The Devastating Art of Pentjak Silat
by Cass Magda
The world's largest archipelago stretches like a huge scimitar from Malaysia to New Guinea, encompassing more than 13,000 islands and, more importantly for martial arts, more than 700 fighting systems. Among these, Silat, or Pentjak Silat, is perhaps the deadliest.
Archeological evidence reveals that by the 6th Century AD, formalized combat arts were being practiced in Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. Two kingdoms-- the Srivijaya in Sumatra and the Majapahit in Java-- made good use of these fighting skills and were able to extend their rule across much of what is now Indonesia and Singapore. The Dutch arrived in the 17th Century and controlled the spice trade up until the early 20th Century, although both the English and Portuguese attempted, unsuccessfully, to gain a lasting foothold in Indonesia. During this period of Dutch rule, Pentjak Silat was practiced secretly until the country gained its independence in 1949.
Wars, foreign trade and immigration across this region since the 6th Century have left an indelible effect on present-day Pentjak Silat. The system incorporates Hindu, Arabian and Chinese weapons and fighting methods, Indian grappling techniques, Siamese costumes and Nepalese music. Thousands of people across the Malay Peninsula still practice the style and make it part of their daily routines.
'Pentjak' refers to the body movements used in training. 'Silat' is the application of these movements in a fight. There are many types of Pentjak Silat, each with its own curriculum, history and traditions. Silat pulut, for example, is a dance-like method often demonstrated at public ceremonies such as weddings. 'Pulut' means 'glutinous rice', the sticky kind often eaten at Malay parties. Thus, this 'rice cake Silat' is characterized by flashy, aesthetically pleasing moves that have very little to do with real self-defense. Conversely, Silat Buah, a style rarely shown in public, is used entirely for self-defense. Every move, physically or mentally, in Pentjak Silat is consistent with a certain belief system and fighting rationale.
Each style has its own movement patterns, specially designed techniques and tactics. Although all the systems use hand and foot motions, the percentage of each depends on the particular style and the tactics being used. A quite remarkable tactic found in the Harimau system of Sumatra is a movement pattern resembling the antics of a tiger, with heavy emphasis on staying close to the ground in crouching, lying, sitting and squatting positions. The leg strength and flexibility required for such movements is impressive and the Harimau stylist can use his hands like extra feet, or his feet like extra hands. He can start a fight from ground level, or will invite his opponent into a trap, then take him to the ground. On the other hand, many Javanese styles employ tactics that feature more balanced hand and leg work. Some Javanese systems require the practitioner to move in close to the enemy in an upright position, then use both hand and foot maneuvers to take him out.
Pentjak Silat systems are generally named after a geographical area, city, district, person, animal, physical action, or a spiritual or combative principle. For example, Undukayam Silat takes its name from the actions of a hen scratching the ground. The Seitia Hati, 'faithful heart', system gets its name from a spiritual principle. Mustika Kwitang is named after the Kwitang district in Jakarta. Menangkabau Silat derives its name from the Menankebau people.
Traditional Pentjak Silat is highly secretive. Teachers never compete for students and usually keep to themselves. The only way to find instruction is though introduction by a family member or friend of the teacher. The acceptance process is often very difficult and prospective students face a strict probation period. The instructor pays particular attention to a student's character, specifically his temperament, judgment, demeanor, morality and ethics. The probation period enables the teacher to observe the student's behavior and determine his sincerity. The instructor will reject anyone whose attitude or personality is deemed unworthy. Discipline is harsh and violations often result in the student's dismissal. Consequently, the number of people who train is usually very small, but then, Pentjak Silat is not meant for everyone.
Once accepted, students are often required to take an oath to the system. Then the real training begins.
All Pentjak Silat systems pay particular attention to defense against multiple opponents. Students are initially taught to defend themselves against a minimum of three attackers and eventually progress to exercises involving five to seven assailants.
Most Silat defenses are a mix of grappling and hitting techniques. A 'loose' type of grappling is used, the object being to take down, unbalance, sweep and/or tie-up the opponent momentarily.
Pentjak Silat students are also taught the importance of disengaging from one opponent to face another when fighting multiple assailants. The Silat practitioner should not be so committed to one attacker that he cannot make an immediate escape to face a secondary adversary.
Striking techniques are used to 'tenderize' and soften up the assailant prior to initiating Pentjak silat's intricate grappling techniques. The idea is to be flexible and adaptable to the ever-changing nature of combat, no matter what situation is thrust upon you. Practitioners are taught to consider the climate, opponent's clothing, time of day and the terrain upon which they are fighting. Such factors help them determine the proper tactics to employ and the emotional atmosphere of the fight.
Once the Silat stylist has executed takedown and follow-up techniques, he immediately crouches and assumes a ready stance in anticipation of further attacks, either from the opponent he just finished with, or other assailants. Silat practitioners never overlook a fallen opponent; they know he can still be dangerous. Such caution and awareness are typical of South-East Asian self-defense systems, which are often given to overkill. It is not uncommon for a Silat stylist to deliver repeated follow-up strikes after an assailant has been taken down. Experience tells the Silat practitioner that one or two blows seldom finish an opponent.
Because hands and feet alone are not enough to solve all combat situations, classical Pentjak Silat includes the study of traditional weapons such as knives, sticks, staff, swords and rope. The same principles and technical rationale used in silat's hand and foot movements apply to the system's weapons training as well. In this way, practitioners can resort to everyday objects such as pens, combs, drinking receptacles, shoes, belts, eating utensils, etc., to enhance a particular technique. With this unifying, coherent system firmly in mind, the Silat stylist can substitute and transfer the use of weapons to the empty hand techniques he already knows. This is unlike Filipino fighting arts which teach weapons use first and empty hand derivations later.
The unifying principles of Silat are based on physics, allowing practitioners to fight in the most efficient and economical manner possible. Students learn that there are endless variations to the empty hand techniques. Silat practitioners make use of all their body parts for locking, joint-breaking or striking maneuvers. A skilled Silat stylist, for example, can substitute a shoulder for an elbow and effect the same type of joint lock.
At some point in their training, Pentjak Silat students are taught how to exploit the most vulnerable points on their existing techniques and adding knowledge of vital points as a finishing touch. Like a road map, the routes to the target are already in place; the teacher just makes the student aware of a few stops and points of interest along the way. The opponent's pressure points can be struck, pinched or squeezed with virtually equal effect. Such attacks are especially useful against large assailants, putting you on equal terms with them and pressure-point techniques are also beneficial for escaping an opponents hold or lock.
A current movement toward sport Silat in Indonesia has some traditionalists quite concerned. These individuals believe the true essence of the art will be lost if rules are implemented and the system emphasizes competition. The hard-liners point out that traditional Silat is mostly defensive in nature. Rarely will the Silat stylist attack first.
Practitioners instead prefer to wait for the opponents attack before taking action. But once a confrontation has escalated into violence, there is no sense of fair play on the part of the Silat practitioner. His personal safety, maybe even his life, is on the line. He cannot be a good loser. Old fashioned Silat is all about protecting your life at all costs and doing whatever is necessary to survive. Tournament competition, the traditionalists fear, would negate the entire meaning and spirit of Silat, weakening its structure as a self-defense system much like termites, over time, weaken the frame of a house.
No traditional Silat system is complete without strong spiritual training. Known as Kabatinin or Ilmu, this aspect of Silat is considered very important because it prepares students for the violence and consequences of combat. Don't confuse the spiritual training of Silat with the kind of stunts you often see in martial arts; lying on a bed of nails, walking on glass, sticking motorcycle spokes through the skin, etc. True spiritual training involves hard work on your inner self. It is the search for those truths that lead to humility and a reverence for life. It strengthens a practitioner's will and knowledge so he can rely on himself. There is no room for mysterious tricks or mystical illusions in Silat. Emphasis on mystification generally indicates an absence of true knowledge and understanding. As noted Silat instructor Paul de Thouars says," The truth of combat is hard enough to understand. Why mystify and create more obstacles to it?"
Despite this, Silat does include amulets, prayers, and rituals designed to induce invulnerability and protect students in times of danger. These privately taught rites are unique to each teacher and are never revealed in public. Such traditions serve as a physical reminder of the student's connection to the cosmos and his belief system. For example, if he is wearing an amulet of tiger's stone, or the tooth of a tiger, it is a physical reminder that when he uses his Silat, he assumes a tiger's attitude and incorporates it's fighting attributes, including tenacity, courage, daring, and ferocity.
All Silat methods include a belief system, often based on the instructor's religious background, that produces in student's courage, confidence, and the will to fight in the side of truth and justice. The belief system serves as a philosophical foundation for the student's fighting techniques. Much of the physical aspect of traditional Silat has mental and spiritual equivalents. This is why the earnest study of Silat leads to the development of a philosophy of life. Just as the student works hard to refine his physical technique, so too must he attempt to purify his character and improve his relationships with others.
Long-time Silat stylists claim they can tell a lot about a person just by how that individual practices his system. If he hurries through his solo exercises all the time, he is probably going to hurry through his work, leading to sloppiness and mistakes. A Silat student may have a thorough knowledge of the system's curriculum, but only when he begins to think, live, and above all else, feel that which is taught to him, does he actually begin to understand the real content of his lessons. As he progresses, the student reaches within himself and gradually achieves an understanding of this concept.
Learning traditional Silat is never easy. If it was, it wouldn't be worthwhile. Just as in life, you value and appreciate the things you have to work hard for. Things that come easy, on the other hand, are never valued for long.