Are you familiar with the story behind the name of the ancient Majapahit Empire? This tale is deeply intertwined with the Maja, which is known as Indian Bael (Aegle marmelos).
The Majapahit Empire, which existed from approximately 1293 to 1500 AD, was the final Hindu-Buddhist Empire in the archipelago. With its epicenter in East Java, the Majapahit Empire was one of the most extensive Empires in Indonesian history, with its reach spanning nearly the whole of the archipelago. Founded by Raden Wijaya, who was the son-in-law of the final ruler of the Singasari Empire, the Majapahit Empire experienced its golden era under the leadership of Hayam Wuruk, who reigned from 1350 to 1389 AD.
The inception of the Majapahit Empire is rooted in the collapse of the Singasari Empire following an attack by Jayakatwang. Raden Wijaya, having abandoned Singasari, sought the assistance of Arya Wiraraja, the Regent of Madura. Following Wiraraja's counsel, Raden Wijaya pledged fealty to Jayakatwang and was consequently granted a region to develop into a village.
This region, known as the Tarik Forest, was reputedly abundant with Maja (wilwa) that bore a bitter taste (tikta) when eaten. Consequently, this place was christened "Majapahit." After triumphing over Jayakatwang, Raden Wijaya adopted Majapahit as the name of his Empire.
The Maja fruit henceforth became a symbol of this influential Empire, at least in the eyes of the Indonesian people. However, the story of the Maja fruit extends beyond its connection to the Majapahit Empire.
Standing 10-15 meters tall, the Maja tree has opposite leaves and typically sprouts three leaves at a time. This resilient plant thrives in extreme climates, with the ability to endure temperatures as hot as 49 degrees Celsius and as cold as -7 degrees Celsius.
Contrary to its reputation as a bitter fruit that gave the Majapahit Empire its name, some varieties of the Maja fruit are sweet. The Maja fruit can be eaten fresh, turned into syrup, or even processed into a medicinal remedy for digestive ailments, such as diarrhea and constipation.
The Maja tree is a medium to large-sized deciduous tree that can grow between 10 to 15 meters tall. It has aromatic, alternate, and pinnately compound leaves that usually consist of three leaflets. The tree is highly valued for its fruit, which has both culinary and medicinal uses.
The Maja fruit is round and about the size of a large grapefruit. When unripe, the fruit has a hard, greenish-yellow rind, which turns pale yellow when fully ripe. The ripe fruit contains a sweet, aromatic, and flavorful pulp that can be eaten fresh. The pulp is surrounded by a layer of fibrous, woody tissue, which is not edible and must be removed to access the edible portion. Some varieties of the fruit have a bitter taste, especially the immature ones, which might explain the association with the bitterness in the story of the Majapahit Empire's name.
The Maja fruit has a long history of traditional medicinal uses in various Asian cultures. Its medicinal properties are well-regarded, particularly for digestive issues. The fruit is believed to have laxative and antidiarrheal properties, making it useful in treating constipation and diarrhea. It is also considered beneficial for promoting digestion and alleviating indigestion and other gastrointestinal problems.
The fruit's medicinal benefits are not only limited to the pulp; various parts of the Maja tree, such as the leaves, roots, and bark, are also used in traditional medicine to treat a range of ailments, including respiratory issues, diabetes, skin problems, and more.
In addition to its medicinal uses, the Maja fruit is valued for its culinary purposes. In South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the ripe fruit is commonly consumed fresh, and its pulp is used to prepare beverages like "sharbat," which is a popular and refreshing summer drink. The pulp is mixed with water, sugar or syrup, and sometimes milk and ice to create this drink. The fruit can also be dried and used to make traditional sweets and candies.