I first became aware of Silat when I saw a video on the series “kung fu Quest”. This is a show where 2 young martial artists go to various martial arts schools to learn and train and then test themselves against senior students.
One of the 2 men is Philip NG, a legitimate Wing Chun practitioner from the Wong Shun Leung Lineage. In the video he did a short spar with a senior silat practitioner, which was very impressive. They were evenly matched, and both had lightning fast hands, and the styles looked almost indistinguishable from one another when used at top speed.
The show also included the 2 men competing in a silat tournament. The tournament fighting was unusual and interesting. Due to the scoring, kicks, throws, and takedowns were emphasized with very few hand strikes being used. I was also impressed with the female contestants who looked incredibly “bad ass”.In their traditional headdresses and competition uniforms, they resembled deadly ninjas, or robotic warriors.
The Diverse History and Techniques of Pencak Silat
Pencak silat is a martial art system encompassing hundreds of styles across Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, and other Southeast Asian countries. With a rich history and variety of techniques, pencak silat focuses on using the entire body and a range of weapons for self-defense and combat. Although all styles vary, they all add the use of certain weapons to the weaponless system, and are very strong on tradition and philosophy.
Ancient Origins and Development
The origins of pencak silat are ancient, developing over centuries in maritime Southeast Asia. The term “silat” was used to describe indigenous fighting arts as early as the 16th century in old Javanese and Malay writings. However, silat’s origins likely trace back much further, arising as a practical need for self-defense among early Indonesian and Malay communities.
The movements of pencak silat were influenced by the natural motions the human body uses to protect itself, combined with animal styles and techniques from surrounding regions. By the 19th century, hundreds of styles had emerged across Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and other islands. Each geographic region, ethnic group, and community developed their own variations, leading to exceptional diversity in techniques and approaches.
The term “pencak” refers more to the artistic, performance aspect of the martial art. So pencak silat refers to the blend of combat effectiveness and aesthetic beauty seen in practice. Different schools emphasize different aspects, from lightning fast attacks to musical fluidity.
Variations Between Styles
With pencak silat disseminated over so many islands and communities, distinct styles evolved characterized by particular stances, footwork, and fighting strategies. West Sumatran styles like Minangkabau use low stances and evasive body movements. West Javanese styles favor swift, dynamic kicking techniques and legs attacks. Chinese-influenced styles like Kuntao silat focus more on upper body techniques including intricate hand maneuvers and joint manipulation.
Some schools emphasize elegance and artistry in forms, while others concentrate on practical self-defense and close combat. Certain styles specialize in striking, others in grappling and submissions. There is huge diversity in terms of weapons training as well, from swords to knives to staves. However, most styles integrate both defensive and offensive techniques that flow smoothly between positions.
Traditional Weapons of Silat
In addition to empty hand techniques, pencak silat schools often instruct in the use of weapons, both as a cultural heritage and practical skill. Traditional arms include the karambit (curved blade), kris (dagger), sword, stick, staff, kerambit (claw dagger), golok (machete) and chain weapons. Long staves are used both solo and with a partner for sparring.
Students first learn solo forms and movements to master grips, stances, and striking techniques before moving on to partner drills and controlled sparring. Weapons practice develops control, timing, accuracy, coordination, and tactical thinking. By training with both long and short weapons in different ranges, silat students gain an advanced understanding of combat principles applicable throughout the martial arts.
Competitive Pencak Silat
In the 1920s, silat masters from different styles developed standard competition rules so practitioners could test their skills against one another. Matches feature two fighters facing off looking to score points through strikes, throws, sweeps and takedowns. Victory can also be achieved via submission or knockout.
Modern competitive pencak silat takes place on a matted court with protective gear. The repertoire of attacks is more limited compared to traditional silat taught for real-world self-defense. However, matches showcase trained athletes using silat techniques at full speed and power. Through tournaments, pencak silat lives on as an active global sport that displays the striking, evasiveness, and versatility distinctive to silat.
A Lasting Cultural Heritage
Beyond its effectiveness in combat, pencak silat also embodies deeper meanings regarding Southeast Asian culture and society. Training develops important values of patience, awareness, respect, and balance. Learning silat facilitates physical and mental growth as part of a lifelong journey.
With hundreds of styles tied to particular islands, ethnic groups, and villages, silat represents a vital product of Southeast Asia’s diverse heritage. As silat gains more international exposure, its traditions carry forward as both a regional point of pride and a global martial arts phenomenon. The beauty, creativity, and lethality captured in pencak silat will continue to inspire new generations of practitioners in Indonesia, Malaysia, and beyond.