Pukulan Pencak Silat: The Art of Striking
Continuing our journey within the Indonesian Pencak Silat universe, we cannot help but mention a term that is particularly dear to us, a term that more than any other defines the art we practice and, ultimately, defines us practitioners too: this word is Pukulan.
Literally translated the term Pukulan means “to strike”, but as we will discover here there is much more behind this name and, as always and as already seen for Pencak Silat, to fully understand its meaning it is first of all necessary to understand the historical and socio-cultural context from which this word came to life. It is in fact impossible, and even useless or even counterproductive, to try to understand an art without tying it to events, human beings, and the traditions from which it was born.
If we want to talk about Pukulan then it will be important to be able to distinguish the origin of the word itself and its common use in Indonesia from what was later recognized as a real way of practicing the martial art of Pencak Silat. This real way applies certain martial and biomechanical principles that define it and distinguish it from the approach used by other schools which, although practicing Indonesian martial arts, cannot be defined as practitioners of Pukulan.
For both definitions, our journey begins in the 1950s, from the route of the ships that brought the Indonesian and Indonesian refugees (fleeing Indonesia) to Holland. The proclamation of the independence of the Indonesian Republic in fact, as often happens in these cases, had led all those who had fought or sided with the Dutch occupying enemy to be forced to leave their homeland, as they were at risk of being killed or deported.
Where does the Pukulan Originate?
The Indos, normally of Dutch father (and therefore surname) and Indonesian mother, had played an intermediate role and prominent positions in pre-independence Indonesian society. Often these leadership positions involved owning homes with all the comforts and Indonesian servants at their service, as well as being able to command the labor used for low-grade jobs. All these privileges, however, vanished with the birth of the Indonesian Republic.
Therefore, understanding the inherent danger of staying in Indonesia, having supported the previous Dutch-style government, many Indo fled to the land of their fathers, precisely Holland, where, however, they found a very different place to welcome them from what they expected. The climate and food were diametrically opposed to hot and humid Indonesia, the Dutch, who previously used them as trusted men and intermediaries, now ghettoized them because of their customs and appearances so different from theirs.
In those years, more than 300,000 Indo and Indonesians found themselves in this kind of limbo, a middle ground with no return, hated, and expelled from their native land, of which they had a wonderful and almost mythicized memory, with the difficulties of rebuilding a life from scratch, in a cold and inhospitable country, without references and with all the distrust that unfortunately developed in many situations.
As a consequence of this event, and as often happens to ethnic groups in exile, the Indos created among themselves a very strong and united community, within which they kept Indonesian traditions and customs intact and jealously guarded memories, customs and stories of the Indonesia they had left. This is what has allowed us to have access to a part of Indonesian culture that has almost disappeared even in the motherland to date. Just think for example that the only university in the world where you can study the Sunda language to date is Utrecht, in the Netherlands. Fortunately, however, in recent years various cultural movements have also been formed in Indonesia in order to promote, safeguard and transmit intact the cultural traditions of these people.
Clearly with the Indos their language and their martial art also arrived in Europe, and with them the use of the word that interests us so much, namely “poekoelan” or “pukulan”, which means “to strike with the hands”, and which in the common language is therefore often used as a reinforcement alongside the name of the martial arts style practiced, to indicate the propensity of this style towards percussion, or it is inserted within the didactic program of a school to indicate a set of exercises specific to train the strokes of the arms.
Like pukulan, there are in fact other terms within the Indonesian language with similar uses and meanings, such as: tendangan (kicks), kuncian (joint levers) and senjata (use of weapons). All of them can have their place within the martial curriculum of a Pencak Silat school, or be used to define a particular style or trend.
Therefore the first use of the word pukulan is the representation, or the preference of a style, in hitting with the hands or a category of exercises aimed at developing this skill. This may explain why nowadays, and especially until the 1980s in Holland, there were a large number of Silat schools that identified themselves with the name Pukulan + something, such as: Pukulan Betawi, Pukulan Kamajoran, Pukulan Cimande and many others. All these schools wanted to identify their style in the “specialty” of hitting with the hands.
These names, and most of the Pencak Silat style names in reality, are however nothing more than a recent creation of the second half of the 1900s, due to the regulation and organization of Pentjak Silat schools in federations, such as the IPSI internationally or the NPSB (Nederlandse Pencak Silat Bond), born precisely following the massive Indo and Indonesian immigration to the Netherlands.
And it was in the Netherlands, following the creation of the NPSB, that in some cases style names had to be created completely from scratch. In fact, many teachers had practiced until then, for years, without needing to give a name to the style they practiced, or the name often corresponded to the name of the head teacher, the city or the geographical area in which it was practiced or from where the head of the school came. As a result many of these names, while referring to different schools, were absolutely identical.
A bit like if we all said we cooked Italian, but without specifying the name of the dish.
To clarify and identify each style, it was therefore necessary to differentiate the names of the styles by adding prefixes, suffixes or the villages from which the practitioner came, in order to facilitate the organization of the newly formed federation.
Pukulan as an Art
Then there is a second, and most dear to us, meaning of the word pukulan. The pukulan is understood on a physical, mental, and spiritual level, as a methodology that bases its strategies on hitting.
It is not just a matter of training fists in this case, that any martial art style can do, but of learning and applying linear geometries integrated with the biomechanics of the human body, so that each blow creates the desired result with minimum effort and maximum yield. The blow itself therefore becomes a means and not the end: I hit in a certain way because I want to obtain a certain effect on my opponent’s body.
It is said that before starting a fight the pukulan practitioner must already have clear in mind what will happen and how he will get it, once the movement begins, in fact, there are no doubts, second thoughts or changes in the race, the fight must be closed in a few strokes. It is not sparring, there is no study of the opponent, or rather, there is study but it is upstream. The way people walk, breathe, speak and move the body is studied and analyzed before the fight itself begins. The fighting distance is short, very short, suitable for defense situations in an urban environment where you are often closed by physical obstacles in a room or surrounded by other people, more or less involved.
Physical and mental conditioning play another very important factor. In principle, the practitioner conditions his body through exercises to moderate the pain of the blows received, but also to harden his bones so as not to get damaged during the fight. Later the physical conditioning gives way to the mental one and the pain no longer becomes a problem, on the contrary it becomes fuel to carry on the action.
The steps of the Pukulan practitioner move on precise geometric lines, which have the task of cutting the opponent’s lines, preventing him from reacting and allowing him to control the surrounding environment at the same time, keeping constant guard and attention towards a possible neighboring opponent. The Pukulan was born on the street and as such it immediately foresees the idea of fighting against multiple opponents.
Finally, timing and momentum represent the dichotomy that allows shots to achieve the desired result. The rhythm is never continuous but always broken to make it difficult for the opponent to predict the next blow, the moment of impact is preceded by an instant of absolute calm and relaxation and immediately followed by it, creating a “full/empty” effect which allows you to generate great impact and power at a very short distance, both of these words have different meanings and represent, together with the way of walking, the two pillars on which the Pukulan is based.
The Pukulan Today
As with any art, Pukulan has changed over the years, since it was trained in Indonesia, it then absorbed the characteristics that were given to it when it started being taught in Holland, and from there it has evolved to the present day. This is certainly a good thing, because it has allowed it to survive and reach us while keeping its effectiveness intact, and indeed adapting to the needs of current practitioners and the social, cultural and geographical situation in which they live.
The practice that was done in Indonesia was certainly aimed at protecting people from the types of dangers they faced then, but as you can well understand it would not make sense today for an Italian practitioner to train to fight, for example, against practitioners of Silat Cikalong. Not because they are not valid practitioners, but because we will hardly have the opportunity to run into one of them in Italy. The practice of Pukulan has therefore evolved in Holland, where it has found excellent schools of Muay Thai against which to confront, for example, and physical structures different from those of Indonesian martial artists, and has thus developed characteristics and strategies to solve the problems that can happen in a street fight in the West.
The art of Pukulan is therefore alive and in constant evolution, but always respecting the tradition of it’s effectiveness that has characterized it since its birth. The task of the practitioners therefore is to continue to respect and pass on this tradition, bringing it with us into the modern age to pass it on intact to the next generations.
NKI Technical Board Member