Pencak Silat

What Does Pencak Silat Really Mean?

The Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia published by Balai Pustaka defines pencak silat as ‘a game (skill) of self defence using the ability to protect and defend oneself and to attack, with or without weapons’. More specifically, silat is defined as ‘a game requiring dexterity to defend oneself and attack, with or without weapons’, while bersilat is defined as ‘playing by employing dexterity to defend oneself and attack’ (Kompas 1996:1.

Regional masters do not always accept this linguistic definition. For instance in Madura, Bawean and regions of East Java where the majority is Maduranese, the term ‘pencak silat’ is divided into two different meanings. According to Bawean pencak silat teacher, Abdus Sjukur:

pencak is graceful and evasive movement, which also involves an element of comedy. Pencak can be enjoyed as entertainment. Silat is self-defence technique to defend, attack and terminate, which may not be performed in public.

Prominent teacher and founder of the Pamur school in Madura, Hasan Habudin, gives a similar definition:

pencak is an art of self defence performed according to rules, whereas silat is the essence of pencak that may not be performed. For Maduranese, the word pencak comes from the Maduranese ‘apengkarepeng laju aloncak’, or free movement involving jumps. While silat comes from ‘se amaen alat mancelat’, or the performer jumps to and fro like lightning.

Boechori Ahmad, a Tapak Suci master in Jember, agrees that the term ‘pencak’ comes from Madura. However, he considers that the root of word is different, i.e. from ‘acak mancak’, which means jumping left to right moving the arms and legs. His interpretation of the meanings of ‘pencak’ and ‘silat’ are also rather different. ‘Pencak’ is the human instinct to defend oneself, and ‘silat’ is the element that connects movement and thought. Although these interpretations differ, he is of the same opinion as the renowned Pamur teacher that ‘silat’ must be kept secret.
This conviction was also held by the late Imam Koesepangat, renowned Setia Hati Teratai teacher in Madiun, who defined ‘pencak’ as self defence moves without an opponent, and ‘silat’ as self defence that may not be performed. So, in all the definitions above, the criterion for differentiating between the meaning of ‘pencak’ and the meaning of ‘silat’ is: can the manoeuvre be observed or not. This criterion is widespread across East Java, and is adhered to by several national figures. Among others, Mr. Wongsonegoro, a founder and vice president of the national association of pencak silat schools, Ikatan Pencak Silat Indonesia (IPSI), has stated that:

pencak is offensive-defensive movement that is in the form of dance and in harmony with certain traditional codes of etiquette, which is generally performed in public. Silat is the essence of pencak, the art of fighting or defending oneself at all costs, which may not be performed in public.

But some masters use other criteria to differentiate ‘pencak’ and ‘silat’. For example, Holidin, a Panglipur master in Bandung, the capital city of West Java, emphasises more of an educational approach. For him, ‘pencak’ is the source of knowledge, of expression and use rights, while ‘silat’ means ‘silaturahmi’ or altruism. Combining these two definitions, pencak silat means altruistic education to disseminate culture.
While some masters attempt to link ‘pencak’ and ‘silat’ as one unit, others reject one or other of these two basic terms. In Bali, the Special District of Yogyakarta, and Central Java, masters tend to reject the term ‘silat’ because this term does not originate from these regions. According to Ida Dewa Bagus Alit Dira, a master of the Bakti Negara branch in Denpasar, from the outset the term used in Bali was simply ‘pencak’, or in the regional language ‘encak’, which means to be beaten.
Likewise, Franciscus Ignasius Marto Hardjono, a Persatuan Hati master in Bantul, explained during an interview that in Yogyakarta and its surroundings, the term ‘silat’ has never existed. The term used is ‘pencak’, meaning precise manoeuvres to defend oneself. A similar opinion is held by Soekowinadi, founder of PERPI Harmuti, a school in Yogyakarta:
in Java at that time, the term silat was not well known. People were familiar only with the term pencak. Pencak comes from the word ‘pen’, which means point or goal, and the word ‘cak’ which means action. So, action with a goal, because action without a goal is meaningless in the art of self defence. The term silat was popularised by adapter Kho Ping Ho Ho. With the spread of his comics, the term silat became known in Java. Now most people combine silat with pencak as if they were a unit.

Although most people feel the term ‘silat’ did not originate in Yogyakarta and Central Java, a small minority differentiates between ‘pencak’ and ‘silat’. Among them is Soetardjonegoro of the Phasaja Mataram school in Yogyakarta, who defines the two terms as follows:

pencak is offensive-defensive movement, regulated by a system, by time, place and climate, constantly maintaining the mutual respect of knights, not wishing to hurt one another’s feelings. So pencak is more of a physical nature. Silat is offensive-defensive movement closely related to the spirit, nurturing human instinct [and] activating the human conscience directly towards the Almighty (PB IPSI 1995:3)

In contrast to Yogyakarta, in Sumatra the term frequently rejected owing to doubt over its origins is ‘pencak’. Sumatrans normally use the term ‘silat’ or ‘silek’, which is defined as a true form of self defence, which involves attacking with the arms and legs and defending quickly and forcefully. But even in Sumatra, particularly in the Minangkabau region, ‘pencak’ and ‘silek’ are thought of as two inseparable parts of one martial art, ‘silek’ being the essence of the practice that may not be used in competition nor performed. Disaster will befall anyone who violates this proscription by performing silat manoeuvres in public. ‘Pencak’ is the simulated performance of silat, involving flowers and showing the beauty of harmonious silat moves. In the words of pencak silat observer and lecturer at ASKI Padang Panjang, Indara Utama:

Controversy over the label and meaning of ‘pencak silat’ is also apparent in other regions in Indonesia, and has never been resolved. The author feels that at the outset teachers used only the term ‘pencak’, or by contrast, only the term ‘silat’, in various ‘translations’ of regional languages. As explained in the following chapter, it was only with the establishment of ISPI in 1948 that the desire to join these two basic terms emerged, as a part of a collective effort to unify all schools in Indonesia. This was ultimately achieved in 1973, when ‘pencak silat’ was officially adopted as a national term. One would think that this development would influence the arguments of teachers today and encourage them to consolidate ‘pencak’ and ‘silat’ in their conceptual frameworks. But the incipient terms live on, and even today many schools retain the original terms, for reasons of history or habit (Media Indonesia 1995:?) Take the Pamur school for example. Pamur is an abbreviation of ‘Pencak Angkatan Muda Rasio’. Conversely, the Perisai Diri school hand considers itself the ‘National Silat Family of Indonesia’.
In this book, the author aligns himself with national policy and uses the term ‘pencak silat’ consistently in subsequent pages–including for the period prior to 1973—except where he wishes to indicate that a particular school or genre uses a different term. This decision was made based on linguistic considerations, and is in no way meant to undermine the richness of opinion concerning the meaning of ‘pencak silat’ described above. In fact all these interpretations contain (an element of) truth, depending on the angle from which pencak silat is observed, and which key aspects are being looked at. The meaning of pencak silat is heterogeneous owing to the multi-dimensional nature of this martial art itself.