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Pencak Silat demonstration at a wedding ceremony in Jakarta.

Pencak silat is an umbrella term used for the variant styles of silat from Indonesia to differentiate Indonesian styles from Malaysian Silat Melayu.[1] It is also spelled penchak silat or pentjak silat. The head organisation of pencak silat in Indonesia is PERSILAT.



Pencak silat was chosen in 1948 as a unifying term for the Indonesian fighting styles. It was a compound of the two most commonly used words for martial arts in Indonesia. Pencak was the term used in central and east Java, while silat was used in Sumatra. In modern usage, pencak and silat are seen as being two aspects of the same practice. Pencak is the performance aspects of the martial art, while silat is the essence of the fighting and self-defense.

The origin of the words pencak and silat have not been proven. Some believe that pencak comes from the Sanskrit word pancha meaning five, or from the Chinese pencha meaning avert or deflect. The most prominent origin theory of the word silat is that it derives from sekilat which means "as (fast as) lightning". This may have been used to describe a warrior's movements before eventually being shortened to silat. Some believe it may come from the word elat which means to fool or trick. The term is also used in Malaysia and the word pencak appeared in Malay language as early as Adat Raja Melayu the text: 1779; manuscripts: 1817, 1873, provenance: text & manuscripts: Melaka. [2]


The pencak silat tradition is mostly oral, having been passed down almost entirely by word of mouth. In the absence of written records, much of its history is known only through myth and archaeological evidence. The primary weapons of Indonesia's tribal peoples were the single-edge sword, shield and javelin. The inhabitants of Nias Island had until the 20th century remained largely untouched by the outside world. However, they are culturally similar to the Himalayan Naga tribe. Neighbouring Sumatrans are said to have left the Nias people alone because they were fearless warriors.

Balinese warriors armed with kris in the 1880s.

India and China were the first civilisations from outside Southeast Asia with whom Indonesia made contact. Both countries influenced the local culture, religion and martial arts. Bas-reliefs in Srivijaya depict warriors wielding such weapons as the jian or Chinese straight sword, which is still used in some styles today.[1] Additionally, Javanese blades are of Indian derivation. It was during this period that pencak silat was first formulised. The earliest evidence of pencak silat being taught in a structured manner comes from the Sumatra-based empire of Srivijaya where folklore tells that it was created by a woman named Rama Sukana who witnessed a fight between a tiger and a large bird. She then taught the techniques to her husband Rama Isruna from whom they were formally passed down. There are several variations of this story depending on the region where it is told. On the island of Bawean, Rama Sukana is believed to have watched monkeys fighting each other while the Sundanese people of West Java believe that she created cimande after seeing a monkey battle a tiger. The accuracy of this legend cannot be substantiated but the fact that pencak silat is attributed to a woman is thought to indicate their prominence in ancient Southeast Asian society.

Srivijaya had control of the Melaka Straits, making it one of the most powerful kingdoms in the history of Southeast Asia. Its reign encompassed what are now Sumatra, Singapore, western Borneo, peninsular Malaysia and Thailand. The empire was also a centre of learning and religion, attracting scholars and holymen from around the Southeast Asian region. More than a thousand Buddhist monks were living and studying in Srivijaya-ruled Sumatra alone. Among them were Javanese, Siamese, Malays, Chams and Khmers. This not only allowed pencak silat to spread throughout the archipelago but also brought the art into contact with what would become sibling fighting systems.

While Srivijaya dominated the coastal areas, the Sanjaya (or Mataram) and Sailendra kingdoms ruled central Java. Pencak silat especially flourished in Java which is now home to more different styles than any other Indonesian islands. In the 1200s, Srivijaya was defeated by the Cholas of south India. This was followed by the decline of the Sailendra and Sanjaya kingdoms but it also gave rise to the Majapahit empire. This was the first empire to unite all of Indonesia's major islands. From its base in eastern Java, Indonesian culture flowered and pencak silat became highly refined. Weapons made by Majapahit smiths were greatly prized in the peninsula such as Hang Tuah's famed Kris Taming Sari.

Pencak silat was later used by freedom-fighters against Dutch colonists. During this time the Bugis and Makasar people from south Sulawesi were very well-known as expert sailors, navigators and warriors. After achieving independence, pencak silat was brought to Europe by Indonesians of half-Dutch ancestry. The art is now popular in the Netherlands, Spain and France.


Betawi pesilat demonstrating the disarming of a golok.
  • Kris: A dagger, often with a wavy blade made by folding different types of metal together and then washing it in acid.
  • Kujang: Sundanese blade
  • Sarong/Samping: Piece of silk fabric worn around the waist or shoulder, used in locking techniques and for defense against blades.
  • Batang/Galah: Rod or staff made from wood, steel or bamboo.
  • Tongkat/Toya: Walking-stick carried by the elderly and travellers.
  • Kayu: A wooden stick of any size.
  • Kipas: Traditional folding fan preferably made of hardwood or iron.
  • Kerambit/Kuku Machan: A blade shaped like a tiger's claw that women could tie in their hair.
  • Sabit/Clurit: A sickle, commonly used in farming, cultivation and harvesting of crops.
  • Pisau: Sword/ knife, either double or single-edged.
  • Badik: Bugis or Makasar blade
  • Sundang: A Bugis sword, often wavy-bladed
  • Tumbuk Lada: Slightly curved Minang dagger, literally meaning "pepper crusher".
  • Gedak: Mace/ club often associated with Hanuman.
  • Seligi: Sharpened bamboo shaft used as a javelin or spear.
  • Tombak/Lembing: Spear/ javelin made of bamboo, steel or wood that sometimes has horsehair attached near the blade.
  • Parang/Golok: Machete/ broadsword, commonly used in daily tasks such as cutting through forest brush.
  • Trisula/Serampang: A trident originally used for fishing.
  • Chabang/Cabang: Short-handled trident, literally meaning "branch".

See also


  1. ^ a b Donn F. Draeger (1992). Weapons and fighting arts of Indonesia. Rutland, Vt. : Charles E. Tuttle Co.. ISBN 9780804817165. 
  2. ^ malay concordance project (search for text)

Further reading

  • Quintin Chambers and Donn F. Draeger (1979). Javanese Silat: The Fighting Art of Perisai Diri. ISBN 0870113534. 
  • Sean Stark (2007). Pencak Silat Pertempuran: Vol. 1. Stark Publishing. ISBN 9780615136985. 
  • Sean Stark (2007). Pencak Silat Pertempuran: Vol. 2. Stark Publishing. ISBN 9780615137841. 

External links



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