What is Pencak Silat? This is a difficult question to answer as there are hundreds of different styles that claim the name throughout Nusantara; the region of southeast Asia that runs from Thailand out almost to Papua New Guinea that was once dominated by the Majapahit empire. The name Pencak Silat is new, coined in the late 1940’s using the two most common names Pencak and Silat. The arts that comprise the Pencak Silat family go by many other names such as Silek, Maenpo, and Kali.
Indonesia itself is a composite of many different cultures, each with different languages, tribal groups, beliefs, and fighting arts. They look different, but have a common root wherever it may lie. If you spend some time on the internet looking at the martial arts of the Sunda people of west Java, you can see the arts of harimau with its scratching and clawing movements, Maenpo’s rapid punches, the locks and throws of Cikalong, or the hard body conditioning and striking in Cimande. Compare and contrast this with the elaborate footwork of Central Java Silat, or the direct combat approach of Madurese martial arts. The style I practice, Inti Ombak Pencak Silat is a fusion of styles from Central Java and Madura.
What has lead to all of these different styles of movement arising in one country? Traditional cultural practices, such as dance and music (as mentioned in the beginning of this article), are intimately entwined with Silat motion. In fact, it is difficult to tell which came first or if they arose together. During the occupation of Indonesia by foreign powers, fighting with Pencak Silat was forbidden so it was practiced in the open as a dance. Deadly Silat and mystical practices were hidden in such performances, the culture passed on while camouflaged.
What makes a style of Silat’s movement different or unique? Is it the profession of the founder(s)? Martial arts for the battlefield have a different approach than civilian dueling arts or styles used by criminals or those on the fringes of society. The professions and culture of the people who start a martial art frame the aspects of combat that are emphasized in that art. Fishermen will fight differently than aristocrats; the weapons, nutrition, cultures, and everyday activities of each profession will lead to different philosophies about combat because the objectives are different. Someone fighting to feed their family might move differently than someone fighting over a matter of honor, or another fighting to conquer.
There are many theoretical influences on a style’s movement and emphasis. Here we propose a working definition, that each art’s movement is defined by its philosophy. Here is a brief list of philosophical tenets:
“I come to you with only karate, my empty hands. I have no weapons, but should I be forced to defend myself, my principles, or my honor, should it be a matter of life or death, of right or wrong, then these are my weapons, karate, my empty hands.”
“Using no way as way. Having no limitation as limitation.”
Each of those outlines a martial art. Experienced martial artists will recognize some of the tenets outlined above as belonging to American Kenpo, Jeet Kune Do, Capoeira, and Filipino Martial Arts. The last one may be unfamiliar to the reader, it is the defining philosophy for a style of Pencak Silat, a martial art that is part of Indonesian culture.
Many people define styles by regions and superficial movements that make them forget the core of defining a style lies within the defining philosophy (referred to in this article as Kaedah).
It is Kaedah that forms the core of a fighting style and governs its motions. Philosophy is the foundation of Pencak Silat styles, and is a closely guarded secret for each style.
The development of a style is influenced by the environment, occupation, disabilities, postures, rules of engagement, and preferences of its creator. A common error occurs when players take this to be their Kaedah and blindly follow their training and muscle memory, making decisions from habit. Many styles of Pencak Silat operate under a certain degree of secrecy, keeping their Kaedah secret from others when they demonstrate in public. Knowing the Kaedah of a style allows you to read and predict the movements of that style, because it forms the root and foundation of a martial art. No Kaedah is perfect, and understanding an opponent’s Kaedah will allow you to take decisions from them. Because of this, Silat players will use Kembangan, or free-flow movement to camouflage their original Kaedah. This secrecy allows the Silat player to preserve his or her most effective movements, making them more difficult to defeat in a real fight.
The inherent secrecy of Pencak Silat lends a magical air to its practice and may be partially responsible for preventing it from achieving widespread recognition. Many traditions are only passed down from family member to family member. My teacher, Guru Daniel Prasetya, learned from his great-grandfather and uncle. Styles require ritual adoption to become family, to learn the secrets. When learning a jurus from a Silat teacher, you are most likely learning a modification from a sacred family jurus that contains the Kaedah of that practitioner’s Silat. Too much secrecy can harm the transmission of a martial art, as tremendously talented Gurus cannot find new students to pass on their art.
Indonesia is becoming a modern country in many respects, and this process is threatening to make a casualty of many cultural treasures. One of these casualties could be Pencak Silat. When Indonesians ask me why I love Silat, they are surprised that I do not practice a more fashionable art like Tae Kwon Do or Capoeira. Pencak Silat is becoming viewed by many young Indonesians as antique, obsolete and part of a cultural heritage that is something to be ashamed of by an increasingly modernizing population. This may not be true of all Indonesians, it is merely my impression from my participation in events in Jogjakarta and conversations I have had with my friends.
The analogy I like to use goes back to my elementary school physical education classes, where we learned square dancing. Square dancing is a North American folk dance that many people would be shocked to learn is a highly deadly fighting art…. It isn’t, but you can imagine your surprise if that were true. An organization started by one of our senior instructors, the United Teachers Association for Martial Arts (UTAMA) is working with teachers to help increase awareness of Pencak Silat by the new generation and has helped organized tremendous parades of Silat players in Jogjakarta. These events are called Pencak Malioboro Festival and have been going on for three years now. I have been honored to walk with my Silat brothers and sisters in the last two. You can find more information here.
In the hope of helping other martial artists to better understand their art, and its Kaedah, we are publishing the Kaedah of Persatuan Pencak Silat Inti Ombak (IOPS), a Silat organization with deep roots in the cultures of Central Java and Madura. Recently we have revealed our techniques using motion capture technology with Martial Codex. This wonderful new technology allows teachers to teach and preserve their family arts. A more detailed description of Inti Ombak fighting philosophy is explained in these videos, transmitting a complete view of our art which would have once been reserved for family. IOPS teaches flow in its participants through emphasizing principles and movements in-line with a set of rules for dealing with a knife safely. Martial Codex has just released a packet of 3D animations detailing our Kaedah as they relate to blade awareness and self defense and will continue to release packets on our principles and motions inspired by animal movement.
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.