Silat is a collective word for a class of indigenous martial arts from a geo-cultural area of Southeast Asia encompassing most of the Nusantara, the Indonesian Archipelago, 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 practised in Brunei, central Vietnam and the southern Philippines.
To signify the initiation of a new student, certain rituals may be carried out. This may include fasting for a few days, or drinking herbal tea. Silat masters traditionally never charged fees for their teaching, but money or some other gift may be offered by the aspiring student. Such practices usually don't apply today, especially outside Southeast Asia, but a few schools like Silat Lintar preserve their own initiation ritual.
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 and often accompanied by a bow of the head. This represents the balance of two opposing forces represented either by the harimau (tiger, male aspect) and buaya (crocodile, female aspect) or by the nāga (dragon) and garuda (giant eagle). This concept is referred to as jantan betina (male-female) and is equivalent to the androgynous Indian Ardhanarishvara or the Chinese yin and yang. 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. A few systems, 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 (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 practised 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. Routines 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 (kembangan or bunga) or art (seni) forms. They are performed in slow, graceful movements with a dance-like quality.
Sparring in silat may be done according to official competitive rules with protective gear, or traditionally with no protection at all. In either case, attacks to vital areas are prohibited. Sparring, as with silat training in general, was often done in varying conditions to prepare the fighter for combat in any situation. The most common of these was training in dim light, sparring against several opponents, fighting unarmed against a weaponed opponent, and fighting in darkness or blindfolded. Others include fighting in a tight space (common in Bajau styles), on a slippery surface (as in Minang styles), or from a seated position (a fundamental of Sunda styles). Experienced practitioners may fight against up to twelve opponents, a practice known as kerojok in Javanese. The defender is attacked by both armed and unarmed opponents. Weapons can be interchanged between the attackers, while the defender is allowed to steal and use the weapons against them. These matches were traditionally full-contact and highly dangerous, but are generally kept light-contact today.
Advanced silat students undergo ordeals or ujian meant to test their physical, psychological and spiritual endurance. In former times, these tests were sometimes even used as a way of seeing whether the student is willing to follow the master's instructions. Confidence tests still in use today include putting one's hands in boiling oil and rubbing it onto the body, jumping through a flaming hoop, or catching a spear which is thrown down a waterfall. Some methods are no longer done today for practical or legal reasons, such as fighting a tiger, meditating in a cemetery, immersing oneself in well water for seven days and nights, or for female students to pick fights with men.
While sparring may vary according to style and school, official matches follow the rules outlined by IPSI.
- strikes are only legal if they hit between the shoulder line and the waist, each successful strike is awarded one point;
- hitting the face or below the belt is a penalty;
- throws in themselves are not awarded points, and ground follow-up is permitted;
- a joint-lock is awarded 10 points;
- immobilising the opponent by holding them helpless is worth 5 points.
In silat culture, the energetic body consists of interlocking circles called cakera. The cakera's energy rotates outwards along diagonal lines. Energy that emits outwards from the centre 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 cakera, 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 describes legendary techniques that allow the fighter to attack from afar using energy alone without physically touching the opponent.
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. 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 (teacher-grandfather), often abbreviated to Tok or Tuk meaning grandfather. The Javanese equivalent of this term is Eyang Guru which may be used for an elderly master or the teacher's master. In all countries where silat is practised, the honorary title of Pendekar may be officially bestowed onto a master by royalty or unofficially by commoners.