Silat – the Fighting Arts of Indonesia

by Usuf Hariman

PENCAK SILAT is a martial art characteristic of Indonesian endeavour. It appears to have first developed in the Sumatran Minangkabau kingdom on the west central coast of that huge island, proliferated into a variety of styles during Sriwijaya kingdom (seventh to 14th century) and flourished even further during Majapahit (13th to 16th century) on Java.

Many of the Indonesian combative measures are derived from the study of nature, especially animal responses and actions.

According to a legend, the art owes its origin to a peasant woman. A long time ago, a woman went to a stream for water. There she watched a tiger and a large bird locked in mortal combat. At the end, both died.

At home, her husband scolded her sharply. When he hit her she evaded the attack easily, using the movements of the two animals. Later, she taught her amazed husband the art, and it was launched

The greatest disseminator of Pencak Silat is probably Hang Tuah (14th century). Travelling frequently out of Maiacca, he, according to a legend, learned the art from Adi Putera and Persanta Nala, two great masters of the period. At the end, he fully mastered the armed and unarmed aspects of the art and put them in such realistic use that his name lives on.

The orthodox form of Pencak Silat is decidedly a fighting art, not a sport. Recently, there has been an inclination to standardise the existing forms of Pencak Silat for sport purposes. Most of the traditional Pencak Silat masters are opposed to this trend, however. They are worried by the possibility that this trend may dilute the combative values of Pencak Silat.

Nowadays, there are a large number of Pencak Silat schools in Indonesia. They bear striking technical differences from each other. Some emphasize hand tactics; many place much trust on foot tactics; quite a number rely on grappling tactics, and a few stress the use of hypnosis (e.g. Setia Hati Terate) to subdue their enemies.

The practitioners of the latter persuasion usually make use of ‘Mantras’ to release the hypnotic abilities which they have acquired through a long period of Samadhi, breathing control, eyes training, etc. A mantra resembles closely the cue (usually a word) often used by a Western auto (self) hypnotic adept to enable him to enter quickly the desired depth of hypnotic state. The just-mentioned cue (mantra) is associated, through a long period of classical conditioning with the trance-like state, the stillness of the mind, the brevity, the piercing look etc. of a person ready to launch a mental attack.

The major Pencak Silat schools are: (a.) Sumatra: Pauh, Strelak, Lintow and Kumango. (b.) West Java: Cimande, Cikalong, Ciandur, Mustika Kwitang and Cinkrik. (c.) Central Java: Setia Hati (Loyal Heart), Perisai Sakti (All-powerful shield), Tapak Suci (Sacred Palm. (d.) East Java: Perisai Diri (The Shield of Oneself). (e.) Madura: Pamur. (f.) Bali: Bhakti Negara ( Loyalty To One’s country), Tridharma (Three Sacr-ed Duties).

Despite the diversity in technical details, some common patterns run through all these schools:

A jurus refers to a subset of techniques, usually consisting of several movements. By means of it, the student learns how to use his natural weapons appropriately, both for defensive and offensive purposes. A collection of jurus is called a form e.g. Pendita (Priest), Kuda Kuningan (Yellow Horse), etc. A form may consist of exercises which have to be performed alone, in which case it resembles karate’s kata; or, it may cover sparring exercises against one or more opponents.

Melanghah refers to foot movements employed in jurus. Thus, the practitioner may move in all directions, stand in a deep crouch, use the ground as an aid for falling, etc.
Kembangan (flower) refers to a ritual prior to engagement in training. Although it is intended mainly as a form of etiquette, some fighting considerations are given, in case the practitioner is suddenly attacked. It is thus flexible and changeable.
Rahasia (secret) is an advanced technique analogous to tien-hsueh (Chinese) and atemi (Japanese). It is taught only to the worthy and the talented. The receiver has to swear that he will never release it to an outsider and that he will use it only when his life and death are at stake. In case no such disciples are around, the master usually prefers to take the art to his grave, rather than to let it fall to the wrong hand. Through rahasia the student learns the location of deadly points, how and at what time they can be attacked with the utmost effectiveness, and at the same time learns to defend his own.
Kebatinan (spiritual training): This is the most advanced aspect of Pencak Silat and is also regarded as the most important. It is grounded in ‘Mysticism’ (especially that of Moha mmedan origin). Without it, the student’s training is considered incomplete. All pencak silat practitioners it is said, should strive to become spiritualists first and combatants second.

As with Zen Buddhism, Kebatinan is regarded as a means toward spiritual awakening or enlightenment. While the long period of meditation, fasting, breathing exercises, etc associated with Kebatinan can undoubtedly enhance the practitioner’s fighting abilities they are regarded as secondary rather; than the primary gain. “The aim of Kebatinan is to purify our mind, not to acquire fighting skills”, an old pendekar (pencak silat master) once told me.

Even though many of the feats attributed to the pencak silat master (e.g. killing at a distance, foreseeing the future, etc) defy explanation and resist verification, some of them are probably based on facts. Mr Donn Draeger, the author of “Weapons 8r

Fighting Arts of the Indonesian Archipelago” wrote: “This writer, having suffered a deep scalp wound, was treated by the pendekar Dirdjoatmodjo, of Perisai Diri pencak silat, Surabaya, East Java. The pendekar merely touched the open wound with his fingers as he concentrated, and within seconds the profuse bleeding stopped. No pressure was applied and the bleeding stopped before normal coagulation time. This unexplainable feat was witnessed by Howard Alexander, a creditable man”.

The real martial aspects of Pencak Silat are seldom if ever displayed publicly. What is usually displayed in marriage ceremonies, festivals, etc is the aesthetic aspect of Pencak Silat— a form of dance-like movements (Tari Silat, sometimes called Pulut). It is utterly devoid of combat realism. To stimulate the performers, the graceful and light movements of Tari Silat are usually accompanied by background percussion music. When watching these beautiful movements, a casual observer with untutored eyes can be easily persuaded into thinking that he has seen the whole essence of Pencak Silat.

This is, perhaps, the reason why so many outsiders and foreign scholars regard Pencak Silat as a form of dance.

Traditionally, a person who wishes to learn Pencak Silat may be required to make five offerings:

  • A knife as an indication of his single-mindedness and the sharpness of his will;
  • a white cloth to wrap his body in case he dies in practice;
  • tobacco for the master to smoke during rest periods;
  • chicken blood for spreading on the training ground, symbolising the blood which might otherwise come from the student;
  • some money as the substitute for the masters’ clothes, in case they are ripped during training.

Beyond (5), the orthodox pencak silat masters do not receive any payment. Training is usually conducted in the night time. Madurese practitioners, for example, train in kampung (villages) under the light of lanterns. Later, they practise in total darkness.

Pouncing Tiger Technique

The combatant crouches close to the ground (in imitation of a tiger stalking toward his prey) and inches forward until the proper distance is reached.

Perhaps the most unusual form of Pencak Silat is Silat Macan (the fighting art of the tiger), from Minangkabau (especially Painan area). The combatant crouches close to the ground (in imitation of a tiger stalking toward his prey) and inches forward until the proper distance is reached.

Silat Macan differs from Kung Fu ground technique in that its practitioner’s chest faces downward most of the time (at least before the attack is launched), while the chest of an expert performing Kung Fu ground technique faces forward or upward most of the time. From this tiger-like position, an effective attack can be launched. It is deceptive and can easily upset a fighter unfamiliar with this style.

Silat Macan is said to have developed out of the slippery and wet surfaces of the Minangkabau region, in which an upright fighting stance is impractical. The art obviously requires a great deal of strength and agility from the hips and legs of the practitioner. But this does not pose any problem to Minangkabau natives. They are naturally endowed with this capacity, through their daily climbing of mountains and sitting in the full-squat positions.

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