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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 endeavor'.

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. (Murhananto 1993:7)

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 specific knowledge.

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 group.


Achadiati, Y. et al.
1984 Kebatinan dan Dakwah kepada Orang Jawa. Yogyakarta: Percetakan Persatuan.
1975 Pelajaran Pencak Silat. Bandung: Tarate.
Draeger, D.
1992 Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co. Inc.
Jamal, D.
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.
O'ong Maryono
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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