The Jago in Literary Tradition: Upholding the Ideal Image of Pencak Silat
by O'ong Maryono
Before beginning the discussion of jago and the role they played in the
colonial period, we must first explore the meaning of the term "jago"
itself. According to the General Indonesian Language Dictionary, the term
"jago" has various meanings, including, "rooster older
than 12 months"; "main candidate in an election"; "front
runner"; "champion"; "the favorite to win" (Yandianto
). Generally speaking, a jago is regarded as someone to be respected
by the community because of his gifts or talents, a person with posture
and social status, somewhat like a prize rooster. Exactly where and when
this expression originated cannot be confirmed. However, from examples
in literature, epic stories and colonial government reports it is hypothesized
that the term jago developed amidst the communities of Central Java, East
Java and Madura during Dutch colonial times, more specifically from the
time when the so-called Cultuurstelsel (the colonial system of forced
cultivation or "sistim tanam paksa") was first instituted. At
the same time, other Dutch terms, such as ondernemer, sinder, opas, and
kontroleur were introduced and found their way into the local languages,
illustrating that new social positions were emerging, due to changes in
the colonial hierarchy.
Part of a person 's ability to be regarded as a jago, is an outstanding
command of martial arts skills, often with an additional belief in that
person 's supernatural strength:
Why and how does a person become a jago? Until now, this question remains
unanswered. There could be a possibility that someone will become a jago
by ancestry. However, here it is argued that physical strength, bravery,
and mastering certain types of (esoteric-) knowledge are the key criteria
for becoming a jago. A person can be called a jago if he can endure a
long period of training. This training consists of serving other, experienced
jago in their daily activities and assisting them with their activities
and their burglaries. Furthermore, a would-be jago is required to do ngelmu,
meaning to be a loyal apprentice and to acquire knowledge from a guru
or kiai (master teachers). Ngelmu here applies to any kind of learning
from a teacher or a scholar. Besides ngelmu, one could also increase one
's skills by acquiring self-defense techniques such as pencak silat.
Although many young students go through this process, each would-be jago follows
a specialized type of ngelmu, in accordance with individual needs, and
which often have to do with the super-natural. Thus there is ilmu sirep,
or the science of hypnosis, panglimunan (how to make yourself or others
invisible) and ilmu kekebalan or the science of becoming invincible
and/or invulnerable to attack. After having studied with various guru,
the would-be jago performs a closing act in the form of spending a period
of time alone, secluded, as a hermit. After succeeding all this, an
initiation ritual will be performed as well (Schulte-Nordholt :668;
see also van Till :23)
In many poems and folk tales one finds a highly stylized image of the
young jago, studying the Al Qur'an, and practicing pencak silat in the
monastery as an eager youth. Then, after mastering the skills and knowledge,
the jago rises to the role of opposing the Dutch, by becoming a marauding
bandit who steals from the rich and distributes the spoils of this thievery
to the poor, sometimes donating it in order to build a village mosque.
In many aspects these iconoclastic and rather romantic descriptions resemble
the famous Robin Hood-stories. In some cases the legend of these "Robin
Hoods of Java" have become well known and their actions are described
in Malay and Indonesian literature, some of them in the form of popular
comic books. The adventures of Sakera (a hero from Madura), Sarip Tambak
Yoso (a jago who won Surabaya), Sawung Galing (a jago from Pasuruan) and
Si Pitung (a jago of Batavia) have spread far and wide in the Indonesian
archipelago, with many of their stories being passed on orally from generation
to generation, and some even being adapted for cinema and television.
As the story goes, armed with these weapons, the jago faces capture and
subsequent punishment by the Dutch, namely to be brought before a firing
squad. Although the jago's enemies (i.e. armed Dutch troops or police)
will, as a matter of fact, carry far more sophisticated weapons than our
jago, they let themselves be overpowered and become very confused, because
the jago seems to, miraculously, escape time after time; they suffer many
material losses before they are, finally, able to regain control of the
situation and restore law and order. In the end, however, the Dutch, usually
a small platoon or armed company, will eventually, aided by very precise
trickery, succeed in capturing and executing the jago.
The message conveyed here is that a smart character, who has mastered
the skills of pencak silat, will die a noble death, defending God and
the Truth, as a hero. What is also interesting is that even after death,
a jago can still strike fear into the hearts of those in power.
Several elements in the story as Si Pitung illustrate the jago's efforts
of honoring the afore mentioned principles of noble conduct which are
central to the practice of pencak silat: he tries to defuse confrontation,
attacking only in case of an emergency, and is very careful in avoiding
any unnecessary violence or even killing anybody. Even though violence
can't always be avoided when facing an enemy, it should only be used for
a just cause and as a means to alleviate the suffering of others.
The jago has a strong feeling of solidarity with the oppressed community
and uses pencak silat-skills to defend the rights of the so-called "wong
cilik", or the poor and powerless, against the abuse of power by,
in this case, the rich foreign (i.e. European) landlords and the colonial
government. The theme of the jago's role as a heroic defender of the rights
of the wong cilik is found in various forms of theatre, particularly in
Java. For example, in the Ludruk-theatre in East Java the stories and
actions of local jago, like Sakera, Sarip Tambak Yoso, or Sawung Galing
are staged. Similarly, in Lenong Betawi (a form of popular theatre found
in Jakarta and the surrounding areas) the stories of a number of regional
jago, among others Si Jampang, Si Pitung and his band, Mat Item, Ronda,
Si Angki, Si Panjang and Mira (the female lion from Marunda) are performed.
The role of the jago in the Dutch colonial period is closely related to
the social-economic situation during the 18th and 19th centuries in Java
and its impact on pencak silat. At that time, pencak silat spread across
Java via mass (trans)migration, which resulted from the development of
transportation and infrastructure, as well as from changes in the agricultural
economy. In 1808 hundreds of thousands of farmers from the whole northern
coast of Java were mobilized as forced laborers (kuli or coolies) to build
a highway, known as the "Grote Postweg", stretching from Anyer
(in Java 's westernmost point) to Panarukan (on Java 's east coast), covering
approximately a 1000 km (Koentjaningrat 1994:66)
In the very little spare time they had, the kuli from each region who
were involved in the construction, entertained themselves and each other
by practicing and showing off their pencak silat-skills. Their expertise
in self-defense was, clearly, also useful for them in facing conflicts
or robberies, which often arose amongst the different groups of laborers
or against their often tyrannical overseers and work-bosses. So it happened
that different, regionally based styles of pencak silat, in this case
various Javanese branches of pencak silat, became mixed. This eventually
resulted in the creation of new pencak silat styles.
The opening of the new highway in Java further hastened the acculturation
process by enabling the intermingling of rural populations. Until the
end of the 18th century, the infrastructure and facilities in inland areas
of Java were difficult to reach, mostly because of the bad condition of
the roads as well as the many bands of robbers and highwaymen who made
these roads unsafe to travel. The bulk of inter-regional trading was therefore
conducted by sea, not only all along the Javanese north coast but also
along the Solo River and Brantas River. However, with the completion of
the Grote Postweg these trading routes were soon supplemented by the development
of land trade, and this was followed by a relocation of farming communities
bringing new areas under cultivation. (Lombard [1996/1]:134-139). Because
of their regional specializations and culture, including the art of self-defense,
introduced into these new areas by these migratory communities, the spread
of pencak silat in the whole of Java was inevitable.
The Grote Postweg also created a single economic region between Pasundan
(West Java) and the rest of Java and enabled the commercialization of
colonial products. These economic changes were also related to the so-called
Cultuurstelsel (the forced cultivation system), implemented by the colonial
government to overcome the severe economic crisis of the 1830s. Within
this system, each farmer was either forced to cultivate certain types
of crops for export, such as sugarcane, indigo, coffee, tea, and pepper,
on one-third of their land, or work on a government plantation for as
many as 66 days each year (Koentjaningrat : 67) In this new colonial
economic structure pencak silat was used as a means of social control
of the agrarian workforce in the villages. As a matter of fact, to exercise
control over the workforce the Dutch colonial authorities often used local
martial arts experts as so-called "opas" (from the Dutch word
oppas, meaning guard) or "controleur" (head; manager) at the
plantations. These heads and work-bosses were selected from among those
individuals who were already known and trusted by those in power. The
first government plantations opened in Tangerang (West-Java, near Batavia)
and were subsequently extended east- and southeastwards, towards Bogor,
Sukabumi, Puncak, Cianjur and Bandung, and the experienced controleurs
came from this region. Controleurs were frequently expected to move to
areas where new plantations were developed. Most of them were pencak silat
masters since at the time physical strength and self-defense skills were
the main means of controlling the laborers.
Besides the opas, the colonial authorities also needed people to suppress
the local population, if necessary by physical violence and force, and
preferably in such a manner that they would realize that any form of protest
would be futile. Local strongmen exercised control over the population;
they were feared, like the opas, but also, at the same time, respected
as "jago". Some would say that the jago functioned as an extension
of the colonial system into the rural areas. However, in my view the role
they played was certainly more complicated. On one hand, jago were used
by local officials (regent) to defend their interests, thus functioning
as a local police force. Using their skills in and knowledge of self-defense,
they provided protection for "their" villages from attacks by
other jago's since in those days there was no police force in rural areas.
Besides providing local security, jago were also charged by the administration
(pamong praja) with collecting taxes, as dictated by the Dutch, and securing
the right numbers of forced laborers from among the farmers, if necessary
by using physical force. Based on the success of the work of the jago,
the local government officials would subsequently be rewarded by the colonial
government. In exchange for his services, the jago were not obliged to
either work or pay taxes to the landlords or the administration in the
way the other villagers were required to do.
On the other hand, outside their own village, local jago would use their
men and pencak silat-skills to terrorize the countryside. They would conduct
criminal acts such as stealing goods, especially livestock, burning homes,
even torturing their victims. Because of these strangely intertwined,
violent behavior or "dual" function, a jago would be regarded,
both as a hero and a villain at the same time. For although they were
often seen as heroes in their own communities, in other villages they
were greatly feared (Schulte Nordholt ; see also Onghokham ).
The appeal of the jago was not limited to the island of Java, but can
also be found in the other islands of the archipelago. The most famous
example is probably that of parewa in Minangkabau (Sumatra). The term
"parewa" comes from the word prawira, meaning soldier, in particular
the armed men from the kingdom of Pagaruyung, which was supported by the
Dutch government during the war between Padri (the Muslim faction) against
Keselarasan Bodi Chaniago. At the end of the war, the parewa were employed
by the Dutch to control the local population and to collect taxes. Although
they commanded respect as martial arts masters among the local community,
their violent behavior was also regarded as breaking the traditional social
norms (adat). According to one description, parewa were
a group of people who did not follow tradition and by the orthodox
community were considered to be an affront to the teachings of Islam.
However, they were entrusted with the duty of guarding the mosque. Parewa
made a living through gambling, cock fighting and possessed a wide social
network. Parewa from different villages respect and admire each other.
They would defend their allies until death (Anderson :8)
The phenomenon of the jago or parewa is interesting to study because they
reflect the most basic characteristics of pencak silat, even though they
do not fulfill its formal ideology. Historical accounts of their role
force us to admit that supernatural powers and the art and skills of self
defense were not always used in the interests of the greater good and
human spiritual perfection, but on the contrary, often misused for superficial,
personal material gains. The ideal practitioner of the martial arts, as
the defender of life's sacred values, was not always realized during the
colonial era of the Dutch East Indies, because most of the martial arts
masters were more eager to side with the colonial authorities than with
the weaker local communities. Even though in literature they are honored
as popular heroes, defending the poor and the powerless, in reality they
were often employed as hit men by the government and their violent way
of behavior and actions defied local values and traditions.
Such a development is not unusual and can also be found elsewhere. In
China, for example, after the war with the kingdom of Chungkuo martial
arts experts became redundant as a result of the introduction and subsequent
use of guns and other weapons and started to work as bodyguards and hit
men to oppress the people. Even in present-day Indonesia the appeal of
the jago is still strong and expressing itself in various local forms,
such as preman and prokem (Jakarta), jeger and jawarak (West Java), gali
(Central Java), bromocorah (East Java) and others, representing adaptations
to social change and modern society. It is also sad to notice that suring
the May riots in 1998, it were pencak silat schools that took the road
to defend the status quo and attack reformist movements accusing the new
President Habibie to be only a "poppet" of Suharto.
In other words, pencak silat has a dualistic character, so in investigating
its development, other than stressing the philosophy of doing right and
"noble conduct" (budi pekerti luhur) we also have to note the
misuse of pencak silat for crime and injustice. Only by unraveling the
many layers of romantic folklore, regional legends and traditional rhetoric,
we can begin to understand the various social, economic and political
factors that have influenced practitioners of the martial arts to misuse
and disobey the noble and restraining normative principles of this art
form. Though such comprehensive understanding we can intervene to prevent
that the good name of pencak silat will be irreparably stained in the
years to come.
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