When we think of martial arts the first names that come to mind are generally Karate, Judo or in some cases Kung fu. These names have now established themselves in Western language and mentality thanks to their widespread diffusion in recent decades and to the wide use they have seen in cinema, particularly action cinema.
This situation is changing a bit since the arrival of the internet and in particular of Youtube, tools that are allowing more and more people to have a window from which to spy on the reality of the martial arts world. Almost every country and tradition, in fact, especially in the East, has developed over the centuries techniques and schools of fighting, both with bare hands and with weapons, so much so that today the quantity of martial styles existing in the world is practically impossible to classify with certainty. Some are immensely popular such as Karate and Judo mentioned at the beginning, others practically unknown to the general public and, even today, remain hidden in plain sight, entrusting their survival and tradition to their dedicated practitioners.
This is what is happening today with Pencak Silat.
Among the most popular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, the Indonesian archipelago attracts tourists for its breathtaking beaches, dense jungles and the fascinating culture that can be experienced in its various islands. It is in these lands that over the centuries a traditional martial art has developed that is still synonymous today with those lands of tradition and strength. A martial art, that of Pencak Silat, which has survived until today not thanks to its international fame, but to its practical effectiveness, to its direct techniques, designed for maximum damage with minimum effort. A martial art that has proven in the field to deserve this title and that perhaps for this reason has not yet achieved the international fame it deserves but continues to be practiced by small groups of passionate practitioners.
What is Pencak Silat?
The term Pencak Silat (or Pentjak Silat, according to its ancient form of writing in the Dutch colonial era) is a term actually coined only in 1948 to indicate and in some way classify martial arts from Indonesia. The then born IPSI (Ikatan Pencak Silat Indonesia), the first International Association of Pentjak Silat, wanting to give a strong common identity to the martial arts of the Indonesian archipelago, therefore chose this name to group them together under a single hat.
However, it remains a rather generic term. It must be considered that the Indo-Malay archipelago is made up of about 16,000-17,000 islands, and from these thousands of martial styles were born which in some cases are very different from each other. In fact, each group of people has structured their own style and techniques on the basis of the territory, the physical characteristics, the potential enemy and their need to fight to defend themselves and survive.
The name Pencak Silat, although very popular nowadays, is therefore in itself not very representative if we look at the single fighting style, but it assumes value if we refer to the Indonesian martial arts as a whole. The very meaning of the two terms, “Pencak” and “Silat”, is even sometimes questioned and can change depending on the geographical area in which we find ourselves. One of the most accredited explanations is that “Pencak” represents the external and choreographic part of the martial art, while “Silat” (coming from the word Minang Silek) represents its fighting soul. Pencak Silat would therefore represent the union of the outermost part of the art, its form, with the combative soul that lives within it.
Pencak Silat: One, None, One Hundred Thousand
As we said Pencak Silat is a sort of “umbrella” term, so we cannot technically simply practice Pencak Silat, but rather we will always be practicing one or more of the martial styles that fall into this category, that is, they developed in the Indonesian archipelago, in Malaysia or Brunei.
For this reason it would be practically impossible to make an exhaustive overview of all Pencak Silat styles. What we want to do in this article, therefore, after having defined the term “generic”, is to enter more specifically and describe, albeit briefly, the characteristics of the styles that may have influenced our teachers and their teachers, including some styles originating from Java Island.
- Cimande : style that favors the conditioning of the body and that bases its fighting tactics on dodging the opponent’s blow to enter then hitting in a devastating way. The prefix “Ci” of the name indicates the proximity of the village belonging to a river, and is typical of the styles of the Sunda ethnicity and language, (which influenced most of the styles of the western part of the island), of which the Cimande is the oldest and most recognized style.
- Cikalong : as famous as Cimande, Cikalong is another style that has largely contributed to influencing many more “modern” Silat styles. This style owes its name to a city near Bandung and its peculiarity is to work mainly on the sensitivity of the arms and body, as well as on the use of joint levers, grips and open hand strikes.
- Cingrik : coming from the area of Batavia, today Jakarta, and it is said that it’s quick and elusive techniques were born from the imitation of the movements of monkeys, animals common on the island.
- Sabahndar : the style comes from the village of the same name and brings together the Sunda and Minang cultures in its techniques and tradition.
- Setia Hati : a Minang-derived style known for the fluidity of it’s kicks, effectively brought from both ground and standing position.
- Sera (k) : style that we will deepen in other articles, as the mother art from which the Bukti Negara that we practice was born and part of the styles practiced and safeguarded by the Naga Kuning Institute.
And now a not insignificant note for anyone who is interested or wants to know more about Pencak Silat. Speaking of styles, we have named the term Minang, which is an abbreviation of the name of the Minangkabau ethnic group, coming from the west of the island of Sumatra. The influence of this ethnic group, of the styles and techniques practiced by it is today very strong and clearly visible in many styles, even outside Sumatra itself, which prefer footwork, with agile and fast kicks, brought up and to earth, joined by scissors and fast rotations similar to those that can be observed in Brazilian Capoeira for example.
Obviously, over the years many styles have mixed together, united and modified, creating today schools or styles that combine different systems, techniques, traditions and cultures within them. This has led to the birth of a great variety of different styles, which often share similar if not entirely identical techniques, but to which each one has been able to give their own interpretation according to the philosophy that guides it or the transmission of the masters. It is therefore not uncommon today to see Jurus (forms, the equivalent of Japanese kata or Chinese taolu) with the name of a given style present in the teaching program of another school. At a given moment in its history the school incorporated part of the principles according to the perspective of combining what is considered useful and effective.
At this point, however, we will ask ourselves if all these styles are entirely indigenous, how where they born and how did they come down to us? This is where history and legend, as often happens, mix.
There are legends on the island of Java that tell of a conquering king from India and paintings where strong similarities with Chinese styles in the handling of weapons and their shape are highlighted. The different trade routes, wars, resolutions and exchanges that took place for centuries within the Asian continent were certainly the main architects in the strong mixture from the martial, but also religious and spiritual point of view, which took place between the different nations and therefore not only within Indonesia alone.
In fact, one of the characteristics of Indonesia is the presence of a mix of cultures and religions mixed with pre-existing traditions. It is precisely this habit of incorporating and combining traditions from different peoples with their own that has created the vast range of Pentjak Silat styles we have talked about in this article.
However, few are those who have gone beyond national borders and when it happened it was through one of these two events:
- The sporting development of Pencak Silat, a relatively recent event.
- The migration to Holland of Indonesian and Indo (half Indonesian half Dutch) practitioners following the Indonesian war of independence.
It is to this second event that we owe the knowledge in the West of a particular “macro” style of Pencak Silat which will deserve an article in itself: the Pukulan. Here we define macro as more than a single style, it represents a way of conceiving the martial art specific to a specific geographical area.
The Pencak Silat today
At the end of this short article, the purpose of which was to give an overview of a reality still little known and widespread in the West regarding the Indonesian martial arts, it is necessary to define what are recognized today as the main aspects of Pencak Silat.
Pentcak Silat today is divided into four main aspects:
- Ola Raga (sports combat)
- Bela Diri (self defense)
- Seni (dance, culture and art)
- Batin (mind and spirit)
Each style and group chooses if and how much to train these four components according to the ideologies and/or tradition of the school or the teacher.
Ola Raga : it is not uncommon today to attend sparring competitions between Pentjak Silat schools. Regulation is constantly in progress to allow Silat to enter the Olympic games and become more attractive for young talent who, even in Indonesia, watch with more interest ring sports or MMA than the arts belonging to their own tradition. However, as we said, this is a conscious choice of a certain group or school and therefore does not identify the art of Pencak Silat in its broadest form.
Bela Diri : this is the personal defense component of Pencak Silat, the one that is normally trained starting from more or less long forms, commonly called Jurus, and then applied to street, combat and personal defense contexts.
Seni: this is the most choreographic part. In Indonesia it is common to see performances by practitioners accompanied by what are essentially large orchestras that follow or dictate the rhythm of the performance, this practice in recent times has evolved into choreographic demonstrations with music presented during galas or competitions of forms organized at a national or international level.
Batin : is the spiritual component of Pencak Silat. Some styles specialize in these practices, but they are less and less, and more and more rarely this component is treated in modern styles, partly because it is seen as a legacy of the past, partly because, especially in Indonesia, Islam has restricted those pre-existing spiritual practices and customs coming from Javanism, Animism or Hinduism.
Pencak Silat remains to this day a martial art as complex as it is mysterious, of which this article has just begun to scratch the surface of what we need to know to deepen our knowledge.
However, as with any art (especially martial), often the best way to understand it is to practice it, live it in your skin, immersing yourself in its teachings, in its Jurus and in the passion that guides the practitioners who are carrying on the tradition even today.
The Indonesian martial arts have not come down to us without passing the test of time, including wars and similar situations, to emerge from where they were created. They have managed to do so by adapting, mixing and innovating. Today practicing an art like Pencak Silat therefore does not only mean practicing one of the best and most effective combat systems generated by the history of man, but it means giving continuity to a tradition that combines combat, self-defense, art and spirituality, and whose purpose is not only to make us fearsome fighters but also the best human beings.