The Devasting Art of Pentjak Silat


by Cass Magda

The world’s largest archipelago stretches like a huge scimitar from Malaysia to New G uinea comprised of more than 13,000 islands and is home to a deadly fighting art known as “Silat”, or “Pentjak Silat.”

In Malaysia, there are approximately 500 styles. In Indonesia there are perhaps 200 styles with many styles preferring not to be recognized by their respective governments. Accordingly, there may be an incalculable number of styles being practiced today. Archaeological evidence reveals that by the sixth century A.D. formalized combative systems were being practiced in the area of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. Two kingdoms, the Srivijaya in Sumatra from the 7th to the 14th century and the Majapahit in Java from the 13th to 16th centuries made good use of these fighting skills and were able to extend their rule across much of what is now Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The Dutch arrived in the seventeenth century and controlled the spice trade up until the early 20th century, with brief periods of the English and Portuguese attempting unsuccessfully to gain a lasting foothold in Indonesia. During this period of Dutch rule. “Silat,” or “Pentjak Silat” (as it is known in Indonesia today) was practiced undergound until the country gained its independence in 1949.

With the crisscrossing of wars, trade and immigration of various cultures across this region since the 6th century, the effect on present day Pentjak Silat is evident. These influences can be seen such as Nepalese music, Hindu weapons such as the trisula [forked truncheon], Indian grappling styles, Siamese costumes, Arabian weapons Chinese weapons and fighting methods. Pentjak Silat still plays an important role in the lives of thousands of people across the Malay world with the rural village dwellers practicing and making it part of their daily routines.

The word “Pentjak” means; the body movements used in the training method and the word “Silat” means; the application of those movements or the actual “fight.” Each style of Pentjak Silat has its own formal curriculum, history and traditions, some shrouded in secrecy and some open to the public. “Silat Pulut” is a method that is openly displayed to the public, seen at public ceremonies such as weddings. “Pulut” means glutinous rice, the sticky kind often eaten at Malay parties and wedding receptions. Thus, this “Rice Cake Silat” is characterized by flashy, aesthetically beautiful moves that have very little to do with real self-defense. Silat Buah is rarely shown in public. Buah means “fruit,” implying that part of Silat which is useful. It is the applications or techniques for self-defense. Many systems inter-relate, function and integrate as a whole. Every move, physical or mental is consistent with a certain belief system and fighting rationale, making it a devastating self-defense system.

Topeng (mask)Raden Astra Miruda, before 1815. Central Java.

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