Java Wars: Rise of Singosari and the Mongol Invasion

Indonesian troops were known for their fierce attack and disregard for their own safety. The use of the spear and blades dominated Indonesian warfare. A statue in Alor, Indonesia, shows a warrior with a light spear and long wooden shield. From the start of the 13th century many of the troops armed with bows, spears and blowguns also carried a kerambit. The kerambit had a unique curved blade shape that symbolised a “tiger claw”.

The Buginese and Makasar people from South Sulawesi region were known as tough sailors, mercenaries and fearless warriors. Artwork shows them armed with swords and javelins. A drawing of a Papuan warrior shows him with a light spear and shield that reaches from the feet to the neck. A drawing of a West Kalimantan warrior has him with a kris and smaller shield.

Indonesia has never known a standardized appearance of its warriors. Malukunese, as did most Indonesians, wore little to the battlefield and only carried long or small round shields for protection. Malukunese warriors favored a parang sawalaku. Its blade is as heavy and as wide as an English broad sword, with a long wooden end. The length of the entire thing is similar to a falchion’s.

Kris blades date back to the 600s in Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. The blade of a kris is of asymmetric form, with the blade wider on one side than the other. The blade can be either straight or with an uneven number of waves. The most remarkable feature is the pattern on the surface of the blade.

Skirmishers are assumed to be armed with a mixture of blow-pipes and other missile weapons, and assorted bladed hand-to-hand weapons. We treat the mixture as Javelins, Light Spear. Cavalry and elephants were unavailable in some areas.

The Mongols must have felt invincible after establishing an empire from Hungary to Korea. But the conquest of the Southern Song in 1279 turned out to be their last real success. As adroit as they were on land, the Mongols could not master the sea, and for conquering the river-filled lands of Southeast Asia-not to mention the Indonesian archipelago- naval expertise was paramount. In addition, the jungles (and war elephants) blunted the Mongols’ main strength, their cavalry, and exposed them to all manner of deadly diseases and parasites. Initially, the Mongols had some success against Annam in 1253, but a force of five thousand, sent against Champa in 1281, stalled and was finally defeated at Siming in 1285. At the famous Battle of Bach Dang in 1288, an Annam-Dai Viet alliance inflicted a massive defeat on the Mongols, although subsequently, to avoid trouble, Annam and Champa paid tribute to Yuan. Burma fell more easily in 1287, although not without resistance. Lan Na, in northern Thailand, resisted successfully in 1301.


In 1222, a commoner named Ken Angrok took control of Tumapel and proceeded to bring all of the kingdom of Kediri under his control, defeating its king in the Battle of Ganter later that same year. Thus began the Singosari Kingdom of Java.

Kertanagara (r. 1268-1292) was the last king of Singosari. He greatly expanded the kingdom, conquering many of the neighboring kingdoms. He also formed an alliance with the Champa, a kingdom on the mainland of Southeast Asia. The alliance was designed to help protect both kingdoms from the impending threat of the Mongols under the Yuan Dynasty leadership of Kublai Khan. The Mongols had already invaded Dai Viet in 1257, and it seemed likely that they would return and redouble their efforts in Southeast Asia. In 1289, a Mongol envoy arrived and demanded tribute; but Kertanagara not only refused to grant tribute, he also branded the ambassador’s face. Unsurprisingly, this sparked a Mongol invasion.


Kertanagara was assassinated in 1292, shortly before the Mongols invaded. The Mongol fleet arrived in spring 1293. They found Singosari in a state of civil war. Kertanagara s son-in-law, Raden Wijaya, was fighting against Jayakatwang of Kediri, Kertanagara s assassinator. Unable to defeat two opponents, Vijaya cleverly sent word to the Mongols that he would submit to their overlordship, and thereby gained a strong ally in the Mongol army, who marched on Kediri and soundly defeated Jayakatwang’s forces. Wijaya, however, still held the principles of his late father, and quickly turned on the Mongol force, ambushing them. Weakened by travel, disease, the unfamiliar tropical climate, and their recent battles, the Mongol’s could not withstand the assault, and eventually returned home.

After the Mongols departed, Wijaya established a new kingdom, called Majapahit, which would go on to become one of the most prosperous Hindu kingdoms in Indonesia.


Several factors slowed and prevented Mongol progress in Southeast Asia. Despite their remarkable adaptability to a number of terrains and circumstances, the Mongols were not particularly adept at naval expeditions. In 1288, for example, they were famously defeated by Annam and Dai Viet at the Battle of Bach Dang, where their fleet was sunk. But Southeast Asia provided many more challenges that would prove decisive. Perhaps most significant was the climate. The Mongols were not accustomed to the hot and humid weather. In addition to the severe discomfort this caused, it also made the Mongols more susceptible to new diseases, which spread quickly and weakened the armies’ fighting capabilities. Combining the challenges of fighting on rivers or at sea, the confrontations with war elephants, and the climate and disease, the Mongols could not sustain the power they had used to dominate the rest of their empire.

The Battle of Bạch Đằng

The Island of Java

The island of Java had been split into two kingdoms, Kediri and Janggala, since the eleventh century. Dominated by its Sumatran neighbor, Srivijaya, and Srivijaya’s successor state, Malayu, the eastern Javanese kingdom of Janggala began its emergence in the thirteenth century when a commoner, Ken Angrok, usurped the throne at the capital, Tumapel, in 1222. Almost immediately he set about conquering Kediri, succeeding later that year at the Battle of Ganter. The kingdom of Singosari had been born.


Singosari’s greatest king was also its last. Kertanagara (r. 1268- 92) solidified his control over Java, sent conquering armies to Jambi (1275), Bali (1284), and Malayu (1286), and cemented an alliance with Champa in an effort to strengthen his position against the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. At the time, Kublai Khan of Yuan (r. 1260-94) was intent on expanding his territory: in 1257, the first invasion of Dai Viet began. Kertanagara was wary of Kublai Khan but nonetheless resolute; when a Yuan envoy arrived in Tumapel in 1289, demanding tribute, Kertanagara refused to pay, branding the envoy’s face-an unforgivable insult-and turning him out of the country. The king did not live to see the fruit of his actions-a Mongol invasion-because his vassal, Jayakatwang of Kediri, assassinated him in 1292.

The Mongol Invasion

A large Mongol fleet set out from Quanzhou in the latter part of 1292, arriving the following spring in northeastern Java, near modern Rembang. Half the army began to march overland while the rest stayed aboard ship and sailed for Surabaya, the rendezvous point. Meanwhile, Kertanagara’s son-in-law, Raden Wijaya (or Vijaya), had engaged Jayakatwang in battle. The civil war, raging in the south, left the invading Mongols unopposed. Cleverly, Wijaya sent envoys to the Mongol forces and convinced them that, as rightful ruler, he would submit to Mongol overlordship; he thus turned his natural enemies into powerful allies. From Surabaya the Mongols marched on Majapahit, then on to Daha (modern Kediri), where they crushed the last of Jayakatwang’s rebellion. His throne secure, Wijaya showed his true colors, and-thanks to the months the Mongols spent suffering from unfamiliar diseases and the intense heat of the Javanese jungle-it took only one successful ambush on his part to send the Mongols fleeing for home.

Raden Wijaya (also known as Nararya Sangramawijaya, regnal name Kertarajasa Jayawardhana), Raden Vijaya, (reigned 1293–1309) was a Javanese King, the founder and the first monarch of Majapahit empire.

Wijaya established a new kingdom, Majapahit, operating from a new capital of the same name. Considered the pinnacle of Hindu Indonesia at its height in the mid-fourteenth century, Wijaya’s kingdom included territory from Malaysia to western New Guinea.

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