back to main page • back to articles from Rapid Journalnext article

Pencak Silat and the Expansion of the Javanese Kingdoms

Rapid Journal Vol 5, No.1 (Book 15, 2000: 40 – 41)

© O'ong Maryono

Continuing our travel through time, it is important to pose to discuss the Majapahit Empire, between the XIII and the XVI century, since this was an important period of expansion for Malay pencak silat --which as we discussed in the previous article flourished in the Sriwijiaya kingdom of Sumatra. Centred in East Java, this empire required an art of war and a well-fortified army to simultaneously preserve and expand its territory by overpowering other kingdoms. At its peak, the Majapahit Empire encompassed almost the entire archipelago, from the previous Kingdom of Sriwijaya to Bali, Maluku and Sulawesi. If to maintain territorial integrity the king formed ties through marriage, to protect the kingdom's borders he waged war through the use of martial arts. Envoys were sent from the capital to instruct local authorities in the art of war. Upon completing their mission, these envoys returned to the capital before setting out for other areas. In this way, the principals of pencak silat spread from one region to another. There are even experts who have surmised the self-defence of the Majapahit knights extended as far as Mainland China, brought home by soldiers of Kubalai Khan after their defeat by Raden Wijaya during the Singasari attack at the end of the Kartanagara administration early in the Majapahit period, around 1292. (PB IPSI 1995:11; Hisbullah Rachman 1987:9-10; Sa-leh 1991:18).

There was, however, one area of Java which remained untouched by the expansion of the Majapahit Empire, as its forces could not dominate it --the Priyangan Kingdom in West Java. Because this kingdom existed in relative isolation during the course of several centuries we need to consider the possibility that the development of pencak silat in West Java had its own, individual roots since initially it was not (or barely) influenced by Malay styles of self-defence diffused by the Majapahit Empire. This hypothesis is important in explaining the origins of two primary sources in the development of pencak silat in Indo-ne-sia. In the words of one cultural specialist:

According to the consensus of Pencak Silat leaders in West Sumatra, the styles of Pencak Silat thaHit developed in the Minangkabau region originated from a single source: from Pariangan Padang Panjang, in Tanah Datar Regency.... West Sumatra or Minangkabau. This was one of the main sources of Pencak Silat in Indonesia. Another key source of Pen-cak Silat in Indonesia was West Java. It was in this region that the famed Cimande style of Pencak Silat was to be found. Perhaps this style was derived from other Pencak Si-lat styles in West Java. The Cimande style along with other styles in West Sumatra... was frequently referred to as the source of other Pencak Silat styles [in Indo-ne-sia]... Because the Cimade style and styles originating from Minangkabau are often cited as the source of other styles of Pencak Silat, it may be that...[they] are the original source of pencak silat in Indone-sia, which later, along with other styles, including those from other Malay communities and from China, became the source of inspiration and imagination for the creation of one form or style of Pencak Silat. (No-tosoejitno 1984:9-10)

The hypothesis that the pencak silat of West Java was a primary style, which developed outside the influence of the Ma-japa-hit empire, appears to be supported by epic literature. It is said that according to the Sundanese song, Sundayana, the sentinels of the Sri Paduka Maharaja Sunda kingdom exhibited great skill in the art of pencak silat when they escorted Princess Dyah Pitaloka to Majapahit as a potential bride for King Hayam Wuruk, and faced indignities that greatly affronted their honour, (Soepandi & Atmadibrata 1977:45). In a battle that ensued at the Bubat field (1346 M), the Sundanese forces fought to the last drop of blood, using special pencak moves and various weapons,
Albeit the pencak silat styles employed in conbat were different, we can still draw the conclusion that in Javanese kingdoms throughout the archipelago, pencak silat served the same function: to defend, maintain or expand territory:

[pencak silat developed] due to the frequent battles between one group of people and another, in order to seize power and domination. The leader of this subjugation was able to extend the realm of his dominance into a kingdom. To broaden his domination and maintain his grip on power over a kingdom, the art of unarmed and armed self-defence grew. (Liem Yoe Kiong 1960:38-42)

Army troops were primarily required to have physical superiority and spritual strength in order to subdue opponents with or without weapons (Notosoe-jitno 1984:5-6). The greater their expertise and might, the greater their status and position within the kingdom's hierarchy. For officers, the main pre-requisite to raising their prestige and becoming kinsmen of the keraton (royal palace) was skill in self-defence, since at that time martial arts masters were essential as warriors and sentries to safeguard the security of a kingdom. Thanks to their proficiency in self-defence, the kingdom could be victorious, its people feel secure, and their lives tranquil.
As an instrument of national security, pencak silat was naturally kept secret, and taught only to those close to authority. The era of kingdoms was of course a feudal one, with a layered social system that gave rise to grades of language, customs and traditions according to one's position in the pecking order. At its apex, there were kings--the reincarnation of gods, who were surrounded by nobility. In the Hindu-Buddhist monarchy, the nobility consisted of people related to the king, taken from the Brahmin caste, which controlled religion, or from the warrior caste, which had supreme power, including military authority. It was this elite group that was allowed to study the art of pencak silat, in line with their social standing. The higher their position, the greater their knowledge of self-defence. If foot soldiers were taught only basic techniques so they could obey their commander's orders, court officials needed to understand war theory and strategy to be capable of leading troops into combat.

As befitting its elitist character, pencak silat training grounds were closed to the public. Martial arts were practised only at the keraton, the residence of the royal family, or in a mandala , the place where, in accordance with Hindu-Buddhist tradition, Buddhist monks and Brahmin priests educated pupils and potential religious leaders, and taught their dogma. The tradition of martial arts education in a mandala, as an expression of the integral role of spirituality in self-defence, is not unique to Indo-nesia, but exists also in India and China. The Shaolin Temple in South China, erected by Bodhidarma in the 5th century, is renowned even to this day for its martial arts skill. (Xing Yan 1995).
Once again, the impact of interaction with other countries in Asia on the growth of pencak silat is undeniable. It should be borne in mind that the kingdoms of the Nusantara Archipelago had trade links with several countries. Among others, the Majapahit Empire forged co-operative ties with kingdoms in Thailand, China, India, Persia and Campa. These relationships were not limited to trade but also involved scholarly exchanges in the fields of art, education, religion and martial arts. In particular, marital arts were brought by sentries who came on voyages to protect trade cargo. One self-defence expert from China, Liem Yoe Kiong in his book on the growth of the art of silat in Indo-ne-sia, chronicles the influence merchants had during the centuries of large vessel trade to and from China. According to Liem, during voyages Chinese merchants were often attacked by pirates who wished to seize their valuable cargoes. To defend themselves, these merchants brought along martial arts masters from mainland China. Upon arrival in the archipelago, they accompanied their bosses who were trading their wares to a number of outlying regions, using indigenous coolies to bear the goods. Along the way, the bodyguards provided self-defence instruction to the coolies so if local robbers attacked them the coolies would be able to assist them in warding off these foes. This brought about the widespread dissemination of Chinese silat in Indonesia (Liem Yoe Kiong 1960:57).

It is interesting to note that according to Lim Yoe Ki-ong (Ibid:57-58), the spread of Chinese martial arts occurred among the common people, who in fact as previously mentioned, had no access to pencak silat, as its practice was controlled by the nobility. What was allowed to grow and develop amongst the general public was only the pen-cak silat art, a form of pencak silat whose purpose was not to defend or attack, but rather to express beauty. Because the pencak silat art had no strategic military value, there was no need to keep it secret and it could be studied by the public at large. Especially during times of peace, when the need for defence was not particularly urgent, pencak silat as an art became a widespread form of public recreation. Pencak silat dances were performed at various events, including royal welcoming ceremonies in Sumatra, wedding receptions in Jayakarta (Jakarta's name at that time), and in Riau at harvest thanksgiving parties. In these traditional ceremonies, pencak silat also had a ritual meaning as a means to make humans stronger so that they could control and dominate their immediate environment. Other than its artistic symbolism, the fine art of pen-cak silat was also a source of enjoyments for enthusiasts. The pesilat's movements, which followed the beat of a drum in rhythmic patterns, pleased the senses of the audience and deeply touched the subconscious

So, although during the age of kings the emphasis was on pencak silat as self-defence-in accordance with the kingdom's military need to maintain and expand itself-during the same period pencak silat as an art met the aesthetical and ritual needs of society at large. Besides these two roles, over the following century pencak silat would acquire a new function as the nobility lost its exclusive control over pencak silat. As we will see in the next article, during the era of Islamic kingdoms, pencak silat would develop into humanistic education.

1. Hisbullah Rachman, Sejarah Perkembangan Pencak Silat di Indonesia, Working paper 1987.
2. Liem You Kiong, Ilmu Silat . Sedjarah, Theorie dan Practijk, Malang cv Penjebar 1960.
3. Notosoejitno, Pencak Silat Nilai dan perkembangannya, stencil 1984.
4. O'ong Maryono, Acculturation at the Core of Penacak Silat, Rapaid Journal. Vol.4 No 4: 40-41, 2000.
5. Saleh M, Pencak Silat (Sejarah Perkembangan , Empat Aspek, Pembentukan Sikap dan Gerak) Bandung: IKIP 1991.
6. Soepandi, A. & Atmadibrata,E. Khasanah Kesenian Daerah Jawa Barat . Bandung : Pelita Masa 1977
7. Xing Yan , Shaolin Kungfu. Beijing: China Pictorial 1995 .

back to main page • back to articles from Rapid Journalnext article (article 6)