What is Pencak Silat


An Indonesian Art

Where did it come from?

More recently

An Indonesian Art

Pencak silat is the indigenous martial art of Indonesia.  The term, pencak silat, has only been used as a term of general application since about the 1950s and after Indonesian independence.

A wide diversity of styles and techniques occur by reason of the wide diversity of development by different people in different regions without necessarily emanating from a common source.  There are many hundreds of different styles (aliran) spread across the 13,000 islands comprising the Indonesian archipelago and they can differ markedly. [1]

Pencak silat (by different names) is part of a common Malay culture spanning Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, and the Philippines.  "Silat Melayu" is a common term for the types of silat in the Southeast Asia peninsular consisting of Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei and Singapore.  "Bersilat" is used in Malaysia.  "Pasilat" is a term sometimes used in the Phillipines.  Often the shortened version of "silat" suffices.

The term pencak silat derives from two components.  The word "pencak" (and its dialectic equivalents) is commonly used in Java, Madura and Bali, whereas the term "silat" (or "silek") is more likely in Sumatra.

Pencak has different associations in different places.  It is associated with dance performances performed to specific rhythms provided by drummers and publicly performed.  The contrary was the case for the Javanese people of West and Central Java; for them it meant self defence and, as such, was inappropriate for public consumption and certainly not for general display.

It is sometimes said that "pencak" relates to the traditional dances and "silat" to the self defence aspects (for instance the Minangkabau of West Sumatra); but this may perhaps be over simplistic and by no means universally adopted.  On this topic, Donn Draeger said:

"It will be apparent from the definition of pentjak-silat [old spelling] … that it can be practiced in two different ways.  But underlying all is the fact that pentjak is practiced to develop silat ability; pentjak is never practiced for its own sake.  With rare exceptions it is only the pentjak component that the casual observer is committed to see; his untutored eye is reaches the natural conclusion that what he sees is the whole.  The regulated performance of pentjak utilizes a beauty of action, fluidity, and quickness that can appear to be a dancelike rhythm.  Add to this the percussion music …, which usually accompanies pentjak training, and the view's conclusion is intensified.  But the music is used much like a metronome in order to determine rhythm of movement for trainees, not to make pentjak a dance form.  The music is of course dispensed with in silat."  [2]


Where did it come from?

The history of pencak silat, as with other martial arts, is virtually impossible to ascertain as it was an oral tradition.  Further, the practice and learning of martial arts was often bound up with obligations of secrecy and this is perhaps even more so in Indonesia than in most other places.  The lack of verifiable documentation makes a precise understanding of the history elusive.

Similar to many Asian martial arts an inspirational source of techniques and styles are attributed to the behavior, actions, character and attributes of animals.  Practitioners copied the movements and stances of tigers, eagles, snakes, crocodiles, monkeys, scorpions and dragons.  Not only are stances named after members of the animal kingdom, but some pencak silat styles make such close associations with the animal kingdom that they take their names from animals such as harimau (tiger) and garuda putih (white eagle).

Legends vary as to the origins.  Some attribute it to the monkeys and their fighting style which were copied by humans.  In West Java the Cimande style is said to derive from a woman emulating the movements of a tiger fighting with a monkey.  An interesting aspect in many of the legends is the prominent role attributed to women as the originators of the art.

Methods of fighting are likely to be as old as mankind itself.  Its systemization and development tend to run in tandem with the development of kingdoms and the waging of wars between kingdoms.  A substantial influence on the arts indigenous to Indonesia would have been the interaction with other kingdoms in South and East Asia, especially in China and India.  The influence of kuntao from China came from the many coastal towns in Java where trade with the Chinese was common.  Perhaps the strongest influence was in Jakarta (formerly Batavia) as a result of a large influx of Chinese.  Many Chinese were brought there in 1619 to build the city.

When trying to establish a source from which the plethora of different styles emanated, the styles of West Sumatra and West Java are often referred to.  In West Sumatra, in the Minangkabau region pencak silat may have developed from a single source.  In West Java, the well known Cimande style is very prominent.  It is to these regions and styles that the source of pencak silat is often attributed.  Whether they were the source or not, they were likely to have been integral to developments elsewhere.

More recently

Silat schools (perguruan) operated similar to other Asian martial art schools as organizations for the passing on of cultural and moral values as well as fighting skills.  Ethical behavior was a requirement and the relationship between teacher and student was a very important one.  Training was much more than simply engaging in a physical activity.

Silat schools became less important in terms of general education when the Dutch government introduced a public schools programme in the early part of the 20th century.  An indirect consequence of this was the development of a more formal structure being given to silat schools because of the loosening of the previous informal ties.  Masters of the art set rules regulating the behavior and ethical standards expected of students.  It was usual for the strict enforcement of regulations, including prohibiting students to study with other schools and forbidding the teaching of outsiders.

No doubt the Dutch colonial government would have had some unease about the existence of these schools.  The schools could readily be perceived as organizations with the potential to promote a nationalistic ideology and resistance to the Dutch colonial government.  It is often said that government scrutiny forced some schools into a underground existence, particularly if there was any hint of association with political activity.


[1]          Donn Draeger's reference to 157 "officially recognized" styles probably dramatically underestimated the numbers.Draeger, Donn F "The Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia"; Charles E. Tuttle Company Japan 1972, p.33.  He refers to "several hundred" in a subsequent publication: Chambers C. and Draeger D. "Javanese Silat: The Fighting Art of Perisai Diri" Kodansha International Ltd Japan (1978)

[2]          Draeger, Donn F "The Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia"; Charles E. Tuttle Company Japan (1972), p.37-8