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Indonesian Martial Arts and Pencak Silat

Updated on July 8, 2011

Indonesian Martial Arts and Pencak Silat

Learn about Indonesian martial arts and pencak silat right here. The indigenous forms of Indonesian martial arts developed and practiced in Indonesia are collectively known as pencak silat. Pencak silat is a fighting style that focuses on self-defense against multiple attackers. The name combines two Indonesian words for martial arts: "Pencak" (from central and east Java) refers to the performance part or the execution of movements, while "Silat" (used in Sumatra) denotes the principle of self-defense. In essence, pencak silat is a reference to the two vital aspects of the Indonesian fighting form.

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The History of Indonesian Martial Arts (Pencak Silat)

The origin and development of martial arts in Indonesia were not recorded in writing. Information on the history of pencak silat is based on archaeological findings, oral traditions, and mythological stories.

According to legend, silat was first taught systematically in Srivijaya by a certain woman. Different regions have different versions of the story, but all agree that it was a woman, Rama Sukana, who established the early silat, which explains the feminine features of the martial art.

In one story, Rama Sukana was said to have used the fighting movements of birds and tigers in defending herself against drunken men. She was able to imitate the animals' movements after watching a tiger and a huge bird fight. Other variations say that the animal fight she witnessed was between a monkey and a tiger. Based on the animals' postures and movements, she developed a graceful fighting technique and taught it to her husband, Rama Isruna. The self-defense style of Rama Sukana was then passed down through their family lineage.

After the conflict between Indonesia and The Netherlands ended in 1949, Indo people of mixed Indonesian and European descent who had knowledge of pencak silat brought the art to Europe.

Pencak silat is now well known and taught not only in Indonesia, but also in western countries such as The Netherlands, France, UK, Spain, Australia, and USA.

The Principles and Techniques of Indonesian Martial Arts (Pencak Silat)

The principles behind the development and practice of pencak silat are self-defense and self-control. The goal is to protect one's own life and not to inflict harm.

To master a self-defense fighting style, students train with other practitioners. A basic class involves a beginner student practicing with three other students. Advance training, on the other hand, requires a student to practice defending himself or herself against more opponents, usually five to seven. This kind of training is necessary for a student to realize that to succeed in fighting more than one opponent, he or she must always be prepared to face one attacker without losing an opportunity for defense against another one.

As a martial art that has survival as its ultimate objective, pencak silat emphasizes economical yet efficient moves. Among the techniques used by pencak silat practitioners are striking, kicking, and grappling for empty-hand combat. Pencak silat users may employ the striking and kicking techniques first to exhaust their opponents before shifting to grappling moves. They target pressure points to immobilize opponents or to get away from a lock. Students are also taught to use all parts of their body as tools for striking, locking, and breaking joints.

The stances vary according to regional styles, but they are generally unusual and meant to distract the opponents. Depending on the stance of a practitioner, he or she can execute a series of defensive or offensive techniques.

Another set of methods has to do with the wielding of weapons. In this part of the training, students learn not only to wield real weapons, but also to use objects in their immediate surroundings as weapons, for example, belts, pens, and combs, to execute the same empty-hand moves.

The Weapons used in Indonesian Martial Arts (Pencak Silat)

A well-known bladed weapon used in pencak silat is the kris. It is a dagger that usually has a wavy blade. Traditionally, a kris was made to be very lethal by soaking it in venom while forging it. Another bladed weapon is the pedang, an Indian long sword. Together with the kris, the pedang was used mostly by kings and nobles. Similar to the kris is a long sword called the sundang, often featuring a wavy blade. A famous curved weapon is the kerambit, a small weapon that looks like a cat's claw. It was particularly popular among women because it could be easily tied into their hair.

Dependable long weapons are the batang, a staff or pole that can be made of bamboo, wood, or steel, and the lembing, a spear that is commonly used with a perisai or a rattan shield.

The samping or sarong is very good for protection against an attacker's cutting weapons. It can be used for grabbing, locking, and choking as well.

The Different Systems Under Pencak Silat

The Organization for Indonesian Pencak Silat (IPSI) is the most prominent pencak silat organization in Indonesia, while the International Pencak Silat Federation (PERSILAT) is the international body of the organization. PERSILAT was founded in March 1980 and is based in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Pencak silat schools are divided into the traditionalists and the liberal ones. Some traditional masters criticize the liberal schools for borrowing forms, stances, and other offensive or defensive techniques from foreign martial arts. According to them, it presents a problem in the preservation of pencak silat as an Indonesian martial art. The liberal schools, however, maintain that this approach enriches their art by borrowing and sharing martial art techniques.

Leading schools of pencak silat include the following:

Mutiara Panca Rasa is a modern style that has become the national silat of Indonesia.

Bakti Negara is a school in Bali with emphasis on self-defense rather than on competitive combat.

Cimande is a West Javanese style that boasts of 300 variations studied mostly by villagers along the Cimande River.

Inti Ombak pays equal attention to both internal and external aspects of training.

Merpati Putih is the "white dove style" currently taught in the USA and The Netherlands.

Bangau Putih is a hybrid of pencak silat and kuntao, a martial art developed by the Chinese people living in Southeast Asia and practiced by Chinese-Indonesian communities in Indonesia. Kuntao features quick leg techniques and smooth, graceful movements resembling a cat's.

Tapak Suci is a combination of West Javanese styles, karate, and wushu (Chinese martial arts). It has many followers in Indonesia and The Netherlands.

The Belt Rankings of Pencak Silat

Some pencak silat schools have incorporated a belt ranking system. The belts and their equivalent in pencak silat training are as follows:

White belt - basics of the Indonesian martial art

Yellow belt - basic movements and some concepts

Green belt - concepts, techniques, and applications

Blue belt - intermediate techniques and applications; internal aspects of pencak silat

Violet belt - mastery of the basics; final stage of the physical training

Brown belt - further training

Red belt (two stripes) - instructor level

Red belt (three stripes) - senior instructor level

White sash - master level

Indonesian Martial Arts Competitions

In modern pencak silat competitions, a player is scored based on attack and defense moves as well as on the execution of the movements. Modern competitions in Indonesia may be school tournaments or IPSI competitions. The latter requires the use of body protectors.

Four tournament categories established by IPSI and PERSILAT are the competitive match, the solo demonstration, the sparring or pair demonstration, and the group demonstration.

PERSILAT, moreover, promotes pencak silat through international competitions. There are five categories for these international events. The Pencak Silat World Championship is organized every two or three years. The latest was on December 12–17, 2010, where 32 countries participated. Regional championships are held once a year. Open championships are arranged for all PERSILAT members who want to participate, whereas invitation championships are open only for PERSILAT members invited to join. There are also the special championships that can be organized by any association besides PERSILAT, but the events must be sanctioned by PERSILAT and should use PERSILAT rules.

Pencak silat has been part of the Southeast Asian Games since the 14th SEA Games hosted by Jakarta in 1987.

The Issues and Concerns Surrounding Indonesian Martial Arts (Pencak Silat)

Some pencak silat masters have shared their concerns regarding the treatment of the martial art as a competitive sport. According to them, practicing pencak silat as a sport is disadvantageous because the goal of competitions is standardization as opposed to the promotion of diversity. Traditionalists stress that the contests threaten individual or regional styles, lessen combat effectiveness, and make martial artists focus on winning and being recognized rather than on cultivating the art and its philosophy.

Presently, people teach or study pencak silat for different purposes, such as competition, self-defense, mental-spiritual development, and artistic appreciation. Whatever their reason is, pencak silat, similar to other martial arts, benefits its practitioners physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Comments and Feedback - A place to share your thoughts

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Thanks for the great article! I only found out about Pencak Silat by accident, when I watched the (horrble) move "Dragon Crusaders" and saw the awesome Cecily Fay. This should definitely be talked about a lot more!

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      sandi_x 5 years ago

      It's very informative lens. I posted lens about pentja - silat,too. You can read it there

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      sirtiman 5 years ago

      Pencak Silat is kind a little abandon in Indonesia. But someday pencak silat will be popular again. My effort to expose more about pencak silat is on my blog: