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Majapahit Silat

Majapahit Silatby Guru Scott McQuaid

Many scholars consider Indonesia to be the cradle of Pencak Silat, the word silat is believed to have come from the word sekilat meaning "as fast as lightning". This is a common theory used to describe the motions of combat before eventually shortening the word to silat. Some believe that the origin of the word pencak comes from the Sanskrit word “pancha” meaning five, or it may have come from the Chinese phrase “pencha” meaning avert or deflect.

The term pencak is used in central and east Java which translates to the performance aspects of the fighting art, while the word silat was used in Sumatra which refers to the essence of combat and self-defense.

In the 5th century on the island now known as Indonesia, the Buddhist Sumatran Srivijaya empire was formed. This happened as a result of the migration of the Buddhist tribes of India traveling into Sumatra and Java. The Srivijaya empire spread across South East Asia.

The earliest evidence of silat being taught as a structured manner comes from the Sumatra based empire of Srivijaya where folklore legends tells that it was created by a woman named Rama Sukana who witnessed a fight between a tiger and a large bird. After seeing the two animals fight she utilized movements from both the tiger and the large bird. There are several variations of this story depending on the region where it is told. The Sundanese, for example, believe that she created the Cimande silat style after seeing a monkey battle a tiger.

The Sumatran Srivijaya kingdom dominated the coastal areas, Srivijaya warriors invaded neighboring islands from their coastline such as the island of Cebu in the Philippines and introduced the locals to an early brutal but basic version of stick fighting that later the Filipinos would develop into Kali silat.

Palembang was the base for the great Srivijaya empire which commanded the sea routes between China and India. Scholars believe that the first Indonesian structured style of combative arts began in Riau on the island of Sumatra, although these were very crude and raw forms of combat that eventually spread into the ancient city of Priangan which was the name of the capital of the Minangkabau kingdom. It was here that the Minangkabau tribe started to evolve the Srivijaya warrior fighting style. It is said they created various systems from the basic principals such as the infamous tiger style, Silek Harimau and Silek Tuo. The masters of these arts were referred to as a pendekar which comes from the Minangkabau expression ‘pandai akal’ that means clever mind.

The Minangkabau kingdom stretched across Indonesian islands ruling from around the 13th century to the mid-16th century. These regions included areas in West Sumatra, Riau, North Sumatra, Jakarta, West Java and Jambi. The fighting arts flourished as they reached the island of Java, from the West came the Cimande style of silat that many regard as the first pencak silat style of Java.

Srivijaya Empire

In the 13th century the Hindu Javanese kingdom known as Majapahit spread across South East Asia eclipsing the previous Srivijaya empire. By 1377 the Majapahit soldiers had taken control of the last stronghold in Sumatra, the Minangkabau capital Palembang. They fought off the rebellion and could now control the gold trade route which gave so much power to the Minangkabau kingdom. It was during this time that the various styles of pencak silat as we know today began to form and evolve.

Javanese pencak silat reached its peak under the Majapahit empire. During the 16th century the style of Harimau Berantai Silat was created and their clan became known as great assassins against the Dutch during their occupation of Indonesia.

There are believed to be more than 800 styles of pencak silat in Indonesia, with many of the newer systems coming from the 20th century such as Setia Hati from central Java, Serak, Kuntao, Perisai Diri, Mande Muda and the Bakti Negara style from the eastern island of Bali.

The rise of these arts from around Indonesia as well as its many neighboring islands shows the power of the empire of Majapahit. Although the origin of the name Majapahit is not officially known, some historians have suggested that the word ‘maja’ comes from a Javanese name of an Indonesian tree and the name Majapahit represents the branches of the tree showing how vast the empire spread across South East Asia. The Majapahit kingdom included areas that are known today as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, East Timor and the Philippines. From Majapahit and its connected kingdoms the origins of these martial arts known today were eventually created:

  • Pencak Silat - Indonesia
  • Seni Silat - Malaysia
  • Kali - Philippines
  • Tomoi - Malaysia
  • Muay Boren - Thailand
  • Myanma Yuya Louvi - Myanmar
  • Krabi Krabong - Thailand
  • Bokador - Cambodia

Majapahit Empire

The systems of pencak silat have many cultural influences due to their extensive travel across South East Asia as well as environmental development, tribal interpretation and religion.

Indonesia is predominately an Islamic country with 87% being Muslim, while 6.96% are Protestant, 2.91% are Catholic, 1.69% are Hindu and 0.72% Buddhist. 20th century silat practitioners in Asia are mostly Muslim and some tribes have even incorporated the studies of Islam into their style of pencak silat. This can certainly effect the combative mindset but no matter what your believes and views are on this subject one has to remember that the beginning and rise of pencak silat in Indonesia predates the arrival of Islam which came in the 11th century.

There are strong traces of Buddhism in Sumatran silek or silat left over from the Srivijaya empire, particularly within the Minangkabau adat (culture). Although the Minanagkabau are Muslims, their practice is incorporated with animist beliefs of Semangat which represent the vitality of life and life's energy in natural physical entities such as animals and plants.

Examples of animism can be found in Buddhism as Buddhism does not believe in a creator being but more of a creative energy force in the universe. This is why the Sumatran harimau or tiger was not only the inspiration for Minangkabau silek but also held as a figure head of power and respect. Even today a village shaman holds more authority and respect within Minangkabau culture than an Imam (Islamic leader).

Tekpi - Sai

The Hindu culture left from the Majapahit kingdom can also still be seen in today’s silat, especially within the Java systems. The Javanese weapon known as tekpi, which is more commonly identified in martial arts as a sai from the Japanese Okinawan culture, is an example of Hinduism in Indonesian silat. Stone sculpture artworks in Java depict the tekpi weapon and give it a historic support which predates its appearance in Chinese and Okinawan interpretations. According to history the tekpi origin dates back to the Hindu culture in South East Asia between 300AD and 400AD. The tekpi can clearly be seen in the old artwork of the Hindu goddess ‘Kali’ associated with empowerment. The Hindu goddesses play an important role in the study and practice of yoga, in turn the postures and positions from yoga can still be seen in Javanese silat today.

Today’s instructors that crosstrain in South East Asian martial arts have combined styles and formed their own martial systems, calling it Majapahit Silat. In theory this term is apt for the mixture of silat arts from these regions as this name implies a generic phrase of fighting arts from Asia.

Majapahit Warriors

We, as practitioners and custodians of pencak silat, must look deeper than the mere combative nature of the art, for understanding the art's background will ultimately reflect your physical methods applied in combat. There are always footprints left behind from history and although they maybe difficult to track, remanence remains.


Exclusively published for Black Triangle Silat website, 2013.