Majapahit Ancestors in the Eastern Archipelago

“Taking them island by island: Makasar, Butun and Banggawi, / Kunir, Galiyahu and Salaya, Sumba, Solot and Muwar, / As well as Wandan, Ambwan, Maloko and Wwanin, / Seran and Timur as the main ones among the various islands that remembered their duty.” (Desawarnana 14:5, translated by Stuart Robson, 1995:34).

The islands and towns of the eastern Malay-Indonesian Archipelago abound with stories of legendary founders and perilous maritime journeys. These tales, passed down orally, chronicle the travels and arrival of a town or clan’s ancestors from a distant land. These ancestors may arrive as individuals, sets of siblings, or as cohorts, who embark on their journey due to hardship, conflict, or a sense of adventure. Yet, in nearly all cases, these ancestors possess significant ability, charisma, and prestige. The lands that these ancestors eventually settle upon are generally already inhabited and it is through those traits that the founder ancestors negotiate the establishment of their town or clan. The founder ancestors of these origin myths may come from a wide array of different lands or polities, which at some point in history held some cultural or political prestige in the archipelago. In the Lesser Sunda Islands (Nusa Tenggara) and the southern islands of Maluku, the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, which flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries, is among the most prominent homelands of these founder ancestors.

Founded in the late 13th century, the Hindu-Buddhist polity of Majapahit, based in eastern Java, quickly expanded and exercised significant influence over much of the archipelago. As mentioned in my previous post, the extent to which Majapahit constituted an empire has been subject to both popular and academic discussion. While Majapahit did govern central and eastern Java, most other parts of the archipelago (“the outer islands”) were treated as vassals or tributary states. What is certain is that Majapahit was able to and often did send out naval expeditions to assert their dominance in the archipelago and handpick the rulers of various polities. The inclusion of a number of different islands and locations in the eastern archipelago as tributaries of Majapahit in the Desawarnana (Nagarakertagama), a 14th century Javanese chronicle, indicates that, at the very least, Majapahit interacted with those places. In the early 16th century, Majapahit was severely weakened by internal conflicts and overtaken by the rising Muslim Sultanate of Demak from Java’s northern coast. Nevertheless, despite its fate, Majapahit had and continues to have major significance and cultural influence throughout Southeast Asia, especially in the modern Republic of Indonesia.

Map of Majapahit. The dark orange shows the core area of Majapahit based in East Java. The light orange depicts the vassals and dependencies as claimed in Majapahit’s own Nagarakertagama (also known as Desawarnana), a 14th century eulogy to Maharaja Hayam Wuruk and description of Majapahit at its height. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Considering this historical importance and its ability to exert influence across the archipelago, it is really not surprising that the Javanese power would feature prominently in the ancestral origin myths of numerous towns and clans. However, before expanding on Majapahit’s place in these origin myths, it is necessary to place this tradition in a broader context. As already noted, a great many (though not all) communities in the eastern archipelago hold traditions of foreign origins or the arrival of dynamic individuals. The lands that these migrant ancestors settle upon are almost always already inhabited and intermarriage with those original communities is part of the story. Of particular interest is that many descendant communities more closely identify with their migrant ancestors than with their ancestors who were the original inhabitants of the area. As noted by anthropologist Douglas Lewis, one of his subjects in Sikka remarked “here we are all pendatang (‘migrants, newcomers’).” (Lewis 2010, 161) There is an acknowledgment of descent from those original inhabitants, but the stories are narrated from the perspective of the migrant ancestors. 

Relief from Borobudur in Central Java c. 8th century. This image is the go-to image to illustrate how far back Javanese maritime go. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Additionally, the arrival of dynamic individuals frequently progresses to their or their direct descendents’ ascendence to positions of rulership in what various scholars have called “myths of xenarchy” or, to use Marshall Sahlins’ term, “stranger-kings”. Oftentimes, according to these legends, these migrant ancestors hold political, cultural, and/or technological advantages over the original peoples and, in settling in the region, they spread those advancements to the local communities. The founder ancestor or his offspring also typically marries a local woman (the founder ancestor is usually a man), legitimizing his clan’s settlement or lordship in the region. Many of these clans eventually occupy positions of hereditary leadership (raja, sengaji, etc…). 

Myths of Majapahit descent appear to occur mostly in the Lesser Sunda Islands (Nusa Tenggara) and, possibly, the southern islands of Maluku province. Versions of this myth occur in Ende (Flores), Sikka (Flores), Pantar, and Alor, to name a few places, although Majapahit does not hold a monopoly on homelands for legendary ancestors. For other towns and clans in the region, the legendary founder ancestors may be from other culturally or politically significant areas, such as Melaka, Sulawesi, North Maluku, or West Sumatra. 

The town of Ende in central Flores provides a fairly clear example of this pattern of Majapahit descent stories. According to their tradition, recorded in the early 20th century by Van Suchtelen, a disagreement between two Majapahit brothers over a broken fishing line and a damaged seaplant leads one of the brothers, named Jari Jawa, to leave their homeland. At the shore, Jari Jawa summons a whale, which he rides until he reaches the village of Naga Sa in Flores. He then marries a local woman and travels east until he arrives at the site of present-day Ende. In addition, Jari Jawa marries a woman from Sumba, another island in the region, and a woman from Nggela, another town in central Flores. Down the line, Jari Jawa’s grandson marries a woman from the nearby mountains and is, thus, elevated by the neighboring village heads, becoming the first raja of Ende.

Map of the Lesser Sunda Islands or, in Indonesian, Nusa Tenggara. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The origins of clan Waimahing in Adonara, an island just east of Flores, also provides a relatively straightforward example. As recorded by Stefan Dietrich, the ancestor of the clan Waimahing was a certain Raja Majapahit who travelled with his younger brother Tuan Aka Ai to an island called Barnusa (certainly referring to the island of Pantar). While Tuan Akai Ai eventually returned to Java, Raja Majapahit stayed and had five sons. After some unspecified disaster, one of the sons migrated to Terong in Adonara, where his descendents became one of the four governing clans. (Dietrich 1984, 317) Dietrich further notes that the legend of Raja Majapahit (or Mojopahit) and Aka Ai corresponds with a number of other origin stories in Pantar, Alor, and Lembata, all islands to the east of Flores and north of Timor. 

Not all cases are as straightforward like the two presented above. On the island of Sawu, oral traditions mention a figure named Maja Pai, which is likely a reference to Majapahit. Yet, as noted by Douglas Lewis, it is not clear if this Maja Pai is a founding ancestor or a ruler of Sawu. (Lewis 2010, 196) 

Meanwhile, there is possibly an indirect link between Majapahit and the Kei Islands in Southeast Maluku. According to Kei oral traditions, their ancestors originally came from Bali, which was, for a time, under Majapahit dominion. The legendary ancestors in this tradition sailed from Bali to Kei via Luang, another island to the west of the Kei Islands, and were led by Hala’ai Deu and Hala’ai Jangra. The companies of Hala’ai Deu and Hala’ai Jangra eventually settled in the islands of Kei Kecil (“Little Kei”) and Kei Besar (“Big Kei”), respectively. In and around the settlement of Ohoivuur (present-day Letvuan), Hala’ai Deu forged alliances with local leaders, learned their customs, and introduced them to clothing. As time progressed, Hala’ai Deu’s daughter Putri Dit Sakmas established Ohoivuur as the island’s political center and formulated the supreme law of Kei, known as Larvul Ngabal (“red blood and Balinese spear”). 

Emblem of Kabupaten Maluku Tenggara (Kei Islands)

Obviously, this origin myth repeatedly asserts that Bali is the homeland of these ancestors. However, some versions of the myth state that the migrations occurred during the decline and eventual fall of Majapahit power in Bali. If this is so, the migrations of Hala’ai Deu and Hala’ai Jangra would have occurred some time in the late 15th century. This may also place the migration in a broader story, common in Balinese traditions, of fleeing Majapahit courtesans and religious leaders from Java to Bali and further east. Considering Bali’s extensive cultural, religious, and political ties to Java, especially during the Majapahit period, a connection between the Balinese migrants to Kei and Majapahit is not outlandish. 

Ultimately, the extent to which these origin myths are based in historical reality is difficult to ascertain. The communities which maintain traditions of Majapahit descent do not speak Javanese (or Balinese). Generally, the languages that they speak are related to the languages of the non-Majapahit-descent communities around them. Most communities in the Lesser Sunda Islands and Maluku province speak a language of the Austronesian language family and are, thus, distantly related to Javanese and Balinese. It should be noted that there are communities that speak non-Austronesian languages in the region, but those communities do not appear to have Majapahit origin myths. Aside from that, it would be difficult to date with precision any linguistic influence from Javanese or Balinese on those local languages, assuming that there are, in fact, such influences. Moreover, as far as this scholar is aware, the religious and spiritual practices of these communities as recorded in the 19th and 20th centuries only bear a very limited resemblance to the practices of Majapahit. This similarity or any linguistic similarity may be evidence of a shared heritage from the Austronesian migrations, which occurred between 3000 and 1500 BCE.

The names of the legendary founder ancestors also present some issues, namely that their names are often just some form of “Majapahit” or “Java”. In the case of Kei’s origin myth, the hala’ai of Hala’ai Deu and Hala’ai Jangra is a Kei title, meaning something like “chief”. Some traditions state that Hala’ai Deu’s name is in fact Kasdew or some variation of that. Nonetheless, these names appear unique to Kei. Without Javanese or Balinese personal names, the trail becomes a little less clear.

A 1610 sketch of a Javanese jong in Banten by Ludovico di Varthema. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

This is, of course, not to dismiss these origin stories. There is certainly the possibility that they provide insight into a much deeper past. As mentioned towards the beginning of this piece, Majapahit indeed had the means and the will to travel across the archipelago. And they did. There is a well-established maritime tradition in Java, especially coastal northeastern Java. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the presence of Javanese mariners across Southeast Asia, including the eastern archipelago, is regularly recorded in European and Southeast Asian written sources. Those later Javanese mariners were continuing the seafaring traditions of their Majapahit predecessors.

I hope that, in the future, more research can be done on this topic. Perhaps, in some of those places with Majapahit origin myths, there are artifacts waiting to be uncovered and studied by archaeologists. As recently as late 2018, a research team from Kei arrived in northern Bali to research some potential links with the island. Regardless of whether the clans and towns have tangible connections to Majapahit or not, the existence of those origin myths illustrate the political and cultural legacy of Majapahit across the archipelago.

Some Sources:

Barnes, Robert. ‘The power of strangers in Flores and Timor’, Anthropos 103.2 (2008) 343-53.

Dietrich, Stefan. “A Note on Galiyao and the Early History of the Solor-Alor Islands” in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 140 (1984), no: 2/3, Leiden, 317-326. 

Geurtjens, H. Keieesche Legenden. Weltevreden: s’Hage, 1924.

Lewis, E. Douglas. The Stranger-Kings of Sikka. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2010. 

Mpu Prapañca. Deśawarṇana (Nāgarakṛtāgama). translated by Stuart Robson. Leiden, KITLV Press, 1995. 

Sahlins, Marshall. “The stranger-king or Dume´zil among the Fijians” in The Journal of Pacific History 16 (1981), 107–32.

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