It is not easy to trace back the history of pencak silat because written documentation is limited and oral information handed down from the guru or masters cannot fully answer all the riddles. In particular, it is very complicated to determine when and from where pencak silat begun, and who pioneered its spreading. Still, all the experts believe that our Malay ancestors created and used pencak silat as self-defense technique already in prehistoric times. Mariun Sudirohadiprodo, a renowned Indonesian pencak silat master and pendekar, for example claims that the animal’s character was an inspirational source in the creation of pencak silat techniques and styles:
At the time, the ferocity of wild animals threatened the life of prehistoric people in the archipelago. Being the wild animals their natural enemy, humans had to pay attention to the animals’ moves and adopt similar movements as self-defense techniques. They copied the movements of tigers, eagles, snacks, crocodiles, monkeys, scorpions and dragons. Gradually pencak silat styles were developed out of these observations such as the harimau (tiger) and garuda putih (white eagle) styles. (Marijun Sudirohadiprodjo 1982:1; see also Tisnowati Tamat 1986:15; Murhananto 1993:7)
During my research from 1994 until 1998 I gathered many myths and legends about the origin of pencak silat that stress the role of nature on the development of self-defense techniques in the archipelago. Although the historical value of such myths can be questioned, from an anthropological point of view they are worth attention since they express people’s explanations of a certain cultural phenomena. In this case, pencak silat is considered an integral part and at the same time product of the surrounding environments. For example, in the small island of Bawean on the North coast of Java, the dominant legend claims that monkeys were the “pioneers” of pencak silat movements:
Rama Sukana went to the river to do the wash. Suddenly, she saw on the side of the river a pair of monkeys fighting. One of the monkeys repeatedly attacked the other one with a tree’s tack while the other monkey was jumping and moving aside to avoid the blows. Rama Sukana stopped her activities and took notice of the monkeys’ fighting techniques. She was so enthusiast that she did not finish her works and arrived late at home. The husband, Rama Isruna who had been waiting, become hungry and tried to beat her but she used the techniques she had just learned from the monkeys to avoid the husband’s attack. In the end, Rama Istruna became tired and asked his wife where she had learned such fantastic techniques. After Rama Sukama explained to him her experience, the husband asked her to train him. Now these techniques are known as pencak Bawean.
Similar stories are also told in other Indonesian provinces. In West Java, the Cimande style is said to derive from the wife of Mba Kaher who learned her techniques from a tiger fighting with a monkey. In Sumatra, the myth narrates how silat techniques were conceptualized by observing the fight of a big bird with a tiger. Also in neighboring Malaysia, such stories are popular:
One day in a village, a housewife who was carrying food in a basket above her head was attacked by a group of birds that tried to steal her food .The housewife tried to move from the right to the left and from the left to the right to avoid the attack of the birds. She also kept moving forward and back, trying to skim them with the hands. Doing so, she lost time and arrived late at home. She tried to explain to her furious husband what had happened, but he would not accept it. He attacked her and she had to defend herself with the same movements she had just practiced with the birds. The husband was unable to touch her, eventually got tired, and finally asked her to teach him the techniques she had just employed. With dedication, he practiced with his wife and developed what is now known as seni silat.(Tuan Ismail Tuan Soh 1991:36-37)
It is interesting to note that most of these myths give a prominent role to women as the initiators of pencak silat, in sharp contrast with today reality where men dominate the pencak silat world and only few women pendekar can still be found. Women’s dominance does not imply that mythology totally neglects men as can be seen from the following Javanese legend:
There was a young man who watched some flowers fall into the river and being carried by the stream flow towards the waterfalls. The young man thought that the flowers would be completely shattered by the waterfalls but to his surprise this did not happen. Every time the flowers ended under a waterfall they soon reappeared pushed up by the upside down stream. From this experience, the young man was inspired to create attack and counter-attack movements. (Summary from Chambers and Draegar in Tuan Ismail Tuan Soh 1991:37-38)
Notwithstanding the different sex of the various protagonists, all these myths concur that pencak silat was inspired by nature. Our ancestors spontaneously developed their self-defense techniques by observing natural phenomena that occurred in their daily life. With this new knowledge, tribal groups were able to contain the many dangers that surrounded them. In the following centuries, these instinctive movements were adapted to new arising needs and in due time became a well-thought self-defense system.