Beginning in 1598, Dutch traders came to the islands of the archipelago and tried to gain control of the spice trade, competing with local authorities and the Portuguese traders who had arrived earlier in the archipelago. After taking hold of the spice production in Central Moluccas, Ambon and Banda, the co-ordinating institution of Dutch traders or United East India Company (VOC: Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) affirmed its position on the north coast of Java with the construction of the fortress of Batavia (formerly known as Jayakarta, and now as Jakarta) in 1621 (Koentjaraning-rat 1994:62-63).
The presence of the VOC in Batavia posed a serious threat to the maritime kingdom of Banten, and to the inland kingdoms of Java. In particular, Sultan Agung (1613-1645), the third king of the Mataram Empire, was extremely concerned about this foreign expansion, and on various occasions clashed with the VOC. However, subsequent kings became increasingly dependent on the Netherlands, as the VOC supplied them with weapons and ammunitions in exchange for valuables and land. Such military provisions were needed to quash local rebellions and attempts to seize the throne (Ibid: 63-64).
These ‘modern’ arms in the form of cannons and guns were extremely effective and practical in use compared to traditional weapons, prompting the reform of the defence system of the keraton. Consequently, the role of pencak silat as an instrument of war slowly declined. After their heyday came a bleak time for pencak silat masters, who lost their place in the keraton structure, and faced political and socio-cultural changes at odds with the moral principles dear to them.
The situation at the beginning of the 17th century, wherein kingdoms were waging civil war and the keraton lost political significance, forced pencak silat masters to seek out new ways of life. Many eventually left the keraton and chose to become ordinary citizens in rural villages. Outside of the keraton they continued to teach pencak silat, sharing their knowledge and attracting followers wherever they lived. Following the keraton tradition, pencak silat was taught not only as a self-defence method, but also as a form of spiritual knowledge necessary to attain supernatural powers. In doing so, the masters preserved the humanistic values in which they believed, disseminating among the people the doctrine of manung-galing kawula Gusti , thus becoming guardians of Javanese royal culture outside of the palace (Candra Gautama 1995:70).
In due course, many informal teaching groups emerged in the rural areas of Java, allowing pencak silat to prosper, and be handed down to future generations. For the first time, the study of pencak silat was institutionalised within a traditional educational system, one that retained the pencak silat teacher as a guide and source of knowledge, as reflected in the term ‘perguruan’ (pencak silat school) which is derived from the word ‘guru’ or ‘teacher’. The perguruan became one educational option for the youth on the road to adulthood, as alternative to undertaking an ascetic search under the guidance of a spiritual teacher (orang pinter), or entering a pesantren to absorb Islamic teachings (Anderson 1972:5).
The classic, literary image of the perguruan portrays ‘a teacher of an advanced age, but still young at heart, …teaching pencak silat jurus (series of movements) to a small group of students who wish to learn how to restrain themselves and attain invulnerability (ilmu kebal)’ (Lombard 1996(2):332). Usually, the students lived under one roof with their teacher, and received food and clothing. In exchange, they assisted their teacher in his work on the land, planting or helping with the harvest (An-derson 1972:5). The teacher imparted his knowledge and skill of pencak silat in stages, over an unlimited period of time, according to the individual ability of the student.
Because teachers kept their own techniques secret from one another, pencak silat disappeared from the surface, yet grew in the perguruan ‘like a snake in the grass’. In accordance with tradition, only students who underwent an initiation ceremony were accepted into the perguruan and allowed to receive pencak silat education. During this ceremony, the aspirant students swore allegiance to the school, and affirmed the existence of a moral and existential binding between them and their teacher, and with their peers at the perguruan.14 Students were thus united and found strength in feelings of mutual respect.
At the time when the perguruan based on this fraternity principle (perguruan persaudaraan) began to expand on the islands of Java, schools meant exclusively for family members still dominated in Sumatra. These family schools (perguruan kekeluargaan) were more firm in their allegiance to secrecy, since they aspired to preserve intact their family culture. The teacher kept his knowledge confidential, and refused to impart it to those who had neither biological nor customary ties to the family. Access to outsiders was made possible only to persons who were considered part of the family, or were adopted as such. For example, in West Sumatra if one wished to become a student, he had to undergo a ceremony to become anak sasian (nephew/niece), which involved making offerings of materials with a symbolic meaning:
A quart of rice and a rooster would be used for the initiation ritual…. to unify in a spiritual relationship the anak sasian and the teacher…. The rooster was used to signify that the members of the school should be ‘seciok bak ayam’ (singing in unison as the roosters), meaning that they should be living harmoniously; a bundle of betel leaves to declare unity of the members in an equal spiritual-material bond; a white cloth as a symbol of the purity of heart of each member in their purpose to live in a friendly way, defend one other, and let go all negative prejudices about their peers; and a knife blade representing the quality of their unity, ‘sedencing bak besi’ or ‘strong as iron’. (Department of Education and Culture 1982:12-13; see also Winsnoe Wardhana 1976:19)
Teachers were also not to impart their entire knowledge to their students, or in the language of Minangkabau ‘sepinjik tetap dipegang’ (withholding a little). A number of jurus had to be kept secret, because of concern that one day the student would challenge the teacher with what he had learned (Olahraga 1957:12). The caution of these teachers is also reflected in the adage: ‘if it is sweet, don’t swallow it straight away; if it is bitter don’t retch it straight away’.
Clearly, had all these cultural rules been followed to the letter, the schools would have expanded in isolation, without ever integrating with other schools. Also, pencak silat would not have been touched by any new, external influence, thus remaining static, or beginning to disappear altogether. Fortunately, this was not the case. During the 18th and 19th century, the development of pencak silat remained very dynamic and continued to be shaped by a process of acculturation among perguruan. In disregard of customary norms, the fraternal cord was oftentimes cut by students, making way for new and varied schools. It also frequently happened that people outside the boundaries of family or ethnic groups were accepted as students. There were teachers who taught those who were not related to the school, no matter the inevitable social castigation. Actually, many young masters wandered to other areas to learn from other teachers in order to enhance their pencak silat skills. In this way, interaction occurred among disparate regional styles, leading to the emergence of hundreds of new pencak silat schools. Although these new schools often sprung from the same source, they exhibited different characteristics.
Through this simultaneous process of acculturation and expansion, as the next article will show, pencak silat will reach its zenith after the VOC lost its domination over the Indonesian archipelago in 1799 and the Dutch colonial government was installed.
- Koentjaraningrat, “Kebudayaan” , Balai Pustaka Jakarta: 1994.
- Chandra Gautama, “Mencari Keindahan Tenaga Dalam”, Matra, Jakarta:1995.
- Anderson, B, “Java in a time of Revolution; Occupation and Resistence, 1944 – 1946”. Ithaca & London : Cornell University Press. 1972.
- Lombart, D, “Nusa Jawa :Silang Budaya ; Jaringan Asia”. Gramedia Pustaka Utama .Bagian 2. Jakarta 1996.
- Department of Education and Culture, “Perkembangan Seni Bela Diri tradisional di Daerah Sumatera Barat”, Depdikbud Jakarta 1982.
see also Winsnoe Wardhana, “Pembudayaan Pencak Silat Indonesia” Derektorat Jenderal Kebudayaan, Jakarta.1976.
- Olahraga, “Apakah Pentjak Satu Saat Akan Kandas” Jakarta 1957