Javanese Song: “Gundul-Gundul Pacul”, a Semiotics within a Satire

By: Akhmad Khairudin

Sunan Kalijaga was an Islamic preacher living during the post-Majapahit era. He wrote a Javanese literature work in the form of a semiotic, yet very deep in meaning. The song has been chanted by Javanese society from generation to generation. It is very easy to remember even though not so many people understand the real meaning.

Gundul-gundul pacul cul gembelengan,

Nyunggi-nyunggi wakul kul gembelengan,

Wakul ngglimpang segane dadi sakratan,

Wakul ngglimpang segane dadi sakratan

The lyric of the song has a rhyme AAAA and simple vocabularies, therefore it is very easy to remember. However, do you realize that these simple vocabularies are very semiotic and full of message from the Javanese preacher about leadership management?

Gundul-gundul pacul” consists of simple words and has a rhyming “ul” in which the repetition “gundul-gundul” is chosen because this is categorized as pseudo-repetition (kata ulang semu). This repetitive word means an innocent child who has no hair (bald) or has nothing/nobody, or denotatively speaking “someone who is not trustworthy/not reliable”. While “gembelengan” means arrogant or pompous. The first line of the song implies the meaning that an arrogant/pompous person who is not trustworthy is just a joke or nobody.

Morover, the reason why Sunan Kalijaga chose the word “pacul” is also special. “Pacul” or “cangkul” in Indonesian or “hoe” in English is a traditional tool used by farmers to cultivate the land. “Pacul/cangkul” consists of 3 main parts: the iron “pacul/cangkul” at the bottom end, “bawak” the iron base connecting the “pacul” to the hoe handle, and “doran” the hoe handle that is usually made of wood. In English, these words might be called “blended words” or the combination of two or more words into one new word.


“Ngipatake prakara kang muncul” meaning throwing away all excessive things. This means that we have to control all bad attitudes such as arrogant, not trustworthy, greedy, and other bad attitudes.


“Ngobahke awak” meaning moving our body, or implicitly meaning “making an effort (ikhtiar)in order to achieve something” because we cannot just surrender everything to destiny. In Quran chapter Ar-Ra’d verse 11:

  إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنْفُسِهِمْ ۗ

Meaning: “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” 

Perhaps if Javanese society at that time was preached using this sentence, they would not understand or tended to be skeptical towards Sunan Kalijaga. Therefore, Sunan Kalijaga chose to preach them through the substantive aspect of “pacul/cangkul”, hoping them to understand the message easily. This verse conveys the meaning of making an effort (ikhtiar) which is the responsibility of human beings in order to achieve something, and not just by drawing luck or gambling.


“Dedonga marang Pangeran” meaning praying to God The Almighty. After making an effort/ikhtiar, we have to be tawakkul or surrender to God. This should be done in order to get the maximum result and achieve something that is accepted/permitted by God.

The first lyric of the song is written as if the writer wants to convey the message to those who hold the hoe: “Hey… You are actually gundul (nobody), so when you bring the tool (hoe) you may not be reckless.”

Next, the second lyric: “Nyunggi-nyunggi wakul kul gembelengan” is questioning “why are you still reckless when you are given trust?” Again, the writer uses a symbol, “wakul”. Wakul/bakul is a large bowl made of woven bamboo. It is impossible for someone to eat the whole rice in a bakul alone, because the amount of the rice is enough for many people. Implicitly, the lyric wants to tell that the food that belongs to other people is trusted by “si gundul” (the leader) to be shared again, therefore do not be gembelengan/arrogant because the food is also the right of many people.

Finally, the last two lines: “Wakul ngglimpang segane dadi sakratan”. The writer wants to satirize the leader who is actually “si gundul” (nobody), because he brings “pacul” therefore he is given a trust “wakul”, but he becomes reckless and not trustworthy. Therefore, the position that bears the right of the society becomes useless because the rice that should have been distributed to the people falls to the ground and becomes dirty. The rice cannot be eaten anymore.

During the time of the song written, Javanese people underwent a transition from Hinduism to Islam. That was from the reign of Majapahit kingdom to Demak Bintoro kingdom. If the society was explicitly given Quranic verses, they must be skeptical and the message became hard to accept. Sunan Kalijaga conveyed a meaningful message in a very simple literature work consisted of simple dictions. He hoped that when the society understood the meaning of the song, they would understand the real meaning of Quran chapter An-Nisaa verse 58:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَأْمُرُكُمْ أَنْ تُؤَدُّوا الْأَمَانَاتِ إِلَىٰ أَهْلِهَا وَإِذَا حَكَمْتُمْ بَيْنَ النَّاسِ أَنْ تَحْكُمُوا بِالْعَدْلِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ نِعِمَّا يَعِظُكُمْ بِهِ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ سَمِيعًا بَصِيرًا

Meaning: “ Indeed, Allah commands you to render trusts to whom they are due and when you judge between people to judge with justice. Excellent is that which Allah instructs you. Indeed, Allah is ever Hearing and Seeing.”

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