Merapi and the Demise of the Mataram Kingdom: Central Java, Indonesia

Mount Merapi’s eruption in 1006 was also regarded as the cause of the demise of the Mataram-Hindu Kingdom and the shift to East Java. Experts continue to propound their own theories and reasons for the demise of the kingdom. There are four possible theories proposed by archaeologists. In the first hypothesis, N.J. Krom says that the demise was caused by an epidemic forcing people to seek a new place to live.

B. Schrieke says that economic reasons caused the demise. People were suffering as they were forced to build big temples by the kings, causing them to abandon their farms. Slowly they moved to the eastern part to avoid orders from the kings.
J.G. de Casparis concluded that the kingdom was moved because it wanted to avoid a possible attack from the Sriwijaya Kingdom in Sumatra, which had ambitions to expand into East Java.

The Central Javanese kingdom thought that it was more important to defend the eastern margins, which had more potential as trading locations.

De Casparis then expands his theory, saying that the location of the kingdom in Central Java was less accessible than East Java. In addition, in the 11th Century, international trade started to grow, so East Java became more accessible to foreign merchants.

Prof. Buchori refers to van Bemmelen’s story confirming that the Merapi explosion in the 11th Century buried the kingdom, including its kedaton (king’s palace). It is a Javanese belief, that if a kedaton is damaged by nature or occupied by enemies, it could no longer be used as the king’s place. Hence, the kingdom was relocated to East Java.

Though many of the hypotheses are reasonable enough, that does not mean that experts have refrained from debate on this matter. Archeologist Agus Aris Munandar adds his own hypothesis. He mentions in his essay titled Menggapai Titik Suci: Interpretasi Semiotika atas Perpindahan Pusat Kerajaan Mataram Kuna (Achieving the Sacred Point: Semiotic Interpretation on the Moving of the Center of the Ancient Mataram Kingdom) that Mount Merapi continued to erupt, causing the kingdom to move.

Merapi then was considered as the Mahameru of the people in the ancient Mataram era. According to Hindu teachings, the Mahameru peak symbolizes the center of the universe and the sacred town where the gods live.

“Since their Mahameru in Central Java continued to erupt, they decided to move, but they still looked for another Mahameru. As East Java was still part of Mataram territory, it is possible that some of the people informed the Central Java kingdom that there was another Mahameru.

“It was Mount Penanggungan in East Java, which resembles Mahameru,” said Agus, adding that the first epigraphs from the era of Empu Sendok, a Hindu-Mataram figure, were found near Mount Penanggungan.

Written in 929 in East Java, these prove that the kingdom had been relocated before 1006. This does not fit the theory that the kingdom moved to East Java because Merapi’s 1006 eruption covered the kingdom (and also Borobudur temple) in ash, forcing them to move to East Java.

“The move was attributable to religious factors,” emphasized Agus. “Prof. Buchori did accept the theory of van Bemmelen and since he was the most respected figure in national archaeology, many archaeologists followed him. I do not know why he accepted van Bemmelen’s theory”.

A smiling Agus concludes by saying, “I could reach my own conclusion on this history as well.”

In relation to the May 27 earthquake that hit Yogyakarta and Central Java, Agus comments that the event might give rise to a new theory on the demise of the Mataram kingdom. He said that it is possible that the decline was also caused by the quake.

“In the book Pararaton, which was rewritten in the early 16th century, it said that an earthquake occurred in the 15th Century in Yogyakarta,” says Agus.

The book tells the story of the Singosari and Majapahit kingdoms, including the famous story of Ken Arok, the most powerful Singosari ruler, who had beautiful wife, Ken Dedes.

“If an earthquake was referred to in the book, it must have been a very strong one. Why would they have mentioned a minor incident?

“Also, even though the quake occurred after the demise of the kingdom, it means that it is a possibility that there were other quakes prior to publication of the book,” says Agus, “especially as Java is very vulnerable to earthquakes.”

(Handewi Soegiharto)