The Evolving Southeast Asian Martial Art Of Silat

Two athletes have a silat bout in the Circle

Silat’s unique flair may have been overlooked for many years, but today, the traditional martial art from Southeast Asia is practiced in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines.

With over 1,000 forms of silat, the discipline has even spread to countries like Austria, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Learn a little bit more about the sport, its evolution, its various styles, and how it is still gaining popularity worldwide – even on the big screen.

A Brief Overview Of Silat

Archaeological evidence found at Borobudur Temple in Java, Indonesia dates silat back to the eighth century. Just like most martial arts, it was designed for self-defense during war times.

Silat focuses on techniques using footwork and hand movements, as well as attacks on pressure points.

The discipline also includes the use of the keris (dagger) and parang (machete), and effective weapon-countering tactics.

The Attire And Weapons Of Silat

A student of silat dresses in a black uniform and bandana, which devout practitioners believe carries magical powers. There can be Arabic letters and a picture of a tiger on these bandanas, too.

The weapons used in silat vary depending on the form one practices, but most weapons come from farming tools.

A keris is formed by nine types of metal held together with either wood, gold, or ivory. It is divided into three parts: bilah (blade), hulu (hilt), and warangka (sheath).

The parang is another weapon in silat. The blades of these weapons may be curved or straight, with sizes ranging from tiny handheld knives to actual swords.

Then you have the lembing (spear). It is made of bamboo, steel, or wood. A sabit (sickle) is also one of the most popular weapons in silat.

The sarong, which is a cloth wrapped around the waist, can be used as a weapon for locks, chokeholds, and grabs. It can also shield attacks from bladed objects.

The 3 Popular Styles Of Silat

Silat pulut is a traditional style performed at wedding ceremonies when the bride and groom arrive at the groom’s house.

All movements must be done gracefully as a sign of respect and cannot be done out of anger. Also, punches or kicks cannot be pointed at the newlyweds.

Though a traditional silat performance at a wedding in Malaysia is called silat pulut, its name differs regionally. The Minangkabau tribe in West Sumatra, Indonesia calls it silek gelombang, while at Betawi weddings in Northern Sumatra it is known as the pentjak silat betawi.

Silat pulut performances are also put on display as part of opening ceremonies for international silat tournaments.

Another form of silat is seni gayong, which was brought into the region from the Bugis people of Sulawesi, Indonesia. It emphasizes joint locks and breaks through grappling-like techniques.

Seni gayong is a more advanced form of silat and promotes strength, agility, flexibility, precision, and counter-attacks.

Starting with the first stage of empty-hand combat, seni gayong students then progress through six more stages using weapons.

Finally, there is pentjak silat, which shares a lot of movements with the two forms mentioned above. This style is a more offensive form of silat and focuses on strikes, kicks, locks, and use of weapons.

As a beginner, one learns about stances before building technique, agility, and conditioning.

An interesting trait about pentjak silat is that its movements focus on the attributes of animals. Students learn how to copy movements and stances of tigers, eagles, snakes, crocodiles, monkeys, scorpions, and dragons.

Pentjak silat is commonly found in central Java, Sumatra, and Bali, and it is one of the most celebrated forms of silat worldwide.

Silat On The Big Screen

Silat’s distinctive style has been featured on the big screen many times over the years.

In Marvel’s 2018 box-office hit Black Panther, lead actor Chadwick Boseman, who plays the titular hero T’Challa, said that actors were given silat, Senegalese wrestling, capoeira, and Muay Thai training to prepare them for their roles.

English martial artist Gary Daniels also used silat in 1996’s Hawk’s Vengeance, while Indonesia’s The Raid, and its sequel The Raid 2, featured silat battles.

Most recently, Indonesian actors and silat practitioners Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman ensued in an epic battle against lead star Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.

Silat Today

Since 1982, countries like the Netherlands, Indonesia, Austria, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand have hosted the World Pentjak Silat Championships.

Besides international competitions, silat is also promoted as a competitive sport on both the national and regional levels. In fact, it has been part of the Southeast Asian Games since 2001.

Also, the International Pentjak Silat Federation (PERSILAT) has close to one thousand members from over 50 countries, and the United States, Belgium, and France have each hosted the Open Pentjak Silat Championships over the years.

Finally, in December 2019, UNESCO added Indonesia’s pentjak silat and Malaysia’s silat to its list of intangible cultural heritages.

Read more: 3 Unforgotten Martial Arts That Have Shaped Indonesian Athletes

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