Traditional” Balinese Martial Art, Part 1
“There are some Balinese martial arts that use black magic,” a 47-year-old master of mepantigan named Putu Witsen Widjaya told me.
He was sitting in his jungle camp with table and chairs made from polished tree stumps, in front of the thatched bamboo hut where his wife was preparing coffee with lemon-grass stirrers. She was boiling the water in a cast-iron pot on a bamboo fire, between the refrigerator and an unused microwave.
“But I won’t practice those blackmagic arts,” Putu said, shaking his head with disgust. “Many problems with those arts. When you practice black magic, you have a demon and an angel living inside of you. And each time you eat, you have to eat for three.” I HAD COME to Bali to learn the Balinese grappling art of mepan- tigan. Online, I’d discovered that it’s a fairly new system, having been created only in 2002. During my nearly two decades of martial arts–oriented travel, I had run across my share of charlatans, fakes and invented histories, so I was suspicious. Why did I go? Because almost every time I walked into a potential Black Belt story thinking it might be bad, it turned out to be an undiscovered gem.
Even so, I arrived with low expectations, thinking mepantigan at least would amount to a nice addition to my martial arts resume. However, I ended up taking my first steps on a journey that could lead to years of research.
Mepantigan is a combination of grappling, stand-up fighting, archery, horseback riding, dance, religion, music and costumes — all designed by Putu to showcase and preserve Balinese culture. Can mepantigan be classified as a traditional martial art? With only 16 years of history, probably not. But it is an amalgamation of traditional culture and a Hindu warrior ethos that stretches far back in history.
In many ways, my experience with mepantigan reminded me of the time I spent learning Cambodian
bokator, another style that’s criticized for being a recent arrival on the martial arts scene. Yet bokator survives because it encompasses multiple ancient arts and traditions and passes them on to the next generation. In a similar way, mepantigan serves as an important means of transmitting culture.
PUTU’S ASSISTANT, a 22-year-old college student named Komang, picked me up at my hotel and ferried me on a motorcycle to the mepantigan headquarters. When I arrived, I found a school located in a jungle and surrounded by bamboo guesthouses, an exercise field and a wrestling pit. Elements of Balinese culture, particularly the Hindu religion, were evident throughout the compound in the form of statues of the matriarch of mepantigan and other spirits respected by the practitioners.
Komang asked me if I wouldn’t mind waiting while he prayed to the goddess. Once again, the reverence these martial artists hold for their religion and their culture reminded me of bokator. As martial arts, the two look nothing alike, but the underlying spirit is the same.
When he was done, Komang led me to a training area set between a river and a rice paddy. I wrapped a sarong around my waist and a smaller one around my head. Komang said wrestlers always begin by greeting each other with hands in the prayer position. Then he took me through a series of basic postures that were similar to the positions I’d observed in local dances.
After the introduction, we were ready to begin. Komang told me to get ready, after which we assumed
the siaga, a fighting stance in which the legs are shoulder-width apart and the hands are open like tiger claws. Oddly, his next command was, “Baris!” Dance. While my body followed him through the simple Balinese steps, my mind began to connect the dots between the dance and the martial art.
I also started to grasp the connection with the goddess: By following a female deity rather than a warrior god, Balinese fighters find a balance between the feminine spirit and the violent art.
MY NEXT TASK was to assume the horse stance. From there, Komang led me through what could best be described as a Balinese rap song. Then we proceeded to slap ourselves on the chest and shout,
“Cang katos!” I am strong. As we continued to dance, Komang called out commands that had us taking different positions. It was like doing a kata, except that we got to shout, make faces and stick out our tongues. My host took the opportunity to explain that last part: “We use the tongue for speaking. If we say good, we will get good, but if we say bad, we will get bad. That’s called karma.”
In all truth, seeing the demonic face he made when he stuck out his tongue was unsettling. Clearly, it was a good face for battle. A protruding tongue is also considered a sign of power, like bared teeth that indicate you’re ready to fight like an animal.
“The tongue has three powers: the power of knowledge, the power of happiness and the power of the destroyer,” he continued. That last power — of the destroyer — was the one most closely associated with warriors, he added.
FINALLY, we were ready to begin practicing martial arts. Expecting mepantigan to involve only grappling, I was surprised to see Komang pull out a kicking pad and instruct me to practice my punches and kicks — even my spin kick. That was when he explained that the martial component of the system is a mix of taekwondo, judo,
aikido, pencak silat and several traditional Balinese fighting styles.
As soon as his demonstration commenced, I noted numerous similarities with silat, the Indonesian art that’s gone international because of its inclusion in the Southeast Asian Games. Silat is extremely acrobatic, with loads of jumps that often entail landing in a low stance. According to Komang, who used to compete in silat, one can kick only to the body. Grabbing or punching the head is prohibited. You can throw your opponent, but throws are generally initiated from a caught kick.
It’s important to keep in mind, he cautioned me, that mepantigan may have borrowed techniques and tactics from silat, but it is its own art with its own philosophy and methods. I was certain I would find out soon. (To be continued.) Antonio Graceffo’s book Warrior Odyssey is available at blackbelt mag.com/store.