The tropical climate of Indonesia eats away at parchment and paper and wood and even stone, erasing our memory of ancestors and the world they built. Even so, some names come to us across the centuries.
One of those names is not just today’s badass: Gayatri Rajapatni (?1276-1350): princess, queen, bhikkuni and Prajnaparamita. But to get to her, we have to dive into some messy politics by other means.
In the late 13th century Singhasari on Java was the big kingdom of the Indonesian archipelago, and its King Kertanegara (the King) was blessed with four sisters who all lived together in Tumapel palace. Gayatri was the youngest of the princesses.
A second contender was Jayakatwang (the Duke) of Kediri. Kediri used to be the biggest kingdom of Java, but was now a Singhasari vassal.
Third was Raden Wijaya (the Prince), who would plant the seeds of one of the greatest of Buddhist empires in the fertile volcanic soil of eastern Java. He was betrothed to Gayatri’s oldest sister.
And the fourth contender was Kublai Khan (the Emperor) of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, ruler of China and the known world.
Don’t worry, we’ll get rid of most of them very quickly.
In 1289 Mongol emissaries came to demand the submission of Singhasari. Gayatri’s dad, the King, responded by cutting off the emissaries’ ears and sending them back to the Emperor in China. War followed.
In 1292, with the King’s army overseas, the Duke Jayakatawang launched and burned the Tumapel palace to the ground. The story goes that Gayatri hid among the servants and slaves, like Arya Stark in The Game Of Thrones, while her eldest sister fled to Raden Wijaya, the Prince, and her other two sisters were captured and held hostage. The Duke also killed the King Kertanegara and most of his court, of course.
It’s not clear what Gayatri did while she was in hiding, but she was obviously wily enough to keep up her disguise for a year and a half.
In 1293 the massive army and navy of the Mongol Emperor of China invaded Java and the Prince, Raden Wijaya, cunningly guided them to the Duke’s capital in Kediri. After heavy losses, the Mongols conquered Jayakatwang’s capital in March 1293 and executed him.
Raden Wijaya then used more ‘cunning stratagems’ to chase the remains of the Emperor’s forces off Java. Finally, in November 1293, he founded the new capital of Majapahit, crowned himself Kertarajasa Jayawardhana and … married all four sister princesses of Singhasari, as well as a princess from another kingdom.
So, there she was, Gayatri, one of five wives of a newly-crowned king of a newly-formed wannabe-empire. To say the next few years were tumultuous, is to understate it.
Now began the real stage for Gayatri. She quickly became the King’s favourite, earning the nickname of Rajapatni (King’s Companion). However, she gave birth to two daughters, Gitarja (Tribhuwana) and Rajadewi, which wasn’t that great for her royal career prospects.
In 1309, shortly after putting down yet another rebellion, the King-once-known-as-Raden-Wijaya died, and the kingdom passed to Gayatri’s stepson.
The stepson earned the nickname Kala Gemet or “Weak Villain.” Is that cliche, or what? Apparently he was both strikingly handsome and notorious for his immorality and bad behaviour … ahem … and his naughty deeds with the wives and daughters of his courtiers.
It goes without saying that regular rebellions, uprisings, and intrigues welled up against him. It was Gayatri who kept the whole Majapahit gig from crashing right down.
Around 1321 she discovered Gajah Mada, a commoner commander in the elite royal guard. During this time Gayatri ‘renounced worldly affairs’ and retired from the palace as a bhikkuni to live in a vihara. Do we need to mention that this protected her from the Weak Villain King?
Gayatri and Gajah Mada kept a handle on the rebellions, and kept the kingdom together, but eventually things went too far even for them, when the Stepson tried to marry his stepsisters — Gayatri’s daughters.
In 1328, in a completely unexpected assassination, his doctor Tanca murdered the King during a routine operation. Gajah Mada punished and killed the doctor right away, because obviously no investigation was needed. Ahem.
But the dead king had no sons to succeed him. And all of Gayatri’s co-wives, sisters, as well as the ‘other’ princess, were already dead. Whoops.
Fortunately, the stable guiding hand of the dowager queen, the ex-Arya Stark of Singhasari, and her loyal friend Gajah Mada was there to keep the kingdom together and appoint Gayatri’s daughter, Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi, to rule the kingdom on Gayatri’s behalf as the Queen.
Tradition mentions Tribhuwana as a woman of extraordinary valour, wisdom and intelligence. History also mentions that Gajah Mada was declared Tribhuwana’s prime minister, and that Gayatri kindly offered guidance from her monastery, which was graciously accepted by the Queen.
Over the next 22 years the Majapahit empire expanded massively, until it encompassed most of what are today the states of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
Gayatri had seen her kingdom destroyed, survived in hiding for over a year, helped build a new empire from the ashes of the old one, saw her own daughter crowned queen, and raised up her loyal prime minister Gajah Mada who would conquer the largest empire Southeast Asia had yet seen for her grandson Hayam Wuruk.
Oh, and after she died, she was yearly venerated in memorial shrines and temples around the land and portrayed as a Prajnaparamita, the perfection of transcendental wisdom.
Badass all the way.