Southeast Asian Martial Arts: Inside Silat!

silat takedown
Photo by Robert Reiff

Burton Richardson executes a silat takedown by leveraging his opponent's knee.

Black Belt Hall of Famer discusses one of his favorite fighting arts.

The word silat has become an inclusive name for a variety of martial arts and fighting systems from Southeast Asia. Researchers believe these arts were developed around the sixth century and flourished during the Majapahit empire, which encompassed what is now Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines.

Through the years, silat has branched off into styles that are as varied as the cultural groups from which they stem. Modern expressions of silat range from interpretations that use mostly upright stances to systems that emphasize fighting positions that are practically on the ground.

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The term pencak silat indicates that there are two distinct aspects to this art. “Pencak” describes the performance portion, in which the goal is to wow the audience. It includes dances, forms that involve two or more people, and impressive demonstrations of technique.

“Silat” describes the combative applications. The main thrust is to prevail in life-or-death, no-rules combat. The word is also used to describe sparring and competitions in which the practitioner strives to use technique to overcome a resisting opponent.

Pencak silat is a blade-oriented martial art rather than a combat sport. The use of an edged weapon is not just implied; it’s actually encouraged in self-defense situations.

Although a wide variety of weapons can be seen throughout Southeast Asia, the kris (wavy-edged dagger), golok (machete-like short sword) and short knife (including the karambit) are the staple blades of silat.

When it comes to martial efficiency, the pencak portion of the art is just as important as the silat portion. The forms, be they the beautiful flower kembangan dances or the more combative buah and juru routines, ingrain proper motion and coordination. They’re also useful for long-term health maintenance, keeping the practitioner flexible and strong even in old age.

cover of Burton Richardson's book Silat for the StreetBlack Belt Photo

Want to learn silat but prefer paper? Check out this book from Black Belt!

Several Southeast Asian combat sports, including muay Thai, developed from silat roots in an effort to provide practitioners with a means to compete in a relatively safe environment. You may look at Thai, Burmese or Cambodian kickboxing and scoff at the notion that they’re safe, but compared to sword fighting or empty-hand training that involves eye gouges and groin grabs, they look relatively tame.

The silat–muay Thai connection becomes evident when you look closely at the two arts. Silat emphasizes the dance and the fight. Meanwhile, in muay Thai, we see kickboxers perform a wai kru dance before a bout to pay respect to their teachers. Silat is also apparent in Thai takedowns. The ring sport’s head twisting, leg blocking, sweeping and tripping maneuvers are identical to silat’s.

silat jumping knee thrustBurton Richardson executes a jumping knee thrust.Photo by Robert Reiff

All this offers evidence that pencak silat is an incredibly deep art. The beauty of its dances belies the severity of its fighting techniques. It’s among the most fascinating and efficient combat systems ever devised, and as such, it’s a great complement to other martial arts and combat sports.

Photos by Robert Reiff

Burton Richardson was Black Belt’s 2015 Self-Defense Instructor of the Year. He’s best-known as a master of jeet kune do, but he’s also certified as an instructor of silat and BJJ.

For information about Richardson’s new book Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the Street, published by Black Belt Books, click here.

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