The Devastating Art of Pent Jak Silat
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.
There is no overall standard for Pentjak Silat. Each style has its own particular movement patterns, specially designed techniques and tactical rationale. However, although all styles use hand and foot motions, the percentage of use of either one depends on the style and the tactics being used. A quite remarkable tactic is the one used by the Harimau style from Sumatra. In this method, the practitioner’s movement pattern resembles the antics of a tiger (the name of Harimau), with heavy emphasis on staying close to the ground using crouching, lying, sitting and semi-squat positions. The leg strength and flexibility required is impressive and the Harimau stylist can use his hands like extra feet or his feet like extra hands. He can start the fight from the ground position or will invite his opponent into a trap then take him to the ground. Other types of Sumatran Silat are Menangkabau, Podang, Sterlak, Lintau and Kumango. On the other hand, many Javanese styles use a percentage weighting that is more balanced between hand and legwork. Many Javanese styles require the practitioner to move in close against the enemy in an upright position, then use various hand and foot moves to express the techniques. Styles such as Tjimande Serak, Tjikalong and Tjigrik, all demonstrate this fact.
The names of style can be traced to many diverse origins. Styles are named after a geographical area, city or district, after an animal, after a spiritual or combative principle, after a person, or after a physical action. For example, there is a style called “Undukaym Silat” which takes its name after the footwork actions that mimic those of a hen scratching the ground. Seitia Hati meaning “faithful heart” is named to represent a spiritual principle. Mustika Kwitang is named after the Kwitang district in the city of Jakarta. Serak is named after the person who founded the style. Menangkebau Silat is named after an ethnic group, the Menankabau people. Sterlak Silat is name after a quality and means “to attack with strength.” The variety and diverseness of names is not limited to any one style.
Finding good teachers that can pass on the knowledge is not easy. Traditional Pentjak Silat is highly clandestine and secretive. Teachers never compete for students and usually keep to themselves with their small groups. To find a Silat master is usually always by introduction through a family member or friend. The acceptance process is often very selective and the probation period is strict. Each teacher has his own particular criteria he uses to evaluate a prospective student that is often based on the studentís character; specifically his temperament and judgment, his demeanor (his outward behavior, his manner towards others) and his morality and ethics. The student’s willingness to learn is also of great importance because the training will be severe. In many styles, the student, once accepted is required to take an oath to the style.
The probation period serves as a screening time so that the teacher may directly observe the behavior of the student and draw a conclusion of his sincerity. The instruction is almost always one on one, supervised directly by the master, so that the ability and morality of the student can be distinguished clearly. The teacher will reject anyone whose attitude or personality is deemed as unworthy. Discipline is harsh and violations often result in dismissal of the student. Learning the “old way” is not an easy thing to do and consequently the number of people practicing is very small. It is not meant to be open for everyone. Such a relationship and training regime is regarded as sanctified and is taken with the utmost seriousness by all involved.
Self-Defense Verses Sport ñ The Old verses the New
There is a movement today where the various governments in Southeast Asia are trying to organize Pentjak Silat on national and regional levels as a sport; with competitions, tournaments and in the educational system with various standards in order to collectively regulate the great diversity of styles. However, according to the traditionalists, the goal of Pentjak Silat is always self-defense and not physical education or sport. The development and transition of Silat, an art designed for self-defense to one for sporting and physical education applications is a favorite subject among the old veterans and masters of Silat. Many of these masters refuse to participate in the “modernizing” of their art, preferring to stay to themselves teaching in small groups in the traditional manner. They feel that if Silat is developed as a sport, its combative vitality and values will be compromised and eventually weaken the effectiveness of it as a fighting art. This view certainly has merit. With these combative aspects watering away, certain protective techniques deemed vital such as guarding the groin, throat, eyes, and joints are eliminated and considered unnecessary to practice, as the rules of the sport do not permit an attack to those targets. How you practice is how you will fight. Old style Silat develops reflex habits that allow the practitioner to automatically counterattack to the assailant’s vital areas while remaining keenly aware of his own vulnerability.
In sport Silat, this awareness is lost, resulting on a dangerous dependency of a deficient fighting art no longer designed for real self-defense. The traditionalists also believe that sport Silat will be influenced by tournament success. Schools will develop and train with the objective of winning these tournaments and a “tournament style” of Silat will result, with special techniques designed only for the objective of winning according to the rules. These new creations have nothing to do with real self-defense.
Sportive combat also presents another problem of values. Traditional Silat is mostly defensive in attitude and physical expression. Rarely will the Silat man attack first. The practitioner prefers to wait for the attack before he moves into action. The values of sport are different because the student is training to attack to score points, so he develops the attitude of attack and not the attitude of counterattack from defensive posturing. Training to be a sportsman, develops sportsman-like thinking such as “fair play,” and the “you can’t win ’em all” idea of being a “good sport about losing.” A Silat man has everything to lose because his personal safety, maybe even his life are on the line. He cannot be a good loser. The values of the old fashioned Silat is about protecting your life at all costs, doing whatever is necessary to survive because the only reason you are fighting is to protect your life or the lives of your loved ones. This is why the student is taught to think of his training partner as an “assailant” attempting to take his life. If the student were to think of the assailant as an opponent, then it would negate the meaning of the art, the spirit of combat of actual fighting. In Pentjak Silat training, students are taught to also consider the climate, clothing being worn, time of day and night and the terrain, upon which they are fighting. These all combine to determine the tactics used and the emotional atmosphere of the fight.
The emphasis in physical education and sport on aesthetics and not function is also why in the newer sport versions of Silat, there is an increasing amount of “showmanship” and gymnastics. What looks flashy and pleasing to the eye may or may not have anything to do with combative function. These useless moves added for entertainment value eat away into the fabric of combative Pentjak Silat and begin weakening its structure much like termites over time eating away at the frame of the house. The old folks believe that the practice of traditional Pentjak Silat has all the personal skill and artistry needed without having to weaken it by making it into a sport or an exhibition art.
Fighting Multiple Opponents
All serious styles of Pentjak Silat teach the student to consider multiple opponents. The student maintains the awareness of these multiple assailants while participating in solo training exercises or with a partner. Many styles consider a minimum of three enemies and build up to exercises involving five to seven enemies. A great deal of Silat technique is a mix of grappling and hitting. The grappling is a “loose” type of grappling where the moves are used for take downs, off-balancing sweeps, and tying the opponent up momentarily. Even in the intricate and deadly holds of the Buah Kunchi of Malaysian Bersilat, the trainee can still quickly dissolve the hold in order to engage another assailant. Being able to disengage from one person in order to move to another is essential in fighting multiple opponents. The trainee is not so committed to applying body pressure and leverage where he cannot make an immediate escape. Hitting is used to tenderize and soften up the assailant before going into these intricate and complex techniques. This grappling / hitting mix gives the trainee flexibility and adaptability to meet the changing situation, whatever it is, that he finds thrust upon him.
As the practitioner finishes off his assailant with a take down and follow-up, he immediately crouches, covers, and assumes the “on guard” stance and posture combinations of his particular style, because another attacker may be on his way in. The assailant that he just took down may not be finished after all. He may have been able to take all that punishment or as in many styles of Silat, he may be feigning his hurt condition, hoping the student drops his defenses and he can surprise re-attack. It is important to take the assailant seriously at all times; that he is always dangerous even when down and especially when practicing in order to build this attitude so it is a habit. This cautionary awareness has resulted in the overkill principle, which seems to be prevalent in all types of Southeast Asian self-defense. This being the repeated use of follow-up techniques after the assailant has been thought to already have been taken out. Experience tells Silat people that one or two strikes or breaks seldom finish the job at hand, therefore, for safety purposes, a variety of backups are built into the trainee’s reflexes. Each backup technique has its own back up!
The Use of Weapons
Of course, the classical study of Pentjak Silat demands that the trainee learn to wield the traditional weapons such as the knife, the stick, the staff, the tjabang (branch), the short sword, and the sarong (cloth) or rope.
As Draeger notes, “No Pentjak Silat system is combatively idealistic, so foolish, or so naïve as to require this exclusive use of empty hand tactics for solving all combative situations.”
The use of these weapons and objects are based on the same technical rationale as the empty hand curriculum of djurus (hand movement) and Langkahs (footwork). In this way, objects from his daily surroundings such as pens, combs, drinking receptacles, shoes, belts and eating utensils, even a salt shaker can be brought into play to enhance a particular technique. In self-defense Silat, the environment is to be used when possible if time permits, because the assailant, even if empty-handed may be concealing a weapon of his own. His moves must be treated extra carefully.
With this unifying, coherent system firmly planted in place in the trainee’s mind, he can substitute and transfer the use of weapons to the techniques he already knows empty-handed. His skill is already built in from his empty hand training. This is unlike Filipino methods that teach weapons use first and empty hand derivations second.
The unifying principles of Silat are used to help the trainee fight his fight without being confused about what he should do next. These unifying principles are based on the physics of efficiency of technique and economy of motion, and are kept as secrets of the systems. The unifying principles help the trainee to understand the endless variations of empty hand techniques. There are so many in fact that it is impossible to name them all. They all stem from the root techniques of the empty hand curriculum and are recognized by “insiders” as such. Silat practitioners make use of all parts of the body for locking, joint breaking or as striking weapons. Substituting a shoulder for an elbow, for example, one can produce the same joint / lock conceptually. The various hand formations similar to the crane beak, tiger claw, eagle claw, panther fist, like those used in Kung Fu can be adapted in the moment, to the various techniques. The trainee, at some point in his study designated by the master, learns the vulnerable points of the body to be exploited with the techniques he has already learned. Often times it is a matter of reviewing the techniques already known and adding this knowledge as a finishing touch. Like a road map, the routes are already known and in place, the teacher just makes the student aware of a few more stops and points can be hit, pinched, torn or squeezed and add a rich dimension to the techniques already mastered by the practitioner. They are especially useful against larger assailants who need prodding and convincing in order to make a technique work or escaping holds and locks that the practitioner has somehow found himself caught in.
The Esoteric Spiritual Core
No system of traditional Silat is complete without strong spiritual training. Known as “Kebatinin” or “Llmu,” it is considered very important so that the student may be prepared for the violence and consequences of real combat. Some confuse the spiritual aspect of Silat with the common spectacle of street magicians as evidence of spiritual power and mastery. These spectacle include stunts such as eating razor blades and crushed glass, putting needles through different parts of the body, lying on beads of nails, etc., and are used to impress the uneducated and to justify the art’s potency. However, true spiritual training is difficult work on the inner self, it is the search for those truths which lead to humility and a reverence for life. There is no room for mysterious tricks and mystical illusions in real Silat. If a student learns to depend on mysticism he doesn’t understand, then he learns to depend on something outside himself, and to depend on something outside of himself is to weaken his own nature.
True spiritual Silat strengthens the individual will and knowledge so he can rely on himself. Emphasis on mystification usually indicates the absence of true knowledge and understanding. As Pendekar Paul Dethouars, of the Serak system says, “The truth of combat is hard enough to understand, so why mystify and create more obstacles to it?”
One aspect that is surrounded with the mystical is the use of amulets, prayers and rituals designed to induce invulnerability and protection for the student should he find himself in danger and be forced to use his skills. These methods are unique to each teacher and style of Silat, and are private and never exposed publicly. Amulets and prayers in all the styles have a common function of a physical reminder of the student’s connection to the real mystery, the Creator, the Infinite, the Cosmos. This physical reminder can also help reinforce the particular belief system he has been taught. For example, if he is wearing an amulet of tiger’s stone, or the tooth of a tiger, then that is a physical reminder that when he uses his Silat he becomes like a tiger in his attitude and takes on the fighting attributes of a tiger. Tenacity, great courage, daring ferocity becomes his mental state.
All methods of Silat involve the understanding of a particular belief system, particular to the style and the master teaching that style. The belief system may be based on the teacher’s own religious background and he may use that as a basis for his philosophical teachings, morality and ethics, along with his personal experiences of life. If the teacher’s religious background is Hindu, like many teachers on the island of Bali in Indonesia, then the philosophy and spirituality of his system will reflect that religious view. Many Silat teachers are Muslim, so their spiritual system reflects the tenets of Islam. More recently, with the arrival of Europeans in Southeast Asia, some teachers have embraced Christianity, so their philosophical and spiritual teaching reflect Christian ideals. This is very common among the Filipino Escrimadors of the central and northern Philippines where Catholicism is very strong. Some teachers will not accept a student into the higher echelons of their spiritual teachings unless the student embrace his teacher’s religion. Other Silat masters are more tolerant and liberal using other criteria to judge a student’s character. The end result of all systems regardless of religious orientation is a belief system for the student, that produces the heart of courage, confidence, and the will to fight on the side of truth and justice. This is a tremendous base and back up for the Fighting techniques he has learned.
Not all of the philosophical teachings of Silat systems is based on a particular religious point of view. The physical techniques of Silat also provide for the study of the esoteric philosophy of Silat. Much of the physical truth of traditional Silat leads to the development of a philosophy of life. The parallels between the physical concepts and the mental-spiritual concepts are important for the study of life.
Some examples of this would be that just as the student works hard to refine his physical technique, so he works hard to purify his character strengths and weaknesses, his relationships with others and his relationship to the Creator. Just as he devotes himself to the study of the locks, take downs, sweeps, and weapons, so he devotes himself to the review and examination of his own life, i.e., in all areas; mental, spiritual, career, financial, social, family, physical and spiritual. The old timers say they can tell a lot about a person just by how he practices his Silat. If he hurries through his solo exercises all the time, then he is probably going to hurry through his work in life, leading to sloppiness and poor results. The teachers of traditional Silat are ever vigilant! Every detail is important! Every effort is a step forward! When a sufficient number of steps have been taken, success or achievement is the result. The student may have finished the curriculum and may have known it for a long time, but only when he begins to THINK, LIVE, and above all FEEL, that which is taught him, then and only then will he KNOW the real contents of the lessons he has been taught even though he may have physically and intellectually known the facts of the systems for years. The lessons and knowledge is of value only when it is actually applied. As progress and development proceed, the student reaches down within himself and gradually comes into consciousness of this understanding. Learning the traditional Silat, is never easy, if it was it couldn’t be worthwhile. Just as in life, things that one had to work very hard for are valued and appreciated. Things that come easy are never valued for long.
There is an old saying among Silat people that goes, “You do not choose Silat, Silat chooses you!” By the nature of the difficult work necessary to master the art, the art itself selects its worthy initiates and ultimately transforms them.