The Royal Emblem

The Royal Government

The Achievement of State


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Majapahit was a vast archipelagic empire based on the island of Java from 1293 to around 1500. Majapahit reached its peak of glory during the era of Hayam Wuruk, whose reign from 1350 to 1389 marked by conquest which extended through Southeast Asia, including the present day Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand, the Philippines, and East Timor. Its expansion is also credited to its prime minister, Gajah Mada.


After defeating Srivijaya in Sumatra in 1290, Singhasari became the most powerful kingdom in the region. Kubilai Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and the Emperor of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, challenged Singhasari by sending emissaries demanding tribute. Kertanegara, the last ruler of Singhasari, refused to pay the tribute, insulted the Mongol envoy and challenged the Khan instead. As a response, in 1293, Kublai Khan sent a massive expedition of 1,000 ships to Java. He was defeated by Raden Wijaya, Kertanegaras son in law.

In 1293, Raden Wijaya founded a stronghold with the capital Majapahit. The exact date used as the birth of the Majapahit kingdom is the day of his coronation, the 15th of Kartika month in the year 1215 using the Javanese çaka calendar, which equates to November 10, 1293.

In 1328 the son of Wijajya was was succeeded by Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi, known under her formal name as Tribhuwannottungadewi Jayawishnuwardhani, as the queen of Majapahit. Tribhuwana appointed Gajah Mada as the Prime Minister in 1336. During Tribhuwana’s rule, with the help of Gaja Mada, the Majapahit kingdom grew much larger and became famous in the area. Tribhuwana ruled until 1350. She was succeeded by her son, Hayam Wuruk.

Hayam Wuruk (1350-’89), also known as Rajasanagara, continued the term of office of Gaja Mada and under his command, Majapahit conquered more territories and became the regional power.

Hayam Wuruk was succeeded by the crown princess Kusumawardhani, who married a relative, Prince Wikramawardhana. During his reign several Ming naval expeditions, spanning the period from 1405 to 1433 and led by Zheng He, a muslim Chinese admiral, arrived in Java. By 1430 Zheng He’s expeditions had established Chinese and Arab communities in Semarang, Demak, Tuban, and Ampel, thus giving Islam a foothold on Java's northern coast.

In mid 15th century Majapahit found itself unable to control the rising power of the Sultanate of Malacca which began to gain effective control of the Strait of Malacca and of Sumatra. Several other Majapahit vassals and colonies began to release themselves from Majapahit domination and suzerainty.

As a result of this and also of a series of dynastic conflicts the empire declined rapidly.  A war with the Chinese muslim sultanate of Demak in 1527 resulted in an exodus of a large number of courtiers, artisans, priests, and members of the royalty to the island of Bali. Demak was aknowledged as the legitimate successor of Majapahit.

With the Sultanate of Demak Turkish influence entered Java as its last sultan Chen Muming/Tan Muk Ming (Sunan Prawata),  had visited Turkey and had strived to become “the second Turkish Sultan”.




Even when the data about Majapahit heraldry are scarce, we might reconstruct some socio-political emblems of the empire.


The most marked emblems are the sun, the snake, the phoenix and the garuda. These we know from contemporary sources but also in some cases from sources considerably younger. These younger sources are from Surakarta and Yogyakarta, the successor states of Majapahit and Mataram. Majapahit traditions are also preserved on Bali, the island where Majapahit aristocracy took a refuge after the introduction of Islam on Java in the 16th century. In fact in the Mataram successor states there is a kind of sub-layer of socio-political symbols preserved in artistic traditions like the wayang kulit and wayang wong performances. Today this is overgrown by a socio-political system of symbols of European brand.


The Empire, the State and the Ruler


Head of a ruler,

 Anonymous, 1425 – ’75. Andesite, H 40 × W 40 cm. 

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam


This head originates perhaps from one of the two temples between Central- and East Java: Candi Sukuh or Candi Ceto.


The head may be of one of the 15th century Majapahit rulers between the supposed data of  manufacture i.e.:

Wikramawarddhana 1389-1429; Dyah Kertawijaja (Bhre Tumapel) 1447-‘51; Rajasawardhana 1451-‘53; Girishawardhana 1456-‘66; Singha wikrama wardhana 1466-‘74.

He is crowned and his headgear is decorated with a sun within the rays of the Surya Majapahit  and a crescent also within the rays of the Surya Majapahit.

These three items make the symbols of the Empire, the State and the Ruler which are known from at least Hellenistic times in that sense and are very widespread in politically organised societies. An anomaly is that the sun-symbol, having nine rays is repeated twice.

The headgear in short means that the ruler depicted is as well the owner of the empire as the head of state.


1. The Sun.


The Majapahit sun, which is the emblem of the Empire of Majapahit, consisted of a disc with eight or more rays. Such a sun we met in our chapter about Indonesian Heraldry. Another example of such a sun shows an eight-rayed sun charged with the geniuses of the directions of the wind.


Sun-emblem of Majapahit from the Trowulan ruins, 14th century

Museum Trowulan.

‘Surya Majapahit’ or ‘The Sun of Majapahit’ is the emblem common found in temples and ruins dating from the Majapahit era. The sun disk is stylized with carved rays of light; surrounded by eight Lokapala gods, the eight Hindu gods that guarded eight cardinal points of the universe. (Collection of National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta)




2 The Snake



Examples of snakes as a royal emblem are from the Sukuh temple complex. Also, as we may see later, they are on the achievement of the royal government.

In 18th century sources we are informed that there has existed a “Crown of Majapahit”. This crown consisted of a golden crown of wire-work and two intertwined dragons guardant and was set with pearls and diamonds. It was lost at the sack of Karta Sura in 1742 by Pangeran Natakusuma I of Madura. [1] The crown may have been of chinese design as its description matches Chinese Imperial crowns from the Ming era (1368-1644).

Most intriguing is the question of in fact dragons or snakes were meant in the description. Of course it would have been difficult to see if the beasts on the crown had legs or not and their heads could have been snake-heads as well as dragon heads.

When dragons were seen, the crown could have been presented by the Emperor of China as a diplomatic gesture or could have been intended to be a sign of vassalage of the Majapahit Ruler.


Relief from Sukuh showing snakes and dragon-snakes

This could not have been the case when the beasts were snakes indeed but in both cases it is clear that royal beasts were meant, be it dragons or snakes, the dragons of Chinese origin and the snakes of Hindu origin.


Also, we must point to the fact that in Majapahit times, there existed a hybrid of a snake and a dragon in the form of a snake or a dragon with (only) two legs:


Ear pendant, East Java, 14th-15th century.[2]


And this is a compromise between the Chinese and  Hindu-Buddhist traditions. The existence of such a hybrid would also explain the description of the crown.


In any case, no such crowns were ever depicted in Indonesian pictorial arts be it on stone reliefs or on parchment or paper.


3. The Phoenix


The phoenix may be interpreted to be the symbol of the head of state, an official charged with executive power. The office sometimes is held by the sovereign himself but usually by a vizier, grand vizier or prime minister. Such a prime minister or Mahapatih was Gajah Mada under whose command (AD 1313–1364), Majapahit conquered the main part of Java and became the regional power.

From the time of his action we are informed by European sources that the “arms of the Emperor of Java” consisted of a phoenix.

The reference is as follows:


Approximately during Jayanegara’s reign (1309-’28), the Italian Friar Odoric of Pordenone (1286 ca-1331) visited the Majapahit court in Java. In his time a certain Aryah Tadah was mahapatih of Majapahit. His account was a main source for the writings of John Mandeville (1356)[3]. About a hundred and fifty years later taken on trust of Mandeville, a coat of arms European style was ascribed to “The Emperor of Java”. It was:


Arms: Argent, a phoenix Or, winged Azure standing on two branches in saltire Argent.

Crest: On a golden helmet to the dexter, with a wreath Gules and Argent, lambrequined Or and Azure, an Imperial Crown with five hoops.


The legend of the page reads:


1) Item dem Groſmachtigen Kaiſer von Jaua (Java)

Schribt Her Hans von Manndefillen (Johan von Mandeville) der groſ lantfahrer dz das ain groſ jnſel jm mer ſig darinn ſiben küngkrich dem genanten kaiſer unterton ſigen vnd wer die Jnſel vmfahren were / der müſt zwo tusend mil fare / e / er darumb möchte komen / der genät  Lantfahrer ſchribt och des er den costlichoſten Ballast hab, so ern nie gesechen hab weder von kaiſſern noch künge

2) Kung von Sunonbar  [4]


(Also the Most Powerful Emperor of Java

Sir John de Mandeville the great discoverer writes that there is a large island in the sea containing seven kingdoms which are subordinated to the said Empeor and the one who wants to sail around the island  has to sail two thousand miles before he has rounded it. The named discoverer also writes that he had the most precious cargo which was never seen earlier nor by emperors nor by kings)


This kingdom of Sunonbar was supposed to be Sumatra, Surabaya or Cirebon by Stillfried-Alcantara.

On the other hand the figure could be the emblem of state if a Garuda is meant but also the emblem of the commander in chief (He) when a bird is meant.


As the phoenix is of an European style here which has little to do with the phoenixes and simurgs from China and the Muslim world, we may be sure that the artist was informed by hearsay and not by a drawn example. It means that feng huang and simurg were usually translated by phoenix, a mistake that is continued until the present day.


Print of a ring in Phoenix form.

Java, 14th-15th century  [5]


This information is not contradicted by a seal dating from about the same era. This shows a senmurw or dragon-peacock, often confused with a phoenix, which is of Persian Sassanidian origin. This was the emblem of the Sassanidian shāhānshāh’s (king of kings) and symbolized the combined office of a supreme commander and the supreme administrator. As such it is a symbol of the head of state of the Empire.


The idea seems not to have become obsolete in the time of the Mataram empire and its successors. This, probably is also due to the fact that in the Muslim Moghul Empire (1526-1858) the phoenix or simurg became the imperial symbol. 

The fact that the symbol has been preserved in the successor states is demonstrated by the payong or royal umbrella of Surakarta on which four phoenixes are depicted:



Phoenix on the royal umbrella of Surakarta, 19th century [6]



It is also demonstrated by the bird on the bridal sedan of Yogyakarta, today in the Museum of the keraton there. This bird, if a phoenix is really meant, corresponds to the Chinese phoenix which is the emblem of the Chinese Empress being the (nominal) head of the civil hierarchy. [7]


The idea might have played a role in the choice of the Sang Raja Walik (Royal Bird) as the supporter of the Indonesian Republican arms. One of the designers of the achievement of the Republic was Sukarno who was for some time a refugee at the Court of Yogyakarta.


The Garuda


The Garuda is the symbol of the state, sometimes being the vehicle of the ruler. In indonesian art the Garuda often occurs. Beautiful specimina are from 15th century Sukuh temple complex and we may suppose that these in fact symbolize the Majapahit State




Younger examples are from Bali which preserved Majapahit iconographic traditions well, but also  from Java.




Combining these elements we can reconstruct the Majapahit Royal emblem, the Majapahit Royal Government Achievement and the Majapahit Achievement of State.


1. The Majapahit Royal Emblem


1. The Majapahit Royal emblem consists of the imago of the ruler supported by a Garuda. This means that the king rules by the grace of the state or, that the state is considered to be a function of the ruler. In this combination  the ruler is depicted in his quality of head of state.



Such a combination, for our European readers, is paralelled in European heraldry by the combination of the arms of state and the personal arms of the ruler or the ruling dynasty. Such arms, for example, are the arms of Hungary consisting of the fesses of the Arpad Dynasty and the double cross of the Kingdom. Another example are the arms of the Charles V, Roman Emperor (1519-’55), consisting of the double eagle of the Empire and his personal arms per pale of Burgundy and Austria. Even, we may notice, the arms of the Netherlands are a combination of the arms of the Republic and the dynastic arms of the Orange-Nassau ruling house.



Arms of Hungary:

 Per pale of Arpad and Hungary. Crown of St. Stephen




Arms of Charles V, Roman Emperor:

The Empire charged with a per pale of Austria and Burgundy. Imperial Crown, Collar of the Fleece.


2. The Majapahit Royal Government Achievement


Due to an apparently happy coincindence we can dispose of an example in concreto of the achievement of the Royal Majapahit Government. 



Portrait of a crowned rider, also called the Hindu god Surja.

The rider within a halo. Below a conch between two naga’s.

14th century, National Museum Jakarta.


There are terms for the empire (the sun), the ruler himself (the rider) and the mandate (the naga’s). The arrangement finds its counterpart in Assyrian and Persian heraldic arrangements showing a winged sun charged with the portrait of the ruler. A term for religious authority is added.

The arrangement  probably is for the royal department of religious affairs of Majapahit.

The achievement is:


Emblem: A sun radiant charged with a rider on horseback, in base a conch.

Crest: The fire of Shiva

Supporters: Two snakes (naga)


Furuhar of  Darius I the Great (521-486 B.C.) after a reconstruction of G. Tilia. [8])


It may also be compared with the royal achievement, for example of the the United Kingdom:


Achievement of George III of the United Kingdom (1760-1820).

During his reign Java was temporarily under British Rule.


3. The Majapahit Achievement of State


More risky is the reconstruction of the Majapahit Achievement of State. This, we think, could have been the Majapahit Sun supported by phoenixes, being the emblems of the head of state. There is no clue whatsoever from the time of the Majapahit era that would give us an idea but for the occasion we will take the 19th century Royal Umbrella of Surakarta as a hint.

This umbrella shows on its inner side a sun with 32 rays surrounded by four phoenixes:

Royal Umbrella from Surakarta, 19th century.


In heraldic blason this would be:


Emblem: A sun radiant

Suppporters: Four phoenixes.


This, it must be observed, is alsmost identical with the achievement of the Moghul Emperors which consisted of a sun radiant supported by two phoenixes or simurgs. Such an achievement was painted on their sunshades which had about the same value as the payong used by the Javanese dignitaries.


ð See my quite arbitary reconstruction in the head of this article.



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© Hubert de Vries 2010.10.22. Updated 2016-11-07




[1] ) Graaf, H.J. de: Over de Kroon van Madja-Pait. In: Bijdragen tot de Taal- Land- en Volkenkunde van Nederlandsch-Indië. 1947-’48 pp. 573-603.

[2] ) Ibbitson, H.: Court Arts of Indonesia. New York 1990, fig 115/no 57.  Royal Tropical Institute, inv. no. 1771/8.

[3] ) The Travels of Sir Jophn Mandeville. Penguin Classics 1983. P. 131: Java.

[4] Grünenberg, Konrad / Stillfried-Alcantara, Rudolf M. von: Wappenpuch, vollbracht am nünden Tag des Abrellen, do man zalt tusend vierhundert drü und achtzig jar, Bd.: [1]. [Text], Görlitz, 1875. Lieferung 30, XXXIXb

[5]  Samuel Eisenberg-Jonathan Rosen Collection.  Ibbitson, H.:  Court Arts of Indonesia , New York 1991. No. 61.

[6] ) Ibbitson, H.  op.cit 1990, fig 165

[7] ) As suggested by the fact that the rank insignia of civil officials are all birds (like the phoenix is) whereas those of military officials are all quadrupeds (like the dragon is).  See for example: Son of Heaven. Imperial Arts of China. Pp. 82-85. Seattle, 1988. Also:  Mandarin square:

[8] ) Tilia, A.B.: Studies and Restorations at Persepolis and other sites of Fārs. In: IsMEO, Reports and Memoirs, Vol. 16 (1972) & 18 (1978)