Asia travel
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Besakih Temple is one of the best examples of Majapahit influence on the island of Bali, Indonesia. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

In Bali, an Indonesian empire that double-crossed the Chinese hides in plain sight

  • Vestiges of the Majapahit empire, Indonesia’s largest ever, are evident across Bali, from the ubiquitous meru towers to cultural traditions such as gamelan
  • A new luxury resort, the Jumeirah Bali, was built in honour of this remarkable history, with gardens, water features and pavilions based on the Majapahit era
Asia travel

My guide, Made, leads me down a stone alleyway, past stalls laden with traditional souvenirs such as keris daggers, wayang kulit shadow puppets and batik fabrics. Although Bali’s tourism industry is recovering from the pandemic, there are few customers.

At the end of the alley is the Besakih Temple, where we encounter a group of men wearing bright sarongs and knotted udeng headwear. Their expressions are stern.

Made has been doubling as my driver and guide to Bali but now he peels away, telling me there will be “trouble” if he accompanies me inside what is the island’s largest religious complex: 23 Hindu temples sprawling across Mount Agung, in the island’s east.

The stern-looking men are rival guides, residents of Besakih village, and are fiercely territorial, Made says.

Bali’s iconic keris daggers originated in the Majapahit era. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

Although Besakih is the island’s mother temple, where each of Bali’s caste groups come to pray, the locals believe this site is their inherited property and see “outsider” guides as taking money out of their pockets.

Over the past millennium, many battles have been waged across Bali and, by extension, its revered Besakih Temple. This disagreement over tourism revenue is just the latest.

‘Some people say I’m a hippie’: the Chinese making a life in Southeast Asia

Although it’s unclear exactly how old Besakih is, the temple predates Indonesia’s largest-ever empire, the Majapahit, which used it as a key site of worship in the 1300s and 1400s, before it became controlled by the Balinese Gelgel Kingdom.

These days, Besakih’s majestic towers are among the most photographed sights in Bali. Yet most of the tourists taking those images are probably unaware the multi-eaved, pagoda-like shrines are a vestige of the Majapahit empire.

Born in 1293, on Indonesia’s Java island, the empire expanded to cover a swathe of present-day Indonesia. It would last until the 1520s.

The meru tower of Bali’s Goa Lawah Temple. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

The towers, which decorate many of Bali’s thousands of Hindu temples, represent Meru, the mythical mountain that was believed to be the seat of Hindu gods.

Beyond the meru towers, Majapahit’s influence can be clearly seen at three other temples in south and east Bali, according to Adrian Vickers, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Those temples are Pura Sada, in Kapal; Pura Dasar, in Gelgel; and Pura Maospahit, in Bali’s capital, Denpasar, a red-brick complex on a busy street that dates to the mid-1300s, when the Majapahit empire spread to Bali from neighbouring Java.

A Balinese wayang puppet mask inspired by the Majapahit era. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

The largest remaining Majapahit site is in the town of Trowulan, in East Java, Vickers says. This was the Majapahit capital from the 13th to 15th centuries.

A tentative Unesco World Heritage site listing, the remains at Trowulan are scattered across an 11km (6.8-mile) by 9km area an hour’s drive southwest of the city of Surabaya, and about 240km west of Bali.

Many of its thousands of archaeological remnants had been buried for centuries before researchers unearthed them in the 1900s.

A meru tower at one of Bali’s top tourist attractions, Uluwatu Temple. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

Collectively, these remains sketch an image of a once-booming civilisation. As described by Unesco, they reveal the Majapahit capital’s “ceremonial activities, rituals, sanctuaries, industrial activities, slaughterhouses, burials, rice fields, markets, water canals and reservoirs”.

Several museums nearby in East Java do a good job of documenting Mahapahit history, says Dr Jarrah Sastrawan, research fellow in the social history of Indonesia at the French School of the Far East, in Paris.

The Trowulan Archaeological Museum, Sidoarjo’s Mpu Tantular Museum, and Malang’s Mpu Purwa Museum collectively house thousands of Majapahit relics.

A keris dagger maker in Bali with two of his blades. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

Visitors to those museums discover that, before the Majapahit empire seized Bali, it came into being after a series of Machiavellian manoeuvres in the late 13th century involving Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor and founder of China’s Yuan dynasty.

Khan had become infuriated by the leader of the East Javan Singhasari kingdom, a man named Kertanagara.

The emperor had sent a delegate to Singhasari to demand a tribute, as he had done to Asian states from Japan to Burma. Not only did Kertanagara refuse to pay, he also insulted the Mongols’ envoy. In response, Khan directed a large fleet of warships to attack Singhasari.

Don’t book a cheap flight from Europe to Asia without reading this first

By the time they arrived, Kertanagara was dead, killed in a dispute with a regional leader named Jayakatwang, who took over Singhasari.

Jayakatwang’s victory was short-lived, however. Singhasari prince Vijaya plotted with the Mongols to vanquish him. Then Vijaya double-crossed the Mongols, driving them out of East Java, where he promptly established the Majapahit empire.

By the mid-1300s, Majapahit controlled a large part of Java, according to Eric Tagliacozzo, a professor of Southeast Asian history at Cornell University, in the US, and author of a new book, In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds from Yemen to Yokohama.

Majapahit warriors sailed into Bali in the 1540s to make the island a vassal state. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

As well as in Bali, the Majapahit influence was felt elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, both to the east and to the west, Tagliacozzo says. “So, for example, in the so-called ‘spice islands’ of eastern Indonesia, now called Maluku, Majapahit’s sway was felt through trade extractions.”

There is no academic consensus on the full extent of the empire. Sastrawan says there is a lack of contemporary evidence from many of the territories the Majapahit ruled. The exception is Bali.

On the popular tourist island, inscriptions show that there was direct Javanese rule in the 14th century. In 1343, Majapahit forces landed on Bali, toppled its monarch and turned the island into one of its many vassal states, Sastrawan says.

A Balinese wayang puppet mask of Gajah Mada, a leader of the Majapahit empire. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

Bali remained under direct Majapahit influence until the late 1400s. Tourists can still witness cultural traditions developed during that period.

Keris daggers, which are displayed in Balinese homes and temples as amulets, and sold in souvenir shops the island over, are believed to have been introduced from Java by Majapahit arrivals.

So, too, was gamelan, a popular style of traditional music performed by ensembles, commonly at religious festivals and tourist-oriented shows.

Japan Airlines to be among first to fly ‘son of Concorde’ supersonic jet

When finally Majapahit began to crumble, as Islamic powers took control of Java, most of the empire’s Hindu elite fled to Bali.

This influx of artists, scholars and priests shaped the island for generations. Bali remains the only non-Islamic island in Indonesia, with more than 80 per cent of its population being Hindu.

It’s in honour of this remarkable history that a new, luxurious resort has been built.

The Jumeirah Bali was inspired by the Majapahit empire. Photo: Jumeirah Bali
The Jumeirah Bali overlooks the Uluwatu coast, in southern Bali. Photo: Jumeirah Bali

The Jumeirah Bali is the first property in Southeast Asia under the Jumeirah brand, owned by the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, and its designers were so meticulous in seeking an antique appearance that they flew in ancient Bodhi trees and dripped water onto stonework for two years to achieve realistic weathering effects.

The all-villa resort opened in April and overlooks the Uluwatu coast, in southern Bali. It is laid out to resemble the terraced royal gardens, water features and pavilions of the island’s Majapahit era. Its three communal swimming pools mirror the Majapahit reservoirs of Kolam, Balong Dowo and Balong Bunder.

Some 500 years since the Majapahit empire held sway in Bali, its influence can be discerned in the meru pagodas that embellish its Hindu temples, the island’s ceremonial daggers and gamelan music troupes, and now an upmarket resort.

The Jumeirah Bali. Photo: Jumeirah Bali

Ronan O’Connell was hosted by the Jumeirah Bali.