“Other definitions exist, but all agree that silat cannot exist without pentjak; pentjak without silat is purposeless.” -Donn F. Draeger1
Smack! I can still remember the sound of the impact ten years later. A student’s hand impacting the sweat-slick tile to break their fall, followed by the collapse of their body into the hard ceramic and an enthusiastic “ya!” from the instructor. Next it was our turn to learn, one bule (foreigner) matched with a pesilat (silat player) from the visiting school. They had arrived earlier that afternoon, in matching blue jackets and black pants. They came from a silat school known as BIMA (Budaya Indonesia Mataram) as we were finishing our afternoon training session, covered in dirt and sweat but laughing and joking with each other. We piled into a small common room and greeted our new friends. Matched up, we practiced a series of techniques modeled on some of the key jurus-jurus (forms) of BIMA: horse; warrior; and princess (more dangerous than it sounds). The instructor demonstrated the series of moves, one precise snapping strike following another and ending in a swift fall to the hard floor. Pakdhe Kardi’s knowledge of the English language was limited but emphatic, alternating almost childlike enthusiasm with surprising speed and power. We would attempt the technique, then he would correct our stance to be “Optimum!” Success was met with a punctuated “ya!” and error with correction. Pakdhe Kardi and I have since trained together several times over my subsequent trips to Indonesia. Pakdhe (a term of respect for an elder uncle) Kardi is a second-generation student of the founder of BIMA, Mr. Raden Broto Sutaryo.
Having done my reading and trained in the art for years, I knew that pencak silat is a system of self defense indigenous to the Malay Archipelago. However, I am always interested in hearing how my elders define the art. After reading the book ‘Pencak Silat in the Indonesian Archipelago” by O’ong Maryono2 I learned that Pencak is what the fighting arts were called in Central Java (see my article talking about maenpo and Sundanese silat) and was later combined with silat into the term Pencak Silat. My guru in Inner Wave Pencak Silat, Daniel Prasetya, has described pencak silat as the art of solving problems. When your teacher has many decades in the art, as Pakdhe Kardi does, a simple question can get them answer much more than you intended.
So, I started simply by asking him to what pencak silat means to him:
“For me silat can be interpreted as welad in Javanese language. Welad is made from bamboo, that has been cut very thin and sharpened. That meaning itself is for self-defense, so if pencak silat is art of self-defense, and silat itself is self-defense. Welad is similar with razor blade, we can shave the mustache and beard with razor blade. A razor blade is very thin, flexible and sharp same as a welad. We can also define it as ‘sembilu’ that is cut from the bamboo, made very thin, and made very sharp. Pencak and silat are two words that can’t be separated, so the two words unify to mean pencak silat. So, for me pencak silat is art from self-defense, it is like that.”
The definition of welad was given by Pakdhe Kardi as sembilu, which is a compound word comprising the phrase: selembar bilah bamboo or a blade made from bamboo. Typically, there is always a deeper meaning with Javanese culture and after I returned home from Indonesia, I examined what he said more closely. I found welad in my dictionary (but not on Google yet, so score one for dictionaries). Welad is defined as “a sharp sliver of bamboo, used as a knife for cutting the umbilical cord.”3 I received an explanation from my brother-in-law that supplemented the literal definition from my dictionary. Apparently a welad is a knife that is laboriously carved from the skin of bamboo. In the past, weapons made of iron were expensive and difficult to acquire. So, some of their blades were made of bamboo including the welad. So, the welad (and by extension the silat player) is a weapon that is sharp enough to be a razor, but also flexible.
As an art, pencak silat has considerable room for personal expression and experience and the best manifestation of this aspect is the partially memorized, partially improvised jurus. I was hoping for some additional insight into the nature of jurus from Pakdhe Kardi.
So, what is a jurus?
“So, in my opinion the jurus is a special thing, so the material and the movement of the jurus is something unique and special. As an example, for example our schooling starts from kindergarten or first grade to elementary school, middle school, high school then goes on to college. If in college, there are faculty or different majors. For example, there is a medical faculty, a chemistry faculty, political science faculty, and so on. So, when we enter the faculty level, the lessons are already special. So, the jurus is composed of special motions, for example the mantis jurus means that every motion in it must express the mantis form. If it is the tiger jurus, for example with motion like this, so in theory and application it has to show the special characteristics and character of the tiger. So, for me jurus is something special. You can’t, for example, you cannot take the tiger jurus and mix it with the mantis jurus. If a tiger moves its hand it has to be like the palm of a tiger. The hands of the tiger move like this, yes like the tiger. Like with the ‘Guardian of Mataram’ form, there isn’t a tiger claw move in that form, in the ‘Guardian of Mataram’ form all of the hand motions have to have a closed fist. When we defend or attack, we should also show the characteristics from the jurus that we study. For example, with the tiger jurus, you must show the characteristics of that style when attacking, blocking, and defending.”
For Pakdhe Kardi, there is only total commitment to his actions. Every motion is done with an intensity and an intention that are truly awe-inspiring. Although he calls his method of self-defense “mainstream” there is nothing common about how he moves. From what I have learned previously, each jurus has a particular lesson at its core. This lesson can be as basic as how to fight with a high, middle, low stance or how to address multiple attackers from 1, 2, 3, or 4 directions. At advanced levels they can also teach how to connect with your intuition and inner instincts by mimicking the behavior of an animal such as the tiger or pangolin. Each jurus is a unique vocabulary assignment that tells its own story and teaches its own lesson. Many silat systems use the jurus as a training and information storage/encryption tool, and I hope to expand on this function in future articles.
The full interview can be seen below.
1 Draeger DF. Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia. Reprint edition. Rutland, Vt: Charles E. Tuttle Company; 2001.
2 Maryono O, Keary L, Sciortino R. Pencak silat in the Indonesian archipelago. Yayasan Galang: Yogyakarta; 2002.
3 Javanese English Dictionary by Stuart Robson Dr. Periplus Editions; 1828.
Charles Brandon Stauft has been training in Silat since 2006 and teaching for the past 4 years. He is the head instructor for Inner Wave Pencak Silat New York where he teaches occasional seminars in New York City, a number of private students, and a class at Stony Brook University in Pencak Silat basics. He has mainly trained under Guru Daniel Prasetya and also with instructors in other Filipino and Indonesian martial arts both in the United States and Indonesia. He has been lucky enough to go to intensive camps in Bali and Java as well as a number of seminars in the United States. Recently he has also taken up historical European martial arts (HEMA), specifically German longsword fencing in the Lichtenauer tradition.