Silat, Anyone?

Two notes before we start: 
1. This article can perhaps be classified under cross-cultural communication because it is about explaining one culture to the world.
2. The featured picture is keli (catfish) in tempoyak sauce and it is relevant to the article but in a very obscure way. Let me know if you figured out the connection.

On with the show
Recently a politician suggested that Silat be taught in schools more widely. This was a suggestion that I wholeheartedly support. However, Silat is regrettably widely known especially among Malaysians but not as widely understood. You can see this in the things that people write about Silat in the media. On one hand we get Western reporters saying that Silat is a pragmatic martial art that is purely focused on fighting effectively without any inner development involved. On the other hand, we can hear locals saying that they are suspicious of Silat because it is closely associated with esoteric, even malevolent practices. Both are right, and both are wrong. let us demystify Silat a little.

Silat is an umbrella term: there are hundreds of styles of martial arts that are Silat. The terms Silat, Pencak, and Gayung are almost synonymous which is why in Indonesia they call it Pencak. However, you also get combinations Pencak Silat – a common term for the art, Silat Gayung – one Silat Style, Gayung Fatani – one Silat style. So, for the purpose of this essay, I will use Silat as the umbrella term.

Firstly, Silat styles can vary significantly from on another. Some Silat styles are inspired by animals: Silat Hanuman & Pamonyet (monkey), Harimau, Harimau Berantai, Pamacan (tigers), Sapik Kalo (scorpions). These styles of Silat often imitate the chosen animals. The imitation however is generally limited to some stylized moves and their Bunga.

Bunga literally means flower and it is more or less what Kata is to Karate. In general, the Bunga is reserved for show events. However, the Bunga has a more pragmatic side: they are meant to build muscle memory. If you do certain moves often and in slower but deliberate movements, your body will automatically resort to that move when you are on autopilot; for example, when you are in a fight. In more advanced cases, each move in the Bunga has a name and tells a story. The Opening move in the Bungas (there is more than one) of Gayung Fatani is called the Tutup Alam which is a gesture of respect to everyone around you and end up you closing your personal space thus beginning the “combat” be it the stylized performance version of the to-the-death version.

There are Silat styles that do not imitate animals at all: Silat Lincah, Gayung, Gayung Fatani and much more. In simple terms, the moves of the styles are moves that the style / school has decided to be the fastest way to eradicate the opponent. These preferences give the Silat styles distinct ‘’styles’. Sometimes, the movements may even reveal the place of their origin because they may resemble other styles or systems of the region. One example is the Gayung Fatani. If you take the elements of the Bunga out and the use of grappling techniques out other Gayung Fatani fighting style, you will get something that closely resembles Muay Thai, or more precisely, Muay Boran: the non-sport fighting style from which Muay Thai is derived.

Silat styles derive their names from a number of sources. Cekak is a hand technique, like a claw. Lincah means quick, Fatani is a place in Southern Thailand and also derivable from Fatonah meaning ‘wise’ in Arabic which is a characteristic of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. Sendeng is a guarding stance. Hanuman (the Monkey deity from Ramayana) and Pamonyet both imitate monkeys. Pamacan, Harimau, and Harimau Berantai all imitate the tiger, and Sapik Kalo imitates the scorpion. Some have words that refer to concepts like Sukmo Rogo which literally means body and soul. The variety of sources goes on.

Some Silat styles are related to one another because sometimes you get students of one Silat master going out and creating a school of their own and deciding to differentiate it from his master’s school. So, it is not uncommon to find practitioners whose Silat styles have different names, or slightly different names, show remarkably similar moves when they start performing their Silat.

Silat and Kebatinan are not the same thing. One aspect of Silat is something called Kebatinan. This is generally thought of as the esoteric side of Silat but that is not quite right. The two are actually different things. Kebatinan can best be described as the art or science of developing one’s inner self and strength. Kebatinan is also an umbrella term. Kebatinan is defined differently by the different Kebatinan systems. Some conceptualise it as theory and practices to build one’s inner strength which includes faith in God, assertiveness, spirituality and so on. A few understand it to be techniques and methods with which people can interact with the unseen world, and perhaps to have entities there do their bidding. The latter almost invaliably contravene Islamic theological rules. I say “almost” because there are ways to defend ourselves and heal ourselves from disturbances from the unseen world in the Islamic way: it is called Rukyah and this is also part of Kebatinan. Some say that Kebatinan is based on Sufi practices and they are not wrong but that it not all it is. The Kebatinan world is actually “larger” than the Silat world but this article is on Silat. While Silat is an integral part of the Malay culture is it not all of it. It is as Karate is to Japanese culture and as Kapu Kuialua is to the Hawaiian culture.

Silat comprises several inter-related but distinct arts. Each style takes you through the different systems in their own way: some take you through levels where you learn an interrelated mixture of the different skills getting increasingly difficult and complex and you progress. This, by the way, is how most present day schools do it. The older way, was to teach you each different set of skill as a level: so, for example, you start with learning the basics. Then you progress to the next level where you learn the 8 corner or 8 limb combat system (like Muay Thai). Next you learn the grappling, locking and ground techniques. Then you go to non-bladed weapons. Then bladed weapons. Then on to soft weapon which is where you learn to use the sarong and other flexible items as a weapon. Along the line, you are taught some Kebatinan basics but in the last level, you concentrate on the esoteric Kebatinan. This is where most who get to this level stop. However, there is another level for the chosen few: the part where the Master teaches you how to teach others: where you learn to become a guru.

Since the Silat (and its related arts) are often religiously linked. The more esoteric levels are only taught to those of that religion: Muslims for most Malaysian Silat, Christians for Kali and Arnis de Mano (Filipino martial arts), and the rest. However, like I mentioned above, the Silat itself is not strictly religious, so you do not need to be a Muslim to learn it. For example, I had (I have lost contact with him) a friend who learn Silat and was a Hindu. That was not a problem, he simply learnt to become a better Hindu from the relevant people. I guess the Silat they would teach in schools would not come to these levels so this would be a moot point.

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