A Tantalizing Glimpse into the Past:

Traditional Archery Competitions in the Yogyakarta Palace

by Pradana Pandu Mahardhika


One of the most cherished rituals in the Keraton (royal palace) of Yogyakarta is the anniversary of the reigning Sultan's coronation on March 7th, 1989.  Unlike what a Western observer might expect, the anniversary is not held once every year but once very 70 days; in other words, it is held on every other occasion where the day names in both the 7-day Islamic week and the 5-day pasaran (market) week coincide with those of the day of the Sultan's ascension.  Of all the activities held to celebrate this occasion, the traditional archery competition is clearly one that poses the greatest attraction to the traditional archery researcher.  The author was fortunate enough to be able to watch one such competition on the afternoon of June 30th, 2009, which happened to be quite well-attended by the standard of previous competitions.


The regular venue for the archery competition is the Kemandungan court, located just off the Keraton's Alun-alun Kidul (Southern Plaza) landmark, perhaps because the earthen rampart that adjoins the masonry fortification wall along one side of this court provides a convenient backstop for arrows that miss the target. The targets themselves are quite small; there are three targets in all, each made up of a "head" and a "body" suspended together by an arrangement of strings.  The "head is a stuffed red ball about 8-9cm (three to four inches) across while the "body" is a 30cm(12in.)-long white cylinder of the same or slightly larger diameter.  A bamboo frame holding a large rubber sheet is erected behind each target for the sake of safety and convenience in extracting missed arrows.


Figure 1. One of the competition targets and its backstop


The most distinctly traditional aspect of the competition is the requirement that the participants wear traditional or semi-traditional clothing.  For men, this usually means donning the surjan (a shirt with a very similar cut to double-breasted livery coats from 19th-century Europe except for the use of traditional Javanese decoration patterns) and a wrap-skirt made out of batik cloth.  The dress code for women is a little more relaxed; while many participants on June 30th wore the traditional ensemble of kebaya (fitted blouse) and batik skirt, others were observed wearing tunics of a distinctly more modern cut, sometimes with a batik skirt and sometimes with modern (though conservative) maxi skirts. However, it is worth noting that the modern tunics are usually decorated with some sort of traditional print or embroidery, or even made of batik cloth altogether.  Traditional clothes are rented out at a small fee to participants who have none to wear (or forgot to bring an appropriate outfit to the venue).


Figure 2. Dressing up


When it comes to equipment, there are certain obvious signs of influence from modern sport archery.  For instance, the three-piece construction of the bows (a wooden riser and a pair of bamboo limbs) is very similar to that of the locally-made modern bows used in the Indonesian National rounds, all the way down to the ergonomic shaping of the grip area.  The principal difference lies in the fact that the semi-traditional bows used in this competition only have a small arrow pass on their risers and no feather or plastic arrow rests, unlike the Nationals bows with their large sight windows and prominent rests.  On the other hand, the limb designs of the semi-traditional bows vary from fairly conventional flat recurve limbs to (apparently) more traditional designs whereby the lenticular cross-section at the base of the limb tapers out to a roughly circular section at the tips.


The arrows are quite modern--practically identical to those used in the National rounds, with bamboo shafts, conical milled-steel points, and plastic nocks.


Figure 3. Several contestants preparing their equipment before the competition; note the bows' semi-traditional design


Figure 4. A contestant bearing one of the bows with a more traditional limb design.



Figure 5. Closeup of the tip and string nock section from Fig. 4



Modern sport archery has also influenced the shooting techniques used in the competition.  The archers still sit cross-legged in the traditional manner, but at right-angles to the target (as in the square stance of modern archery) instead of facing directly towards the target.  Additionally, the use of the three-fingered Mediterranean release is pretty universal throughout the shooting line, with practically no signs of the Indian-style thumb releases depicted in medieval Javanese temple reliefs or the pinch draw used in certain West Javanese traditional archery events.


Figure 6. A veteran archer at full draw



Four arrows make each of the twenty ends in the competition.  An archer who manages to hit the same target with all four arrows in any given end is entitled to a solid-gold medal known as the Ekalaya medal after a famous archer figure in Hindu mythology.  Unfortunately, no competitor has managed this feat since it was last done in 1988, and the medal is currently in abeyance.


One of the most interesting features of the competition venue is the group of assistants sitting on the sidelines.  These assistants are equipped with a gong and a chime, which they use to mark certain events in the competition.  The gong is struck once for every hit on the "body" of a target and twice for a "head" shot.  A series of blows on the chime, on the other hand, signals an event that calls for a temporary halt in the shooting, such as an arrow accidentally cutting the strings that held the targets in place (which, as unlikely as it may seem, actually happened a couple of times during the June 30th competition).



Figure 7. The support staff, waiting for the next end to begin



Another notable feature is the enlistment of boys from the local neighborhood to serve as arrow-pickers.  Each boy is assigned to extract and return arrows for up to two or three archers, and the boys take some time before shooting begins to familiarize themselves with the look of their archers' arrows.  After each end they would rush forward in a gaggle to the target area and search for their assigned arrows the rubber backstops and the ground around the targets.  When any of the arrows they're looking for happens to have struck one of the targets instead, they'd inform the scorer about the identity of the arrow's owner and wait while the hits are recorded before pulling the arrows out.  The boys obviously have a great deal of fun doing this.



Figure 8. A swarm of Oliver Twists eagerly harvesting the latest crop of arrows



Still, things have not always gone well for the 70-daily competitions.  Within the last year the competition has had to be canceled twice due to either weather conditions or a lack of interest from potential participants.  One can only hope that this curious (if partial) survival of old Javanese traditions will be able to weather the rapid current of modernization coursing through the Javanese society.


Last up-dated July 18, 2000