07 August 2011

The Keris – Malay weapon, social symbol and talisman

Before the gun was invented, the dagger and sword were generally regarded as the most used weapons in the medieval world. The keris, also spelt and pronounced as crease, creese, kreese and kris is synonymous with Malay culture.

It originated in Java in the 9th century during the Sri Vijaya empire and subsequently spread throughout the Indonesian archipelago, Malaysia, Southern Thailand, Southern Philippines (Mindanao), Singapore, Brunei and some parts of Cambodia, Laos and Burma as the favoured close quarter fighting weapon. The serpentine blade is reminiscent of a snake in mid-strike.

Many functions are attributed to the keris, first and foremost as a double edged stabbing weapon, secondly as a symbol of social status and thirdly as a talisman for protection. It was also used as an execution device, for various ceremonies and rituals, and as an object of reverence, and was widely believed to possess supernatural powers.

There are seven main types of keris which are:

1.Keris Jawa
2. Keris Semenanjung atau Utara (Peninsular or Nothern keris)
3. Keris Bali dan Madura
4. Keris Sumatra
5. Keris Bugis
6. Keris Pattani &
7. Keris Sudang (sulu atau Mindanao in Philippines).

Each has its own characteristics and a straight or a wavy blade. Some of them underwent changes according to circumstances, for example, the Mindanao keris was modified and made longer like a sword (keris panjang) to counter the Spanish rapier. A good keris is made of iron, nickel, several alloys and a piece from a meteorite. Traditional keris makers are known as Empu in Indonesia and Pandai besi in Malaysia. Some Empu go into a trance when working the metal and thereafter fashion the red hot metal with their bare hands.

Javanese daggers owned by the writer

The keris must be compatible with its owner and is usually custom built for a specific person according to his rank and status. Usually the length of the blade should correspond to the distance between the nipples of its owner otherwise misfortune may befall him.

Each wave in the blade is called a lok and the number of lok would indicate the owner’s status. A three lok keris would belong to a warrior while a Rajah’s (Sultan’s) keris would have nine. The wave represents the Naga or cobra.

The keris is believed to have the power to jump out of its sheath and engage the enemy in battle on its own. It is also able to warn the owner of impending danger by rattling in its sheath. Keris which are tied to the main beams of traditional Malay houses as a talisman are known to fly on their own and kill the enemy.

The sheath known as “wrangka” in Indonesia and “sarung” in Malaysia usually denotes the owner’s status i.e. red for the Sultan or his close relatives, green for Ministers, brown for courtiers and black for people in general. A keris was usually presented by the Sultan to his warriors as a special token of appreciation. It was held in such high esteem that if one cannot attend a wedding or ceremony, one can send one’s keris through a son or close relative and the host would deem that he had attended. Giving up one’s keris also signified surrender. A well dressed Malay would consider himself “naked” without his keris to complement his attire. The royal keris worn by the King of Malaysia, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is made of iron alloy collected from the soil of the 9 states of Malaysia.

It is said that you can hurt your enemy by simply thrusting the blade into his footprints. Water has been drawn from the point of a keris, and fire from a burning ship has been transferred to shore by pointing the tip at the fire and then elsewhere.

The most famous Malay dagger is the “Keris Taming sari” owned by the legendary Malaccan warrior Hang Tuah. The one, who possessed it, was said to be invincible. This was Malaysia’s equivalent of King Arthur’s sword, the legendary “Excalibur”. It is believed that Hang Tuah cast the “Keris Taming sari” into the Sungai Duyung river after he killed his childhood friend Hang Jebat in a duel, due to the latter’s disloyalty to the Sultan of Malacca.

Another well known keris in colonial Ceylon was the “Henaraja thalaya” (Blade from the thunderbolt) used by the legendary bandit Utuwankande Saradiel in the 18th century. This was a Javanese keris and it was believed that whoever had the Henaraja thalaya on his person was “bullet proof”. When Saradiel was gunned down by Police Sergeant Mahath, the keris was not on his person but under a pillow. The Sinhalese words “kirichchiya and kinissa” are probably derived from the Malay word keris.

A collection of Keris on display at the Kandy gallery of the National Museum
Owners of keris are required to bathe and oil the keris during the month of Muharram to retain the weapon’s supernatural powers. If the keris is neglected, it may cause the guardian spirit to depart from the weapon, leaving it powerless.

Usually a lime is cut in two and one half is rubbed on each side of the blade to remove rust, oil and grime and then thoroughly rinsed in running water. The blade is then dried over a low charcoal fire and fragrant oil (atthar) is applied on the blade, handle and sheath.

The curved wooden hilt is designed to fit snugly into the hand with a 10” to 15” long blade for close combat, unlike a sword which needs space and is unwieldy for fighting in jungles or confined spaces.

When held correctly it becomes an extension of the forefinger with the user having total control over the weapon. The hilt is gripped like a pistol at waist level with the blade parallel to the ground. An upward thrust will enable entry of the blade between the ribs. The targeted organs are the abdomen, lungs, kidneys and throat of the opponent.

The sheath is usually boat shaped since the Malays being sea-farers were fond of their boats. Motifs were engraved on the sheath to give it an aesthetic appearance. Gold or silver wire was also used in the decorative process.

It is the detail at the bottom of the blade which distinguishes a keris from an ordinary knife. Several guards have been designed to catch an opponent’s blade from reaching the hand and to prevent slipping. The elephant trunk and the precious stones arranged in the 8 petal lotus pattern at the base of the hilt signifies the connection the Malays had with their Hindu/Buddhist past. The hilt is usually carved into the shape of a mythical bird, beast or plant.

It is certain that the keris was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Indonesian nobility and political exiles, their retinue, Malay soldiers, Javanese mercenaries and various other recruits, who were brought to Sri Lanka during the Dutch and British periods. It was also a popular gift presented to Kandyan monarchs and adigars by British ambassadors visiting the Kandyan kingdom. More recently the Department of Museums has also come across Malay keris dating back to the Portuguese period. This would have been possible with the interaction of Malays from Malacca to Ceylon, which were both under Portuguese rule in the 16th century.

Some very fine Keris are on display at the Kandy gallery of the National Museum in Colombo 7 as well as in the upper floor.

(The writer is President, Sri Lanka-Indonesia Friendship Association and Vice-President (Social/Cultural Affairs) of the Mabole Malay Association)

Written by By M.D. (Tony) Saldin
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