Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Pencak Silat of Minangkabau West Sumatra

By: B.A. Barendregt


Silat, a martial art, is a component of traditional Minangkabau education in West Sumatra. By learning silat a Minangkabau may become a full-grown member of society (urang nan sabana urang). Silat is both a representation of Minangkabau culture and a means of transmitting it. The participants reflect on society, and the relations between the microcosmos, their own body, and the macrocosmos. In this article the set of basic silat movements (langkah) is analysed. In this way we obtain insight in Minangkabau culture. The way in which the participants talk about silat refers to Sufi ideas and socio-political concepts which form the customary law (adat). The Minangkabau consider the silat movements only meaningful if they agree with the Will of Allah.

An evening of silat practice in Minangkabau

Another evening of practising silat in Pauh, a hilly Minangkabau area near the provincial capital of Padang. An area where the locals troubled the Dutch Kompenie for a very long time. Here, countless battles where fought over the past three centuries. Hence Pauh obtained its notoriety as an area filled with 'villains', 'terrorists' and 'rebels'. But nowadays Pauh is considered as just a tiny part of the Republic of Indonesia. However, in the tales former times live on. Historical events reappear in dances, music, poetry and Randai, the Minangkabau dance-theatre. And above all, they serve as an example for the young silat-pupils. The first pupils had already arrived in the late afternoon at the house of their teacher. Some are chatting, others start dozing off in a corner of the room. Around nine 'o clock in the evening the teacher is still drinking his coffee and enjoying his cigarettes. Everybody is here: the teacher; his students, all in their early twenties; his colleagues, all teachers as well; and other friends, who live nearby. Not all of them are listening to the stories of the teacher. Most of them have heard it all a thousand times before. But still, the centre of attention this evening remains, undoubtedly, the teacher. An old grey man, though full of energy. His tales tell about past experiences, about the time when he was young and how adat and religion showed him the way. It is the knowledge of his ancestors. Woven through all of this is a thread of mysticism. Some people only came to listen to him, but most of the young boys are restlessly awaiting that moment when they can enter the playground, their sasaran. Just past eleven 'o clock the young boys change clothes. Now they finally are all dressed in a wide, black shirt and strangely shaped black trousers with an extremely low crotch, called kalempong. They line up to give the teacher their respect and symbolically ask him for permission to start. The pupils salute each other and nod politely to all the older people present. The first two take their position on the playground outside the teacher's house.


Silat is a martial art of Indo-Malaysian origin that is to be found all over the Indonesian archipelago. It appears under several names, like panchak, montjak, silèk, or most commonly as pencak silat. These various names indicate different approaches, from stressing the philosophical to stressing the recreational aspects. Traditionally silat combines these aspects: the movements are the outer form of inner life. Silat is a way of living. By analysing the movements we hope to increase our understanding of the culture concerned. In this contribution I will analyse silat movements of the Minangkabau in West Sumatra. For the Minangkabau the silat movements have more than just a technical or esthetical function. Silat is an essential part of traditional education, in which the movements serve as a mystical vocabulary. The relationship between the movements of this martial art and Old Arab writing, as found in the koran, is emphasized. In this way the movements become meaningful symbols. They refer to connections between the microcosmos, society, and the macrocosmos. In the Minangkabau's view all natural phenomena, animals and plants respond to universal laws, passed on to the world by God. It is these laws which maintain harmony, and which ought to be studied by the silat pupils. The study of the silat movements are a road to this understanding. A Minangkabau saying goes "The one who knows the movements will know where the wind is blowing" (Tahu digarak jo garik, tahu diangin nan bakisa; Mid Jamal 1986:12)

The Minangkabau tradition, as contained in the customary law (adat) emphasizes 'learning from one's environment'. This was also stressed by the mystical Islamic teachings from Sufi sects that became extremely influential in West-Sumatra from the 16th century onwards. This Sufi knowledge, corresponding very well with earlier Minangkabau views, led to theories concerning the deeper meaning of the silat movements. The silat movements may also be found in some Minangkabau dances and theatre. Most of contempory silat in Indonesia is a kind of sport, in which the physical aspects are emphasized rather than the spiritual ones. In this approach the national Indonesian identity plays an important role. Concepts like 'achievement' and 'modernity' are crucial. The local and spiritual values are less emphasized. This sports version is very much promoted by the Indonesian government. It is regularly performed as 'national gymnastics' by civil servants and school children. It is remarkable that women, who are very underrepresented in traditional silat, join this sports variant in great numbers. I shall concentrate on the traditional Minangkabau silat and not discuss the 'national gymnastics' variant, nor the variants as represented in the Indonesian Federation of Silat Societies (IPSI: Ikatan Pencak Silat Indonesia). [2]

General aspects of Silat Minangkabau

The Minangkabau - Silat relationship

Traditionally, Silat is a male activity. As the Minangkabau society is a matriarchial one, young men cannot possess land or family goods. Therefore they must leave the Minangkabau region in search for wealth. This process is referred to as merantau. Here self-defence has an important role to play. Not only to prepare oneself for possible fights, once far away from one's kinsmen, but also as a hard school towards adulthood, towards becoming a truly full-grown human being. Another consequence of matriarchy is the important position which the brother of the mother (mamak) enjoys within the family affairs. It is not the father, but the mamak, who initiates his nephews into the process of maturity. Henceforth he automatically becomes their silat-teacher. Both adat and Islamic education serve in making each Minangkabau person into a full-grown human being, the urang nan sabana urang. In the times when there was no alternative to silat-education, it was taken for granted that each young man participated. He, who did not, could not be Minangkabau. Jokingly it is said that for those who are not Minang, only the Kabau (a buffalo) remained; they are not worth more than cattle. For this education, each tribe (suku) had its own school, called sasaran or gelanggang. When needed their territory, the nagari, was defended, together with the other schools of the nagari.

Mythological origins

According to a local legend (Chaniago:1987), which in certain ways corresponds with the one that relates the origins of the Minangkabau culture, silat emerged from a legendary fighting school somewhere in mid-Asia. The legend narrates of a mythical mid-Asian empire Urhun Jani, situated near the present-day Gobi dessert. One day the emperor, Maharajo nan batanduek duo, decides to send away his three sons to find him the magical flower Sari Manjari.[3] As the sons are educated in the local fighting techniques by an old and wise man, they are well prepared for their journey. Their father also gives each of them a gift, which would reveal something about their future fate. However, in the midst of the wild ocean, the brothers come to fight over a crown, which was the gift belonging to the youngest brother. This crown, as they all knew, guaranteed the fortuned owner an eternal empire. But, in the tumultuous fight, the crown disappears into the sea of Langkopuri and the brothers each decide to go their own way. The oldest one returns to Urhun and succeeds his father as the emperor. He would also continue the local martial arts school, from which in later times Japanese Sumo, and Korean and Tibetan fighting techniques would emerge. The second son concludes his journey in Jani. There he creates his own martial arts school from which later Chinese and Thai boxing would develop. The youngest son, Sangiang Patualo, keeps on wandering, in search of the lost crown. After years of hardship and adventures he strands with his ship and together with his people on top of the mountain Sidulang Ameh, the only part of Sumatra that was then above sealevel. Sang Patualo decides to stay there, and together with his people he builds a settlement, Selo. He is later given the title of Datuek Maharajo Dirajo (King of kings). It is also this same Sangiang Patualo, who created the first fighting school of the area. From this school eventually emerged the first silat, called either Silat Gunuang Marapi, refering to the later name for the mountain Sidulang Ameh, or Silat Pariangan, the 'Mother' of all silat-styles. It is doubtful whether the earlier mentioned legend is of any historical value, though it seems almost certain that the origins of silat should be situated in mid-Asia. In elaborating both technical as well as ideological origins, we shall now see what the influences were from Chinese merchants and Indian monks coming from the area of mid-Asia. First we shall look at the earlier historical stage of this martial art, and discuss the role of the tiger - and generally nature as teachers of silat. Then, we shall look at the inmense influence of Arab merchants and islamic sects on silat.

Earlier development of Minangkabau silat

In earlier times the silat education appears to have been closely connected with the belief in tiger-spirits. The Raja macan, king of tigers, was the patron of all silat students. Culturally, this tiger fulfilled a role as sanctioner and defender of the righteous. The resulting moral values were strongly emphasized in the important etiquette of the silat world. All vices, particularly arrogance, complacency and egocentrism, were to be casted out by the teacher. Students ought to live according to the example of the riceplant (ilmu padi): While still young, it only wishes to grow; only when it is full, it knows how to bow respectfully. Some Minangkabau regard the tiger as the founding father of some silat styles.[4] Moreover, the final stage (putus kaji) of each Minangkabau silat-style can only be accomplished in a fight with the Raja Macan. Among the Talang Mamak tribe in the deep jungle of Inderagiri, Riau, we can still find the remnants of this tiger-belief in the Silat Langkah Panjang (Silat of the long steps). Here every silat lesson starts with the evocation of one or several tiger-spirits (Barendregt 1994:133). Between the 8th and the 13th century new fighting techniques were imported from afar and merged with already existing local ways of fighting. Both Hindu-Buddhist monks from India as well as Chinese merchants came to the area, either visiting or settling. As a result, a number of new styles emerged, most notably the Budhist inspired Silat Biaro; Silat Hong, used by local sorcerers, dukun, in their shamanistic practices; and the Silat Lembago, employed by adat functionaries.

The Hindu-Buddhist influences added new concepts to the etiquette of the silat world. Of utmost importance was the idea of an 'Inner Force' (Tenaga Dalam or 'being' Sakti) and its subsequent martial art techniques. A full-grown silat fighter had to excell in these techniques, which meant seeing and striking from a far distance (gayuang) and knowing the passways to the spiritual world. The 'Inner Force' learnings were based on a capacity to understand the laws of the universe and live in accordance with them. The full-grown human being knew the balance between knowledge, based on experience (pareso), and the subsequent intuition (raso). In the Minangkabau adat this philosophy is referred to as the teachings of the Alam takambang manjadi guru: the environment serves as teacher. Bearing this in mind one can understand how natural phenomena form the base of the different movements in the Minangkabau martial art. So, the fierce attack of a tiger, the praying of an eagle or the snatching of a monkey all serve as examples which can be expressed with the human body. So, a silat-student can learn to hit as if he was pounding rice (tinju alu) or puts into practice the idea of two fighting buffaloos (Langkah arak kabau gadang). However, we are not simply dealing with a plain imitation of animals and plants. The Minangkabau explicitly say: Man is man, animal is animal. One merely learns from the direct environment and applies these learnings to the human body to enhance its possibilities.

From the beginning of the 16th century on, Islam started to spread among the Minangkabau people. It led to radical changes and would give the silat education an even more dominant position than before. The new teachings were brought by soldiers and Arab merchants, who came from north-Sumatran Aceh. It was not so much new fighting techniques, but more a completely new ideology that was merged with already existing silat techniques. This new ideology was a mystical form of Islam, the Ilmu Tassauf. The new silat approach, which subsequently emerged, was called Silek Ulama (Silat of the wise man) or Silat Kain. It is also referred to as Silaturrahim, meaning the establishing of a sustainable relationship with fellow humans, rather than looking for enemies. 'Musuah indak dicari' became the new device: the enemy is not searched for, but in case righteousness would be threatened, one should not avoid a fight. This would eventually create the present identity of Silat Minangkabau: a combination of fighting techniques and a mystical education. The new schools, where the martial art was practised were the Surau, the Minangkabau variant of Arab houses of prayer (musholla). Most schools, however, would be founded by the very influential Sufi-orientated sects, the Tariqat. The importance of the Tariqat and its esoteric teachings of the Ilmu Tassauf cannot be overstressed. Many silat teachers nowadays actually trace back their mastership to an early Tariqat master, or even straight back to the prophet Muhammad or one of his followers. These references should merely be considered as symbolic, as a ways of paying tribute.

In the silat schools actual combat-training was matched with a Sufi education. In order to understand the human body and its movements, the students first needed to fathom the essence of the body and its powers. This essence consists of the 'Seven Divine Philosophies' of man (Filsafat Tuhan dalam diri kita): sight, hearing, speech, knowledge, physical strength, vital strength and will. Within this context, the movements of silat are seen as the materialisation of an inner harmony. A new concept, the Kebatinan, referring to the realisation of the 'Divine Self', was introduced. It was similar to the Hindu-Buddhist concept of 'Inner force'(Tenaga Dalam, Sakti). Breathing techniques (ilmu napas) and recitation (dhikr) were the ways to accomplish this. Compare also van Zanten (1989: :1994;76), who explains that in Sundanese music the musical sounds are the outer form (lahir) of the inner constitution (batin) of the human being. The main principle says that a movement can only be executed when in accordance with the Will of Allah. Thus, each silat movement, however small, starts with Allah. The path to the 'Divine Self' had to be defended under all circumstances. A new definition of 'Self-defence' was born. In contemporary schools like Silat Alif (Alif the first letter of the Arab script) and Silat Hu (distracted from Allahu- meaning 'His Silat') this philosophy still lives on. But some schools focus more on plain self-defence, as opposed to a more theoretical approach. The Minangkabau define both mystical and physical variant as being silat, though they are inclined to view the more mystical variants as the 'true' silat. In fact, that is the final stage of the learning process, in which physical practice forms only an introduction. This last phase is only practised by a small group of mostly elderly men. So the Minangkabau definition of silat is very broad and used for a variety of styles and approaches. In the context of language there is 'silat of the tongue' (silat lidah), which means discussion; an art in which one has to be clever and cunning.

The Movements

Even though there are many different Minangkabau silat styles, there certainly exists a basic set of movements. Differences between the styles generally relate to various aspects, namely geographical variety, different applications and distinct mystical dimensions (the latter has already been discussed above).

Differences in application

While one can speak of silat as the 'science of self defence' (Ilmu Bela Diri), one can also define a more 'art-orientated approach', (Kesenian Bela Diri). The Minangkabau distinguish between fighting techniques, to be used in combat, and those techniques, solely used for training, recreation and performance art. This returns in the different terms used. A combat-orientated fight will be called Silek, whereas a mock-fight is termed Pancha Darek or Pancha Bungo. Bungo means flower and here it relates to the use of often repeated structures, subject to a choreography. These structures do not have a function, but merely serve as decoration.[5] Besides the preparation for real combat, each school has its own dances in which movements of one's own style take a central position.
The most complex of these dances must be the Minangkabau dance-theatre Randai, in which the succeeding scenes are connected by a circle of dancers, while enacting a mock combat. [6]

The different Pencak-dances (Tari Pencak) can be categorized according to their theme or application.Geographical areas also each have their different silat style, which lie at the base of the Pencak dances. The most complex function that the dances can fulfill is a ritual one. The movements of the mock combat then serve as a mirror to display the power of the young generation in one particular area. They serve as a figure-head for the area (nagari), the tribe (suku) and its silat school (sasaran). Here we see the true essence of the art of self-defence: a ritual fight, that serves as an outlet of social tensions without repercussions on relationships within the community. Still, participants generally show more appreciation for the combat-orientated approach as opposed to the art-orientated ones. This is probably related to the fact that in the combat orientated approach the fighter actually enacts the silat movements. Here qualities like improvisation and calculation play an important part. The latter, art-orientated approach, on the contrary, is regarded as a reproduction or imitation. Thus, the term 'bungo-bungo', as relating to the intense use of choreographic elements, somehow has a negative connotation.

However in recent times increasing attention has been paid to performance art, especially the Pencak-dances. Traditionally these dances each belonged to a certain adat-ceremony and their performance was subjected to permission given by adat-functionaries. Nowadays, the dances can also be solely performed as amusement. Most likely this transformation has taken place through the introduction of western forms of performance art. But Pencak-dances are still described as a 'game for the younger generation' (pemainan anak nagari). [7] Most Minangkabau view Silek , the more combat-orientated approach, as the 'real' work. This brings the followers of different styles into fierce discussions, because whose silat is more efficient and more realistic...

The basic set of movements

First of all we should consider the balabeh (see photo 1). This is a Minang concept that refers to the characteristic posture, in which the body is lowered, the weight rests on the knees (called 'horse stance' (kudo)) and one hand is held in front of the chest. In this posture one faces the opponent. But the balabeh contains more than just physical aspects. It also refers to the mental state and concentration of the fighter. It actually is the stance, both physical and mental, with which the fight starts and to which the fighter returns after every phase of the combat. Each time the balabeh takes different forms, often referring to animals, for example in the 'stance of the praying eagle' (balabeh alang babega). [8] Starting from the balabeh the actual fighting techniques are executed. The opponents approach and once they have come near enough, one of the two will launch the attack. The other fighter will try to ward off and launch a counter attack. The techniques used in this sequence of attacks and counter attacks have many names, differing for each region. They are classified according to the different actions like kicking (tendangan), hitting (pukulan), throwing (bantingan), locks (kunci), parrying (tangkisan) and evasions and sidesteps (elak/gelek). In mock combat, these techniques are used in fixed sequences of actions, a structure called jurusan. It can be executed solo or with a partner. A jurusan starts, when one fighter opens an attack with a certain movement, on which the opponent responds with another movement. A jurusan ends, when the opponents take distance and walk their own way, preparing for the next attack.

To move around one uses the langkah. The langkah can be considered the most essential of all silat movements. They form the base of all further movement. They give silat its characteristic appearance, because the participants do not plainly walk, but move in a most gracious way. The langkah mean literally 'steps'. Steps to come near and take distance from the opponent. But the four langkah, as shown in the photos 2.a-2.d, are more than steps alone. They are not just a change of position of the feet, but of the whole body. One turns the body, bends and rises and suddenly makes a step backwards. So the langkah seems better described as a set of different positions. This, however suggests static situations, whereas the most important aspect of the langkah is the moving. The langkah provide safe and stable positions, But by moving from one position to another one opens himself up to the risks of a possible attack of the opponent. This is why it is not possible to move to just any new position, there is a limited choice. The students learn in which order the different langkahshould be applied, how one 'composes' the best possible attack or defence through langkah, and finally, which langkah provides the maximum profit for the continuation of the fight. The different langkah are constantly repeated in the silat training, where the pupils, while facing one another, mirror each other's movements. The rhythmic appearance thus created is also used in the Pencak dances.

Although each Minang silat style shapes their langkah differently, we can generally distinguish between two basic models of Silat Minang. The first model, the Langkah Ampek, has four constructing steps, the second one has three steps, the Langkah Tigo. Using either model does not imply that only these three or four steps are used. In reality a great number of other Langkah are used, but the repetition of the basic models make them the structure and thus appearance of a style. Apart from these two models, there exist styles with a somewhat diverging model, for example using nine steps. In these cases it is commonly agreed upon that non-functional decorative movements, or bungo-bungo, are used. In the Silat Pauh style the Langkah Ampek is used (see figure 1). Here the four steps are respectively called ampang, papek, serong and runcing. Langkah Ampang is a step foreward that can be used both to start an attack as well as to ward off an attacking opponent. Papek is a side-step, to the left or the right, used to evade an attack or to end up next to the opponent. The third step, serong, serves to minimalise the free space of the opponent and fence him in. Finally the langkah runcing completes the attack. We are merely dealing with a general scheme for the attack. After papek, for example, one can return to the first step, ampang and start all over again. But the steps do keep a certain order: before launching the actual attack one must have executed the first steps. The Langkah Ampek is the most common model in the Minangkabau silat styles. Older styles often prefer the model of three. [9] Some say that the model of four is a more defensive one, whereas the model of three is more combat-orientated (Idris: 1993;8). From my own observations I cannot come to such a strict distinction and if we look at the more symbolic explanation it does not seem that relevant.

The movements at a symbolic level

As already mentioned, inspiration for the form of movements came from studying natural phenomena in the direct environment. These vary from the movements of animals to a flowing river or cloud formations. According to the Minangkabau, certain principles can be detected within the environment, that can be recognised within the human body as well. Ultimately these principles are considered to be the 'laws of Allah', to which mankind should subject itself. The holy book of the Islam, the koran, contains the essence of these laws and has to be studied thoroughly. Following this line of thought the associations between the form of the silat movements and the koran is an obvious one. In both, the true values of existence are sought. We shall now further elaborate these associations, which link the different langkah to a spiritual path of four stages, on which the student is the traveller. Most of the teachers refer to the Langkah Ampek, the model of four steps, as 'the four philosophies' of the prophet Muhammad.

The first silat step, the preparing step forwards, is associated with the islamic notion of Sidiq, the first stage of the mystical path in which one focusses on collecting knowledge (Ilm). The student needs to find his 'Self' -the origins of the body and the way it works- through studying the external world and thus understanding the functioning of the 'inner world'. The second step, the side-step, is associated with the notion of Tabligh, the search for the essence of all knowledge (Nur): nothing in this world moves without the Will of Allah. The third step is associated with Amanah. The gathered knowledge is now put into practice. The quest is to be truthful to the 'Self'. The fourth and last step is the attack and associated with Fatanah, which means the final unity with Allah. Each form of (self)deceit is banned and now one lives in true accordance with the 'laws of Allah'.

We meet the same path in a different context as the four stages of the Sufi-education: Syariah, Tariqat, Hakiqat and Marifat. I shall now show that the traditional Minangkabau concepts of the adat and the newly introduced islamic doctrine apply the same principles, and it is therefore not suprising that they could easily be integrated. The structure of the langkah is in effect a metaphor for the life-mission of the young Minangkabau. The Minangkabau adat describes spiritual growth also as a path with four stages:
- urang:those who are able to think
- urang nan takka urang:those with a critical sense
- urang nan kajadi urang:those with a critical attitude
- urang nan sabana urang:those with a own life philosophy

The Langkah Ampek are also expressed in terms of kinship relations. The first step is then called the langkah mande , the 'step of the mother', who gives birth to us and who rears us. In this step the hand is pointing towards the ground, to earth, which is associated with the maternal. The second step is the langkah ayah, that of the father. In this step one hand is pointed upwards, as if greeting heaven, which is associated with the paternal. The third step is the langkah mamak. The mamak, mother's brother, takes a central position in Minang society. He is responsible for the education of his nephews, and therefore becomes their silat teacher. In this step, the fencing-in of the opponent, the 'real' action actually starts. This symbolises the qualities taught by the Mamak. The fourth and last step, is of a completely different kind. We cannot influence this stage and will never know its end. This is the langkah taqdir...the step of fate.

The Langkah Tigo, the model of three steps, has similar meanings, although elaborated differently. For example the steps refer to the journey of the human soul through the three worlds of the islamic tradition, which are alam rahim (mother's womb), alam dunia (the world) and alam akhirat (after-life). Others associate these langkah with the three vowels of the Arab language, in which the first step refers to the 'a', the second one to the 'i' and the third one to the 'u'. Here too the steps are connected to different spiritual stages, i.e. simply being, gaining essential knowledge and uniting with Allah. Although both models, the Langkah Ampek and the Langkah Tigo, refer to the Minangkabau view on human develoment, there is considerable disagreement about which model to apply. As I showed this discussion focusses more on the form of the steps, than their symbolic meaning. Each model is a different method to explain the basic Minangkabau principles. Instead of discussing the advantages of one or the other, some practitioners propose a more complete approach: studying both models. Styles like Silat Kumango or Silat Sungai Patai use a model with seven steps, adding up three and four. At first sight we seem to be dealing with a play of numbers. But a broader connection between the numbers three and four does actually exist within Minangkabau society. Linguistically, the language (Bahasa Minang) is categorised in two models: one of three and one of four. The first category is concerned with the actual meaning of the words, whereas the second one deals with the usage. Both models though, are necessary to understand Minangkabau language.

1.kato tersurat: ordinary words (heard with the ear)
2.kato tersirah: words on a more abstract level (heard with the brain)
3.kato tersuruh: words which are essential (heard with the heart)

1.kato mendata :spoken to one who is in an equal social position
2.kato menurun :spoken to one who has a lower social position
3.kato mendaki :spoken to one who has a higher social position
4.kato malereang:metaphorical language

The 'full-grown human being', the Urang nan sabana urang, should be capable of using these categories in a conscious way. Another example is found on the traditional sociopolitical level where a distinction is made between three Minangkabau kings (Rajo Tigo Selo), with each their own authority, and four functionaries (Basa Ampek Balai), which can be compared with chancellors. Together they constitute a complete government. Moreover, the number seven seems to have played an important role in older Minangkabau traditions, like in the rituals preceding the harvest of rice and in the belief in tiger-spirits.[10] In these contexts 'seven' has the value of being 'complete' or 'united'. In the case of the Langkah Ampek and the Langkah Tigo we also find this value of 'unity'. To complete the path the full-grown silat fighter should master all seven steps, just as in the islamic tradition, where heaven consists of not one but seven layers, that all should be passed before one finally rests in harmony. In the more mystical silat styles one speaks of returning to the starting point after mastering all seven steps. But the starting point has changed, since the student has no further need to repeat the same way again. The first step then becomes'no step': the empty step, Langkah Kosong or nill. It is a standstill. Any extra movement would inflict this thus created harmony. The process of spiritual growth is therefore ultimately a returning to one's original state: the Divine Human.

This theory is full of Sufi concepts, which are also found in different contexts. In the Malay world we often find comparable concepts in poetry (Braginsky:1993) and also the Minangkabau have e.g. their own Sufi music and literature tradition, the Indang (Sulaiman:1990) and Salawat Dulang (Amir:1990). The question remains whether we can associate these Sufi ideas with silat. In the Minangkabau context,silat was used to spread the Tariqat mystical ideas. Sufi-teachings were introduced during self-defence classes, while the pupils would not have paid attention to this doctrine in a different situation. On the other hand silat was structured by a strong ideology, that gave the pupils moral confidence and self-esteem. Islam gave the silat world a unifying etiquette.

The symbolic meaning given to the silat movements also has another function: a classification and structure of the movement repertory. From a Sufi point of view, the koran summarises all correspondences between micro- and macrocosmos. This is stressed in the silat education, where the human body is associated with the koran itself. The koran is thought to contain 6666 lines (ayad), likewise it is thought that the human body consists of 6666 nerves and veins. Similarly the koran as well as the human body are made by Allah. From here it takes only one step to base the movements in silat on the koran itself. Silat Pauh for example, classifies its movements in seven categories, e.g. kicking, hitting and evading. Each category is divided in four subcategories, which implies that e.g. kicking can be executed in four different ways. Seven times four adds up to twenty-eight. Not an ordinary number, but a conscious choice, as twenty-eight refers to the total amount of letters of the Arab script. In reality far more than twenty-eight movements can be found in Silat Pauh, but this association stimulates the learning of the movements and provides them with an almost magical potency. The true silat fighter is like a pencil in the hand of God. He moves in accordance with 'His Will'. Confronting these movements is considered a challenge to God himself, so the silat fighter is actually one step ahead of his opponent. This is the force of Kebatinan, the Inner Force: a life in accordance with the Will of God grants the fighter immunity. A similar idea can be found on the level of single letters, that can be expressed through movements. For example, Silat Pauh owns a complete action (jurusan) which is called Langkah Lam. In trying to ward off an opponent who is approaching with a knife, the right-leg of the fighter 'writes' in a crescent-like movement the letter Lam ( ) on the ground, just before he kicks his opponent with the same leg. Also the first stance of the fight, the Tagak Alif, is seen this way. The form of Alif ( ), the first letter of the Arab script, corresponds with the straight posture of the silat student. In fact it is the first and the last step. It means stillness and truthfullness. Or like the Minangkabau say: 'Bana badiri seperti Alif': Truth lies in it-Self, like the Alif...

Originally meant as a way of self defence, nowadays most of the silat styles either tend to be more sport-like or concentrate on performance art. In these approaches it is mainly the external form of the movement that is emphasized. However, by not only looking at the form of the silat movements, but also to the concepts that shape and structure them, we obtain an insight in silat as traditional education. The process of learning is an important one, as the capability of correctly executing the movements, starts with the understanding of what the movements actually mean. In this article we focussed on the Minangkabau variant of silat (silek), which is a representation of Minangkabau culture and a means of transmitting it. By learning silat, young boys are introduced to both customary law (adat) and more mystical islamic concepts. Knowledge that is necesarry if one wants to become a full-grown member of society. It would be interesting to see if there is a same correlation between silat and traditional education in other Indonesian cultures, and which concepts are associated with the silat movements being used.

Amir A. 1990 Salawat Dulang, sastra sufi di Minangkabau Lapor penelitian proyek op Universitas Andalas
Barendregt B. 1994 De beweging in Silat Minang, Randai en Tarian Pencak Ma-thesis Rijksuniversiteit Leiden.
Braginsky V.I. 1993 Universe-man-text: the sufi concept of literature (with special reference to Malay sufism) in: Bijdragen tot de taal-,land- en volkenkunde KITLV deel 149, 2 pp. 201-225
Brakel-Papenhuijzen,C. 1992 The Bedhaya courtdances of Central Java. E.J. Brill, Leiden
Chambers,Q and D. Draeger 1978 Javanese Silat, the fighting art of Perisai Diri Kokasha, Tokyo
Chaniago, A. 1987 Silat Minangkabau dari tiga panggeran Singgalang 9-8-1987
Cordes, H. 1990 Pencak Silat, die kampfkunst der Minangkabau und ihr kulturelles umfeld. Thesis University of Koln
Idris, A. 1993 Pencak silat Minangkabau paper at the seminar sehari silat tradisional, 1993.
Jamal, Mid. 1986 Filsafat dan silsilah, aliran-aliran Silat Minangkabau C.V. Tropic Bukittinggi.
Kartomi, M. 1981 Randai theatre in west Sumatra: components, music, origins and recent change. in RIMA pp. 3-45
Phillips, N. 1980 Sijobang Cambridge University Press
Sulaiman S. 1990Sastra Lisan Indang di Minangkabau Lapor penelitian Universitas Andalas
Toorn, J. 1890 Het animisme bij den Minangkabauer der Padangsche Hooglanden. in: Bijdragen taal land en volkerenkunde Ned.Indië 39.
Zanten, W. van 1994 L'esthetique musicale de Sunda (Java-Ouest) in: Cahiers de musiques traditionelles
7 1989 Sundanese music in Cianjuran style; Anthropological and musicologicalaspects of Tembang Sunda. Providence, Dordrecht

[1]This paper was first published in 1995 in Odeion, meanwhile a lot more is published on this martial art, these references are however not yet included here. Please refer to this paper as Barendregt, Bart (1995, Written by the Hand of Allah; Pencak silat of Minangkabau, West Sumatra, in van Zanten and Marjolijn van Roon (eds), Oideion, The performing arts world-wide 2, pp. 113-130. Leiden: Research School CNWS.
[2] For an analysis of recent developments in the more sport-orientated approach of the IPSI, see Cordes (1990:300)
[3]The most accepted explanation of the creationstory of Minangkabau culture (but we also find it with other Malaysian tribes) associates this king with the legendary Iskander Zulkaern. Marsden (1880) relates this king with Alexander the Great, who is famous all over Asia. In the present story the name of the king is 'the two-horned king' (Maharajo nan batanduek duo), a title that probably refers to a coin with Alexander's picture on it, though it seems that we are dealing with an other empire than Alexander's. The flower Sari Manjari refers to a budhistic myth.
[4]As in the Solok based Silat Harimau Campo (Tiger of Campa).
[5]In the Javanese silat styles these repeated structures are called Kembangan or Menaren and have the same decorative function. The same term is used in the choreography of some Javanese dances, like the Bedhaya court dances where it refers to certain 'units or patterns of movements'(Brakel-Papenhuijzen:1992;224).
[6]For a more specific introduction on the Randai theatre read Phillips (1980) and Kartomi (1981). The author is togeher with Wim van Zanten presently working on a one hour documentary on this theatre form.
[7]The word 'Pemainan' for the Minangkabau both implies 'game' as well as 'performance'. Most of their performance art like this, is described as a 'game for the people' (pemainan rakyat).
[8]The balabeh corresponds with what in the Javanese styles is called sikap (Chambers:1978).
[9]For a more specific analysis of the differences between the two different models and mythological references dealing with them, see Barendregt (1994:117).
[10]Toorn (1890) describes some of the older beliefs of the Minangkabau living in the highlands.


Blogger Nino said...

Interesting essay!
Do you know perhaps where information like this can be found about silat in North Sumatra, West-Java, Bali etc.?

12:15 AM  

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