23 November 2010

The Mask of Silat

The reporters were being led on a visit through the Moro section of the Philippines, Mindanao, the southernmost part of the archipelago, which comprises several provinces: Surigao, Misamis Oriental, Occidental, Zamboanga, Ausan, Budidon, Lanao, Davao, Gotobato and the Sulu archipelago.

Each reporter had been on a “cultural” assignment, and the Philippine Tourist Bureau had whetted each writer’s palate for the benefits of the Philippines and the reasons for tourists to come to the islands.

Before being invited, the tourist board wanted to know who the reporters were, what magazines or newspapers they represented, and any or all of their special interests. The increasing interest in Philippine culinary arts had captured the fancy of many daily newspaper cooking columnists and the delicacies of the islands were spread out before them. I represented Black Belt. I wanted to know more about silat, the legendary, death-inflicting martial art that had been kept under wraps whenever any publicity about the Philippines was released.

“Silat?” asked the Philippine representative. “Oh yes,” he said with a smile that came too easily. “Yes, we can arrange for you to see some silat.” He called over an assistant and whispered into his ear.

A Quaint Dance
I was shown silat, at least the silat the tourist men wanted me to see. It was a dance that one of the journalists called “quaint.” Frankly, it was a dance movement accompanied by music. This “modification” is “quaint,” but it is not real silat, true silat. Langka, the modification, has as much terror connected to it as Red Riding Hood against the Big Bad Wolf.

For the tourists to the Philippine islands, such entertainment is satisfactory for the movements do smack of the cultural aspects of the islands, but when you consider the origins of this martial art, it is a pretty weak stew.

The art of silat, known to the Samals and Tausogs, is believed to have been introduced by the Bugi (sic) natives of Cebes (sic) during the second half of the 19th century. According to some Moros, silat is a Malayan word that means “offense and defense with bladed weapons.” It also refers to actual combat. It is more than a dance; it is a form of war.

There is a historical reason behind the martial art. To begin with, the Moros have a record of defiance to both Spanish and American authority. Hatred by the Moros toward any foreign domination runs rampant and the feeling is still intense. Gen. “Blackjack” Pershing, who commanded the Allied armies of World War I, gained much of his battle experience through the encounters with the Muslims of Mindanao before going to the battlefields of Europe.

The Americans were the only ones to wage a winning war with the Moros using heavy artillery against the armadas of silat-trained Moros to gain their ground. The despotic Spaniards, however, those conquerors of many lands, put up fortifications along the coasts, but whenever they ventured within the interior of the country, they came out bloodstained and weary for their efforts.

The Lanao Muslims have built a long reputation for their fierceness of attack in the art of silat, and the Moros are expert, to this day, in the use of the kali, a native style of fencing played by a selected few in royal places. With this background, to have summoned up this watered-down routine and call it silat is like calling Bunker Hill a tea party.

The Secretive Moros
Through constant prodding of the secretive Moros, I was promised a display of true silat, which is now practiced by the Samal tribe of Sibutu and Simunol in Tawi-Tawi. This deadly sport has since been introduced to the natives of Jolo and Mindanao and has been practiced in combat sport by the Moros.

Seeing silat is an unforgettable experience. The art is never played, it is fought, and it is not a martial art where the combatants walk away without some shedding of blood. Moro tradition observes the secrecy of instruction. Silat lessons are considered top secret by both teacher and students, and not everybody can witness the exercises and play. Perhaps, the tourist bureau actually believed that what they had shown me and other reporters was the true silat. The combat art is practiced in the home, all windows and doors are barred and no outsiders are allowed until my persuasion opened those doors and windows to me.

Some of the silat masters I talked to alleged that the originators of the art in Mindanao were Tubba, Suhudah and Wabulongs. These are the very same people who were war-oriented and brought the art of kuntao, a karate-like sport to the Philippines.

Usually, an expert in this Mohammedan combat art only exhibits his knowledge of the art by body maneuvers like pivoting, parrying, hitting, turning at four corners, leaping, evading, swinging the bladed weapon for hit and parry. Silat, when executed by Muslim players, gives the rendition of coordinated movements with modification of various techniques. It is sometimes combined with the rustic and graceful striking movements of the Amis. The real silat is unlike arnis in that two people cannot hold bladed weapons and start executing the hit and parry strokes for practice. The Moros believe that if two players were allowed to perform practice face to face before a crowd, the enthusiasm of the audience might drive them on, excite them into killing each other upon such provocation.

Some basic strokes of silat are similar to arnis, “cinco tiros” or five strokes in that they are a right high cut, a left low cut, a right low cut, a left high cut and thrust. These skills are practiced with a Moro dagger called the kris, or a barong.

Metaphysical Aspect
In talking to the combat players, they are extremely enveloped in the metaphysical aspects of the art. They claim to feel the supernatural powers of the anting-anting charm, and many wear ornamental decorations such as lockets or amulets on their neck. There are unbelievable stories that are related by the teachers about certain phrases spoken in time of danger and actual combat.

Because of the precision movements necessary in the martial art, the student learns the lagot (hit) and the tangkis (parry) after he has mastered the graceful art of walking, jumping and balancing on one foot and swinging the forearms like a fan called the bunga. Silat, except for the undeveloped form and moods of skill, can compare favorably with foreign fencing. Individual techniques, however, can be degenerated into graceful steps and dance movements, the kind I was shown by the tourist bureau.

The art of silat, because of its martial effectiveness, spread through the efforts of Ussin, the son of Tubba, who journeyed as far as Mindanao to earn a living. However, his pupils propagated the Muslim art of combat in various places in Mindanao. Today the deadly art introduced by the Samals has become a patrimony and a legacy of the Philippine nation. However, up to the present time, the ancient art of fighting with bladed weapons still survived in the southern islands of Mindanao.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Corrections in terminology to this article include Bugi to Bugis and Cebe to Celebes or Sulawesi. Aside from these, although words like Kris do not conform to Silat Melayu: The Blog and Silat Melayu Community's language policy, this article has not been edited to respect the language use of the time.

Originally published in BLACK BELT Magazine, September 1967.
Sourced from http://www.blackbeltmag.com/archives/542

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