Silat is a collective word for a class of indigenous martial arts from a geo-cultural area of Southeast Asia encompassing most of the Nusantara, the Indonesian Archipelago, the Malay Archipelago and the entirety of the Malay Peninsula. Originally developed in what are now Indonesia, peninsular Malaysia, south Thailand, and Singapore, it is also traditionally practiced in Brunei, Vietnam and the southern Philippines. There are hundreds of different styles (aliran) and schools (perguruan) but they tend to focus either on strikes, joint manipulation, throws, bladed weaponry, or some combination thereof. Silat is one of the sports included in the Southeast Asian Games and other region-wide competitions. Training halls are overseen by separate national organizations in each of the main countries the art is practiced. These are Ikatan Pencak Silat Indonesia (IPSI) from Indonesia, Persekutuan Silat Kebangsaan Malaysia (PESAKA) from Malaysia, Persekutuan Silat Brunei Darussalam (PERSIB) from Brunei and Persekutuan Silat Singapura (PERSISI) from Singapore. Practitioners are called pesilat.
While the word silat is used by Malay-speakers throughout Southeast Asia, the art is officially called pencak silat in Indonesia. Primarily a Javanese term, other names include silek (the Minang pronunciation of silat), main-po or maenpo (used in West Java), and gayong or gayung (used in parts of Malaysia and Sumatra). The clear distinction between Indonesian and Peninsular silat is a relatively recent one based mainly on post-independence patriotic sentiments. The term silat Melayu ("Malay silat") was originally used in reference to Riau but is today commonly used for referring to systems created on the Southeast Asian mainland. Generally speaking, silat Melayu is characterized by fixed hand positions and today is often thought of as a slow dance-like art. While this generalization does not necessarily reflect the reality of silat techniques, it has had a notable influence on the stereotypical way the art is portrayed in Malaysia, Singapore, and to a lesser extent, Brunei.
The origin of the word silat is uncertain but it is almost certainly related to the Tamil word silambam, which has long been practiced by the Indian community of Malaysia. Silambam's preset forms are also referred to as silatguvarisai. However, the most popular etymological hypotheses link silat to any similar-sounding word. The most common theory is that it derives from sekilat meaning "as (fast as) lightning". Other theories derive silat from the Sanskrit sīla meaning morality or principle, or the Chinese saula which means to push or perform with the hands. Other similar-sounding words have been proposed, but are generally not considered by etymologists. One example is si elat which means someone who confuses, deceives or bluffs. A similar term, ilat, means an accident, misfortune or a calamity. Yet another similar-sounding word is silap meaning wrong or error. Some styles contain a set of techniques called Langkah Silap designed to lead the opponent into making a mistake.
In its proper usage in the languages of its origin, silat should actually be a general term for any fighting style. This is still common in Indonesia where even Chinese martial arts may be called silat. After the European colonial creation of a single unified "Malay" identity, the word has taken on a more ethno-nationalistic tone in much of Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore where silat usually refers specifically to martial arts of Malay or Indonesian origin, while other systems are generically called seni bela-diri meaning "self-defense arts".
The silat tradition is mostly oral, having been passed down almost entirely by word of mouth. In the absence of written records, much of its history is known only through myth and archaeological evidence. The earliest weapons found in the Nusantara were sharpened stone tools such as axes. Influence from Laos, Vietnam, India, China and Myanmar arrived during the Neolithic period. Metallurgy was introduced from Tonkin, and followed by the Đông Sơn culture of the Bronze Age. This gave rise to steel weapons such as broadswords, spears, and knives. The iconic kris was patterned after the Dongson dagger. With the exception of the staff, the most common weapons in silat today are still bladed.
The earliest evidence of a more organized silat comes from the Riau-Lingga archipelago, which acted as a land bridge between the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula. Located between Singapore and Sumatra island, the local population gathered great mobility in small boats. The journeys of the sea-nomads regularly extended as far as the Philippines in the north, the Maluku Islands in the east, the Lesser Sunda Islands in the south, and Tenasserim Island in Myanmar. At some point or another they came into contact with the Thais, Malays, Toraja, Chinese, Bugis, Moluccans, Madurese, Dayaks, Sulu, Orang Asli and Burmese until they spread across the Malay Archipelago. Their heterogeneous systems of combat are termed silat Melayu. Practiced since at least the 6th century, they formed the basis for the fighting arts of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, southern Thailand, and most of Indonesia. From its birthplace of Riau, silat quickly spread to the Srivijaya empire and the Minangkabau capital of Pariaman, both powers known for their military might. Srivijaya in particular propagated silat as it extended its rule not only throughout Sumatra but into Java, Borneo, Cambodia, and the Malay Peninsula. Art around the candi of Indonesia display the weapons of the time. Among the weapons featured in murals are swords, shields, bows, clubs, spears, kris, and halberds. The carved dwarapala (gate guards) at Plaosan are giants armed with clubs and swords.
The influence of both India and China were fundamental to the development of silat. By adopting the Indian faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism, Southeast Asian social structure became more organised. Images of Hindu-Buddhist figures such as Durga, Krishna and scenes from the Ramayana all bear testament to the Indian influence on local weapons and armour. The observation of animals has often been the basis for traditional silat, and these systems were most likely derived from animal-based Indian martial arts. Forms are said to have been introduced by the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma who came to Southeast Asia via the Srivijayan capital of Palembang. Many of silat's medicinal practices and weapons originated in either India or China, and the thigh-slapping actions in silat jurus are reminiscent of Hindu wrestling. Some form of wrestling is indeed portrayed in Indonesian temple art. The martial arts practiced by the Chinese community of Southeast Asia are referred to as kuntao.
Between the 11th and 14th centuries, silat reached its peak under Majapahit. Founded by Raden Wijaya after repelling the Mongols, the empire united all of Indonesia's islands and extended its influence into peninsular Malaysia and the southern Philippines. Silat became the specialised property of the nobility and its advanced secrets were hidden from commoners. Systems such as Merpati Putih are said to have been kept secret among the aristocracy until the 20th century. Silat was and in some cases still is used by the defense forces of various Southeast Asian kingdoms and states in what are now Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Brunei. However, it was still promulgated among those not of the upper class. Folklore tells this was often done by pendeta or Hindu-Buddhist sages. For example, silat machan (the Sundanese tiger style) is said to have been created by a Buddhist monk. The village shamans or dukun would often learn silat both as part of their craft and for defending themselves while travelling. Bomoh in some communities such as the Kadayan are required to complete their training in silat before they are initiated. Silat is still an integral aspect of the main puteri healing ritual. Through this connection, silat was used as a method of spiritual training in addition to self-defense.
Southeast Asian trade had already extended into Okinawa and Japan by the 15th century. The number of Japanese people travelling the region increased after the Battle of Sekigahara. By the early 17th century there were small Japanese communities living and trading in Indochina. Some arrived with the official red seal ships while others were warriors and pirates from the losing side of the Sekigahara war. Although mostly confined to Siam, some Japanese escaped to Cambodia and Indonesia after the Ayutthaya Kingdom was attacked by the Burmese. Silat shares many similarities with Okinawan karate as well as the throws and stances of weapon-based Japanese martial arts which probably date back to this time. Trade with Japan ended when the country went into self-imposed isolation but resumed during the Meiji era, during which time certain areas of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore became home to a small Japanese population. After the Japanese Occupation, some silat masters incorporated the katana into their systems.
The words Mentjak (also Mentjah, Pentjah, Pentja ore Pentjak) and Silat were used separately in the Dutch East Indies. Dutch East Indian newspapers described Mentjak as Maleidsche (Malayan) swordsmanship suggesting that the origin of, ore at least, the word should be sought in the direction of Sumatra. Dutch East Indian newspapers often used the Betawi term Poekoelan when describing Javanese martial arts but also Sumatran and Lombok martial arts. Nowadays the terms Poekoelan, Main Pukulan and Maen Pukulan are still used in Jakarta and The Netherlands. In the twentieth century Pencak Silat was very populair among Indo-Dutch youth on the fringes of European society in the Dutch East Indies. After Indonesian independence Indo-Dutch introduce Pencak Silat in The Netherlands.
Since the Islamisation movement of the 1980s and 90s, there have been attempts to make silat more compliant with modern Muslim beliefs and practices, particularly in Malaysia. For example, the grandmaster of Gayong Seri Rama officially changed the style's name to Pancasila Gayong Harimau in order to remove the name of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana story whose movements the system is based on. Some Malaysian silat schools go so far as refusing to teach non-Muslims, or to perform at non-Muslim weddings. This has given rise to various misconceptions that silat is inherently Muslim or can only be practiced by followers of the Islamic faith. In actuality, the Hindu-Buddhist and animistic roots of the art were never eradicated, and remain very evident even among Muslim practitioners. As a result of this modern trend, many traditional practices and styles have become increasingly rare. It is now illegal for Muslim practitioners in Malaysia to chant mantra, bow to idols, or attempt to acquire supernatural powers. Traditional meditation is sometimes also discouraged or altered, and the incantations spoken before training or during massage are now often replaced with prayer recitation.
Silat practitioners begin and end each routine and practice session by saluting their teacher, partner or any spectators as a show of respect. The handsign used is dependent on style and lineage. The vast majority of silat exponents use the Hindu-Buddhist namaste in which the palms are pressed together at chest level. This represents the balance of two opposing forces such as light and dark or hard and soft. The head or upper body is usually bowed as a sign of humility. This was used as a greeting in ancient times, as can still be seen throughout much of Indochina, and until recent decades it was also a form of apology among Malays. The practical purpose of the salute is to trigger the proper state of mind for training or fighting. Additionally, it serves as a technique in itself to block attacks aimed at the face.
Some traditional Javanese schools use another handsign apparently borrowed from the Chinese in which the left hand clasps the right fist. In the context of silat, the fist symbolises martial skill while the opposite hand is a sign of courtesy and camaraderie. This is meant to convey mutual respect and shows that the fighters are willing to learn from each other. Like the namaste it recalls the idea of duality, represented by the harimau (tiger, male aspect) and buaya (crocodile, female aspect). This concept is referred to as jantan betina (male-female) and is equivalent to the androgynous Indian Ardhanarishvara or the Chinese yin and yang. A few systems, such as silat Pattani, may have their own form of salutation unique to that particular system.
Stances and footwork
Every style of silat incorporates multi-level fighting stances (sikap pasang), or preset postures meant to provide the foundation for remaining stable while in motion. The horse stance (kekuda) is the most essential posture, common to many Asian martial arts. Beginners once had to practice this stance for long periods of time, sometimes as many as four hours, but today's practitioners train until it can be easily held for at least ten minutes. Stances are taught in tandem with langkah (lit. "step"), a set of structured steps. Langkah consist of basic footwork and kicks made to teach how best to move in a fight. The langkah kuching (cat step) and langkah lawan (warrior step) are among the more prominent examples of langkah. After becoming proficient at langkah, students learn footwork patterns or tapak ("sole") from which to apply fighting techniques. Each tapak takes account of not only the particular move being used but also the potential for change in each movement and action. Among the most common formations are tapak tiga, tapak empat and tapak lima. All together, the stances, langkah, and tapak act as a basis for forms-training.
Forms or jurus are a series of prearranged meta-movements practiced as a single set. Their main function is to pass down all of a style's techniques and combat applications in an organised manner, as well as being a method of physical conditioning and public demonstration. While demonstrating a form, silat practitioners often use the open hand to slap parts of their own body such the shoulder, elbow, thigh or knee. This reminds the pesilat that when an opponent comes close there may be an opportunity to trap their attacking limbs. Aside from solo forms, they may also be performed with one or more partners. Routines pitting one fighter against several opponents are common in silat. Partnered forms are useful for teaching the application of techniques, particularly those attacks which are too dangerous to be used in a sparring match.
Tari ("dance") are freestyle forms which haven't been arranged beforehand but are created spontaneously. With a partner, tari is used as a way of sensitivity training similar to Chinese chi sao. The aesthetic aspect of forms is called flower (kembangan or bunga) or art (seni) forms. They are performed in slow, graceful movements with a dance-like quality.
Prior to the introduction of firearms, weapons training was actually considered to be of greater value than unarmed techniques and even today many masters consider a student's training incomplete if they have not learned the use of weapons. Except for some weapon-based styles, students must generally achieve a certain degree of skill before being presented with a weapon which is traditionally made by the guru. This signifies the beginning of weapons-training. Silat uses the principle of applying the same techniques both armed and unarmed, though not quite to the same degree as is done in the Filipino martial arts.
Among the hundreds of styles are dozens of weapons. The most commonly used are the staff, broadsword, and various types of knives. Silat today is often associated with the kris or dagger which was traditionally used mainly as a last resort when the fighter had no other weapon available or lost their main weapon in battle. As such, older styles place less importance on the weapon, particularly in Indonesia. However, its significance as a cultural symbol has raised the importance of the kris to such an extent that it has become the primary weapon of many later systems in the Malay Peninsula. Silat's traditional arsenal is largely made up of objects designed for domestic purposes such as the flute (seruling), rope (tali), sickle (sabit) and chain (rantai).
In silat culture, the energetic body consists of interlocking circles called cakera. The cakera's energy rotates outwards along diagonal lines. Energy that emits outwards from the center line is defensive while offensive energy moves inwards from the sides of the body. By being aware of this the silat practitioner can harmonise their movements with the cakera, thereby increasing the power and effectiveness of attacks and movements. Energy could also be used for healing or focused into a single point when applied to sentuhan, the art of attacking an opponent's pressure points. Folklore describes legendary techniques that allow the fighter to attack from afar using energy alone without physically touching the opponent.
Terms of address
In Indonesia, anyone who teaches silat is addressed as Guru or teacher. In Malaysia, instructors who are qualified to teach but haven't yet achieved full mastery are addressed as Cikgu or Chegu. Masters are called Guru while grandmasters are called Mahaguru meaning supreme teacher. The terms cikgu and guru are often interchangeable. An elderly male master may be addressed as Tok Guru or Tuk Guru (lit. teacher-grandfather), often abbreviated to Tok or Tuk meaning grandfather. The Javanese equivalent of this term is Eyang Guru which may be used for an elderly master or the teacher's master. In all countries where silat is practiced, the honorary title of Pendekar may be officially bestowed onto a master by royalty or unofficially by commoners.
Music is used in silat to determine the rhythm of a trainee's movements. This training aspect, often simplistically seen as "performance", is what is known as pencak. These movements are often displayed during festivities such as weddings or a royal installation. They can be done either solo or with a partner and are accompanied by music played by a live band. Several traditional dances were influenced by silat, such as the inai from northern Malaysia. In the Minangkabau area silat is one of the main components in the men's folk dance called randai, besides bakaba (storytelling) and saluang jo dendang (song-and-flute).
The music played during silat performances is known as gendang baku in the Malay Peninsula, and gendang pencha among the Sunda people of West Java. The traditional tunes are often influenced by Nepalese music. The instruments vary from one region to another but the gamelan (Javanese orchestra), kendang or gendang (drum), suling (flute) and gong are common throughout Southeast Asia. The Minangkabau of West Sumatra play a set of gongs known as talempong and sometimes use a type of flute called saluang. The most common instruments in Malaysia are the gendang (drums) and serunai (oboe). Music from the northern part of the Malay Peninsula more closely resembles Thai music.
Types of silat drums include the gendang ibu or "mother drum" and the gendang anak or "child drum". The serunai, which also comes in long and short variations, is what gives silat music its distinct sound.
In popular culture
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Silat's appearance in film dates back to black-and-white Indonesian and Malay movies. Shaw Brothers and Cathay-Kris Studio produced more than 40 popular titles featuring silat in Malaysia during the 1950s-60s. Famous examples from this period include Tiger from Tjampa, Panglima Besi, Seri Mersing, Musang Berjanggut, Hang Jebat, Serikandi, and Malaysia's first color movie, Hang Tuah. While silat was featured in all these films for the purpose of the plot, the depiction of the art was not a priority. What was shown was essentially silat wayang, designed for stage performances. There was very little choreography arranged beforehand and they were never promoted as either action or martial art movies. Accordingly, actors at the time usually had no prior training in silat, resulting in what are now considered generally poor depictions of the art. However, silat became increasingly prominent in Indonesian movies during the 70s, resulting in more professional and authentic depictions of the art in both historical films as well as action movies. Indonesian action stars Ratno Timoer and Advent Bangun were famous for 80s silat films such as The Devil's Sword and Malaikat Bayangan. In Malaysia on the other hand, silat became increasingly rare on-screen during the subsequent decades. After the year 2000, silat was featured to varying degrees of importance in popular Malay movies such as Jiwa Taiko, Gong, KL Gangster, Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam, and the colour remake of Orang Minyak. Other notable instances of authentic silat in film include the following.
- Puteri Gunung Ledang, Malaysia's first big-budget movie, featured two highly publicized fights choreographed by a silat exponent. Upon the film's release these scenes were not well-received, with reviewers criticizing the battles as badly-choreographed, too short, and generally over-hyped.
- Queens of Langkasuka is the first Thai film to prominently feature silat. Among the few other Thai movies to do so is 2008's Ong-Bak 2 which only briefly features a style of tiger silat.
- The 2009 Indonesian film Merantau showcased Silek Harimau, one of the oldest silat systems in existence. The film had a positive reaction from cinema critics and is credited with reviving Indonesia's martial arts in film. The movie generated enough interest for the lead actor to follow up with The Raid: Redemption in 2011 which received international acclaim. Its sequel The Raid 2: Berandal was similarly well-received but drew much criticism for its extreme gore, leading to the film being banned in Malaysia.
Period dramas which feature silat have been a common staple of Indonesian television for many decades, typically supplemented by wire-work and/or CG effects. In Malaysia, this genre is said to have reached its peak during the 1990s when directors like Uwei Shaari strove to depict silat in its original form by casting martial artists rather than famous actors. Series from that period such as Keris Lok Tujuh, Pendekar: Bayangan Harta and Keris Hitam Bersepuh Emas are still regarded as the country's best costume dramas before the genre began to decline in Malaysia after the early 2000s. Aside from period dramas, authentic silat is often featured in other genres, such as the Indonesian series Mawar Merah and the made-for-TV children's movie Borobudur. In Malaysia, various styles of silat are regularly showcased in martial arts-themed documentary serials like Mahaguru, Gelanggang and Gerak Tangkas. Other instances of silat on television include the following.
- The 13th episode of History Channel's Human Weapon was entitled Silat: Martial Art Of Malaysia. It showcased Malaysia's four biggest silat schools, namely Seni Gayong, Lian Padukan, Keris Lok-9, and a style of Silat Harimau.
- An episode of Discovery Channel's series Fight Quest showcased pencak silat in Bandung.
- An episode of National Geographic's Fight Masters focused on an American silat practitioner completing his training in Malaysia.
Silat in the literary tradition can be traced back to the old hikayat or epics which became popular as literacy spread among Southeast Asian commoners beginning around the 13th century. Stories such as Hikayat Inderajaya and Hikayat Hang Tuah focus on legendary or semi-historical martial artists. In Indonesia, this tradition has continued into modern times in the form of historical silat novels or cerita silat. Notable authors include Bastian Tito, Kho Ping Ho and S.H. Mintardja whose popular books have been adapted into period-dramas for television such as Wira Sableng and Naga Sasra Sabuk Intan. While this genre is nearly unknown in Malaysia, silat does sometimes feature in Malay novels set during the Melaka era. Outside Asia, silat was referenced in Tom Clancy's Net Force, although the book gives an inaccurate portrayal of the art.
The earliest instance of silat in graphic novels are found in Indonesian comics of the 1960s which typically featured heroes that were expert martial artists. The titles Si Buta Dari Gua Hantu, Jaka Sembung, Panji Tengkorak and Walet Merah all gave rise to popular films in the 1970s and 80s. Indonesian action star Barry Prima made a name for himself portraying the character of Jaka Sembung onscreen. Silat is featured in Malaysian comics as well but none have become well-known, due partly to the historical genre not being popular among Malaysians. Outside Southeast Asia, silat was also featured in the Japanese manga Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple.
The most well-known Indonesian radio shows began in the 1980s, all of them historical dramas concerning the adventures of martial artists in Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of medieval Java and Sumatra. The most famous of these were Saur Sepuh, Tutur Tinular and its sequel Mahkota Mayangkara. Each programme was highly successful in their home country, and continue to spawn films and television series.
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