trade ports, including this the city of Tuban.

Tuban's golden age was during the Majapahit period. It had a large community of merchants, both local and foreign. And it was also the scene of cultural transformation.

I'm searching for an iconic product, born from the winds of trade. An art form that I feel a deep connection with. 

Oh my goodness. As a collector of traditional textiles, I'm always on the lookout for good batik. My mother, my grandmother and my ancestors all wore batik. So it's very much part of the history of other countries, and it's a history of my community.

Uswatun Hasanah is a fourth-generation batik maker. This is another intangible aspect of weaving that nobody ever talks about. The sound of batik. It takes over 30 steps to make a piece of gedok cloth. And it begins with spinning raw cotton into yarn. She's just letting the yarn pull itself. 

Oh my god. It's just happening like magic. You just touch... Well, I'm obviously not the magician. Once the cloth is done comes my favourite part: drawing patterns using wax.

As a scholar, I'm very interested in the designs. Being Peranakan and being so mixed in many ways, I love seeing this wonderful mishmash of vibrant dynamic patterns.

The fabric is then soaked in a bath of natural dyes before it's wrung out, a process that is repeated 30 times. This is an oxidisation process, and we're starting to see the pattern.

Tuban batiks are just the earliest kind of batik that we know. There's a lot of pride in this as something so Indonesian. But there were very interesting influences going back and forth. We should be celebrating these links, rather than separating all our cultures into different boundaries. Religious and ethnic tolerance, and its location at the centre of a major trading route resulted in a blending of cultures that powered the Majapahit Empire.

But it was a legendary prime minister who led the Empire to its golden age in the 14th century: the Elephant General, Gajah Mada, who some say made an oath that he would not taste spice until all of their outer islands were under Majapahit rule.

True to his word, in 1331, he consolidated the Empire's hold over Eastern Java. In 1343, he conquered Bali, and continued eastwards. By the mid 14th century, Majapahit's tributary states were said to stretch from New Guinea to parts of the Malay Archipelago.

With extensive trade links, the Empire grew richer and richer. And the extravagance of the royal court knew no bounds. Under King Hayam Wuruk, a great patron of Indonesian arts, the Empire built a rich cultural heritage that is beloved and practised even today; something I want to experience first-hand.

Look at this, it's very complicated. The kind of coordination, you need rhythm, hand movements, there are so many things to think about. Wayang Topeng was performed at the Majapahit court to entertain and impress foreign guests from all over Asia. Sometimes, the king himself would take to the stage.

-So it's a very musical family. -Yes. Just like mine. Pak Handoyo has kept the art alive by teaching local children. And today, he has an older student. It takes a year to master just one dance.

The dancers perform tales from popular folklore about a Javanese prince called Panji. It was a form of self-defence and also attack. So this is the killer flick with a smile. Wayang Topeng actually means 'masked dance'. Noble characters have delicate features, while evil ones have bulging round eyes and fangs.

The colour green is reserved for Prince Panji, a role that Pak Handoyo has offered me in this community performance. I do feel regal. I think I'm ready. It's time for me to impress my waiting audience like a Majapahit king. One of Southeast Asia's most powerful empires, the Majapahit impressed foreign visitors with its court performances including the Wayang Topeng or masked dance.

A big favourite were tales of the fabled Javanese prince Panji. Panji travels to get hold of a heavenly flower only given to the pure of heart, a gift for the lady of his dreams. But his archenemy, King Klana, has other plans. His minions try to steal the flower and a battle ensues. Finally, King Klana is defeated and becomes Panji's disciple.

The Panji stories represent the sum of human experience: love, loss, despair, endurance, and ultimately, happiness. That was really amazing.

To think Hayam Wuruk and all these kings were playing these arts, and here I am doing exactly the same thing. The Panji stories are great love epics, but what can they tell us about the Majapahit?

To find out, I'm visiting the State Temple of Majapahit: Candi Penataran, home to the biggest collection of Panji reliefs, that set in stone the very stories the dances are created from.

I'm going to play this game with myself, trying to guess what these stories are all about. It's easy to spot Panji wearing a cap, which is actually a Javanese headdress.

Oh my goodness, this is impossibly poignant! So we have here Panji. He is holding his scroll, his love letter, which he is about to hand over to a pigeon. And then over here, we see turbulent waters and the pigeon flying above it. And here, delivering the love letter to Candra Kirana.

These are stories of Panji's struggles to reunite with his one true love. The two come from different kingdoms, so it's a Romeo-and-Juliet story, except not quite. This is so beautiful! It is so charming and tender, and I think it marks the end of the story, the finale, the reunion of the lovers.

These stories weren't just popular in Indonesia, but also in continental Southeast Asia, evidence of the Majapahit's cultural influence. But the way it was carved in stone at the State Temple suggests that the great love story of the popular hero Panji was also used as a political symbol of unity between different peoples.

Under Hayam Wuruk, Majapahit's celebrated king, the Empire became greater than ever. But what was the relationship between the Majapahit centre of power in Java and their other islands?

I'm heading next to Lake Matano on the island of Sulawesi. Here, researchers are looking below the deepest lake in Indonesia in search of clues about how the Empire controlled these faraway islands. The water is so clear.

I'm going to join them now. This was a lakeside settlement most likely sunk by earthquakes. It's full of pebbles of very uneven sizes, different rocks. You can even see artefacts. It's incredible!

And here is where the real magic is an old iron workshop hidden 15 metres below.

Archaeologist Shinatria Adhityatama and his team are bringing up a few artefacts for a closer look. Is it made locally?

Oh my god, so this is 8th-century charcoal still in this condition. That's incredible!

To find a piece of metal from the lake that is not rusty, I mean, that's just short of a miracle, I think. Sulawesi means "Island of Iron". But it's the traces of nickel here that have preserved these artefacts for centuries. Would this material have been exported?

Shinatria explained to me that historians are still divided on the extent of the Majapahit's rule over Indonesia's outer islands. To find out how the locals remember their history, I'm excited to meet a person who can truly speak for the people here: the Mokole, King of Matano.

So this iron ore trade was a friendly trade relationship?

There's evidence the Majapahit directly controlled Eastern Java, Bali, and Madura. But the Empire's might further afield may have been the product of its trading wealth and standing that gave them unprecedented influence over these outer islands known today as Indonesia.

But by 1389, the golden age of the Empire was about to be disrupted. For 40 years under the rule of the great King Hayam Wuruk, the Majapahit Empire exerted substantial influence over what's known today as Indonesia.

But merchants from the Middle East, India and China brought with them a new faith that spelt change.

Built in 1421, Masjid Sunan Ampel is East Java's oldest mosque. It's named after the Muslim saint credited with spreading Islam here. Sunan Ampel was a Muslim foreigner from the state of Champa, modern Vietnam, whose family was connected by marriage to the Majapahit rulers.

When he arrived in Java, he was granted freedom to teach the Islamic faith. In the 15th century, Islam was the religion of traders and it was tolerated by the Majapahit. As the faith spread, it weakened the authority of its rulers who were seen as gods in the Hindu-Buddhist tradition.

But the end of their reign was brought about by something closer to home. Legend has it that when the Majapahit attacked another Indonesian empire, the Srivijaya, around 1398, the Srivijayan king was driven from his outpost in Singapura and fled north to Melaka. There he converted to Islam and traded with Muslim merchants from the Middle East, India and China, establishing a new trading hub to rival the Majapahit.

Internal power struggles weakened the Empire further until a people's revolution drove them east to Bali. But the last Majapahit king is said to have fled west to Mount Lawu and took refuge in a Hindu temple.

Five hundred years have passed since the fall of the Majapahit Empire. But Candi Cetho still draws visitors from all over Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim nation. Today is Kuningan, a day to honour one's ancestors in the Balinese calendar. I'm excited to join Pak Jiro, a Hindu priest, in a ritual from the Majapahit times.

The offerings are for a final farewell to ancestors as they return to heaven. These are just the first few steps, many more to go. It's a symbolic climb to sacred heights. Near the top, we head to the oldest part of the complex.

We have flowers, we have fruit, we have incense, perfume, and wonderful cooked food. It's a multi-sensory offering. It's so beautiful. It starts with just the chime and just one tone. It really hits somewhere very deep.

This wonderful offering recalls all the beautiful things that make family. And it's a very special universal  feeling. I can't help but think about my late parents. I apologise. I'm a big crybaby. It's all about respect and paying back the love of your ancestors. And at the end of the day, we are all connected, so I'm a part of this as well.

The Majapahit tolerated differences among its close neighbours and distant visitors alike. That foundation, however, is being tested by rising fundamentalism and separatism today.

But in a neighbourhood in East Java, people are coming together in spite of their differences. I am outside Surabaya and this is just amazing! There is a mosque,
a Buddhist temple, Catholic church, there's a Confucian temple coming up, a Hindu temple, and right at the end, a Protestant church.

I am here to meet its leaders and find out what it's all about. Six religious sites built side by side is a first for Indonesia. The local leaders meet regularly to discuss the problems faced by the community. It's a legacy of the Majapahit and I want to see how it's shaping Indonesia's present. My father is Catholic, my mother is Buddhist, so I have grown up in this multicultural environment. What is everyone's opinion about the state of religious tolerance in Indonesia today?

In a climate fraught with intolerance, this is a symbol of hope. These are all religions of communities that played a part in shaping Indonesia. In a multicultural setting like this, the only really viable option has been to find ways to live alongside each other, both then and now.

But how are the nation's youth inspired by this aspiration of togetherness?

Oh my god, I'm a street artist. I love this. I don't want to destroy this. I'm going slow.

Xgo and his crew are street artists who regularly take part in mural activism. Go too near, it gets too thick. So you have to keep a certain distance, otherwise, it starts to drip. I think I've done it. Is this all right?

I finally see the mural taking form. It's a mixture of different colours and shapes that all come together in a handshake. I love how your work is very strong and powerful. I love it.

The Majapahit Empire fell in 1520 after two centuries in power, which was followed by over 300 years of colonial rule before Indonesia finally gained independence in 1945.

But as the nation faces new challenges today, the legacy of the Majapahit offers some important historical lessons. The Majapahit Empire found itself at the crossroads of the highly lucrative spice trail. And its openness and shrewdness allowed it to attain unprecedented wealth and cultural refinement.

The idea of being stronger together rather than separate is a legacy that has shaped the modern Indonesian nation and continues to inspire a path for the pluralistic society here today.

I've travelled through Indonesia searching for traces of the Majapahit, an Empire that rose to unprecedented powers, thanks to its relationship with nearby islands and peoples.

It's a reminder that 500 years on, the challenges of the modern nation hark back to age-old questions that have shaped what it is to be Indonesian since its earliest days.

Source: CNA Insider.

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