by Dominick Blum
The Philippines is a sovereign Island country in Southeast Asia, comprising of over 7000 tropical islands. It is a land set apart, not only not only geographically but also spiritually and culturally. The islands also developed their own unique fighting styles that would later become the basis for the Filipino Martial Arts (FMA). Throughout the Philippine history, unending wars between rival tribes and invasions from foreign aggressors have imposed the need for combat readiness. Survival did not depend on the strongest, but the smartest. Man used whatever it could to secure their advantage and to fend off and protect themselves against aggressors. Weapons were used to equalize the differences of strength, speed and aggression.
There is much speculation surrounding the origins of FMA as there appears to be little documentation by those responsible for their formation. FMA is broken down into three distinct territorial styles, Arnis (northern), Eskrima (central) and Kali (southern). Many refer to Kali as the origin of the other two and is often referred to as the “mother art” of the Philippines. References to Kali can be found as far back as the early 9th century, when the Tang dynasty brought goods to the Philippines from East Asia and Malaysia. These early travelers brought the arts of Kuntao and Silat, which had a profound influence on the development of Kali. Even the meaning of the name Kali itself is debated over, but many believe that it comes from the words kamot, meaning hand or body, and lihok, meaning motion from the Pilipino Cebuano dialect.
In the 12th century, there were legends surrounding a group of chieftains that settled into an area called Panay, where they established a Bothoan (school) that taught Kali amongst other academic subjects. The school was believed to be a preparatory school for tribal leaders. Not much is recorded again until the 14th century, when a third migration of Malaysians to the Philippines took place. These immigrants were the ancestors of the Moro (Muslim) Filipinos of Mindanao and Sulu. Along with their religious beliefs, they brought their Kali systems, which utilized bladed weapons of varying lengths. Datu Mangal is credited with bringing the art of Kali to Mactan Island; Sri Bataugong and his son Sri Bantug Lamay were said to have brought the art to the island of Cebu during the Majapahit Empire. Finally, Raja Lapu Lapu, the son of Datu Mangal, through constant struggle and war, developed a personalized Kali subsystem known as Pangamut. In the 16th century, he and Raja Humabon, the son of Sri Bantug Lamay, began to quarrel. A battle was mounting over a land dispute between the two chieftains, but was never realized due to the unexpected visit of a Portuguese explorer.
In the early part of the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the Philippines on the island of Homonthon. Using the island as a place to rest, after a few days, Magellan and his men were approached by a boat full of natives. Seizing the opportunity, Magellan greeted them as friends. Magellan than used his remaining time on Samar to gather information as well as align himself with and convert the chieftains of Samar and Cebu to Christianity. Magellan then set out for the small island of Mactan, which he planned to concur and present it to Raja Humabon as a gift. Magellan and his men were met by Raja Lapu Lapu and his finest warriors on the beach. Lapu Lapu’s men battled steel with rattan, homemade lances and sharpened, fire-hardened sticks. Magellan and his men, over-powered and outnumbered lost the battle as well as their lives in what later was to be known as the battle of Mactan. To this day a statue of Lapu Lapu still stands on Mactan island crediting the chieftain for being the first to repel European aggression. However, after the battle little is mentioned of Lapu Lapu.
By the mid 1500’s the Spanish had a foot hold in Cebu and named the entire group of islands after King Phillip the II of Spain, thus the name “Philippines”. While colonizing the islands they came across the island of Luzon in 1570 where they were confronted by Kalistas (Kali Warriors) whose fighting skills were far superior to the Spanish soldiers. Kalistas practiced their arts diligently, and hence developed extreme accuracy, speed, and agility. These attributes were crucial in fighting the Spaniards’. Because the Spaniards’ swords were sharp and readily cut through the Filipinos’ wooden weapons, many strikes to nerve centers along the body and limbs were mastered, allowing the Kalista to disarm and disable his opponent with a flurry of attacks. Only with the use of firearms, were the Spanish finally able to defeat Luzon and the art of Kali was prohibited.
With the Spanish imposed a ban on the practice of all native fighting arts and the carrying of bladed weapons during their occupation of the islands, the Filipinos were forced to substitute the use of the sword with the rattan. Initially, the rattan was used to deliver strikes in the same manner as the blade i.e. slashing and thrusting, and the knife or short stick was still held in reserve as a back-up weapon in case the opponent closed the distance, typical of its use by the Spanish. It was hardly ever used to block or parry an oncoming strike. However, through time, the Filipinos began to realize that because the stick had different handling qualities, certain lines of attack were open to them that were not available with the sword, for example, the curved and snapping strikes. Once they began to appreciate the combat effectiveness of the stick, the use of the knife also changed and began to be used more aggressively in blocking, parrying, checking, scooping, thrusting and slashing. The art was mainly preserved during this time by dedicated individuals, who masked their moves in native ritual dances called sinulog. These dances were often performed for the unsuspecting Spaniard’s. These dances would become the foundation for modern day Kali fighting systems.
During the 330 years of Spanish reign, through many skirmishes with Spanish fencing opponents and through careful observation, the art of Kali was evolved. Many training methods were dropped and many new concepts and techniques were added. This, coupled with the influence of Spanish culture and language, prompted the evolution of Eskrima (aka. Arnis de Mano). It was the Spanish rapier and dagger systems that had the greatest influence on the development of Eskrima.
The common denominator in all Filipino arts is their principles of combat which are based on a pattern of angles that all attacks must follow, regardless of the style or weapon. Filipino martial arts training traditionally starts with weapons then progresses into shorter weapons and eventually into empty hands. This helps to improve speed as well as hand eye coordination. Most Filipino martial arts systems have empty hand techniques that resemble a blend of western boxing. These techniques are actually derived from the weapon applications. Because of many innovations and the creativity of Filipino Martial Artists, many of the systems have become personalized and unique.
The style of Kali that we practice at the Mountain Academy of Martial Arts Denver is the Pekiti-Tirsia Kali system. It is an authentic and complete Filipino combat system. Pekiti-Tirsia is a system and technology of combat fighting with the Blade. It encompasses all traditional weapon categories and is formulated on the strategic principle of the Triangle. The triangle serves as the basis for footwork, striking, and the tactical principles of close quarters combat.
The Pekiti-Tirsia system of Kali originates from the provinces of Panay and Negros Occidental in the Philippines and was formulated and perfected by the Tortal family. The family patriarch and Grandmaster of Pekiti-Tirsia, Grand Tuhon Conrado B. Tortal, passed this system and its attributes onto his grandson, Grand Tuhon Leo Tortal Gaje, Jr. who still teaches today.
The Pekiti-Tirsia System is based on the principle of offensive counter offence against Edged or Impact Weapon Attacks. The very same principle is true and functional for empty hand fighting. Therefore, in the Pekiti-Tirsia system, there is only one set of fighting principles and movement – no matter if attacker or defender are armed or unarmed. This structure allows a more economic use of practice time and creates confidence by understanding and experience. If a method works against an opponent armed with a knife, it also works against the unarmed opponent.
The Mastery of a set of movements requires hard work and full time dedication. In the Pekiti-Tirsia Kali system mastery is acquired by the application of movements through repetition, distance sparring and close-in technical exchange by use of tapping and cross-tapping methods. Because a skilled knife-fighter does not rely on brute muscle power, but on speed, timing and co-ordination, Pekiti-Tirsia offers convenient and logical methods against stronger opponents regardless of knife or empty-hand combat.
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Leslie L. Buck Jr. “Pekiti Tirsia Kali History” pekititirsiaalliance, September 2012
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“About the Pekiti-Tirsia system of Kali.” Pekiti-tirsia
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Robert Rousseau. “A History and style Guide of Kali”, martialarts.about,
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