27 July 2008

The kris: The traditional Malay weapon

In the Malay world, there has not been any other weapon which has been more renowned and revered as the kris. The keris or kris is native to this part of the world — Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia as well as in Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines.

With its wavy razor sharp blade, the kris was the favourite weapon for pancak silat, the Malay art of self defence, for close quarter combat. In fact, the kris was widely used and carried by most Malay men even up to the end of the 19th century.

The kris was an essential part of Malay society, not just for its defensive or destructive mode but widely used as part of the traditional Malay ceremony.

Even today, it is very seldom that a Malay groom has not one tucked on his waist during his wedding ceremony. Many families kept krises for their alleged spiritual and protective prowess. Some are even handed down from generation to generation.

In the Malaysian legend of Hang Tuah, the kris named Taming Sari played a pivotal role. In Brunei, the legend of Bendahara Sakam and his men running amok among the Spaniards during the Castille War (1578), is always drawn with everyone's kris unsheathed. Through the centuries, the kris is the symbol of Malay heroism.

Mystical kris: Above, a kris is neatly tucked at the waist of Al-Marhum Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III, seated next to Her Majesty, during his coronation in 1951. Right, some of the various types of kris available in Brunei. The kris, once a deadly weapon, now plays a more symbolic role in traditional Malay ceremonies. Pictures: Rozan Yunos collection
What is the origin of the kris? No one is sure how the first kris came into being. There has been a number of tales, most of them supernatural.

One story widely told in Brunei is of two brothers who went on a journey. One had a bamboo staff and the other a crude blade. Both weapons were given to them by their father. Both were said to possess supernatural powers and could turn into anything the brothers wished for.

One day, they came across a palace. They saw a beautiful princess weaving a piece of cloth on a loom. The first brother commanded his staff to turn into a bird so that it could fly and spy on her. The second brother commanded his blade to change into a venomous snake that bit the girl who fell into a deep coma.

The King tried everything to revive her but he could not. He grew so despondent that he announced that he would marry off his daughter to the person who successfully revived her.

The second brother was the only one with the antidote, which he obtained from the magical kris, succeeded and the princess subsequently became his wife.

So, the craftsmen from that period drew inspiration from the tale and created a weapon that looked like the story. The kris that was invented is the one with the deadly blade sinuous like a snake, the hilt taking the form of the bird's head and the sheath representing the loom into which the snake slithered.

The kris was also said to be of Javanese origin. In fact the word keris is said to be a Javanese word and is derived from the word ngeris meaning to stab or pierce. Up to now, the kris' true origin is still debated. Indonesia, during the Majapahit rule, laid strong claims to be the origin as most mystic stories about the krises emanated from there.

It is also said that the earlier krises were endowed with mysterious powers by their makers. The powers could be good or bad, depending on who made them.

There are many stories that talked about their krises' ability to make them invisible, or warn them of approaching calamities. Some even talked about their krises having powers that enabled them to fly out at night to seek and destroy their enemies.

Almost all krises have lok or waves. The total of the lok always totaled up to an odd number.

The number of loks on a kris has to be odd, because an even number is considered unlucky. The purpose of these curves is to maximise the extent of the inflicted wound.

Another unique feature of the krises is that it is always widest just below the waist. On one side of this part is usually found a small ornamentation that may take the form of an elephant's trunk, a snake's tongue or other objects.

Making a kris requires great skills that come from years of learning and practise. The knowledge of making this weapon was once hard to come by as it was a closely guarded secret passed on from one generation to another and was taught only to a few selected family members. A person who was an expert in making kris and other weapons was known as Pandai Besi.

There is a village in Brunei's centuries-old Kampong Ayer called Kampong Pandai Besi, where obviously the country's ironsmiths once lived.

Nowadays it is quite often that the blade, hilt and sheath are made by three separate craftsmen. The experts that could fashion all three as in the old days number a mere handful in the Malay world today.

The procedure of making the kris is basically the same as in the past, the only difference being the availability of modern tools. A piece of metal is repeatedly heated and hammered until it is flat. The next steps involve shaping, sharpening, filing and polishing. At some points along the process, the puting kris or shank-pin, onto which the hilt is to be fitted, is drawn out, and traces of impurities are removed from the blade.

It is said that that the famous krises were forged from meteoric iron, a rare and highly prized mineral. Most kris blades, however, are made in layers of different iron ores and nickel. In later periods, krises were made from metals salvaged from vehicles, tools, railway tracks, European cannons and sword blades, and even bicycles. The metal in high quality blades is often folded with precision dozens or hundreds of times to create a balance of strength and sharpness.

The hilt and sheath are usually made of hard fine-grained wood in Brunei — the kulimpapa and hasana trees. In the old days, horn and ivory were seldom used. Lately, as the kris is becoming more of a decorative object, the use of horn or ivory became more common.

What is not known in Brunei is that in many parts of the Malay world, the kris was also the weapon of choice for execution. The executioner's kris was typically long and had a straight, slender blade. One well known kris used for execution was called Kris Sula.

The condemned typically knelt before the executioner, who placed a wad of cotton or cloth on the subject's shoulder. The kris was then thrust through the padding and into the artery and heart. Upon withdrawal, the cloth wiped the blade clean.

As death was nearly instantaneous, this was then considered one of Asia's more humane methods of capital punishment.

Even though the kris is no longer employed either as a weapon or as an executioner's instrument, the kris will continue to be the symbol of Malay culture. In Brunei, kris-making is a course that can be undertaken at the Brunei Arts and Handicrafts Training Centre, thus helping to revive the kris as well as continue Brunei's and the region's legacy.

Sourced from http://www.bt.com.bn/life/2008/07/27/the_kris_the_traditional_malay_weapon

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