In Malaysia, they say a man is not really capable of defending himself against an attacker unless he knows something about bersilat. Its self-defense techniques date back to the early 15th century and today is still popular. The art enjoys such popularity that it can be practiced by anyone whether he’s 8 or 60 years old. When bersilat was first introduced to the Malacca Court by a religious teacher from North Sumatra, Indonesia, it became a necessary part of a young man’s education. There have been considerable changes made in the original style, and through the years, it was practiced in secret with complicated rituals and customs. In Malaysia, bersilat attracts many men to its evening classes. Particularly youths living in villages and suburban areas indulge in learning its self-defense techniques. They are taught the fine points of parrying or avoiding an attack by an opponent who may be armed with a kris (Malay knife) or pedang or parang panjang (Malay sword). Young folks nowadays take up bersilat as an artistic form of physical exercise, and they often demonstrate the art at ceremonials. Instructors emphasize the of its self-defense techniques.


The Bersilat Breakdown

Basically, bersilat exists in two forms. One, the silat pulot, is purely for exhibition at weddings and other ceremonials. The other is known as silat buah and is used for serious fighting. One can tell by the opening graceful movements the type of bersilat the performer has mastered. With a leap, he will begin moving to the rhythmic strains of an orchestra, demonstrating the techniques of defense against one or several assailants. The movements consist of quick parries and counter-strokes with the arms, well-timed steps and swift kicks.

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There are many versions of bersilat. The most common are the bersilat gayong and bersilat harimau. To a lesser or greater extent, most of the movements involve a spiritual aspect, with the performer uttering religious incantations and blessings. This, say its devotees, helps bring out supernatural strength and provide the body with protection. All of the training and exercises in use today have been handed down from the original bersilat masters and are passed on by the loyal disciples from generation to generation. Malaysians like to speak of its early beginnings. They tell of the legendary hero Hang Tuah of Malacca, who lived in the 15th century and is considered the father of bersilat in Malaysia.

Bersilat’s Origins

With his friends, Hang Tuah traveled great distances in his day to learn bersilat, and his glorious exploits are vividly described in many Malay classics. With four of his friends, Hang Tuah made long and difficult journeys to reach Mount Rundok to meet mahaguru (grandmaster) Adi Putera to learn bersilat’s techniques. After long training and plenty of strenuous exercises, Hang Tuah continued his studies at Majapahit in the Mount Winara area with mahaguru Persanta Nala as his instructor. The knowledge he acquired through vigorous bersilat training taught him how to face an enemy and this he passed on to his followers. Many later proved to be loyal warriors to the State. The movements involved in bersilat when used for defense or on the attack can be summed up as follows:
  • salutation movement (gerak langkah sembah)
  • art of bodily movement, a dancelike affair in which the performer employs weapons. This is known as penchak seni tari dan seni tari bersenjata.
  • avoiding movement, which Malaysians call elak mengelak
  • side-striking tactics, which Malaysians refer to as tepis menipis
  • kicking and falling techniques or sepak terajan
  • stabbing tactics, called tikam menikam
  • art of warriorship, classified by Malaysians as ilmu keperwira’an
In addition to being an excellent form of physical training, the art of bersilat has great spiritual value, serving, according to its devotees, as an important aid of enhancing one’s spiritual development. As a bodybuilder, it helps in the achievement of general fitness, it provides alertness and gives the participant the courage he needs to meet his daily challenges.

The Benefits and Brutality of Bersilat

To the people who practice these self-defense techniques, many significant benefits are offered. According to the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, Malaysia and Selangor Silat Seni Gayong Association of Malaysia, the value of bersilat can be summed up as follows: As a dance, it develops an aesthetic feeling of a cultural nature. As a form of physical training, it promotes good health, and as a form of spiritual education, it develops such qualities as calmness, tolerance, observance, mental efficiency, courage and self-confidence. An expert who specializes in the throwing and unbalancing techniques of bersilat says any Malaysian can defend himself against an attacker by using very little physical strength if he knows bersilat. The expert, who is skillful in the use of a technique of hitting the vital spot known as seni sendi, points out that there are 12 critical nerve centers in the body. “All of these spots are vulnerable to severe pain at the slightest touch of an expert’s hand,” he says. “The technique will make an assailant react as though he had suffered an electric shock.” According to this authority, a small man should never try to rely on his own strength when he goes up against a bigger man who happens to be a sheer brute. Instead, he should make use of the opponent’s strength for counterattacking. “If attacked,” he explains, “one must think quickly, clearly and analytically about the position one is in and how best to get out of it. All this is more or less automatic.” As he further describes it, “Just screaming and struggling may not avert tragedy. For example, if grabbed by the throat from behind, the victim of an attack will be thrown back and probably lose his balance and fall if he becomes panicky and pulls forward. However, if he grabs the attacker’s wrist and pulls the arm away from his neck, he can flip the attacker to the ground. The confidence and know-how a bersilat performer displays is often enough to send an attacker running for dear life.” Another self-defense technique taught to bersilat students is kunchi, a locking procedure. It’s a handy way of giving a prowler or a burglar the bum’s rush once you sense his presence and give it to him in a very painful way. If an attacker grabs his victim from the front, an expert can startle him by hitting a nerve center. The attacker will then loosen his grip and he can throw the attacker backwards by using his legs, the expert says. However, if the assailant grabs the victim by the neck from the rear, the defender can grasp one of the attacker’s fingers and bend it back. The pain is unbearable. One of the simplest locks is to hold the attacker’s arm flat on the ground by pressing the knee on the outside of the attacker’s elbow. Once a person is pinned down, you can take all the time you need to decide what to do with the culprit. One thing is sure, the rascal will never get away. One passing thought in the use of bersilat. Its teachers always stress that its followers must not use it to initiate an attack. It is strictly for self-defense, for counterattacking when one is in danger. Only then, they say, is one justified to use it.
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