Pencak Silat

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Pencak Silat (pronounced pen-chuck see-lut) is the official name used to indicate more than 800 martial arts schools and styles spread across more than 13,000 islands in Indonesia. The art has also reached Europe, and is especially popular in the Netherlands, Spain and France, though it is gaining popularity all over the world thanks to PERSILAT, the world-governing body for the martial art[1].

In Indonesia, the official name used to indicate more than 800 martial arts schools and styles spread across more than 13,000 islands is “pencak silat”. However, this is actually a compound name consisting of two terms used in different regions. The word “pencak” and its dialectic derivatives such as “penca” West Java and “mancak” (Madura and Bali) is commonly used in Java, Madura and Bali, whereas the term “silat” or “silek” is used in Sumatra. The ambition to unify all these different cultural expressions in a common terminology as part of declaring Indonesia’s unity and independence from colonial power, was first expressed in 1948 with the establishment of the Ikatan Pencak Silat Indonesia (Indonesian Pencak Silat Association, IPSI). However, it could only be realized in 1973 when representatives from different schools and styles finally formally agreed to the use of “pencak silat” in official discourse, albeit original terms are still widely used at the local level. [2]

It is not easy to trace back the history of pencak silat because written documentation is limited and oral information is handed down from the gurus or masters. Each region in the archipelago has its own version of its origin which is largely based on oral tradition.

Silat takes important role in country’s history. Since the age of Ancient Indonesian Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms like Srivijaya, Majapahit, Kingdom of Sunda . They used silat to train their soldiers and warriors.

Archaeological evidence reveals that by the sixth century A.D. formalized combative systems were being practiced in the area of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. Two kingdoms, the Srivijaya in Sumatra from the 7th to the 14th century and the Majapahit in Java from the 13th to 16th centuries made good use of these fighting skills and were able to extend their rule across much of what is now Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

According to tradition of Minangkabau, their Silek (Minangkabau pencak silat) can be traced to the fore father of ancient Minangkabau people, Datuk Suri Dirajo .

It is said that according to old Javanese poetry, Kidung Sunda, the sentinels of the Prabu Maharaja Sunda exhibited great skill in the art of pencak silat when they escorted Princess Dyah Pitaloka to Majapahit as a potential bride for King Hayam Wuruk, and faced indignities that greatly affronted their honour[3]. In a battle that ensued at the Bubat field (1346), the Sundanese forces fought to the last drop of blood, using special pencak moves and various weapons,

Albeit the pencak silat styles employed in combat were different, we can still draw the conclusion that in Javanese kingdoms throughout the archipelago, pencak silat served the same function: to defend, maintain or expand territory.

Also in ancient times, the Buginese and Makasar people from South Sulawesi region were known as tough sailors, adventurers, mercenaries and fearless warriors . Throughout the archipelago, these people were known for their combat skills. Nowadays, some well known silat schools in Malaysia can trace their lineage back to ancient buginese warriors.

The Dutch arrived in the seventeenth century and controlled the spice trade up until the early 20th century, with brief periods of the English and Portuguese attempting unsuccessfully to gain a lasting foothold in Indonesia. During this period of Dutch rule. Pentjak Silat or Pencak Silat (as it is known in Indonesia today) was practiced underground until the country gained its independence in 1945.

The growing spirit of nationalism within pencak silat circles echoed the intensification of efforts to realise ‘One Country, one Nation, one Language’ in the archipelago. Following several incidents of mass uprising in the 1920s and the declaration of the Youth Pledge on October 10, 1928 in Batavia, the colonial government tightened and expanded its control over youth activities, pencak silat included. The colonial intelligence apparatus (PID) kept a close eye on all activities and organisations considered to be potentially in opposition to Dutch control. Training in pencak silat provided youths the strength, confidence and courage needed to resist the Dutch colonialists. Therefore pencak silat self-defence activities were closely scrutinised as they were suspected to be the front for political activities, and had to go underground. Training was done in private houses, in small groups of no more than five persons. At the end of the training, the pesilat had to leave one by one without attracting the neighbours’ attention. At times, training would be carried out in secret locations in the middle of the night (from midnight to morning prayers) to avoid the scrutiny of the Dutch. Pencak silat teachers often made use of eerie locations such as graveyards, since even the police would be scared to go there, and they could be protected and safeguarded by the spirits of their ancestors.

Pencak silat matches too began to disappear from public eye following their prohibition by the colonial government in the 1930s. What is more, many pesilat, who were also political figures, met with bitter fates and had to live in prisons or isolated camps for several years. Pencak silat epics abound with stories of masters who ‘were branded as extremists and forced to move around to avoid arrest’, or who were punished for having opposed Dutch authority by using their pencak silat skills, both physical and spiritual. Although we cannot generalise and assume that all pencak silat teachers and schools opposed the colonial government, from the above it clearly appears that pencak silat played an important role in the struggle for independence.

Many pencak silat masters joined the Barisan Pelopor under the leadership of President Soekarno, to help realise the dream of an independent Indonesian nation. Among them were women freedom fighters like Ibu Enny Rukmini Sekarningrat, a Panglipur master from Garut . She fought against the Dutch alongside the Pangeran Papak Troops in Wanaraja, Garut, and the Mayor Rukmana Troops in Yogyakarta. As the capital city of the Republic of Indonesia at that time, Yogyakarta came under very heavy fire from Dutch troops. A great many pencak silat masters came from all over the archipelago to defend it from occupation. The same happened for Bandung, Surabaya, and other cities involved in the struggle.

Pencak silat was also instrumental to the revolutionary movement in Bali. After learning pencak silat as part of his Peta military training in West Java, national hero I Gusti Ngurah Rai gave lessons to his troops to boost the skills they needed to overthrow the foreign enemy. The soldiers in turn covertly trained the people of Banjar, even though the Dutch army forbade this. So today, pencak silat originating from West Java has taken root and developed on the island of Bali.

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