THE KERIS – the favoured fighting weapon of the Malays

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tony-saldin  By M.D (Tony) Saldin

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 its own and kill the enemy.


Pic credit Sdr. Tony Saldin
Pic credit Sdr. Tony Saldin

Before the gun was invented, the dagger and sword were generally regarded as the most used weapons throughout the medieval world. The keris, which is also spelt and pronounced as crease, creese, kreese & 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.

There are many functions 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.

TYPES

There are 7 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 has either 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.

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 status of the owner. 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 sheath known as “wrangka” in Indonesia and “sarung” in Malaysia usually denotes the owners 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 special tokens of appreciation.  It was held in such high esteem that if one could not 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.

SUPERNATURAL

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 keris is also 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 its own and kill the enemy.

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 to King Arthur’s sword the “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.

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.

Javanese daggers owned by the writer
Javanese daggers owned by the writer

Design and Cultural view

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 & throat of the opponent.

The sheath is usually boat shaped since the Malays being sea-farers were very fond of their boats. Motif’s 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.

Sri Lankan Scenario

It is certain that the keris was introduced into Sri Lanka by the Indonesian nobility & 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 have 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.

Prologue

Three years ago during a trip to Kuala Lumpur I had the good fortune to meet with a keris maker (tukan keris), Encik Zainal Abidin in Taman Mawar, Rawang, Selangor which is an hours drive from Kuala Lumpur. The meeting was arranged by Sharifa, the Secretary in our Nichimen Kuala Lumpur branch & I was accompanied on the trip by Sri Ram, Asst Manager of our KL office who was familiar with the area.  Encik Abidin a dignified man in his fifties warmly welcomed us into his house where there was a wide array of various types of keris, pedang (swords) and kukri the weapon of the Ghurkhas.  He said that he became an apprentice to a Master craftsman Yop Osman Guru at the age of 12 from whom he learnt the ancient art of making keris. Encik Abidin lamented that the new generation were not so interested in the art of keris making.  However out of 8 students, he has selected one pupil Mohamed Nur bin Hussain to whom he will pass on his secrets. Encik Abidin reiterated that the keris was not only a mystic weapon but a powerful talisman. One of his prized possessions was a 300 year old keris made of clay, from Sulewesi. He said that this was a powerful keris which was guarded constantly by a hooded cobra which was as long as a telephone pole. He also related an ancient legend where a cattle thief from southern Thailand would cross the border into Malaysia to rob buffaloes.  The Malays would attack the Thai with their parangs (machetes) but the blades would virtually “bounce” off the man, since he had skin like “metal”.  It took 3 years for an Empu amidst incantations and prayers to fashion a special powerful keris, which was used to finally stab the Thai cattle robber to death.

Although the art of making keris is facing a slow death its heritage will definitely remain.

References:

  • Paul’s Keris Page (Internet)
  • Keris- Senjata Tradisional Melayu by Mohd. Arifin bin Abdul Ghani/ Kota Bharu, Kelantan
  • The Javanese Keris by Pudjadi Soekarno: www.geocities.com
  • The Mystical Keris by Ruslina Yusoff (Internet)
  • Kris – The Traditional Malay Dagger by Eric Fearn (Internet)
  • Kris Daggers and Swords of Indonesia and the Philippines by Ramon Villardo(Internet)
  • Keris- Is it merely a sword? By Ee Lin Wan (Internet)

About Author – M. D. (Tony) Saldin is a freelance writer on Sri Lankan Malays and the colonial military history of the Dutch and British periods of Sri Lanka. He was a past Asst. Secretary General of the Sri Lanka Malay Confederation as well as a Past President of the Mabole Malay Association.

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