Pencak Silat is the official name used to indicate more than 800 martial arts schools and styles spread across more than 13,000 islands in Indonesia.
In Indonesia, the official name used to indicate more than 800 martial arts schools and styles spread across more than 13,000 islands is “pencak silat”. However, this is actually a compound name consisting of two terms used in different regions. The word “pencak” and its dialectic derivatives such as “penca” West Java and “mancak” (Madura and Bali) is commonly used in Java, Madura and Bali, whereas the term “silat” or “silek” is used in Sumatra. The ambition to unify all these different cultural expressions in a common terminology as part of declaring Indonesia’s unity and independence from colonial power, was first expressed in 1948 with the establishment of the Ikatan Pencak Silat Indonesia (Indonesian Pencak Silat Association, IPSI). However, it could only be realized in 1973 when representatives from different schools and styles finally formally agreed to the use of “pencak silat” in official discourse, albeit original terms are still widely used at the local level.
Balinese warriors with keris
It is not easy to trace back the history of pencak silat because written documentation is limited and oral information is handed down from the gurus or masters. Each region in the archipelago has its own version of its origin which is largely based on oral tradition.
Silat takes important role in country’s history. Since the age of Ancient Indonesian Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms like Srivijaya, Majapahit, Kingdom of Sunda . They use silat to train their soldiers and warriors.
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.
According to tradition of Minangkabau, their Silek (Minangkabau pencak silat) can be traced to the fore father of ancient Minangkabau people, Datuk Suri Dirajo .
It is said that according to old Javanese poetry, Kidung Sunda, the sentinels of the Prabu Maharaja Sunda exhibited great skill in the art of pencak silat when they escorted Princess Dyah Pitaloka to Majapahit as a potential bride for King Hayam Wuruk, and faced indignities that greatly affronted their honour. In a battle that ensued at the Bubat field (1346), the Sundanese forces fought to the last drop of blood, using special pencak moves and various weapons,
Albeit the pencak silat styles employed in combat were different, we can still draw the conclusion that in Javanese kingdoms throughout the archipelago, pencak silat served the same function: to defend, maintain or expand territory.
Also in ancient times, the Buginese and Makasar people from South Sulawesi region were known as tough sailors, adventurers, mercenaries and fearless warriors . Throughout the archipelago, these people were known for their combat skills. Nowadays, some well known pencak silat schools in Malaysia can trace their lineage back to ancient buginese warriors.
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. Pentjak Silat or Pencak Silat (as it is known in Indonesia today) was practiced undergound until the country gained its independence in 1949.
The growing spirit of nationalism within pencak silat circles echoed the intensification of efforts to realise ‘One Country, one Nation, one Language’ in the archipelago. Following several incidents of mass uprising in the 1920s and the declaration of the Youth Pledge on October 10, 1928 in Batavia, the colonial government tightened and expanded its control over youth activities, pencak silat included. The colonial intelligence apparatus (PID) kept a close eye on all activities and organisations considered to be potentially in opposition to Dutch control. Training in pencak silat provided youths the strength, confidence and courage needed to resist the Dutch colonialists. Therefore pencak silat self-defence activities were closely scrutinised as they were suspected to be the front for political activities, and had to go underground. Training was done in private houses, in small groups of no more than five persons. At the end of the training, the pesilat had to leave one by one without attracting the neighbours’ attention. At times, training would be carried out in secret locations in the middle of the night (from midnight to morning prayers) to avoid the scrutiny of the Dutch. Pencak silat teachers often made use of eerie locations such as graveyards, since even the police would be scared to go there, and they could be protected and safeguarded by the spirits of their ancestors.
Pencak silat matches too began to disappear from public eye following their prohibition by the colonial government in the 1930s. What is more, many pesilat, who were also political figures, met with bitter fates and had to live in prisons or isolated camps for several years. Pencak silat epics abound with stories of masters who ‘were branded as extremists and forced to move around to avoid arrest’, or who were punished for having opposed Dutch authority by using their pencak silat skills, both physical and spiritual. Although we cannot generalise and assume that all pencak silat teachers and schools opposed the colonial government, from the above it clearly appears that pencak silat played an important role in the struggle for independence.
Many pencak silat masters joined the Barisan Pelopor under the leadership of President Soekarno, to help realise the dream of an independent Indonesian nation. Among them were women freedom fighters like Ibu Enny Rukmini Sekarningrat, a Panglipur master from Garut . She fought against the Dutch alongside the Pangeran Papak Troops in Wanaraja, Garut, and the Mayor Rukmana Troops in Yogyakarta. As the capital city of the Republic of Indonesia at that time, Yogyakarta came under very heavy fire from Dutch troops. A great many pencak silat masters came from all over the archipelago to defend it from occupation. The same happened for Bandung, Surabaya, and other cities involved in the struggle.
Bali Silat Grand Master Made Sujana Balok in Traditional Costume
Pencak silat was also instrumental to the revolutionary movement in Bali. After learning pencak silat as part of his Peta military training in West Java, national hero I Gusti Ngurah Rai gave lessons to his troops to boost the skills they needed to overthrow the foreign enemy. The soldiers in turn covertly trained the people of Banjar, even though the Dutch army forbade this. So today, pencak silat originating from West Java has taken root and developed on the island of Bali.
The heroism of pencak silat masters was not limited only to warfare. We must not forget their safeguarding the first President of the Indonesian Republic at a time of political uncertainty. It has been recorded in history that the night before the proclamation of independence on August 17, 1945, five special sentinels highly skilled in pencak silat guarded Soekarno.
Every region in the archipelago has its own music for Silat performances. In West Java, for example, Sundanese people use gendang penca . In West Sumatra, Minangkabau people sometimes use a special instrument called Saluang.
Styles and Techniques
There is no overall standard for Pencak Silat. Each style has its own particular movement patterns, specially designed techniques and tactical rationale. The richness of terms reflects a wide diversity in styles and techniques across the regions due to the fact that pencak silat has been developed by different masters who have created their own style according to their preferences and to the physical environment and social-cultural context in which they live. Lets take as example West Java, Central Java and West Sumatra. West Java is inhabited by a specific ethnic group with specific cultural and social norms. For them, pencak silat is part of their way of life or as they say is “the blood in their body”. In their language they say “penca” or “menpo” (from “maen poho’, which literally means play with trickery) to indicate their main four styles Cimande, Cikalong, Timbangan, and Cikaret and all the schools and techniques which have derived from them. The Sundanese people have always utilized penca/mempo’ for self-defense and recreation, and only recently have started to use it as a sport in national and regional competitions. In its self-defense form, using hands fighting techniques combined with a series of characteristic footsteps such as langka sigzag (zigzag step), langka tilu (triangular step), langka opat (quadrangular step) and langka lam alip, penca can be very dangerous. Therefore it is kept secret and, especially its magic (tenaga dalam or inner power) component is only taught in phases to selected students.
Penca as art (penca ibing) has been a source of inspiration for traditional Sundanese dances such as Jaepongan, Ketu’tilu’, Dombret, and Cikeruhan and actually it resembles dance in its use of music instruments. These instruments, called “pencak drummers” (gendang penca), are devoted exclusively to penca performances and consist of two sets of drummers (gendang anak dan kulantir), a trumpet (tetet) and a gong. Pencak performances also use standard music rhythms such as tepak dua, tepak tilu, tepak dungdung, golempang and paleredan. Penca as art is not considered dangerous and can be openly shown to everyone. From generation to generation until today, penca performances animate wedding parties, rituals of circumcision, celebrations of the rice harvest and all kind of national festivities.
Differently from West Java, in Central Java, Javanese people have traditionally used pencak only for self-defense and are not inclined to show it in public. Furthermore, the spiritual aspect (kebatinan) is much more dominant. This is probably related to the fact that pencak silat in Central Java developed from the Yogyakarta Sultanate and later expanded to surrounding neighborhoods after the kingdoms lost their political role in the XV and XVI centuries. In the keraton (Sultan’s palace) pencak silat had undergone a transformation from pure martial art to be used in combat, to an elaborate form of spiritual and humanistic education. In this later form it spread outside the keraton walls where it developed the use of self-defense techniques to reach spiritual awareness as well as the use of inner powers to attain supernatural physical strengths.
Again pencak silat in West Sumatra is a different cultural expression in both its forms and meaning. Similarly to West Java, in West Sumatra a distinction is made between self-defense, called sile’ or silat, and the related art version called pencak which has influenced many traditional dances such as Sewah, Alo Ambek and Gelombang. The ethnic group of Minangkabau who lives around the Merapi Mountain in West Sumatra regard silat as their village’s heirloom (pusaka anak nagari) which is meant for the youth to defend themselves while traveling ashore and it is not intended for outsiders. Instead, pencak as a dance is accessible to everybody. In this region almost every village (nagari) has a different style (aliran) of silat as reflected by the many names, some of which refer to the founders (like Silat Tuanku Ulakan, Silat Pakik Rabun, Silat Malin Marajo) and some to the original locations where the style was developed (Silat Kumango, Silat Lintau, Silat Starlak, Silat Pauh, Silat Painan, Silat Sungai Patai and Silat Fort de Kock). These styles can be classified into two main groups according to the foot-stands (kuda-kuda) they use. In the coastal area, silat styles use a very low kuda-kuda and prefer hand techniques whereas in the mountain area the kuda-kuda is higher and foot techniques are dominant. This is due to the different environments in which silat has developed. On the sand, a high kuda-kuda would not be stable and in the mountain, where the ground is oblique and uneven, a low kuda-kuda would be impossible to practice. As a Minangkabau proverb says: “Alam takambang menjadi guru” (the surrounding nature is our teacher).
Along with the human body, Pencak Silat employs the usage of several martial arts weapons. Among the hundreds of styles are dozens of weapons. Listed here are a few examples;
- Keris: A curvy blade made from folding different types of metal together and then is washed in acid, giving the blade it’s distinct look.
- Kujang: Sundanese blade
- Badik Buginese and Makasarese blade
- Pedang/Sundang: A sword, either single or double edged.
- Parang/Golok: A machete/broadsword, commonly used in daily tasks, especially those involving farming or harvesting.
- Lembing/Seligi: A spear/javelin made of either wood or bamboo.
- Kayu/Batang: Stick, staff or rod made of bamboo, steel or wood.
- Chabang/Cabang: Three-pronged knife thought to derive from the trisula (trident)
- Kerambit: A small claw-like curved blade or dagger worn in the hair. Easily concealed and is known as a woman’s weapon.
- Sabit/Clurit: A sickle, commonly used in farming, cultivation and harvesting of crops.
- Tongkat/Toya: A walking stick carried by the elderly or travellers.