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"Old Men's Silat"?

Sometimes it’s a single decision that triggers an entire chain of events. Sometimes this decision involves getting up at 5 am in the morning while still recovering from a heavy jetlag of arriving in Jakarta the day before. Fate however, had decided that this was a good day for practicing the Indonesian martial art of pencak silat: it’s ancient, it’s graceful, and it’s deadly effective if ever applied in an actual combat situation. Faith had also decided that my guide would be Mas Adhitya from Raden Silat Adventure, an organisation that promotes this martial art to all visitors interested. My job was to get up and wash the sleep out of my eyes. I am very happy I chose to do so.

On first sight, Mas Adhitya woud not immediately match your expectations of a well-trained athlete. Adhitya is a slightly ‘gemuk' and friendly smiling man in the beginning of this thirties, hiding a bit of a belly under his blue polo shirt, and a ton of knowledge under his scooter helmet. Looks can be deceiving as I am soon to find out. I jump on to the back of his sepeda motor, and off we go zigzagging through the early morning traffic madness of South-Jakarta, towards the Depok area. Half an hour, 38 honks and two passing trains later, we pull over at the runway of the “Universitas Indonesia”, one of the country's oldest universities, established as early as 1851, during the East Indies colonial times. Here, near the large student campus we will commence our early morning training. Not many of its inhabitants seem to be awake yet though. The place is quiet and deserted save a couple of security guards and the gardener.

As we walk up to the square, I quickly down a little bottle of Yakult -good for your stomach Mas Adhitya assures me-, and so far it has worked pretty well for me. It is somewhat hard though to look like a tough and hardened pencak silat warrior with this pink piece of plastic in my hand, but very fitting as well since I'm still only a curious child exploring the large world of silat. Today will be my introduction to the intricate style of Cikalong, which takes its name after the region in West Java, where its founder Raden Haji Ibrahim resided. As you can tell by his name (raden), he was a nobleman by title, which I think also reveals something of the gentle nature of this specific style. At the training ground I am met by many friendly handshakes and the smiles of teacher kang Yayat and his students. After a warm welcome, kang Yayat, a very lively and bright-eyed man, explains me the basics of the cikalong style.

As I am to discover, -and I hope to do it justice after just one training- the philosophy behind cikalong is somewhere along the lines of “I don’t want to win, but I don’t want to lose either”. In one way, cikalong is the art of deceiving the human reptilian brain by not triggering its aggressive reflexes, but retaining full awareness and relaxation instead. A cikalong practicioner moves about very subtly, and precise, almost lulling and mesmerizing you into a state of non-aggression and surrender. Whereas NLP tackles and reshapes the pattterns of the mind, and hypnosis those of the subconscious, cikalong can be regarded as having similar effects on a kinestethic level.

Therefore, cikalong does not rely heavily on power punching, kicking techniques or elaborate footwork like some other silat styles do. It works from utter relaxation and soft versatile movements; accepting and distributing the opponents force rather than resisting or overpowering it. In this way, it has some resemblances to aikido, but it is very much an ancient art in its own right, having been passed on from guru to guru for many generations now. The current guru besar, Raden Haji Azis Asy'arie, lives in the village of Cianjur. After generations of only passing on the knowledge among a small, closed community of noblemen and local residents, he has been the first in his lineage to open up the style for others. This has happened as recent as 2009. Many practioners have visited him to learn since then. Here you can see the master in action:

As I have gathered, the cikalong practioner does not often train alone, but almost always with a partner, literally and figuratively attaching himself to his opponent, with ‘sticky hands’, keeping contact at all times. The underlying purpose is to sharpen his sensitivity to the opponent's energy and movements. This is accomplished by giving just enough power to subdue the force of the attacker by using his force against him; but at the same time not too much as to trigger his primal aggressive responses. It is very much an internal as well as an external art, working from the heart region to transfer calm, alert energy into similar outward actions. True to his ‘lazy' aristocratic roots, the cikalong practioner loses very little energy, if not necessary. He is clever. He remains ‘halus’, gentle.

Perhaps it is for this reason that some mockingly call cikalong “old men’s silat”, but don’t be fooled: it can be very powerful and hurtful in its full application. And the more forceful an attacker resists, the more he has to suffer for it, as I find out the hard way on numerous occasions during my first training. Yet, the nature of its founder translates well into a patient and concise style that focuses on de-escalating the conflict rather than fueling it and sending you to the hospital. I am happy it is this way while Mas Adhitya smoothly diverts my attack into yet another anatomically challenging arm twist and, laughing benevolently, brushes off my shoulder. He may not be an Olympic athlete, a nobleman he surely is.

Many thanks to kang Yayat and his students, and to Mas Adhitya for their welcoming spirit, and for allowing me to train with them.


Robin Block is een dichter, muzikant en performer met Indo roots. Op deze website deelt hij naast poëzie en muziek, blogs over  de geschiedenis en het culturele erfgoed van Nederlands-Indië en Indonesië.

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