Akin to the indigenous martial art of Korea, Tae Kwon Do, or Karate of Japan, Indonesia takes pride in its very own Merpati Putih. A royal inheritance from the Mataram Kingdom in Central Java, the origins of this martial art can be traced back to hundreds of years ago.
Merpati Putih, or white dove, comes from the old Javanese phrase Mersudi Patitising Tindak Pusakane Titising Hening, which translates as Searching for Truth in Serenity. Its symbol depicts a white dove with spread-out wings, its head bowed down, as a referral to local wisdom—the higher one’s achievements in life, the more humble he or she should be.
At the core of Merpati Putih is a special breathing technique, which if applied properly, leads to great power. By holding their breath in a specific manner for a specific period of time, Merpati Putih practitioners will reach a state of maximum strain, which will lead to a surge of biological molecules known as Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)—also known as the source of energy that keeps everything going or the biochemical way to store and use energy.
Created around 1550 during the reign of the Mataram Kingdom, knowledge of the martial art was initially only reserved to palace guards and troops. When the kingdom was split into two sultanates in 1755—Yogyakarta and Surakarta—troops of the Yogyakarta Sultanate managed to take hold of the art and preserve it. For the next two centuries, Merpati Putih would remain exclusively practiced within the compounds of Yogyakarta Sultanate Palace.
Lack of reliable documentation makes it difficult to trace the chronological history of Merpati Putih, but it’s commonly agreed that the first person ever to create the art was Sampeyan Dalem Inkang Sinuhun Kanjeng Susuhunan Pangeran Prabu Mangkurat Ingkang Jumeneng Ing Kartosuro. The ancient martial art was then passed down from one generation to the next. In the 20th century, Saring Hadi Poernomo trained his two sons Poerwoto Hadi Poernomo (Mas Poeng or Brother Poeng) and Budi Santoso Hadi Poernomo (Mas Budi) to be heirs and guardians. With an instruction from their father, in 1962 the two brothers then began introducing the art to the rest of Indonesia, and later, the world. An official recognition from the national government would follow in the following year.
“The date 2 April 1963 is marked as the birthday of Merpati Putih. In hindsight, it was also an effort to preserve the legacy of the Merpati Putih as a national martial art amid a surge of foreign martial arts coming into Indonesia at that time,” says Amos Priono Tri Nugroho, son of the late Mas Poeng.
The efforts to preserve the legacy did not stop there. Over the past few decades, the number of Merpati Putih practitioners continued to rise steadily, by as much as 70 percent. The world also began paying attention. By now, the art is practiced in 14 countries, including the United States, France, the Netherlands, Japan, Australia and Spain. In the US, Merpati Putih is introduced as a ‘complete system of fitness, breathwork, meditation, energy development, personal empowerment and combative martial arts’. In Australia, it’s known as an effective way to promote ‘inner power and energy development’.
As heirs, Mas Amos and his cousin Nehemia Budi Setiawan (Mas Budi’s son) are now responsible for maintaining the growth of the martial art. Routine training aside, they also hold regular competitions in and out of Indonesia for all members, which by now have reached 100 million inactive and 90,000 active practitioners.
“We get assistance from students of the advanced Kombinasi I level who are obliged to devote themselves for 12 months straight to teach Merpati Putih in Indonesia’s rural areas, as part of the requirement to advance to the next level. Devotion is crucial to us, as our motto says, ‘What I give is not much but I do it sincerely’,” says Suci R. Listianto, a senior official at Merpati Putih.
It takes more than seven years to complete the whole 12 levels—starting from Dasar I, Dasar II, Balik I, Balik II, Kombinasi I, Kombinasi II, Khusus I, Khusus II, Khusus III, Kesegaran, Inti I and Inti II. Each level requires different completion time that ranges from six months to two years, as well as tests. For those in Kombinasi II and beyond, annual tests take place in Yogyakarta during Suro, the most sacred month of the Javanese calendar.
That’s when thousands of Merpati Putih students from all over the world would descend upon the Yogyakarta Sultanate Palace compound to begin either walking or running a 28-kilometre route to Parang Kusumo Beach, where they would then demonstrate the art.
Breaking huge stacks of ice blocks or concretes with bare hands in just one blow, or knocking out fully armed assailants with nothing but a few punches and kicks are some of the most well-known moves in Merpati Putih, which also make it stand out from the rest. Thanks to its expertise of inner power and vibration awareness, it’s no wonder the art continues to garner a greater level of respect.
“Merpati Putih has been recognised as one of the deadliest martial arts in the world, and hence the Indonesian military including the Special Force, Police and Presidential Guards have taken to learn it. Not only does Merpati Putih improve strength, it also raises one’s alertness toward the environment. That’s why our forces can detect explosives, enemies, drugs and anything hidden, and the snipers can shoot very accurately,” says Mas Amos.