By Utami Diah Kusumawati

I learned from my family that strong-willed and influential women of our royal ancestry had great roles in creating the history of my country, Indonesia.

I remember the day I first learned about this heritage from my father,  Raden Untung Subarkah.

“You are a Raden Rara,” he told me when I was an elementary student in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia. “That is why I give you name Diah, which means a royal daughter.”

Raven Rara is a nobility title given to Javanese women who have royal blood, especially from the eighth generation or after. Javanese is one of the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia, which has 300 ethnic and linguistic groups throughout its archipelago, according to worldpopulationreview.com.

Photo by Julia Nguyen

A long time ago, kingdoms emerged and shaped Indonesia civilization. Those kingdoms, including Sriwijaya, Singasari, Kediri, and Majapahit (or bitter fruit in English), were mostly influenced by Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. My father said our family’s history began in the Majapahit Kingdom.

He explained that I was a descendant of King Brawijaya V, who was the last king from the Majapahit Kingdom.

“Oh, I know Majapahit,” I said, excitedly when I first saw the paper with my Majapahit’s family tree. “It is a famous kingdom where the brave knight, Mahapatih Gajah Mada (General Elephant) comes from.”

Gajah Mada was known as a military commander who contributed to the uniting of the Indonesian archipelago by announcing Sumpah Palapa or Palapa Oath. Under the reign of King Hayam Wuruk and General Gajah Mada, Majapahit Kingdom became one of the most powerful kingdoms across Southeast Asia, according to ina.or.id.

“And this is our great-great-grandfather,” my father said, as his finger pointed to a name on that shabby and dull paper: Raden Tumenggung Wonojoedo Kantong.

Tumenggung was a title given to a noble man who became head of a village, my uncle, Herry Sumardjito explained recently by phone. Raden Tumenggung Wonojoedo Kantong had a son, Raden Wono Projo and a grandson, Raden Wirodimedjo I.

My paternal grandfather is Raden Soedoro, the great-grandson of Raden Wirodimedjo.  I never met my grandfather because he died before I was born.

The lines of the Soedoro family trees. Photo by Utami Diah Kusumawati

I looked at the paper my father showed me and I traced all the family tree lines. I found two interesting female names on the Majapahit tree family: Princess Champa from China, the first woman in my family who converted herself from Hindu into Islam, and Dyah Gayatri Rajapatni, the grandmother of King Hayam Wuruk.

Strong-willed women

My family tree showed that Princess Champa was the wife of King Brawijaya V. She had converted from Hindu to Islam before getting married, and Brawijaya V did the same in order to marry her.

Princess Champa gave birth to a son, Raden Patah,  also known as Jin Bun (Chinese). Under his mother’s education and strict supervision, he became the famous and respected first Muslim-Chinese ruler from Demak, Central Java. After that, his descendants followed him in worshipping Islam. This part of history explains why my family are devotees of Islam and some of us have slanted eyes and yellow-tan colored skin.

Meanwhile, Dyah Gayatri Rajapatni set an example in our family on how to become a strong and influential woman. This queen is an exemplary model of how women should be brave enough to be themselves.  Gayatri was interested in what considered as masculine things at that time, such as history, horseback riding, politics, laws and theater, according to the book “Gayatri Rajapatni: The Woman Behind the Glory of Majapahit.” She eventually decided to become a female monk.

Gayatri was a tenacious woman who had a strong life-vision and did not let anyone dictate her path.

She experienced ups and downs in her life. She survived a brutal attack from another kingdom in which her parents were killed by masquerading as a servant’s child. Later on, the founder of Majapahit Kingdom, Raden Wijaya, married her because he was attracted to her intelligence and beauty. Gayatri, then, decided to become a patron for the young general Gajah Mada, whom she respected for his brain, passion, and integrity capacity. Her strong-willed attitude, her interest in politics and her determination to think bigger than herself contributed to the expansion of Majapahit Kingdom throughout the archipelago.

The big family of R. Soedoro. Photo by Utami Diah Kusumawati

The women in my father’s big family share the same trait of a strong-willed spirit, my mother, Endang Purwatiningsih told me.  They did not easily give up and would fight to the end for something they believed in, she said.

As a woman, journalist and Fulbright scholar at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, my life journey has been influenced by the strong-willed spirit of my big family. That trait may have motivated me to get a scholarship to study in the United States and to work as the first journalist in my big family.

While I am fully aware that being a descendant of a royal family is part of my identity as an Indonesian and a Javanese woman, it is not the nobility that makes me proud.

My ancestors’ enormous fighting spirit is what I’m most proud of. That knowledge shapes my identity as a Javanese woman, mostly perceived as passive and submissive, who loves to defy gravity by achieving whatever I want to be.