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.

Black Belt - - Destination - BY AN­TO­NIO GRACEFFO, PH.D.

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.

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