Silat Tua – Martial Art of Nusantara (1)
Although the martial art known as silat is most often associated withIndonesiaandMalaysia, similar arts are in fact found throughout the Southeast Asian region known in Malay as Nusantara.
The art featured in this article is currently being practiced and taught in the islandof Penang off the northwest coast of Malaysia. It was brought to the island by a man who came across it by accident while studying Thai boxing in Thailand. Che’gu (Teacher) Zainal Abidin, a native of Penang Island, while studying Muay Thai, met and fell in love with the sister of his teacher. When she agreed to marry him and convert to Islam, Che’gu Zainal took her to south Thailand to study her new religion. The Patanni region has a majority Muslim population. Indeed for hundreds of years it was a Malay kingdom at war with its Thai neighbours. (2) While his wife was studying Islam, Zainal passed his days sharpening the Muay Thai skills that had already taken him to victory in a regional championship. One day an old man, observing his practice, commented that such skills would be no match for silat. In a manner worthy of martial arts fiction this led to a “challenge” between the two and, of course, not only was Zainal severely trounced, but also he was unable to lay a single finger on Tok Ayah, the Old Man. Although Zainal had spent a number of years in his childhood and his teens studying silat, this was the first time that he had been so graphically shown its effectiveness. This dramatic demonstration convinced Zainal that this man’s silat was an art that he wanted to explore; thus started a teacher-student relationship and a learning process that was to last until Tok Ayah’s death. (3)
Unlike the other systems of silat that he had learnt, this art traced its history not to founders in Malaysia or Indonesia but to the Pattani (4)region. In common with many other Asian martial arts, the separation of myth from history is a near impossibility. Southeast Asian arts such as silat, where history is for the most part oral and written records are few and far between, what researchers are left with is the oral transmission. Silat Tua is no exception, the art is traced back to the Penditas or founders. These hermits who made their homes in jungle lairs and mountain caves, studied nature and the environment and developed fighting systems based on their research.
Tok Ayah was, himself, an immigrant to the region, a Pathan from the area that is now Afghanistan. He was fortunate enough to meet a teacher who selected him to learn the art of Silat Tua. Now, in the person of Zainal, the child of an Arab father and a Javanese mother, born in Malaysia, Tok Ayah saw a worthy recipient of this art of the Penditas. Oral myth/history describes Silat Tua as having its roots in India and then Tibet before being passed down to the Nusantara region. Indeed close examination of the teaching methodology, practices and traditions of Silat Tua reveal the reality of this connection. In all phases of training, initiation precedes study similar to the practices of Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism. In addition the Ramayana (5) features as a significant source for inspiration, and theoretical and practical reference. Whereas, in recent years, many systems of silat have been Islamicised with animist, Hindu and Buddhist elements being deleted, in Silat Tua all phases of the art’s development are included and practiced. From its animistic phase comes the observation and imitation of animals and the elements, key archetypes such as Sri Kandi, Rama and Hanuman come from the Hindu epics, while the meditative and focusing practices of Buddhism provide training and focus for the mind. With the coming to Islam of the region brought, in the most part, by Sufi missionaries, we find the mystical rites and purification practices that are so important to the silat warrior. Furthermore the belief that a Supreme Being determines the outcome of all events ensures that a fighter with a pure heart and a clear conscience enters any battle with supreme confidence.
While many martial arts claim to address the “whole person”, body, mind and spirit, in the practices of Silat Tua all three areas are directly and explicitly addressed.
The student learns a full range of punches and kicks, strikes, locks, throws, parries and evasions. Techniques are taught at all ranges and heights so that a series of attacks to the head may be followed by a low sweeping attack and then a series of grappling and locking manoeuvres on the ground. Once the student progresses beyond this most basic of technical stages s/he is introduced to the way that techniques may be energized, enlivened and empowered by using animal and/or elemental imagery and visualizations. Imagining that you are a tiger lends clawing actions a feeling of power and savagery that might otherwise have been absent. Allowing your movements to flow like water or rage like a furious hurricane, gives them a strength and life that they otherwise might not have possessed. In addition the exponent learns to harness the power of the mind and combine it with the physical, further strengthening the technique.
Every practice session ends with a period of meditation designed to calm the mind, improve the focus and to reinforce mind-body coordination as described above. By performing specific movements related to the elements Earth, Water, Fire and Wind, the exponent is enabled to visualize the key qualities of these elements and the way they make the body feel. Each element is also accompanied by its appropriate phase of the breathing cycle so that, for example, the movement associated with fire is performed with an in-breath, which might serve as a reminder that flames are fuelled by oxygen. That these movements are performed while sitting cross-legged, means that the body’s core muscles are exercised and strengthened. In addition the exponent chants the name of the element as they move thus employing another of the senses in their practice thus reinforcing and strengthening the effect of these exercises.
In addition, at the appropriate stage of training, the student is required to perform specific meditative practices designed to cope with fear, pain and the ultimate challenge, death.
Throughout the training process the connection between mind and body is emphasized and reinforced. For example the Silat Tua exponent is taught to vary the visualizations they employ and the specific techniques they use according to the size and temperament of their opponent. If the attacker is significantly larger than the exponent, the strength of earth is inappropriate and the flowing, evasive nature of water might be required. When the opponent appears to be weak the devastating lightning power of fire might be the correct measure. Of course all of this has to occur in fractions of a second so it is vital that the exponent practice enough so that all of these reactions become innate and instinctive.
The majority of exponents of Silat Tua are muslims so the moral and spiritual code and practices are those of Islam. Tok Ayah, however, was adamant according to Che’gu Zainal that the teacher should look beyond all external appearances to examine the heart of prospective students. Those who were deemed to have a good heart, irrespective of race, creed or religion were worthy to have the art passed on to them. The core beliefs that are expected of the Silat Tua practitioner are a belief in a Supreme Creator and a submission to the will of this being; a commitment to behaving according to their highest sense of what is right and also a promise to protect the weak and the oppressed. This is all contained in the Akad or oath that the student takes before embarking on their training. At the same time that the prospective student swears this oath s/he will give the teacher a gift of a token amount of “rice money” symbolizing their gratitude to the teacher and his family. They will also give a knife as a symbol of their commitment to the art. This blade the teacher will assess and use as a physical representation of how the student will develop in the art. Thus a large, sharp blade will mean that the student will make great progress in the art and develop deadly skills; a small double-edged blade, on the other hand, represents the development of precision and accuracy. Earlier in the Silat Tua tradition the student would give a live chicken instead of a blade. This chicken would also represent the student and would give the teacher a weapon should the student betray him and the use of “black magic” (6)thus be called for. A later alternative was for the student to give the teacher a shroud to represent their total commitment “to the death”. Guru Zainal regards both of these traditions as being inappropriate for today’s student and thus continues the “blade” tradition handed down to him by Tok Ayah.
Tari: the Silat dance of life
At the heart of Silat Tua is a practice referred to as the Tari or dance whereby the exponent performs all that he has learnt in a solo free form manner. This is sometimes accompanied by music in the form of drums, gongs and a pipe. Although the Tari is often described as being a ritualized performance based on martial arts, in fact it is a way by which the exponent can practice all of the skills of the art as well as learning how to respond to and blend with the environment. To this end students are encouraged to practice the Tari in natural surroundings, jungle clearings, mountain trails, or beaches, so that they can harmonise and blend their movements with those of their surroundings.
Even amongst exponents of other silat systems such dance is often regarded as being a performance only loosely related to martial arts and suitable only for weddings and other social events. To thus marginalize the practice is to fail to realize what a useful and indispensable training tool it is. In the Tari the exponent is able to blend and combine all that they have learnt, practicing at a variety of speeds and with varying levels of power. In addition to exercising their technical abilities the student is enabled to harness their own creativity. Such practice also enables them to become aware of not only their strengths but also their weaknesses. Armed with his awareness the student can concentrate on those areas where improvement is needed.
It is in the Tari too that the Silat Tua practitioner is able to practice the conceptual aspects of the art to which the student by now will have been introduced. Such concepts as folding, twining, the bracelet and the necklace, all of which describe specific ways in which particular techniques may be applied, are practiced and perfected in the context of the dance. It is this use of concepts and principles which may be applied through an infinite variety of techniques and combinations, that makes Silat Tua such an effective and flexible art.
Silat Tua training, however, does not stop with solo practice, but also incorporates partner training. Initially all of the basic techniques are taught in application with a partner so as to enable the exponent to ensure that they are able to correctly execute them. In the next phase of training the practitioner works with a partner in a stylized form of sparring called pulot or sticky rice. This exercise starts with both exponents performing their Tari at a range beyond kicking distance. As they do this, both partners move with an awareness of each other so that if partner A executes a kicking move, Partner B will respond with an evasion or a parrying action even though they are both well out of range of each other. As they move around in this manner the range will naturally close until blows are actually being exchanged albeit in a slowed down and stylized manner. One version of pulot has the exponents taking turns to execute locks and holds on each other. Once seized the locked partner has to attempt to escape while using a minimum of force and “going with the flow”. This continues until one of the pair is locked in what is known as kunci mati or death lock, whereby s/he is locked so completely that they are unable to escape.
This training method is also misunderstood and, like solo Tari, is often regarded as being suitable only for wedding performances. In fact it provides a valuable opportunity for exponents to learn the lessons of timing, distancing and use of minimal force to maximum effect. The nature of this two-person dance allows both partners to move at a speed that permits them to develop and train an appreciation of distancing and timing. In the same way the strengths and weaknesses of locking techniques may be explored.
Although there are many aspects of this art that differ from other silat systems, one area of agreement that they share is that essentially silat is a weapons-based art. Thus it is that many of the empty hand movements or techniques which might appear illogical or weak are, in fact, designed to be used with weapons.
The blade in all its many and oftimes exotic manifestations is the signature weapon of silat and the majority of the footwork and movement found in Silat Tua is derived from and designed for bladed combat. Because of this, although the early stages of training are conducted empty-handed, the tapaks, or footwork patterns, that the student learns are the basis for both evasions and attacking moves with the blade.
The first blade that the student will practice with is usually the parang (machete). Using this, what is in effect a single-edged short sword, the student learns the basic cuts and how to deal with the opponent’s counters. In the process of so-doing s/he also learns how to deal with a blade attack when unarmed. As the student learns about the use of the blade so much of the elaborate posturing and darting entering and retreating of the pulot begins to make a new sense. Indeed all aspects of the art, attacks that seem ineffectual or too weak, movements that seem larger than they need to be, the tendency to change levels for what seems to be little reason; all make sense when the blade is brought into the equation.
In Silat Tua the parang, bisau (short bladed knife), pedang (single edged sword) sundang (double edged sword) and of course the keris (7) are all taught. In addition weapons such as the chain, the axe, lengths of cloth and other everyday objects are all taught. Sticks and staff of varying lengths as well as the spear also feature. It is fair to say, however, that focused as the art is, on close quarter combat in the jungles that are a major feature of the region, the usage of longer weapons such as staffs and spears, is not common and so they are not emphasized.
Weapons training is generally conducted in as realistic manner as possible with metal blades, albeit dulled, used initially before the student is deemed expert enough to move on to the use of live blades. Despite the obvious dangers inherent in such training injuries are rare. Teachers of the art attribute this to the fact that training takes place in a specially prepared and “spiritually protected” training area. It is the responsibility of the teacher to perform the appropriate prayers and cleansing rituals that keep this area safe.
As is the case with empty-handed training much attention is paid to the appropriate mental state that the blade-wielding warrior must attain, also to the visualizations required to make his use of the blade effective. It is not enough to simply imagine that a knife strike will do serious damage, the exponent must practice executing cuts of differing intensity, some light and feinting, others sharp and penetrating, yet others heavy and committed. Students are taught that in a bladed encounter they are almost certain to be cut thus they should train in such a way that their body is light and flowing like water.
In common with many other systems of silat found in Nusantara teachers of Silat Tua are also schooled in a range of practices which might best be described as “magic”. These skills are passed on to students who show both the interest and the aptitude. Such practices include both positive and negative aspects, “white” and “black”. The positive aspects include healing skills, methods for the provision of protection both physical and spiritual, as well as rites and rituals designed to empower the individual. The “black” side of these practices includes curses, methods for weakening or even injuring an opponent and the usage of both physical and “spiritual” poisons.
Guru Zainal observes that many of the students who embark on the study of the esoteric aspects of the art often end up giving up their physical training. For many this is because a person skilled in the esoteric can earn a good living as a “bomoh” (8)or Malay shaman. He notes, however, that in order to keep improving their grasp of the esoteric, they should continue with their practice of the physical art of silat. Further examination of these skills is beyond the scope of this article; it is, however, sufficient to say that teachers of Silat Tua feel that their esoteric skills are essential to a full grasp of the art.
Progression of Training: from Akad to Khatam
The fundamental syllabus of Silat Tua can take anything between two and five years to complete; at the end of which time the student is expected to take a graduation test known as a Khatam. This Islamic term means closure and can refer to the special prayers given for the deceased but in terms of silat it means the closure of this phase of the student’s training. It is one of the fundamental teachings of the art that everything must have a beginning and an end thus students are strongly encouraged to complete the whole syllabus being warned of possible negative outcomes both physical and spiritual if studies are broken off without a compelling reason such as illness or family responsibilities.
As befits a kampong or village system the khatam, like all the previous training, does not take place in a fancy training hall with matted floors and air-conditioning; instead it is held in the compound of the teacher’s home which could be a grassed area or even a concrete yard. The student undertaking the test is expected to provide food for the teacher and his family as well as other students. When this is a large group, a number of students will “khatam” at the same time and share the costs. The test itself will consist of a demonstration of the skills the student has learnt both empty-handed and with weapons. S/he will also be expected to demonstrate these skills both in silat pulot form and in freestyle anything goes sparring. When the latter takes place with weapons, blunt or wooden training blades are used, the level of contact, however, is high and there is a very real element of danger.
This test is made more stressful by the fact that the student’s success or failure is determined not by his or her own teacher but by a guest Master from a different style or system. This guest examiner has the right to ask to see any aspect of skill that they wish and is even permitted to challenge students to a fight if s/he feels that they are not up to the appropriate level.
If the student has included the “internal power” aspects of the art in their study then the test might also include firewalking, washing the face and body in boiling oil or receiving repeated blows from a heavy stick or a rock. Not all students, however are chosen or elect to study this aspect of the art.
Upon successful completion of the test the whole group, students and teachers eat together and enjoy the shared sense of achievement that such an occasion engenders. For the student who wishes to continue with their studies to teacher level, this is the start of another extended period of study, commencing with a new Akad and culminating in an even more grueling Khatam.
Strategy and Tactics
As befits an art propagated and practiced in the kampongs or villages, the strategy and tactics of the art are centred on protecting the community and its members. In order to do this, outright conflict is only to be entered into as a last resort, since the loss of community members that this would engender is not a viable option. Favoured tactics at this stage include deceptive ruses, poisoning, and even ambushes and assassination. If and when actual combat occurs then deception, camouflage and feints will be used. As well as the obvious weaponry used by the warrior, hidden weapons are also employed when the enemy is at his most vulnerable. An example of such a weapon would be the kerambit, the small curved blade of which would be hidden in a woman’s hair and used when she was seemingly at the mercy of any attackers.
As a general rule of thumb the Silat Tua exponent works from a position of weakness, acknowledging and embracing their own fear. In this way they never pretend to be something they are not and work from the position of strength which such self-awareness and honesty engenders. Furthermore throughout the training process the exponent is taught to learn from the environment and behave in the most natural way. Thus low stances and careful footwork are required when fighting on slippery, muddy or wet surfaces. Close-quarter work with short weapons is the most appropriate in the confines of the jungle and swift deceptive strikes are necessary to make the most efficient use of bladed weapons. The fighting strategies and strengths of the animal world are to be copied and made use of when needed and the elements of the natural world should be harnessed and embodied in order to better blend with and make use of this world of which man is a part.
In conclusion it can be seen that Silat Tua is a comprehensive martial art that encompasses training in strategy and tactics, fighting both armed and unarmed and methodologies to maximize the exponent’s skills and abilities, physical, mental and spiritual. The exponent learns lessons from the elements, the natural world and his or her own environment, so as to ensure survival both of the individual and, more importantly, of the community.
1 Nusantara is defined as “…all the islands of Indonesia, the Philippines and the Malay Peninsular.” Munoz p367.
Guru Zainal however uses the term to also include Thailand,Laos,Vietnam and Cambodia all of which, he avers, have silat style native arts.
2 See Ibrahim Syukri
3 See Sutton and Zainal Abidin
4 See Ibrahim Syukri
5 See Sachithanantham
6 See Malay Magic
7 A.H. Hill p1 in The Keris and other Malay Weapons; Frey p3
8 Winstedt pp7-13
Silat Tua Nigel Sutton Zainal Abidin Living Tradition 2007
The Malay Magician Richard Winstedt OxfordAsia1993
The Kris Edward Frey OUP 2003
Srimad Ramayana DS Sarma Sri Ramakrishna Math 1981
Malay Magic MBRAS Reprint 24 2005
Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsular PM Munoz EDM 2006
History of the Malay Kingdom of Patani Ibrahim Syukri Silkworm Books 1985
Weapons and Fighting Arts of the Indonesian Archipelago Donn Draeger Charles E. Tuttle 1972
The Keris and other Malay Weapons MBRAS 1998
The Ramayana Tradition in Southeast Asia Singaravelu Sachithanantham University of Malaya Press 2004