29 January 2008

Keeping the Keris alive

Scents are out of place in the cool, antiseptic air of museums. But until the end of this month, Muzium Sultan Alam Shah in Shah Alam will remain the exception. Visitors entering its Weaponry in the Malay World exhibition will notice a wraith-like emanation from aromatic oils and incense.

Follow your nose and you'll stumble across a re-enactment of the keris cleansing ritual, one of the very few times in decades such an ancient courtly rite is performed before the public. Comfortably stationed on a small dais, a man clad in black baju melayu and the blangkon, a Jawa head dress, bathes a keris blade in a small wooden trough.

He then dries the blade over hot coals placed in a small incense burner. He also introduces father and son Syed Hussain AlJunied and Syed Abu Bakar, who are showcasing their own collection of Melayu weapons alongside those owned by the museum.

Syed Abu Bakar says that even today, many Melayu families pass down the odd keris or badik, a dagger originating from Makasar, as family heirlooms, with bits of family lore attached to the weapon. A connoisseur can trace a family's origins by studying the weapon's fittings and details, which differs in every region of the archipelago.

"I can tell more about the family history and ancestors from the weapon than what the owners know themselves. It's just a matter of experience and exposure," he says.

Keris made in the Melayu peninsula for example, often carry a birdlike hilt called the jawa demam, while those from Jawa are smooth elongated affairs, with small carvings called patra. The gradual loss of knowledge about the keris, he believes, was caused partly by the long period of colonisation in the region, and the belief that traditions connected to the weapon were somehow unIslamic.

Some of these misconceptions were instilled by Western scholars during the colonial era, he says, in an attempt to disarm indigenous peoples under their rule. Though Western scholars were also responsible for the extensive body of knowledge on the keris and other Melayu weapons, they were not immune from arriving at wrong conclusions in their scholarship.

For example, Europeans had branded the keris as a cowardly weapon, as the blade was said to be laced with warangan or arsenic, a substance used in its cleaning ritual.

"Arsenic is not like snake venom, which attacks the heart. It attacks the stomach and the intestines, so the victim dies a slow death as he practically explodes from within. So if the poison used is intended to kill, then it would have been better for the Melayu to use the Ipoh sap used by the Orang Asli in their blowpipes," he says.

He explains that the warangan, obtained through the complex process of mining, is used to raise the pamor or damascene pattern, which looks like silvery whirls and spirals on the black surface of the keris.

It is ironic, then, that Westerners today are working hand in hand with locals to preserve the art of keris-making and other fading traditions in the Melayu archipelago. More than half of the available references on the keris are published in the West, with only a handful written in Bahasa Indonesia.

"It is not too late," says Syed Abu Bakar. "It is just sad that interest is coming mainly from the West. They were the ones who diminished this (knowledge of the keris) yet they are the ones who are showing interest now."

He refutes the idea that Islam frowns upon traditions linked to the keris and its mystical aspects. "Just look at Islamic history. First, who were the people who spread Islam in Jawa? They were Wali Songo (the nine saints). The downfall of Majapahit was because of them, because of the spread of Islam. And if you read the history of Wali Songo you will find that they all carried the keris."

He also sought to correct the misconception that Islam hinders creative expression, especially in the arts related to keris-making. Instead, the coming of Islam actually gave fresh impetus for the craftsmen involved in the making of the keris and its fittings.

Gesturing to a selection of ornate hilts from the island of Madura, Syed Abu Bakar explains how Islam's ban on the portrayal of human forms encouraged hilt carvers to incorporate abstract forms and motives.

In the pre-Islamic days, keris hilts were carved in the humanlike form of Hindu deities, which was replaced later with semi-abstract forms, such as the jawa demam.

"With the coming of Islam, the craftsmen had to adapt, though they retained certain forms. You can see that in some hilts, the humanlike shapes are not carved directly. This is replaced, for example, by flower motives. They became more creative and innovative to adapt to Islam," he says.

He also explains that the mysticism related to the keris, a major source of misunderstanding, is all very practical. It actually has less to do with fighting and more with commemorating important milestones in a person's life. In the past, people acquired a new keris every time an important event took place, such as puberty, marriage and the acquisition of property.

"When a person reached puberty, the father would approach an empu (master smith) to commission the first keris, giving details of the child's age and characteristics. The gift of the keris is not to encourage him to fight but to instil a sense of responsibility, as the keris is the first thing he will be responsible for," says Syed Abu Bakar.

Though the keris is no longer used as a weapon in close combat or as a talismanic heirloom, there is still hope for its future. In addition to his gallery in Singapore, Syed Abu Bakar has established an online storefront to market the keris. He is also in the process of establishing an online database on the keris and other Melayu weapons to share the knowledge with everyone - from connoiseurs to novices. The gallery also organises an annual keris cleansing ritual in the Muslim month of Muharram.

"The fear factor has to be erased," he says. "If people fear (the keris) for all the wrong reasons, how are they going to be interested?"

The two Syeds left to attend to another crowd of curious visitors, unsheathing an impressive Jawa keris featuring a pattern of two nagas, or mythical serpents, chased on its blade in gold leaf. As visitors step into the Shah Alam sunlight from the museum's cavernous halls, they will carry with them the mysterious scents of cendana oil and setanggi clinging to their garments.

By Fazli Ibrahim
Sourced from New Straits Times
Originally published 16 Sept 2002

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