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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 [1995]). 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 [1983]:668; see also van Till [1995]: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 [1994]: 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 [1983]; see also Onghokham [1975]).

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 [1972]: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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