Silat (Minangkabau: silek) is a collective word for indigenous martial arts of the Malay Archipelago and Malay Peninsula of Southeast Asia. Originally developed in what are now Indonesia, peninsular Malaysia, southern Thailand and Singapore, it is also traditionally practiced in Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines.
There are hundreds of different styles but they tend to focus either on strikes, joint manipulation, throws, bladed weaponry, or some combination thereof. Silat is one of the sports included in the Southeast Asian Games and other region-wide competitions. Training halls are overseen by separate national organizations in each of the main countries the art is practiced. These are Ikatan Pencak Silat Indonesia (IPSI) from Indonesia, Persekutuan Silat Kebangsaan Malaysia (PESAKA) from Malaysia, Persekutuan Silat Brunei Darussalam (PERSIB) from Brunei and Persekutuan Silat Singapura (PERSISI) from Singapore.
The origin of the word silat is unknown. One theory is that it comes from the Tamil word silambam, which has long been practiced by the Indian community of Malaysia. The Tamils also use the word silatguvarisai to define their silambam movement patterns. Other similar-sounding words have been proposed but none have been proven.
Originally the word silat was used as a generic term for any system of fighting. Burmese martial arts, for example, would be called silat Awa. Some Malay-speakers (especially in Indonesia) still use the word as such, as can be seen in the term ilmu silat (knowledge of silat) which can used for any fighting style. Today, the word has a formidable arsenal of terms used to refer to martial arts in Southeast Asia.It is usually called pencak silat in Indonesia or silek in the Minangkabau language. Some examples of the word's application in Malaysia and Singapore include seni silat (art of silat) and seni bela-diri (art of self-defence).
Fighting arts in the Malay Peninsula and Malay Archipelago arose out of hunting methods and military training by the region's native inhabitants. The descendents of former headhunters still perform ancient wardances which are considered the precursor of the freestyle form in silat. While these aborigines retained their tribal way of life, the Indon-Malay diaspora instead based their culture on China and India. By adopting the Indian faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism, their social structure became more organised.Evidence shows that silat was influenced by both Chinese and Indian martial arts.Many of the region's medicinal practices and weapons originated in either India or China, and silat's thigh-slapping actions are reminiscent of Hindu wrestling.The Chinese community also practiced their own localised martial arts known as kuntao, which both influenced and borrowed from silat.
Although numerous myths attempt to explain the institutionalisation of silat, most of them concern only a specific style. The earliest evidence of silat taught in its present form is found in Sumatra where, according to local legend, a woman based her combat system on the movements of animals that she had seen fighting. Masters still believe that the first styles of silat were created by observing animals, and these styles were probably derived from animal-based Indian martial arts. In the fifth or 6th century, pre-determined sets are said to have been introduced by the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma who came from India to Southeast Asia via the Sumatra-based kingdom of Srivijaya in Palembang.Through this connection, silat is also used as a method of spiritual training in addition to self-defense.
Silat was eventually used by the defence forces of Langkasuka, Champa, Srivijaya, Beruas, Melaka, Makasar, Aceh, Majapahit, Gangga Negara, Pattani and other kingdoms in Southeast Asia.Except for generals and royalty, Indonesia-Malay warriors wore minimal armour, if any at all. A rattan shield, or a breastplate at most, was the only protective gear available to the average soldier. This may have been one of the reasons why the older styles relied more on agility than they do today. Despite the Hindu caste system which held sway in ancient times, silat was never confined to any particular social class or gender but was practiced by all without restrictions. Even today, it is often taught in families who have inherited cultural traditions such as woodcarving, dance, herbalism or the playing of musical instruments.
Southeast Asian trade had already extended into Okinawa and Japan by the 15th century. The number of Japanese people travelling the region increased after the Battle Of Sekigahara. By the early 17th century there were small Japanese communities living and trading in Indochina. Some arrived with the official red seal ships while others were warriors and pirates from the losing side of the Sekigahara war. Although mostly confined to Siam, some Japanese escaped to Cambodia and Indonesia after Ayutthaya was attacked by the Burmese. Silat shares many similarities with Okinawan karate as well as the throws and stances of weapon-based Japanese martial arts which probably date back to this time. Trade with Japan ended when the country went into self-imposed isolation but resumed during the Meiji era, during which time certain areas of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore became home to a small Japanese population. After the Japanese Occupation, some silat masters incorporated the katana into their styles.
Since the Islamisation movement of the 1980s and 90s, there have been attempts to make silat more compliant with Islamic principles. It is now illegal for Muslim practitioners in Malaysia to chant mantera, bow to idols, practice traditional meditation, or attempt to acquire supernatural powers. This has given rise to various misconceptions that silat is inherently Muslim or can only be practiced by followers of the Islamic faith. In actuality silat has existed long before Islam was introduced to Southeast Asia and is still practiced by non-Muslims. The Hindu-Buddhist and animistic roots of the art were never eradicated, and remain very evident even among Muslim practitioners of traditional styles. Some of these old methods have been lost after silat masters in pre-dominantly Muslim areas could no longer teach them, but others still endure among conservative training schools in Indonesia and Thailand.
Terms of address
In Indonesia, anyone who teaches silat is addressed as Guru or teacher. In Malaysia, instructors who are qualified to teach but haven't yet achieved full mastery are addressed as Cikgu or Chegu, a contraction of encik and guru. Masters are called Guru while grandmasters are called Guru Agong or Mahaguru meaning supreme teacher. The terms cikgu and guru are often interchangeable. An elderly male master may be addressed as Tok Guru or Tuk Guru (lit."teacher-grandfather"), often abbreviated to Tok. In both countries, the honorary title of Pendekar may be officially bestowed onto a master by royalty or unofficially by commoners.