The Sacred Kris: Indonesian traditional knife

by Nick on April 7, 2007

by Nick | April 7th, 2007  

krisThe kris or keris is a distinctive, asymmetrical dagger indigenous to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the southern Philippines. Both a weapon and spiritual object, krisses are often considered to have an essence or presence, with some blades possessing good luck and others possessing bad.

The kris spread from the island of Java to many parts of the archipelago of Indonesia, such as Sumatra, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, South Sulawesi, Kalimantan, and to the Southeast Asian areas now known as Malaysia, Brunei, southern Philippines, southern Thailand, and Singapore.

Kris vs. keris

The term keris probably had a Javanese origin, though it cannot be ascertained how it came about. The term “keris” may have evolved from the old Javanese word ngeris which means ‘to stab’ or ‘to pierce’. Kris is a European rendering of this Javanese term. As noted by Frey (2003), kris is the more frequently used term, but this pertains mainly to the Western world. The term “keris” is more popular in the native lands of the dagger, as exemplified by the title of a popular Javanese keris book entitled the “Ensiklopedi Keris” (Keris Encyclopedia), written by the late Bambang Harsrinuksmo. Some collectors prefer keris, others kris. Other spellings used by European colonists include cryse, crise, criss, creese.

The Kris is also loosely used to differentiate between the Moro kris swords found in Southern Philippines and the keris daggers found everywhere else in the archipelago.

Blade and fittings

Keris blades are usually narrow and have a wide, asymmetrical base. Blade length is highly variable. The blade is made from different iron ores and often contains nickel. A bladesmith, or empu, makes the blade in layers of different metal. Some blades can be made in a relatively short time, while more legendary weapons can take years or even a lifetime to complete. In high quality the metal of the blade has been folded dozens or even hundreds of times and handled with the utmost precision. There are keris blades that purportedly carry the imprints of the smith’s thumbs, or even lips, which were impressed upon the blade during the forging process. The different metals used to forge the blade gives the keris its distinctive ‘watered’ appearance. This is called pamor and is similar in concept to Damascus patterning on Indo-Persian blades and “hada” on Japanese blades. Blades are acid-etched after forging to bring out the contrasting patterns formed by the various metals used in the keris. Iron ore sources are rare in some areas of the Malay world, especially in Java. The keris-smiths, called Empu (for those highly skilled smiths in the employ of Kratons, who can pass down their title of Empu to their sons) or pandai keris (for smiths of varying skill levels, working outside of kratons), often use myriad types of metal ores that they can find to make the blade. There are tales of blades made from meteorite iron (rare and highly prized due to its spiritual significance and higher nickel content) to scrap metals from vehicles, tools, railway tracks, captured Dutch cannons and blades, and in recent times, bicycle chains. Keris blades can be straight or sinuous. With sinuous blades, the bends are called luks. Most keris have fewer than 13 luks and the number of luks should be odd, or the keris would be considered unlucky. The sinuous blade has become synonymous with the keris, especially today as it has become a popular tourist souvenir. In reality more than half of the old keris have straight blades. The luks maximize the width of wound while maintaining its weight.

A keris and its sheath have many parts. The names for these parts vary by region. The following terms apply mainly to the Javanese keris. ukiran – handle/hilt; patra – handle carvings (especially on Javanese ukiran); selut – metallic cap on the ukiran (not on all krisses); mendak – metal cup on the tang between the ukiran and the blade guard; wilah – blade; pocok – blade point; peksi – tang; ganja – guard/parrying structure; wrangka – the wide, top portion of the sheath; gandar – the narrow portion of the sheath; pendok – a metal sleeve for the gandar; buntut- end of the pendok.

The ukiran and the sheath are often made from wood, though examples made from ivory or covered in gold sheets could be found. Different regions in Southeast Asian produce different styles of wilah, ukiran, and sheaths. One beautiful material used for some ukiran and wrangka was fossilized mammoth molar, called “graham”. Such a molar would be cut to reveal the dentine patterns within the molar. Aged graham sheaths exhibit an attractive orange, white, and beige stripe pattern.

Origins

Frey (2003) concludes from Raffles’ (1817) study of the Candi Sukuh that the kris recognized today came into existence around AD 1361. Scholars, collectors and others have formed myriad theories about the origins of the kris. Some believe the form that is credited with being the earliest form of the kris, the keris majapahit, was inspired by the daggers of the Dong-Son in Vietnam (circa 300 BC). Frey (2003) dismisses the Dongson origin of the Majapahit. Unverifiable claims of another form predating the Majapahit exist. Kris history is traced through study of carvings and bas relief panels found in Southeast Asia. One of the more famous renderings of a kris appears on the Borobudur temple and Prambanan temple.

Use

Functionally, the kris is not a slashing weapon like a bowie knife or other fighting knife, but rather a stabbing instrument. If a kris fighter had stealth on his side, the kris was lethal. There are many stories of a kris being made especially for killing a specific person.

Krisses were worn everyday and at special ceremonies, with heirloom blades being handed down through successive generations. Yearly cleanings, required for as part of the spirituality and mythology around the weapon, often leaves ancient blades worn and thin. In everyday life and at events, a man usually only wore one kris. Women sometimes also wore krisses, though of a smaller size than a man’s. In battle, a warrior carried three krisses: his own, one from his father-in-law, and one as a family heirloom. The other krisses served as parrying daggers. If the warrior didn’t have another kris to parry with, he used the sheath. Krisses were often broken in battle and required repairs. A warrior’s location determined what repair materials he had. It is quite usual to find a kris with fittings from several areas. For example, a kris may have a blade from Java, a hilt from Bali and a sheath from Madura.

In many parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, the kris is the choice weapon for execution. The specialized kris, called an executioner’s kris, has a long, straight, slender blade. The condemned knelt before the executioner, who places a wad of cotton or similar material on the subject’s shoulder/clavicle area. The blade is thrust through the padding, piercing the subclavian artery and the heart. Upon withdrawal, the cotton wiped the blade clean. Death was fairly quick.

Cultural beliefs

Origin

One of the most famous folk stories from Java describes a legendary kris bladesmith, called Mpu Gandring, and his impatient customer, Ken Arok. Ken Arok wanted to order a powerful Kris to kill the chieftain of Tumapel, Tunggul Ametung. Ken Arok eventually stabbed the old bladesmith to death because he kept delaying the scheduled completion of the kris, which Ken Arok had probably ordered several months before. Dying, the bladesmith prophesied that the unfinished or incomplete kris would kill seven men, including Ken Arok. The prophecy finally came true, and the unfinished kris of Mpu Gandring disappeared.

Spirits

Discussing the essence of the kris is a complicated topic. For the most part, blades were considered to almost be alive in some cases, or at the very least vessels of special powers. Krisses could be tested two ways. A series of cuts on a leaf, based on blade width and other factors, could determine if a blade was good or bad. Also, if the owner slept with the blade under their pillow and had a bad dream, the blade was unlucky and had to be discarded. However, just because a blade was bad for one person didn’t mean it would be bad for another. Harmony between the owner and the kris was critical.

It was said that some krisses helped prevent fires, death, agricultural failure, and myriads of other problems. Likewise, they could also bring fortune, such as bountiful harvests and the like. Krisses could also have tremendous killing power. Some are rumored to be able to stand on its tip when its real name was being called by its master. Legends tell of krisses moving on their own volition, and killing individuals at will. When making a blade, the empu could infuse into the blade any special spiritual qualities and powers the owner desires.

Because some krisses are considered sacred, and people believe they contain magical powers, specific rites needed to be completed to avoid calling down evil fates. For example, pointing a kris at someone is thought to mean that they will die soon, so in ceremonies or demonstrations where ritualized battles are fought with real krisses, the fighters will perform a ritual which includes touching the point of the blade to the ground to neutralize this effect.

Moro kris

A Moro kris is a heavy sword of Philippine Moro invention with an asymmetrical blade approximately 50 cm long. It may or may not be sinuous.

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April 9, 2007 at 7:05 am

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