PENTJAK-SILAT: A Brief History and Overview of the Diverse Martial Arts of Indonesia
by Joseph Bruchac
"The teeth are hard and decay, the tongue is soft and remains."
I first heard those words over thirty years ago, spoken by my first martial arts teacher. They represent the essence of Pentjak-silat, the powerful, (but little-known in the United States) martial art that is the national sport of the great chain of islands off the southeast coast of Asia which is known as Indonesia.
What is Pentjak-silat? What is its history? And what is its relevance to modern life?
Although I will give some answers to those questions, it is important to realize that they are not the only answers. In fact, those questions can only truly be answered through physical application and long study. Like that ancient proverb with which I began, some things that seem simple become more complex--and meaningful--the longer you look at them.
It can also be said, quite truthfully, that "The true Pentjak is never seen." That was another of my teacher's favorite sayings. Three decades later, I am still learning its meaning.
My first teacher of Pentjak-silat was born in Indonesia, where he grew up and began his study of the martial arts during a difficult period in its post-colonial history. His own story is, in part, the story of his native land.
Formerly known as the Dutch East Indies, Indonesia gained its independence from Holland following the Second World War. It is made up of no less than 13,360 islands including some of the largest and most famous islands in the world. Among those Indonesian islands are Sumatra, Java (home of the capital city of Jakarta) , Borneo, Bali, and Irian Jaya, which is the western half of New Guinea. From Banda Aceh at the far tip of Sumatra to Irian Jaya is a distance of over 3,500 miles.
Its current population of 200 million makes it the fourth most populous nation in the world. Although 90% of the people of Indonesia describe themselves as Muslims, there is an incredible diversity of languages and cultures--some 300 different ethnic groups and about 250 languages. Among the things that strengthen the sense of nationhood in Indonesia are the official common language of Bahasa Indonesia, the national ideology of Pancasila (which means Five Principals: Belief in One God, national unity, humanitarianism, democracy, and social justice), and Pentjak-silat.
There are many warrior traditions within the various islands of the chain that was controlled, to a great or lesser degree, by the Dutch. There were many small kingdoms and principalities on the islands. Rajahs and Kings and indigenous chiefs often found themselves engaged in battle against each other, the colonial powers, or the pirates of the Java Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Dayak people of Borneo and the Bataks of Sumatra became especially well-known for their abilities as fighters with their hands and feet and curved swords, resisting both the Dutch and, during World War II, the Japanese invaders.
Following independence, a Communist insurgency was defeated during a civil war that cost half a million lives. Among those who died were not only insurgents, but also ethnic Chinese and members of the large population of mixed Dutch and indigenous ancestry. There was also a religious aspect to this, for the majority of Indonesias are either animist or Muslim while the Chinese were Buddhist and the Dutch-Indonesians were Christians. Some estimate that 50,000 mixed-blood Indonesians perished during this time. Thousands of others in this relatively well-off and educated class emigrated to Holland to escape the turbulence of the times.
My teacher's family, the Vandeinses, who were related to one of the royal families, were among those who left Java. His father was a highly-trained aircraft mechanic who easily found work. There was now a large expatriate Indonesian community and my teacher continued his training under an Indonesian master in Holland.
However, with the influx of so many refugees, race relations in Holland had become a problem. Anti-immigrant riots began to take place during which Indonesians and their homes were targeted. On more than one occasion, my teacher used his martial art to defend himself or others from mob violence in the Netherlands. Many of the techniques of Pentjak-silat are designed to deal with multiple attackers. (He would later use those same skills while working crowd control as a police officer and a security guard in the United States. saving a fellow officer on one occasion. The other policeman had made the mistake of pursuing a fence jumper into a crowd during a huge rock concert. The crowd attacked him, knocked him to the ground and his life was in danger. Suddenly, as those who saw the event described it to me, there was a whirlwind of action. The attackers went flying in all directions. My teacher had dived into the fray. Those who had not been thrown off, backed off as he helped the injured man up and walked him out of the suddenly subdued crowd.)
The Vandeinse family moved again, this time to Canada where my teacher worked with a variety of martial arts schools as an instructor. Their final move, in the early 1970s, was to the small upstate New York town of Ballston Spa. There my teacher's father found employment at the small regional airport and looked forward to a peaceful existence in a community known for its friendliness. Tragically, he died soon after their arrival from a congenital heart condition. His fatal heart attack happened on Christmas eve, leaving behind his wife, three daughters and two sons, including my teacher, the oldest of the five children and now the head of their family.
By then, my teacher had started his own school. There are many different schools, styles, or branches of Pentjak-silat and I will discuss some of them later. During his lifetime of training, which began when he was a very small child, my teacher mastered more than a dozen of these various styles.
During his more than three decades of teaching, the names for his school would vary--as would his own name and title--to reflect his teaching style and the image he wished to present to the world of himself and his art. That diversity of names and titles was seen by some as inconsistency, but I believe that it was a reflection of both his complex personality and cultural background and the richness of the art of Pentjak-silat itself. When I first began study with him in 1974, our school was known as the Cemo-Sai Academy and the Indonesian title by which we called him was Guru.
Cemo-sai has a double meaning., both "sharp as a blade" and "Person and spirit." And in Indonesia a "Guru" is a master teacher.
Having reached that point where my own acquaintance with Pentjak-silat began, it is now time for me to turn to those original questions for they were among the questions I asked at that time and was given answers to over a period of many years of study.
What is pentjak-silat?
What is its history?
And what is its relevance to modern life?
What is Pentjak-silat?
It is the martial art of Indonesia.
It is a two-part system, emphasizing neither punching nor kicking but balancing the upper and lower body. It also emphasizes the balance of both sides of the body, with neither left nor right being dominant, but equally developed.
The two words which make up its name may be translated as follows:
Pentjak: the method and philosophy of fighting
Silat: the application of this method; the actual fighting
However, that simple answer is only the broadest description of this effective, deadly, once highly secret, and infinitely varied fighting system. As I traced its origins over the years, a clearer picture emerged.
The History of Pentjak Silat
Like most, if not all of the martial arts, pentjak-silat has its origin in the animal world. On the Asian mainland, the birth of martial arts has been traced back to the time when an Indian holy man observed and then copied the defensive and attacking movements of such creatures as the crane and the tiger. One of the stories about the origin of pentjak-silat tells how a woman named Bersilat on the island of Sumatra studied the way monkeys fought and incorporated their behavior into the development of the fighting style that bears part of her name. As it grew and developed, spreading across the islands of the vast archipelego, the names and characteristics of other Indonesian creatures became part of pentjak-silat.
In modern pentjak-silat, those names describe both hand techniques and the various dances of attack and defense (called katas or forms in other Asian martial arts) that have become most sylized in the famous temple dances of the island of Bali.
Here is a partial list of those animal names that are now an integral part of Indonesian martial arts:
Although traditional stories claim an indigenous origin for pentjak-silat, there is no doubt that its development was, at the very least, impacted by outside influences. The island of Sumatra is separated from the Southeast Asian Mainland by only a narrow strip of water, the Strait of Malacca. For thousands of years, Arab dhows, Chinese junks, and all manner of fishing boats and other vessels have moved freely back and forth between the islands of Indonesia and the rest of Asia. Many aspects of southeast Asian culture, including material culture and religious traditions were adopted and adapted by the various peoples of Indonesia who have always been quick to learn new ways and then make them uniquely their own.
The fighting arts are surely no exception. Indonesian weapons and the techniques to employ them can be seen to resemble those of Southeast Asia and the Phillipine islands. Kicking and punching styles and grappling techniques often bear a strong resemblence to those of such disciplines as Shaolin boxing, Tai Chi, and Muay Thai. However, it should also be noted that pentjak-silat always emphasizes flowing, graceful, and circular motions--not the linear styles of attack and defense characterizing certain Korean and Japanese ways. For good reason, pentjak-silat has been described as the most dance-like of the martial arts.
By the 14th century, the islands of Indonesia had become united by the Majapahit rulers, whose base of power was the island of Java. Pentjak-silat had become a highly developed art, but it was now just as secret and restricted as it was effective. Only the Majapahit sultans and the nobility were permitted to learn pentjak-silat Although aspects of pentjak could be seen in the dance forms of the various islands, the true silat was forbidden to the commoners.
Gradually, following the 14th century, pentjak-silat began to be more widely and openly taught. Those who mastered pentjak-silat were supposed to have not only incredibly deadly physical skills, but also such mystic powers as hypnosis, mind-reading and healing through touch. A true master of pentjak-silat gained the title of Pendekar and was regarded as invincible. Each island developed their own styles of pentjak-silat and even from one village to the next there might be great differences.
For example, in the volcanic mountains of Western Java between Bogor and Bandung, the fighting art is studied in a religious setting. Meditation, fasting, and prayers are used to increase the practicioner's inner power. Stomping the earth as they danced, adherents display their art publicly by breaking coconuts with their wrists or engaging in ritual combat which stopped short of inflicting serious injury. Whereas on the island of Madura, to the east of Java, things were different. Their pentjak-silat, while equally mystic, was traditionally never practiced as a sport or displayed as a dance. Its only use was to kill the enemy.
Despite its many forms, there are some generalizations that can be made about the outward movements and techniques of Pentjak-silat. The equal emphasis on upper and lower body techniques is one. Punches and kicks, the use of arms and legs are of equal value in attacking, countering and blocking. It just depends on the situation.
Another characteristic of Pentjak-silat is the ability of fighters to go from a standing to a sitting posture and then leaping up to attack like a monkey. Some attacks may also take place from flat on the ground or on all fours, like a tiger. (Ground fighting is an important part of many of the forms of this martial art. Many of the techniques of, for example, Brazilian jiu-jitsu can be found in the joint locks and throws of Pentjak-silat.) Dropping from a strong upright stance to a cross-legged sitting posture--and rising back up to the feet again--may also be done in a corkscrew motion.
Spinning techniques, where the fighter steps one leg behind the other and then drops low to either evade or attack are also commomn and may be done so quickly that the fighter literally seems to disappear from in front of the opponent. Close-in fighting, in which knees, elbows, shoulders and hips are used, while maintaining contact with your adversary, is another characteristic. I have heard this described as "Adhesion," by such American teachers as Bob Orlando. My own master called it "Sticky Hands." This is also related to the circular hand technique we called "Trapping"--trapping a strike from an opponent with first one hand and then the other, before delivering your own counter strike with the hand that initiated the trap. (This may be done at such split-second speed that it is difficult for the naked eye to see more than the final counter-blow.)
Spinning, sticky hands, and trapping all make use of the principle of the circle. Force and power are built through speed and following the shape of a circle is the most effective way to build speed in the least amount of space.
Expert practicioners of Pentjak-silat are also said to have the ability to hypnotize an opponent, as well as to engage in self-hypnosis to induce a state where they are impervious to pain and capable of superhuman feats. There are other aspects to the "psychic" side of this martial art, include the ability to read minds and move objects at a distance that are commonly believed throughout Indonesia to be within the abilities of the most accomplished Gurus. Sleight of hand and deception may play into this. Confusing an opponent by slapping your thighs, raising one hand high over your head before delivering a kick, or staring so deeply into your adversary's eyes that he is momentarily distracted are common practices. It is also not uncommon for Indonesia masters of the martial arts to also be celebrated puppeteers. Shadow puppetry, accompanied by gamelan music and a chanted narrative, is an extremely popular form of entertainment that has deep religious overtones. The dexterity of hands and fingers required to be a master puppeteer also increase one's abilities in fighting. The stories told in shadow puppet plays, of warriors and heroes, gods and monsters, are also said to deepen one's understanding of all aspects of life, including the true way of the warrior.
Another aspect of Pentjak-silat which all the various styles have in common is the philosphy behind the fighting. The word of greeting that my teacher taught me to use to open and close each class is a simple, but powerful one that reflects both the Muslim culture of Indonesia and the purpose behind this and so many martial arts. That word is Selamat. It means Peace.
You must never despise anyone, even your enemy. If you lose your desire for peace, no matter how many battles you win, you will always lose in the end.
The modern history of Pentjak-silat includes a number of interesting developments. One has been the gradual spreading of Pentjak-silat beyond the islands of Indonesia into the west. Holland was, for obvious reasons, the first western nation where various styles of this multi-faceted martial art gained a strong foothold. Virtually all of the teachers of Pentjak-silat who are now in the United States trace their lineage in one way of another to the Netherlands. In most cases, they are people of Dutch descent who were taught by other Dutchmen who learned their art in Indonesia. Only a few of them, like my teacher, were either born in Indonesia or were of Indonesian descent. This is not meant to imply that their knowledge of Pentjak-silat or their abilities as practicioners are limited. They are simply one or more steps removed from the original cultural matrix from which Pentjak was born and where it is still practiced in innumerable forms. Many of the secrets of this martial art have never left the great archipelego.
Another modern development, which did not take place in the west but on its home islands, has been the way in which Pentjak-silat has been embraced by modern Indonesia. The island's defense forces are rountinely trained in Pentjak-silat as are the various law enforcement branches. Just as the Secret Service protects American presidents, expects in silat form the bodyguard of the leaders of Indonesia and there are numerous instances of such men subduing attackers or sacrificing their own lives to protect the Indonesian president.
Senam pagi, or Morning Exercise, is the government national fitness program of the island nation. It is practiced outside at the start of the work day, much as Tai Chi is done in unison by great masses of people in China. However, Senam pagi it neither as tranquil nor as slow-moving as Tai chi. In fact, its movements, while graceful, may appear quite violent to the uninitiated on-looker. Its purpose, however, is not aggressive. It builds both physical fitness and a sense of national unity in this country that is made up of so many different islands, ethnic groups and indigenous languages.
What is the relevance of Pentjak-silat to modern life?
This, of course, is a question that may be asked of all the martial arts. If the only purpose of a martial art was fighting, then the advent of firearms might be seen as the end of its usefulness. In China the superiority of guns to fists was proven during the so-called "Boxer Rebellion a century ago. At that time the British were dominating China and, quite frankly, running the opium trade. When the Chinese attempted to end British domination, among those who rallied to the cause of Chinese nationalism were the Boxers, masters of kung fu wu su. Their martial arts ability was so great that it was believed even bullets could not stop them. But they did.
Yet the defeat of the boxers in China did not mean the end of Chinese martial arts. The worldwide popularity of what Hollywood calls "kung fu" is evidence of that True, many are drawn to the flash and showmanship and the impossible cinematic feats performed by acrobats with invisible wires attached to their bodies. But anyone who has really studied wu su, even for a short time, can tell you there is more to Chinese martial arts than just fighting.
Yes, you may learn from the study of any martial art, including Pentjak-silat, skills that may help you defend yourself in a fight. However, understanding your own capabilities, developing self-confidence and physical awareness are just as important--if not more important. In fact, the truly successful student of any martial art is less likely to find herself or himself in a fighting situation--outside of the controlled environment of the dojo or the tournament. The discipline of following the instructions of your teacher and taking part in the ancient, meaningful and ritualized patterns of behavior that is part of the study of any martial arts eventually becomes self-discipline. Confidence, physical fitness and overall health, a respectful attitude towards others, personal discipline, a meaningful awareness of yourself and the world, and a sense of balance and completeness are characteristic of those who have learned the most from their study of martial arts. How many of those things are lacking from the lives of average Americans?
The question then is not whether or not there is any modern value in the study of martial arts. The question is why one would choose to study Pentjak-silat rather than any other style.
My own answer to that lies in the wholistic nature of this martial art. It combines the grace of Tai Chi with the power of karate. Rather than focussing on one part of the body or one technique, it emphasizes the use of many weapons, an awareness of the entire body working in balance. I am not saying that every aspect of Pentjak-silat is superior to all other styles, but that its range encompasses so much. When compared to other styles by impartial observers, it is generally agreed that silat ranks high in all of the basic areas, including punching, kicking, grappling, ground techniques, weaponry, and overall effectiveness against an attacker. Other styles, and this is not meant as a criticism, but a simple fact, may offer little or no training in two or more of those areas while emphasizing on approach. Kendo, for example, is the art of the sword. Judo focusses on throws, grappling and ground techniques while Tae Kwon Do pretty much ignores those to concentrate on kicking. Silat, however, embraces them all.
Although I have not discussed this previously, it could be said that there are four major areas or divisions to Pentjak-silat.
The Four Divisions
The first and most obvious division involves the techniques of striking and blocking. Many but not all of these techniques resemble or are virtually the same as a number of those those used in Kung Fu Wu Su, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai, and other Asian fighting arts. The various stances of Pentjak-silat, such as the basic stance (called the horse stance in many styles), forward stance, cat stance, snake stance, and others are taught in this area. I know of no martial that has greater variety and effectiveness in stances or in striking and blocking techniques.
The second area encompasses the techniques of throwing and ground combat. These throws and ground moves have much in common with Aikido, ju jitsu, wrestling and the increasingly popular Brazilian form of Jiu-jitsu popularized by the Gracie family and referred to as ground grappling. However, the throws and joint locks and other ground techniques are again so many that I do not think any other style has a greater variety. (As with striking and blocking techniques, this variety is due to the many schools of Pentjak-silat and the ways each islans of Indonesia developed their own fighting. The Complete Idiots Guide to Martial Arts by Cezar Borkowski and Marion Manso (1999) states that there are 200 styles of Silat in Indonesia. I believe that to be a considerable underestimation.)
The third area of Pentjak-silat is weaponry. The long staff, the kris (curved knife), the sword, single and double sticks, and a number of other indigenous weapons are among those employed. Here we have a similarity to Japanese Kendo and Filipino arnis. Both the use of these weapons and the ways to disarm an opponent using them are taught. One of the dozen or more styles mastered by my teacher is Bela Diri. Although using weapons is not a part of that style, while studying Bela Diri I learned innumerable ways to disarm attackers using the knife or the stick. In our study of weapons we learned such forms as "The Singing Swords of Bali," which employs two short bladed swords and a series of circular criss-crossing motions.
The fourth area is that of Philosophy and, if we are to believe what some say they have experienced, the development of paranormal abilities. The true Pentjak that is never seen. One neither has to believe in this mystic level of Pentjak nor attempt to study it to appreciate the basic philosophy of this martial art. It is to develop not only the student's mind and body, but also his or her spirit.