4. The appearance of a hero, Ken Arok



The kingdom of Kediri, recorded in Representative answers [about the region] beyond mountains (Lingwai daida, 嶺外代答) by Zhou Qufei (周去非)[1] in Southern Sung Dynasty China as “Java is the second richest among foreign countries next to Tajik [Saracen]”, began to decline after the turn of the 13th century. The last king Kertajaya (1185–1222) was a tyrannical and brutal man who was hostile to religious leaders. Tunggal Ametung, the local magistrate of Tumapel, the former capital of Janggala, was also an oppressive man who persecuted unfavourable monks and imposed heavy taxes on peasants. The hero appearing in such a situation was Ken Arok (or Amrok) who came from sudra, the lowest caste, and became the founder of Singasari Dynasty. His life written in the early half of Pararaton[2], a history book composed in the later century, was briefly as follows:


    “Ken Arok was born to a farmer’s wife, Ken Endok, who was impregnated by Brahma. He was abandoned soon after his birth but was found, as his body emitted light, and brought up by a robber named Lembong. Having been adopted by a gambler named Bano Samparan, he spent all his time thieving, gambling and raping, and occasionally committed murder. Once, he escaped from pursuers by flying away on a leaf of fan palm according to the heavenly voice. In such a life, he learnt, one period, reading, writing and arithmetic as well as the calendar, science and literature from Jangan (a knowledgeable village man). When Arok was wandering, guided by god, he met a high priest of Sivaism named Sang Hyang Lohgawe who had sailed from India by sea, standing on three pieces of bindweed leaves. Arok went to Tumapel together with Lohgawe to serve for Tunggal Ametung. One day he saw the secret part of Ken Dedes, the daughter of a Buddhist priest, Mpu Purva, who had been kidnapped by Tunggal Ametung and made his wife, illuminate, when she descended from her coach. Having been taught by Lohgawe that such a woman would bring fortune to a man[3], Arok determined in his mind to obtain her. He ordered a keris (sword) from a swordsmith named Gandrin and, when it was unfinished on the day of promise, he angrily stabbed Gandrin with that keris. At the last moment, Gandrin said, ‘You shall be stabbed by this keris, and your son, grandson and offsprings, seven all together, will be also killed in the same method.’ Arok gave the keris to his fellow soldier, Kebo Hijo, and one night he stole it and assassinated Tunggal Ametung. The guilt was put on Kebo Hijo, as Arok plotted. Arok who made Dedes his wife became the king under the name of Sri Rajasa Bhattara Sang Amurva-bhumi, founded the Singasari Kingdom, and finally ruled the whole of East Java from 1222 AD after defeating Daha (Kediri), which had dominated over Tumapel.”[4]


   Whilst the Pararaton was composed of plain records of historical facts with the insertions of God’s dispensations, Arok of Java[5], a historical novel by the great writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, was quite useful for me to envisage the personalities of characters and the historical background, although the details of the story were different in some parts. For instance, Arok was depicted as a rare genius who had mastered the whole phrases of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and spoke beautiful Sanskrit, and who notwithstanding his outrageous character always sided with the weak, like Robin Hood in English folklore, and the psychological state of Dedes in changing circumstances was realistically described. Also, the book of Pramoedya provided knowledge about the religious situation in the contemporary Java, viz. the struggle among Shivaists, Visnuists, Mahayana Buddhists and Tantrists, which was not available in textbooks. According to Pramoedya, what Arok aimed at was a society in which believers of different religions were harmonised.

    In addition to three sons and one daughter begot from Dedes and another three sons and one daughter from his second wife Umang, Arok had a son-in-law named Anusapati, Tunggal Ametung’s posthumous child who was in the womb of Dedes before Arok obtained her. Although Arok’s wise governance went on for twenty-five years, he was killed in 1247 AD by Anusapati who grew up and became aware of the secret of his birth with the Gandrin’s keris, as cursed by the swordsmith. After then, the assassinations of kings were repeated. Anusapati who succeeded Arok was killed by Tohjaya, a son of Umang who noticed the cause of his father’s death. Tohjaya became the king, but died for the wound given by Rangawuni, Anusapati’s son. In all cases, the weapon was the same keris of Gandrin.



The cover illustration of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel, “Arok of Java”, (Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Arok of Java: a novel of early Indonesia, Horizon Books 2007) in which Arok is commanding a rebellion. Reproduced by courtesy of the publisher.




[1] Chinese text: 「諾蕃國之富盛多寶貨者, 莫如大食國, 其次闍婆國, 其次三佛齊國, 其次乃諸國耳」 (Among foreign countries rich with treasures and money, the first is Tajik, the next is Java, the next is Sriwijaya, …) Nagoya University, Zhou Qufei [Ed.]. Ling wai dai da Vol.2 [Representative answers [about the region] beyond mountains], 1172–78 (周去非撰, 嶺外代答卷二, 1172–78), http://toyoshi.lit.nagoya-u.ac.jp/maruha/kanseki/lingwaidaida02-3.html

[2] A history book of the 15th–16th centuries that covers the history of Singasari (1222–92 AD) and Majapahit periods written by an anonymous author in the 16th–17th centuries (I. Gusti Putu Phalgunadi, The Pararaton: A Study of the Southeast Asian Chronicle, Sundeep Prakashan, New Delhi 1996).

[3] This legend is common with the episode in the Book of Sakhender in which “Sukmul, a Dutchman, was able to marry Princess Tanuraga of Pajajaran who had a hot secret part, and Mur Jangkung (Jan Pieterszoon Coen) was born between them.” See Chapter 1 of Java Essay.

[4] Abstracted from: I. Gusti Putu Phalgunadi, The Pararaton: A Study of the Southeast Asian Chronicle, Sundeep Prakashan, New Delhi 1996.

[5] Pramoedya Ananta Toer; Max Lane (trans.), Arok of Java, Horizon Books, Singapore 2007 (Originally; Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Arok Dedes, Hastra Mitra, Jakarta 1999). In this novel, it was not Arok but Kebo Hijo who assassinated Tunggal Ametung.