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It is not known exactly how old silat is but it can be traced back to the kingdom of Srivijaya. Indian martial arts had an impact on Southeast Asian styles, evident from the use of silambam staffs and the thigh-slapping found in many forms of silat which is reminiscent of Hindu wrestling for example. Bas-reliefs in Srivijaya which clearly illustrate warriors wielding weapons such as the Chinese double-edged sword also suggest Chinese influence.

There are a number of legends of how silat was created but only one has any historical significance. The story tells of a Sumatran woman who witnessed a fight between a tiger and a very large bird while fetching water from a well. Both animals, unfortunately, died in the fight. The woman's angry husband came to scold her for her tardiness but she blocked all of his attacks, remembering the movements of the fighting animals that she saw earlier. The couple later formulized the art and founded the first style of silat (sometimes said to have been Silat Harimau). However true this story is, archeological evidence shows that silat was indeed created in Sumatra and flourished after it spread to Java.

By the 15th century, silat was already highly refined. Besides the similarities to martial arts from China, India and other Southeast Asian nations, silat also bears a resemblance to karate and Japanese weapon arts, such as tessenjutsu and bojutsu. This is not surprising since Okinawa traded with both Java and Melaka. Some Okinawans still have South-East Asian facial features which indicates that silat also must have influenced karate. After Dutch colonization, silat spread to Holland from Indonesian immigrants. It still remains one of the most popular Asian martial arts in the Netherlands.

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