PHOTO ESSAY

The colors of pencak silat

Published : 12 July 2017

By: Toto Santiko

A group of children are engrossed in a drawing contest, using a multitude of bold colors as they scrawl out their vision of pencak silat, Indonesia’s ancient martial art, on pieces of white paper. Not far away, the real thing is about to begin.

The worthy ancestors of the Indonesian nation always had a way of defending themselves and their communities from enemy attack. They created their own martial arts style by imitating the movements of the animals around them across the vast Indonesian archipelago: monkeys, apes, tigers, snakes and eagles. Later, they incorporated tools including spears, machetes and shields. In modern times, Indonesia’s homegrown martial art, which dates back to the seventh century, combines physical, breathing and spiritual exercises.

Indonesia’s great kingdoms of that time long past, such as the Majapahit in Java and Srivijaya in Sumatra, had great pendekar, or warrior masters, leading soldiers who also had advanced martial arts training. Bas-relief carvings at Indonesia’s Borobudur and Prambanan temples in Central Java Province include martial arts stories. In basic speak, pencak silat means “martial arts.” The word pencak is widely used in Java to describe it, whereas in Sumatra the word silat is more commonly used. This martial art was influenced by cultures from China and India, as well as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. In the 14th century, as Islam spread across the Indonesian archipelago, pencak silat was taught together with religious lessons at Islamic boarding schools and public gathering halls.

Each of Indonesia’s regions has its own distinctive form of pencak silat, ranging from the movement and fighting style to the clothes and accessories worn by practitioners. This diversity of style and colors is on display each year in Yogyakarta, in Central Java, at the Pencak Malioboro Festival. This biannual event, organized by the Tangtungan Project, a nonprofit organization, brings together several thousand pencak silat fans, supporters and practitioners from across Indonesia. The 2017 festival will be held from Aug. 18-20. Let us love pencak silat, a gift from our Indonesian ancestors. 

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