By Nick Kellingley
THERE are martial arts, and then there are serious martial arts. Malaysia’s Silat falls into the latter category. Outside Malaysia the practice is relatively unknown but it has a lot in common with its more famous relative, Muay Thai. Like Muay Thai, Silat relies on use of the entire body including elbows, knees and the head in addition to the more common kicks and punches of other art forms.
If that doesn’t sound brutal enough, then Silat is happy to cater to weapons too, and the keris, a kind of dagger based upon farm implements, is most commonly deployed. When Silat was used to wage war, these keris would be dipped in poison during forging and a single cut could be deadly. Usually a keris is used as a single-wield weapon but in some versions of Silat it is paired with a second blade.
The origins of Silat
The name Silat probably comes from the Tamil, Silambam; an Indian fighting technique that may have been brought to Malaysia during Indian migration. This was likely combined with the existing military styles of Malay tribes; clearly seen in ancient war dances of the local people. There is also strong evidence of Chinese martial arts techniques being blended into the modern-day forms of Silat.
Silat dates back to the 5th or 6th century when it was commonly used by defence forces across South-east Asia. At the time armour was not an option for most soldiers, who instead relied on a single rattan shield and possibly a reinforced breastplate. Thus the original styles of Silat were heavily reliant on the agility of the combatant.
Silat was originally a spiritual art form as well as a martial one. In common with many ancient Buddhist and animist rituals, Silat traditionally incorporated mantras and idol worship. This is no longer permitted in Malaysia as it is considered to be offensive to the Muslim majority.
The composition of Silat
A Silat bout or practice routine begins with a show of respect for the opponent or teacher involved. There are various hand signals given depending on the branch of Silat being used and the individuals involved. In general this appears very much like the Hindu “namaste” greeting where palms are placed touching each other at chest height. The head is also generally inclined with respect. The second purpose of this particular salute is to prepare the fighter to block any attack aimed at their head or face.
There are several stances that are common to Silat, including the horse-stance which a combatant should be expected to be able to maintain for up to 10 minutes. This stance is then able to flow freely into a series of steps and kicks, such as the cat step and warrior step.
Silat uses an equivalent to Karate’s “kata” too; known as “jurus” these are for the rehearsal of a series of fluid flowing moves and designed to indicate potential weak points that may be exploited during a bout.
What’s it like in practice?
If you’re lucky you may witness Silat at a festival or wedding when Silat is more a martial dance during which the intention is not to injure but to demonstrate the prowess of those involved. Routines are intentionally slowed and punches pulled to dazzle spectators. Stories may be told as the artists work. This is one of Malaysia’s best kept secrets yet it can be seen almost anywhere in the nation.
If you like your fighting to be fighting, then head to one of the many Silat guru training centres in the country and see if you can watch. These lightning fast battles may leave you wondering why it isn’t better known. Combat is fast and brutal, and Silat fighters do not leave much room for error. Weapons based fighting can be particularly intense and you’ll want to stay back from the action in case someone falls or flails in error.
Is it possible to get a glimpse of Silat before I come to Malaysia?
Yes, it is. The Malaysian fantasy epic movie, Puteri Gunung Ledang, contains dazzling displays of Silat. Its US $ 4 million budget made it the first major movie from Malaysia and it’s worth watching for the story and production as well as the fighting.
If you can’t track that down try Raid: Redemption which shows the Indonesian variant of Silat. Be warned it’s an extremely violent movie.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website
About the author…
Nick Kellingley (UK)
Nick Kellingley is a full-time writer based between Shenzhen, China and Siem Reap, Cambodia. He has been published in many different media and is an award winning blogger. He spent his honeymoon in Malaysia and loves the country and its people.