Silat, or more formally Pencak Silat (Pen-chak See-lat) is a traditional martial art of the Malay people. Its roots trace back to 2000 BC and it was developed in Muslim populated countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
In 2008, I visited Indonesia to learn some of the traditional techniques of this art. I have been learning and teaching along with fellow instructors Wona Sumantri and Terra Kurnia for over 20 years. Recently within the last 30 years, from the roots of Pencak Silat, a sport has evolved called Pencak Silat Olahraga. Persilat, the International Pencak Silat organization, invited me to participate in the 14th World Pencak Silat tournament to represent the United States. This competition, attended by over 35 countries, would be held at the Silat Padepokan (or training center) in Jakarta, Indonesia from Dec 12-15, 2010.
The Padepokan is a huge facility situated right next to a beautiful grand Mosque, which I was able to pray in daily during my stay.
The World Pencak Silat competition takes place every 2 or 3 years. I was given the letter of invitation only several months in advance so I had to start preparing to compete in the tournament for the very first time. I competed in many open tournaments in the past, but they were mostly geared toward Karate and Taekwondo practitioners, so I did some training with our students based on the little knowledge I had about “Pencak Silat Olahraga” or sport Silat.
Once I arrived in Jakarta, I got a chance to meet some of the other Pencak Silat teams from around the world and watch how they practice. The Indonesian and Brunei team practice three times a day for six months before the tournament.
Silat Olahraga consists of four main divisions: “Tanding” or sparring, “Tunggal” or single form category, “Regu” or multiple forms, and “Ganda” or fighting skit. In Tanding or fighting, there are no gloves or foot protectors. Although striking to the head in not allowed, full power to the body is allowed. In fact, unlike point sparring in the USA, if you do not hit your opponent hard enough you will not score.
Silat fighting allows you to sweep and throw your opponent somewhat similar to Judo. However for Silat throws, you must not grab your opponents clothing to gain leverage. Sweeps are very common and a Silat fighter or “Pesilat” gains the most points for executing sweeps and throws. Pencak Silat at its essence is an art form and Silat masters in the past always instilled in their students the highest norms of morality and integrity. For this reason, Silat fighters are required to approach the opponents in a respectful and graceful way using what is called “Pansang” or graceful hand and foot movements, before actually engaging the opponent. Once a fighter has attacked with four techniques he must return to Passang. This encourages fighters to focus on technique rather than brute force, and virtually eliminates brawling.
Pencak Silat as a sport is growing very fast, with over 30 countries participating in this tournament. I met people from all over the globe who practice Pencak Silat. People from all around the globe are attracted to the beauty of Pencak Silat as well as its deadly power and techniques.
Since I was the only representative from the USA, I decided to participate in two divisions: Tanding (sparring) and Tunggal (single forms). I was told that rarely anyone joins two divisions because the competition is so great, you must focus 100% on one thing in order to win. But since this was my first time, and my goal was to learn, I figured the best way was to participate in both divisions.
Jurus Tunggal is a form with exactly 100 moves and includes one empty hand form, one form using traditional weapons: The Golok or machete and Toya or rattan staff. The Golok originates from a farming tool and its still used today for many day-to-day functions like clearing fields and opening coconuts. This Jurus Tungal was created by a committee of Pencak Silat masters of different styles including Pak Rifai who I trained with in my last trip. I was also introduced to masters from various traditional Pencak Silat who came for the tournament.
On Monday, December 13 an opening ceremony was held where each team walked into the complex with their nation’s flag aloft. The top Pencak Silat schools such as Persai Diri, Tapak Suci and others came and filled the arena for the great event.
The tournament began soon after. There were some you could tell came from other martial arts but they were quickly defeated by experts of Silat. One huge fighter from Iran came to tournament as a champion kickboxer. He had taken Silat for only several weeks, but was defeated decisively by an Indonesian Silat athlete through the use of sweeps and throws.
Although the fighting was the first of the three divisions to start, I did the Jurus Tungal first. In silat the Sarong is worn by both men and women from the Malay people and is worn during Jurus Tungal. It is common for Silat partitioners also to wear the traditional uniform of their region. For example my school is Al-Azhar pencak Silat but its style originates from east Java. So my instructors bought the traditional dress to wear. I would soon learn that it is important to try to practice with what you plan on wearing.
While I was doing the move, the head piece fell off and the belt came loose. This cost me over 20 points. Also the form must be completed in exactly three minutes. I completed it in 3 minutes and 7 seconds. I was told if I had sped up just a little faster to finish in 3 mins, and my outfit didn’t fall off, I could have gone to the finals.
Then it was my turn to fight. Watching the other teams practice was an eye opener for how serious people take Pencak Silat. The teams from Vietnam and Indonesia are full time athletes practicing rigorously three times everyday. I was given the good news that I had a “bye” or a pass to the semi-finals. A bye refers to the practice of allowing a player or team to advance to the next round of a playoff tournament without playing. This is generally the result of having an odd number of entrants in a particular category. I soon found out I would have to fight a Malaysian fighter. Pencak Silat is very popular in Malaysia and they have regional and national tournaments to pick the top fighters to go the world tournament. This was my first time fighting in purely Silat competition. However, since I had studied Pencak Silat techniques for over 20 years, I planned to at least give him a good fight.
When fighting an experienced Silat fighter, the main thing I needed to be careful about was not to allow him to catch my kicks and throw me to the ground. However, if I didn’t kick I would not be able to score. I was never swept or thrown and I executed several strong strikes and sweeps. However at the end of the fight, the Malaysian won mainly because I was too hesitant to kick. Kicks must have full power and its tricky to execute against an experienced fighter without being thrown to the ground.
The finals were on Tuesday and it was very exciting to see the top fighters in the world competing for gold. Several fighters really stood out as best in their class. Overall, the best teams were Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Medals were awarded in the closing ceremony.
I was also invited to a meeting of the World Pencak Silat Congress where all the members of Persilat met and planed the future of Pencak Silat around the world. They discussed some important developments such as the election of a new president and other local activities such as the brand-new Pencak Silat complex being built in Malaysia which would be bigger than the Padepokan in Jakarta.
No Pencak Silat trip is complete without purchasing some traditional Pencak Silat weapons. One of the head instructors of Al-Azhar Pencak Silat took us to a shop in SikaBumi which is about 2 hours from Jakarta where some of the best Silat weapons are made. We purchased traditional weapons at great prices!
On Dec 21, my trip came to an end and I returned to the US. I learned a great deal about Pencak Silat this trip, particularly the sport aspect which is derived from the more traditional Pencak Silat. This martial art is so vast with so many dimensions that one needs an entire lifetime to learn all the aspects. I hope to visit Indonesia again soon to learn more about the art of Pencak Silat, InshaAllah.
Abdul Malik Ahmad lives in Northern Virginia. To view a 3-part documentry on his trip to the World Silat Tournament, visit http://www.youtube.com/user/malik199