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  • The Nusantara Bulletin

Culture to Combat With Prajurit Estri and the Condroso

Image Credit: Sketch from 'Mighty Women in Java, 18th-19th Centuries' by Peter Carey and Vincent Houben, originally sketched in the era of Mangkunegara VII, sourced from Perpustakaan Rekso Pustoko, Mangkunegaran.

In the hidden pages of history, tales of extraordinary women often remain buried beneath the sands of time. Among these forgotten stories are the remarkable feats of ancient Javanese women who embodied not only strength and independence but also wielded a surprising and seemingly innocent accessory: the condroso, a hairpin concealing a deadly secret.

The Covert Power of the Condroso

The condroso, a Javanese hairpin, was more than just an adornment; it served as a covert weapon, capable of transforming any woman into a formidable adversary when the need arose. Forged from iron with a razor-sharp edge, this unassuming hairpin was ingeniously designed to catch opponents off guard. Worn discreetly in their hair buns, it remained concealed until the opportune moment, transitioning from a mere piece of jewelry into a life-saving tool. In a society that cherished the grace and elegance of its women, this hidden weapon stood as a testament to the resourcefulness and resilience of Javanese women. It acted as a silent guardian, ready to defend its wearer when called upon.

However, the condroso is just one facet of a larger story of empowerment and strength embodied by Javanese women, particularly in the narrative of the elite Mataram Sultanate troops, the prajurit estri. These exceptional women, originating from rural areas, excelled not only in combat but also in the cultural and artistic traditions of their land. Prajurit estri, comprising exclusively female warriors, was established by Pangeran Sambernyawa, later recognized as KGPAA Mangkunegara I, as a special forces unit.

Prajurit Estri: Defenders of Culture and Tradition

Pangeran Sambernyawa trained them in horse riding, archery, shooting, swordsmanship, and fighting. The prajurit estri troops were led by Rubiyah, whose title was Raden Ayu Matah Ati, daughter of a demang (regional official) in Wonogiri. She is also Prince Sambernyawa's second spouse. Rubiyah is a wise, courageous, and devoted wife. Together with her husband, she fought the Dutch and assisted in running the palace.

The prajurit estri troops were highly proficient in horseback riding and displayed remarkable accuracy with rifles, often outperforming many of their male counterparts who received formal training. These soldiers could be likened to elite special forces, capable of executing a wide range of confidential missions.

During their training, they not only honed their weapon skills but also dedicated themselves to mastering the arts of singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments. Their unwavering commitment to both art and war ultimately gave rise to Retno Tinanding, who drew inspiration from the graceful movements of these warrior-women during battle. To this day, this unique dance continues to be performed at the Surakarta Palace, leaving an indelible mark on contemporary Indonesian culture. Its significance is further underscored by its mention in the recently released film "Hati Suhita (The Heart of Suhita)."

Masters of the Battlefield and the Art

Prajurit estri participated in welcoming rituals for palace visitors in addition to serving as Mangkunegara's personal bodyguards and securing the keputren (where women resided in the palace). Prajurit estri had the privilege of residing in the palace as well as receiving wages from the king. They held high positions as members of the royal court or as a king's personal staff. They are also referred to as the fragrant flower troops or langen kusumo troops. Prajurit estri also engaged in combat on the battlefield with Dutch forces and allies. The conflict in the Selogiri region of Wonogiri in 1757 was one of the battles involving prajurit estri. With their proficiency with firearms and sharp weapons such as the condroso, they were able to cause the Dutch soldiers to flee in terror during that battle.

Herman Willem Daendels, the governor general of the Dutch East Indies, was also astounded by prajurit estri's skill when he saw 40 Mataram women compete in a horse-riding competition in 1809. He was taken aback by the Mataram women's mastery of horseback riding and use of rifles. He recalled that only men were capable of such skills in his home country.

Remarkably, the official uniforms of the prajurit estri were indistinguishable from the attire of Javanese troops when they engaged in battle, including the prajuritan attire. As detailed in the book "Perempuan-Perempuan Perkasa di Jawa Abad XVIII-XIX" by Peter Carey and Vincen Houben, it is noted that "At the beginning of the Javanese War, bodies of fallen prajurit estri were discovered on the battlefield still dressed in their complete prajuritan attire."

Legacy of Equality and Empowerment

Prajurit estri were more than just fighters; they were ambassadors of culture and tradition. They are a striking example of balance, seamlessly transitioning between their roles as graceful, elegant performers and agile, fierce combatants, with their two sides working in perfect tandem. Their versatility was unparalleled, embodying the ideals of Javanese women.

In the annals of history, the prajurit estri and their secret weapon, the condroso, symbolize the indomitable spirit of Javanese women. They shattered stereotypes and demonstrated that women were not just capable of protecting themselves but excelling in diverse fields, from culture to combat. Prajurit estri came to represent the equality of Javanese women, a legacy that continues to inspire and empower women today.


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