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The Elephant General - Legend Of Gajah Mada

Legend of Gajah Madaby Guru Scott McQuaid

One of the most prominent figures in Indonesian history is that of the Gajah Mada. His name translates to the ‘Elephant General’. I’m sure his infamous appearance had something to do with his naming. According to ancient Javanese manuscripts and folk based poems, this warrior became the prime minister of the Majapahit Kingdom during the rise of the Majapahit realm from the 9th to the 13th century bringing the empire to its peak of glory.

Gajah Mada was said to have been a fearsome warrior that started his career as a commander of the ‘Bhayangkara’ which was an elite guard for Majapahit kings. Gaja Mada would known some kind of structured combative silat style, only the generic term of silat that relates to indigenous martial arts from South East Asia was not phrased by then. Some silat exponents speculate that would have been training in a very early form of Bersilat.

This is a very basic style that exists in two-forms. The first is silat pulot that is purely for exhibition for ceremonies and state visits, showing the structure and footwork. Then there’s the silat buah or fruit which comprises of the techniques and forms used in real combat.

Legend of Gajah Mada

The most famous legend paints Gaja Mada as a national symbolic hero of patriotism. The tale goes that a Majapahit state official named Rakrian Kuti rebelled against the current king Jayanegara in 1321. The loyal guard Gajah Mada helped the king and his family escape the city in fear of a revolution. During the same year, Gajah Mada assisted the king’s return to the capital and crushed the rebellion. Fast tracking seven years later, king Jayanegara was murdered by his own court physician, who was said to have been in alliance with the rebel senator Rakrian Kuti. Later Gaja Mada was named maha patih, high minister, or today’s analogy, Prime Minister. 

However there is another version of this tale that comes from an ancient Javanese poem from the 14th century. This story notes that Gajah Mada himself orchestrated king Jayanagara’s assassination by his court physician in 1328. The poem mentions that the king was too over bearing and protective of this two young princesses and they asked Gajah Mada to help remove their father from the thrown. This seems a little drastic and scholars suspect that Gajah Mada may have had some romantic involvement with one of the princesses. The king was immediately succeeded by his sister Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi that ruled from 1328 to 1350 and it was under her leadership that Gajah Mada was appointed prime minister in 1329.

Legend of Gajah Mada

It was during his reign as prime minister that Gajah Mada made his name. The former solider went on to crush another rebellion by Sadeng. By 1357 a new king emerged that being Hayam Wuruk who was a very clever strategist and is said to have had a good relationship with prime minister Gajah Mada. It was during this time that the new king and the elephant general would fight Majapahit’s final battle for dominance of South East Asia. The last remaining state in Java that refused to acknowledge Majapahit supremacy was Sunda in West Java. The king proposed that he would marry the Sunda king’s daughter, princess Dyah Pitaloka Citraresmi, which would unite the kingdoms without bloodshed and the Majapahit king was said to be quite fond of the Sunda princess. Gajah Mada was given the task to go to the Bubat square on northern part of Trowulan that is now an archaeological site located in East Java. He was meant to escor the Sunda king and the princess to Majapahit palace. But the hot-headed Gajah Mada took this opportunity to demand the Sunda kingdom fall to submission under Majapahit rule. He stated that the princess of Sunda will not 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 full scale war, that would later be known as the ‘battle of Bubat’.

Gajah Mada and his army obliterated the Sunda king and his royal guards. According to the poem of the ancient Javanese manuscript Nagarakretagama, the Sunda princess was heartbroken and committed suicide. When the Majapahit king heard the news of the battle, he was said to have been deeply shocked about this tragedy. The Majapahit officials and ministers blamed Gajah Mada for his recklessness and brutality, his actions were not in taste of the Majapahit royal family. Gajah Mada was immediately demoted and spent the rest of his days in East Java at the estate of Madakaripura where he died in obscurity in 1364.

Legend of Gajah Mada

Gajah Mada's legacy stands today, depicted in monuments, paintings and folk stories spread across some 17,000 islands of Indonesia. The Elephant General was a great inspiration during the Indonesian National Revolution for independence from the Dutch colonization and continues today to inspire young minds at its Yogyakarta college, Gadjah Mada University.

Published exclusively for Black Triangle Silat 2015.