14 January 2008

Keris bathing: A ritual steeped in tradition

For keris owners, the cleansing of the weapon, which symbolises pride and courage of the Malays, is an important ritual.

Usually held during Awal Muharram, the first day of the Muslim calendar, the cleansing ceremony sees people from near and far bringing their keris to cleansing centres for the experts to work on them. It is also an opportunity for owners to view an assortment of keris brought in for cleansing.

In Johor, the most established centre for the cleansing ceremony is Balai Seni Nusantara along Lido Beach in Johor Baru.

This year, over 100 people brought along their prized collections for the ceremony.

The ceremony usually starts with a silat performance, followed by the centre’s person-in-charge Syed Hussain Haroon blessing the experts with a keris.

The ceremony covers three stages.

First, dirt and oil is removed from the blade with a concoction of lime, mengkudu (a plant that has been extensively used in traditional medicine for centuries) and pineapple juice.

This is followed by dipping the keris into a pail of water filled with chopped pandan leaves. It is then dried with a hairdryer. Oil and perfume are finally applied to the keris, marking the end of the ceremony.

Keris collector, Zaid Zain, 42, said he goes to the centre regularly after taking up the hobby more than 10 years ago.

He now has 30 keris in his collection, some bought in Indonesia.“In the past, the keris was used as a talisman against pests in farms. It was usually buried.

“Today, it is displayed more as a collection. I like to collect keris, especially the old ones,” he said.One of Zaid’s favourite is a 500-year-old Indonesian keris bought five years ago for RM1,500.

He said the original owner of the keris was an Indonesian woman known as Sombro, who used it for protection during birth.

It is said that the value of a keris depends on its workmanship, the metal used, age, motif of the melted metal and the background of the maker.

A famous heirloom for Javanese people, in ancient times the keris represented manhood — a man was not considered a real man until he had a keris. The weapon is highly valued, treated and respected.

The keris is divided into two parts, the blade or wilah, and the scabbard or warangka, to protect the blade. In olden days, making the blade of a keris would take up to a year to complete. Only respectable Empu, or keris-makers, can make high-quality keris.

To prepare a keris, the Empu has to perform spiritual deeds like fasting, remaining awake for several days and nights, and meditation, among others. This is because the weapon is believed to contain a spiritual mission, which is dependent on the user of the keris. For instance, the weapon could be filled with spiritual beings to protect or help the keris owner.

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