The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #6 November / December 2013
Pencak Silat
by Erik Zidowecki
November / December 2013 | 

There is a movie I saw a while ago, named "Dragon Crusaders", which, despite its rather sweeping title, was absolutely dreadful. It had a mix of dragons, gargoyles, pirates, zombies and a curse, yet somehow proved to be very poorly done. Perhaps part of the reason is that the princess the crusaders were defending only had a single expression, and that was of someone that had just swallowed a bug.

I did watch the entire movie, however, then read the reviews of it to see how many agreed with my thoughts. Most of the other reviewers thought it was terrible, but they too watched it completely. So why didn't we give up on it immediately?

The one truly good part of the movie was a sword fighter, named Aerona, who joins the crusaders. She doesn't talk much, but was amazing to watch when she went into action. She became a ball of motion, engaging in a mix of sword play, dancing and acrobatics.

Aerona was played by Cecily Fay, who is a real life sword master, and the moves she were performing were from a martial art form known as Pencak silat. I was so impressed just from her time in the movie that, not only did I endure the rest of the mess, but I read up on her and her art afterwards.

Silat is an Indonesian word and refers to this particular form of self-defense fighting style which focuses on defending against multiple attackers. Pencak refers to the performance art aspect of the style and the execution of the movements. Pencak silat is the basic name for a variety of forms used in Indonesia.


There was once a powerful ancient Malay empire, with its center on the island of Sumatra, part of modern Indonesia. It was called Srivijaya, and during it's reign, it had a strong influence over Southeast Asia. It is here that silat is said to have been born.

Maximum extent of the Srivijaya Empire around 8th century

According to oral history, the earliest fighting forms of art in Indonesia go all the way to prehistoric times. The single-edged sword, shield and javelin were the primary weapons of the tribal inhabitants of Nias an island off the west coast of Sumatra. They remained mostly isolated from the rest of the world until the 20th century. Some of the earliest depictions of silat being used appear in bas-reliefs in Srivijaya. They show warriors wielding particular weapons which are still used in some forms of silat today.

There are a number of myths surrounding the foundations of silat in Sumatra. According to legend, a woman, Rama Sukana, studied the movements of animals while they were fighting and mimicked them to defend herself against some drunken men. There are different versions of the stories, depending on the region. Sometimes the animals are a tiger and a huge bird, sometimes a monkey and a tiger. Sukana took the movements and developed them into an elegant and fierce fighting style, which she then taught to her husband. It was then passed on to their children, with each generation teaching the next.

Sometime during the 6th century, a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma (think "body harm") arrived in southeast Asia and presented a form of silat. He came from India and would have passed through the Sumatra kingdom of Srivijaya. The monk's version incorporated some spiritual training as well as the self-defense.

Two women in a Pencak Silat competition

Silat spread throughout Srivijaya and was developed in many ways in other regions. A form that was especially popular in Java became known as Pencak Silat. Today, Java has more styles of it than any other Indonesian islands. When Srivijaya was defeated by the Chola dynasty of southern India in the 13th century, the Majapahit empire rose in power and took over the region. It united all of Indonesia's islands and silat rose even further in prominence.

Pencak silat continued to evolve over the centuries, especially after Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch, who had colonized it in 1603. As the people of Indonesia and European heritage mixed, Pencak silat found its way into Europe.

Modern Form

Today, Pencak silat is taught in both Indonesia and several western countries, such as the Netherlands, USA, UK, Spain and France. It is essentially a self-defensive art form, with the primary goal being to protect oneself and not to harm an opponent.

Pencak silat Betawi style performed during Betawi wedding ceremony

Students train with other practitioners, often in groups of four, in order to master the multi-opponent aspect. Advanced students will train with five to seven others.

Pencak silat teaches the most efficient but minimal moves for best defense. The basic techniques include evasion, kicking, striking, grappling, throwing, locking, ground fighting and the use of weapons. The striking and kicking moves are used to tire an opponent, then grappling and locking methods are used to secure them.

A distinctive aspect of this form is the "baiting" postures, which are called Sikap Pasang (Welcoming Postures). They are beautiful and graceful expressions, meant to draw in or distract the opponent. These stances vary according to regional styles. Pencak silat also uses constant changes of height and speed to achieve fluid movements.

Despite being a defensive art form, weapons are also employed. The student is trained to use a variety of them, including some very traditional ones of silat. They also must learn to utilize other objects around them as weapons.

The main arena of Padepokan Pencak Silat in Taman Mini Indonesia Indah complex, East Jakarta. The main venue of Pencak Silat matches during 26th Southeast Asian Games Indonesia 2011

It can take many years to master these forms. Cecily Fay began training in martial arts in 1991. She won the double European Champion in Pencak Silat in 1995, then began teaching in 2000 as the Senior Instructor of the Seni Silat Haqq School. She also is also a trained gymnast and dancer, which she worked into her routines in the movie.

People teach or study Pencak silat for different reasons, since they don't need to fend off hostile tribes. They may learn to compete in competitions, for self-defense, mental-spiritual development, or even artistic appreciation. There are major competitions held in a few countries, involving individuals and whole teams. The major international one is the Pencak Silat World Championship, which takes place every few years with over 30 teams competing.

Pencak Silat
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Images: Sumatra (title)
Gunawan Kartapranata: Map of the Srivijaya Empire around 8th century; Two women in a Pencak Silat competition; Pencak silat Betawi style; Main arena of Padepokan Pencak Silat
• "What is Pencak Silat?" Combat Silat <>
• "Pencak Silat" From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia <>
• "Indonesian Martial Arts and Pencak Silat" Chris Moran <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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