Historical Overview

West Java is also called Parahyangan, the Land of the Gods, and Sunda or Priangan. It refers to the area encompassing the former kingdoms of Banten in the west and Cirebon in the northeast, as well as the north coast and the mountains of West Java.

Traders and seafarers from what is now Indonesia probably traveled as far as India, China, the east coast of Africa, and into the Pacific for centuries before the common era. We know that beginning around two thousand years ago, West Java was a center for trade with other parts of Asia. It is believed that Sunda was one of the first regions on Java to trade with India. By the year 400 of the common era, a Hindu kingdom, Tarumanegara, existed in West Java.

Tarumanegara was destroyed in the 7th century by the Sumatran kingdom of Sriwijaya. By then, however, the effect of Indian influence was already seen in West Java, in dance forms, in the Ramayana and Mahabharata stories that formed the basis of the dance dramas, and in the elements of the martial arts, which became known as pencak silat. Both folk and classical dances reflect the influence of pencak silat in their movements.

In the 13th century the Buddhist kingdom of Pajajaran built the first trading settlements in the area where Jakarta is today. The Hindu kingdom of Banten emerged slightly later. In 1522 the Portuguese first appeared at Pajajaran, seeking spices. They were driven out by Sunan Gunungjati in 1527. He renamed the port Jayakarta (victorious) and it became a fiefdom of Banten, which Demak had taken in 1524. A second Islamic kingdom, Cirebon, arose further to the east, almost on the border of Central Java. The head of Demak, Sunan Gunungjati, also became the first king of Cirebon. Because Sunan Gunungjati used the gamelan, wayang (puppet play) and dance performances to assemble the people and convert them to Islam, dance was associated in the popular mind with Islam and earlier dance forms continued to be performed.

After 1511 Banten became a major port for Chinese, Arab, and Indian traders who wanted to avoid the Portuguese, who had taken control of Malacca. About 1600, the Dutch first appeared at Banten. Then the English showed up, and Banten became the center of Anglo-Dutch competition.

The 16th century also saw the development, first in East Java, then in Sunda, of the Panji story cycle, tales of adventure and romance set in the 12th century.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the second kingdom of Mataram was established in Central Java. Banten was the maritime capital of the only Islamic state to remain independent of Mataram. About the same time, in 1619, the Dutch established Batavia at Jayakarta, beginning over 300 years of colonial rule. Also in the 17th century the story of Damarwulan was first circulated. Damarwulan is a historical romance set during the 15th century Majapahit period about a knight’s son who must act to save the kingdom.

At the inception of colonial rule, there were two kingdoms in West Java, Banten and Cirebon. However, the Dutch suppressed Banten in 1832 and divided Cirebon into three smaller kingdoms. During the English invasion of 1811-1816, the Sultans of Cirebon were dethroned, retaining only the rights of regents. The regency continued after the Dutch regained colonial power. Because there were no ruling princes in West Java, court dance did not have the same patronage as in the courts of Central Java. Cirebon court dance was strongly influenced by the Central Javanese style and was confined to the palaces and residences of the nobility. On the other hand, the lack of a strong court led to the development of a wide variety of folkloric dance styles.

Since independence, the development of performing arts in West Java has become economically and politically stable. Generally, Sundanese dance is more developed than it was 80 years ago. Now there are more individuals whose choreography is rooted in earlier or traditional dance. Dance presentation has also developed, not only in terms of choreography, but also in terms of technique, etiquette and mental outlook.