Silat (Minangkabau: silek) is a collective word for indigenous martial arts from a geo-cultural area of Southeast Asia encompassing most of the Nusantara, 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 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 more often called pencak silat in the Indonesian language. The clear distinction between Indonesian and Peninsular silat is a relatively recent one based largely on post-independence patriotic sentiments. The term silat Melayu ("Malay silat") was originally used in reference to Sumatra and the Melayu Kingdom, 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 among non-practitioners. In Indonesia, pencak silat displays greater diversity and its use of high kicks, jumps and agile maneuvers are comparatively more well known among the public. While this generalization does not necessarily reflect the reality of silat's techniques, it has had a notable influence on the stereotypical way silat is portrayed in Malaysia and Singapore.
The origin of the word silat is unknown 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, 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 and Singapore where silat usually refers specifically to martial arts of Malay or Indonesian origin, while other systems are generically called seni mempertahankan-diri meaning "self-defense arts".
Fighting arts in the Indonesian and Malay Archipelago arose out of hunting methods and military training by the region's native inhabitants. The descendents of former headhunters still perform ancient wardances which are considered the precursor of the freestyle form in silat. While these aborigines retained their tribal way of life, the Indo-Malay diaspora instead based their culture on India and China. By adopting the Indian faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism, their social structure became more organised. Evidence shows that silat was influenced by both Indian and Chinese martial arts. Many of the region's medicinal practices and weapons originated in either India or China, and silat's thigh-slapping actions are reminiscent of Hindu wrestling. The martial arts practiced by the Chinese community of Southeast Asia are referred to as kuntao.
Although a number of myths attempt to explain the institutionalisation of silat, most of them concern only a specific style. The earliest evidence of silat taught in its present form is found in Sumatra where, according to local legend, a woman based her combat system on the movements of animals that she had seen fighting. Masters still believe that the first styles of silat were created by observing animals, and these styles were probably derived from animal-based Indian martial arts. Forms are said to have been introduced by the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma who came from Southeast Asia via the Sumatra-based kingdom of Srivijaya in Palembang. Through this connection, silat is also used as a method of spiritual training in addition to self-defense. 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, Thailand and Brunei. Despite the Hindu caste system which held sway in ancient times, silat was never confined to any particular social class or gender but was practiced by all without restrictions. Even today, it is often taught in families who have inherited cultural traditions such as woodcarving, dance, herbalism or the playing of musical instruments.
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 Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore became home to a small Japanese population. After the Occupation of Japan, some silat masters incorporated the katana into their styles.
Since the Islamisation movement of the 1980s and 90s, there have been attempts to make silat more compliant with Islamic principles. It is now illegal for Muslim practitioners in Malaysia to chant mantera, bow to idols, practice traditional meditation, or attempt to acquire supernatural powers.
A few Malaysian silat schools go so far as to only accept Muslim students. 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 silat has existed long before Islam was introduced to Southeast Asia and is still practiced by non-Muslims. The Hindu-Buddhist and animistic roots of the art were never eradicated, and remain very evident even among Muslim practitioners of traditional styles. Some of these old methods have been lost after silat masters in pre-dominantly Muslim areas could no longer teach them, but others still endure among conservative training schools in Indonesia and Thailand.
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. This concept is referred to as jantan betina (male-female) and is equivalent to the Chinese yin and yang. A few styles, 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. Choreographed forms 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 (kembang or bunga) or art (seni) forms. They are performed in slow, graceful movements with a dance-like quality. Once the student has learned basic techniques, forms, and footwork, they are taught how to attack before being attacked, in self-preservation. Far from encouraging aggression, this is actually meant to stop a fight before it starts.
Along with the human body, silat employs a wide variety of weapons. 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. Among the hundreds of styles are dozens of weapons. The most commonly used are the kris (dagger), parang (machete), tongkat (walking stick) and sarong. The kris is accorded legendary status in Indo-Malay culture and is the primary weapon of most silat systems, although some styles prefer the stick for its versatility. 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 chakra (spelled cakra or cakera in Malay). The chakra'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 chakra, 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 goes so far as to describe legendary techniques that allow the fighter to attack from afar using energy alone without physically touching the opponent, but such claims have not been substantiated.
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, often abbreviated further to Tok or Tuk meaning grandfather. The elderly master as well as the teacher's teacher is called Eyang Guru (lit. "teacher-grandfather") in Javanese. In both countries, the honorary title of Pendekar may be officially bestowed onto a master by royalty or unofficially by commoners.
The movements of silat are often performed as a dance during festivities such as weddings or a royal installation. These performances 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 dance 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 tanji silat baku or gendang baku in the Malay Peninsula, and gendang pencha among the Sunda people of West Java, Indonesia. The instruments vary from one region to another but the gamelan (Javanese orchestra), kendang (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 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
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, the decline of interest in period-films made silat increasingly rare on-screen during the subsequent decades. After the year 2000, silat was featured to varying degrees of importance in popular 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 the Minangkabau tiger style, one of the oldest silat systems in existence. The film had a mostly 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. The fights in this movie were even more well-received than its predecessor, and received international acclaim.
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 and referenced 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 tiger silat.
- An episode of National Geographic's series Fight Quest showcased silat.
- 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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