In the second half of the 13th century, a vast empire ruled by nomadic people from the steppes of what is now Mongolia stretched from the western shores of the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Victory after victory followed the Mongols wherever their horsemen rode, bringing the demise of once powerful kingdoms across the Old World. The Mongol military campaigns to conquer Japan, however, failed miserably thanks to Japanese resistance as well as the seasonal typhoons that hit the southern islands, known as kamikaze (divine wind), which caused heavy damage to the Mongol battle ships. Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler who initiated the attempts to defeat Japan, learned the hard way that his invincible armed forces were still unable to subjugate lands across the sea beyond his realm on the Eurasian landmass.
Far to the south on the island of Java, Singhasari flourished under Kertanegara who ascended the throne following the death of his father, Wisnuwardhana. The latter together with Narasingamurti brought an end to what was arguably the bloodiest chapter in the history of Java and provided Kertanegara with the legacy of a stable kingdom upon which the new king embarked on his own ambitious conquests. From his capital in Tumapel (near present-day Malang, East Java), Kertanegara launched military expeditions overseas, including to Sumatra, Bali and Pahang (in modern-day Peninsular Malaysia). He also forged an alliance with Champa, an ancient kingdom in what is now southern Vietnam.
Back home, Kertanegara commissioned several temples with a distinctively syncretic Hindu-Buddhist character, among which Candi Jawi is the most famous today. A patron of a Tantric blend of Hinduism and Buddhism, Kertanegara who was also called Sivabuddha nurtured these beliefs which were practiced throughout Southeast Asia at the time. According to Nagarakretagama, an Old Javanese eulogy written in the 14th century, a statue of the Hindu god Shiva once resided in the sanctum of Candi Jawi. Depicted on his crown was Akshobhya, one of the emanations of the qualities of the first Buddha. Apart from the mélange of Hindu and Buddhist ornamentation, Candi Jawi is also unique for its use of dark and white stones. The latter were believed to have been quarried from the north coast of Java or the neighboring island of Madura.
Singhasari’s wealth and growing prominence in the region came to the attention of Kublai Khan, who then sent emissaries to Java in 1280 demanding Kertanegara’s submission. Unsurprisingly, Kertanegara sent the Mongol envoys home empty-handed, prompting the great khan to send another mission a year later, only to be met with persistent refusal from the Javanese king. Reeling from their defeat at the hands of the Japanese, it took the Mongols eight years to dispatch delegates to Java again in 1289. Probably enraged by Kublai Khan’s insistence on subjugating Singhasari, Kertanegara scarred an envoy’s face, a clear message to the khan to never again demand the Javanese kingdom to pay tribute or yield its sovereignty to the Mongols. Upon their return to China – at that time the Mongol Empire’s seat of power – the emissaries reported Kertanegara’s hostile treatment toward them, inciting the khan’s rage. A punitive expedition was immediately planned.
In late 1292, Kublai Khan sent a massive fleet of war junks to conquer Java – probably their first ever war campaign to cross the equator. The Mongols arrived on the northern coast of Java in early 1293, unaware of an event that had brought the demise of Singhasari a year earlier. Jayakatwang, the viceroy of Kediri, planned to kill Kertanegara and claim the throne of Singhasari. Kediri was in fact a powerful kingdom until Ken Arok – Singhasari’s first king – conquered and incorporated it into his kingdom. Some historians believe that apart from his personal ambition, Jayakatwang’s brazen act was also driven by the urge to avenge Kediri’s defeat by Singhasari. During a ceremony at his palace, Kertanegara was assassinated by Jayakatwang, effectively ending the 70-year-old kingdom of Singhasari.
Raden Wijaya, Kertanegara’s son-in-law, who was sent by the ill-fated king to put down a rebellion in the north – staged by Kediri to distract the king from the real threat coming from the south – waged a futile campaign to defend Singhasari. However, through his connections, the prince in exile managed to secure a settlement in the north, far from Jayakatwang’s reach. When the Mongols made landfall on Java, Raden Wijaya saw this as an opportunity to overthrow the new king from Kediri. The unsuspecting Mongols took Raden Wijaya’s offer to help them fight against what they thought were Singhasari’s forces, and emerged victorious. Jayakatwang surrendered and was later executed by the foreign army. Then an unforeseen twist of events unfolded: Raden Wijaya turned on the Mongols and successfully drove them from Java a few months after their arrival.
The Mongols suffered another defeat from an archipelagic power, underlining their infirmity overseas and their exclusively land-based prowess. On the other hand, after defeating the Mongols, Raden Wijaya founded a new kingdom from his capital in the northern plains of East Java, from which a great empire known as Majapahit would rise and prosper long after his death. Purportedly, it was under Raden Wijaya’s rule that a mortuary temple for Kertanegara was commissioned near the former capital of Singhasari.
Centuries after the fall of Majapahit when Java was under Dutch colonial administration, the ruins of Candi Singhasari (Candi Singosari) – the temple dedicated to Kertanegara – were rediscovered. However, restoration work was only carried out by the Dutch more than a century later in the 1930s which gave the temple its current appearance. Unlike other ancient shrines in Java which were always embellished by ornate reliefs and adorned by statues of the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon, Candi Singhasari is conspicuously absent of such intricate carvings, except for its upper section where four fierce kala heads face the four directions. This suggests that the temple was in fact never finished, and no one knows why. Roughly 300 meters to the northwest of the temple stand two huge dvarapala statues – guardians of Hindu-Buddhist temple compounds. Their sheer size – much larger than other dvarapalas found in Java or Sumatra – is perhaps an indication of a monumental structure they once guarded. But for now, the past of these giants as well as Candi Singhasari remains mostly shrouded in mystery, waiting to be rediscovered by generations to come.