Acculturation at the Core
of Pencak Silat
Rapid Journal Vol 4, No.4 (Book 14, 2000: 40 – 41)
© O'ong Maryono
As we discussed in the previous article (O'ong Maryono 1999:38-39),
Malay myths concur that pencak silat was originally developed by tribal
groups in the archipelago through the observation of animal movements
and other natural phenomena, in an effort to defend themselves from
wild creatures and other environmental dangers. In the course of time,
pencak silat eventually become instrumental in attaining social status
when fighting among tribal groups, clans, communities and later kingdoms.
Because of his/her skills a person could be feared and respected by
the surrounding society, and secure prestige and political power:
Pencak silat as self-defense has always existed, since human beings
had to fight with each other and with wild animals in order to survive.
At that time, people who were strong and skilled in fighting could attain
a privileged position in society, and could become heads of clans or
army commanders. In the long run, fighting techniques started to be
regulated, so that a comprehensive martial art form was developed which
was eventually called pencak
silat. (Asikin 1975:9-10)
Subjugation happened because groups of people stated to fight each other
to gain control of power. In an effort to expand the conquered areas,
kingdoms were created. To maintain and expand the power of these kingdoms,
self-defense, with or without arms, was developed. (Liem Yoe Kiong 1960:38-40)
When, where and how this process of systematization started nobody knows.
What can be gathered from the scant information available is that pencak
silat developed from the acculturation of various self-defense styles,
which had developed locally under different names and with different
characteristics. As Draeger puts it (1992:32): 'Pentjak-silat is certainly
to be termed a combative form indigenous to Indonesia [and more generally
to the Malay world]. But it is a synthesis product, not a purely autogenic
The development of 'pure' local material arts, 'clean' from outside
influences could only happen in communities that were isolated and did
not have access to communication and transportation means as we know
today. But, in later centuries, with the rise of kingdoms in the archipelago,
and the development of sea and land transportation, an irreversible
process of interaction and cultural exchange started among the various
kingdoms as well as with the outside world, which compelled the interplay
of different martial arts:
Self-defense is not a static knowledge, but it has developed in the
course of time. Through acculturation, existing physical arts were enhanced
and different styles shaped. Population moves, kingdoms' expansion,
and migration caused the encounter of various self-defense forms and
their interchange. It is also possible that the arrival of foreign people
in the archipelago enriched Indonesian self-defense. (PB IPSI 1995:9)
Only after connecting with the outside world and communicating across
regions and islands, cultures, including martial arts, interacted
This acculturation process not only happened between two cultures, but
among many cultures. Nowadays, we cannot differentiate anymore which
culture is original and which is not, since the result is one and well-integrated.
The ancient kingdoms of Indonesia have a long tradition of interaction
with other ancient kingdoms in South and East Asia, especially in China
and India, since the Hindu Kingdom of Kalingga during the VIIth century
in East Java. Linkages were of various nature, including marriage, religious,
commercial and diplomatic relationships.
We know for example from the Chinese Buddhist monk I-tsing (around 671)
that it was common for Chinese monks to stop in the Kingdom of Sriwijaya
(Sumatra), which at the time was the most important kingdom of the Indonesian
archipelago, on their way to India to study Buddhism. They would study
Sanskrit there before continuing their travel and then again on their
way back. This route from China to India, cutting across various Southeast
Asian countries, is well known as the "silk route" (Achiadati
et al 1989:12-13).
I-tsing himself finished his study of ten years in Nalanda around 685
and stayed in Sriwijaya for 4 years to translate Buddhist textbooks
from Sanskrit to Cantonese. He narrates that at the time more than 1000
monks from different kingdoms studied in the temples (mandala) of Sriwijaya.
There, they learned local martial arts forms while sharing their own
The renown martial arts expert, Donn F. Drager and many representatives
of the Indonesian Pencak Silat Association (IPSI) believe that already
in the VII century the population of Riau, then part of the Kingdom
of Sriwijaya, already used specific, original martial arts techniques
which were later disseminated to Semenanjung Tanah Melayu across Malacca
and later to Java with the expansion of the Kingdom of Sriwijaya, and
to other countries through the silk route. Still, it seems credible
that this process of acculturation was two-ways and that Malay silat
has also been influenced by other martial arts forms, considering that
at that time martial arts were very developed in East Asia, especially
during the dynasty Yin-en-Zhou (771-1200) in China, Emperor Suezei (688)
in Japan, and the dynasty Sila (668-935) in Korea (Theeboom & Li
Chang Duo 1993:12; Yen Hee Park, Yeon Hwan Park & Gerrard 1989:3).
More generally, there are no strong historical references to either
confirm or reject Draeger's assumption. The first reference to silat
in Sumatra can be found in literary text (i.e. Tambo Alam Minangkabau)
and only refers to the XIth century. Even there, silat is presented
as the product of various cultures. According to this source of Minangkabau
traditions and customs, the Parahiangan Kingdom's adviser, Datuk Suri
Diraja (1097-1198) played a central role in developing silat. As the
story goes, the Parahiangan royal family had good interaction with different
kingdoms in Asia and even had various in-laws from abroad, including
from the Siam Kingdom (Khemer), the Campa Kingdom (Vietnam), Cambodia
and the Persian Kingdom (Iran). These in-laws had their own bodyguards
who were martial arts experts. Datuk Suri Diraja would teach them silat
Minangkabau while they would teach their techniques to others in the
palace, creating new variations. The Tambo Minangkabau specifically
tells of four bodyguards, namely Kucieng Siam from Siam, Harimau Campa
from Campa; Kambieng Hitam from Cambodia and Anjing Mualim from Persia.
These names are still very popular and are used to indicate different
West Sumatra techniques, i.e. jurus Harimau Campo, jurus Kambieng Hitam,
etc. (Jamal 1986:6).
More study is of course needed to assess the historical values of this
legend. Still in clearly reflects the syncretic character of pencak
silat, highlighting its long tradition of acculturation with other Asian
cultures. We need to do more research to scientifically prove the interconnectedness
between martial arts in the Malay word and in other Asian countries,
but I have no doubts that there are strong links and a common cultural
heritage. Furthermore, it is important to stress that acculturation
is inherent to pencak silat. "Modern" pencak silat is the
product of the combination of different techniques from different martial
arts styles, and different theological and philosophical conceptualizations
derived from different cultures. As a result pencak silat styles are
many and varied. In Indonesia, we can observe pencak silat styles that
embrace animistic elements (in Java, Kejawen) or adhere to Islam, Hinduism,
Buddhism, or Catholicism. Similarly, pencak silat reflects movements
and techniques that are proper of the many ethic groups and cultures
in the Archipelago. Although pencak silat is a Malay cultural product
it does not exclusively belongs to only one particular ethnic or religious
Achadiati, Y. et al.
1984 Kebatinan dan Dakwah kepada Orang Jawa. Yogyakarta: Percetakan
1975 Pelajaran Pencak Silat. Bandung: Tarate.
1992 Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle
Publishing Co. Inc.
1986 Aliran Aliran Silat Minangkabau. Padang Panjang: Tropic Bukitinggi.
Liem Yoe Kiong
1960 Ilmu Silat, Sedjarah, Theorie dan Practijk. Malang: C.V. "Penjedar".
1993 Menyalami Pencak Silat. Jakarta: Puspa Swara.
1999 Origin of Pencak Silat as told by Myths. Rapid Journal 4(3):38-39.
1995 Sejarah dan Organisasi Pencak Silat Indonesia. Unpublished report.
Theeboom & Li Chang Duo
1993 Wushu de Chinese Vechtsporten. Rijswijk: Elmar BV.
Yen Hee Park, Yeon Hwan Park & Gerrard, J.
1989 Tae kwon do. London: World Lock Limited.
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