British silat master and movie star Cecily Fay first mastered the Malaysian form Seni Silat Haqq Melayu. She later studied the Indonesian style of Silat Walisongo. Today, she teaches a combination of both at her school, Silat Scathach, in rural England.

She tells Kung-fu Kingdom that she starts with Melayu, “which contains drills, conditioning, repetitions and the sword-style battlefield art. It also lays the basis for understanding body mechanics which silat is designed to work in harmony with.” Then she adds the Walisongo style, which “involves more fluidity and the play aspect.”

This brings up the question, how many styles of silat are there, and how different are they?

Silat is a generic term for the martial arts of Malaysia and Indonesia.

It can also be found in Brunei, Singapore, southern Thailand, and the southern Philippines. Most sources indicate that there are hundreds of styles, and perhaps even thousands. In modern usage, “Silat Melayu” commonly refers to the styles found on continental Malaysia, while “Pencak Silat” refers to those found in Indonesia.

The latter is a relatively modern term, coined in 1948 by the “Indonesian Pencak Silat Association” as a unifying term for the various styles after independence from the Netherlands.

There is no general consensus of which styles belong to which, and a huge number of descriptions can be found in various sources. In the book “Silat Melayu,” the “main styles” include “Silat Minangkabau”, “Silat Sendeng”, “Silat Patani”, “Silat Kelantan”, “Silat Kedah”, and “Silat Jawa”.

Indonesians may disagree. It is because Minangkabau and Jawa (Java) are located in present-day Indonesia and is thus claimed by Pencak. The problem lies in that many parts of Malaysia and Indonesia had belonged to the same kingdoms in the past. While today’s political divisions are vestiges of Western colonialism.

indonesian silat moves Pencak Silat
Two indonesian pencak silat practitioners sparring

Anyhow, the divisions above seem to be all place names except for Sendeng. Anthropologist Douglas S. Farrer argues in his book Shadows of the Prophet: Martial Arts and Sufi Mysticism that,

 “Regional classification tends to lump together the diverse elements of silat, and simplifies the complex attributes in an interlacing network of component parts.”

Just within Silat Minangkabau, Farrer writes that there are over 100 styles “that may be practiced in a localized region down to a single village.” For example, there is Silat Harimau, or tiger style, which “bears only superficial resemblances to Chinese fighting styles named after tigers.”

“Silat Harimau practitioners develop massively strong legs for leaping and kicking,” he writes. “This is partly obtained by holding the ultra-low stances characteristic of the style,” referring to the techniques that require the practitioner to drop to the ground on all fours to either deceive the opponent by taking a sacrificial position or to seemingly vanish before striking.

“The influence of Silat Harimau is apparent in many styles of Malay Silat,” Farrer writes.

Minangkabau style also includes Silat Sterlak, which was “designed as a countermeasure to Silat Harimau imitating the fury of a herd of stampeding elephants, combining that with the wariness of a stalking tiger,” Farrer writes.

In this style, the fighters aim to apply their entire body force when making their attacks.

indonesian silat jumps
Elegant jumps from two silat practitioners

Pencak Silat is also divided into regions, which are further divided into styles.

Bakti Negara is the most prominent style in Bali, whose techniques are generally less direct and emphasize deception. Many of them are adapted to one’s lifestyle – silat practiced by fishermen focus on being able to fight in cramped spaces, such as boats.

Having this many styles to choose from is not necessarily a bad thing, as expert Terry Gibson writes in Black Belt magazine that “the sheer number of silat styles allows practitioners a tremendous amount of variety, as well as a certain amount of freedom and self-expression.”

Fay has mixed and matched, and so has Pencak Silat practitioner Iko Uwais for the smash hit movie The Raid. As he tells in this interview,

“In choreographing for this movie, I combined some moves from different schools.”

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