The Keris Dagger
The keris, alternatively known as kris, is a distinctive, asymmetrical dagger indigenous to Indonesia which spread from the island of Java to many parts of the archipelago such as Sumatra, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, South Sulawesi, Kalimantan, and to the Southeast Asian areas now known as Malaysia, Brunei, southern Philippines, southern Thailand, and Singapore. Both a weapon and spiritual object, the keris is used for display, as talismans with magical powers, weapons, sanctified heirlooms, auxiliary equipment for court soldiers, accessories for ceremonial dress, an indicator of social status, and/or a symbol of heroism. Indonesians are quite superstitious and the keris is often considered to have an essence or presence, with some blades possessing good luck and others possessing bad. Over time, a rich spirituality and mythology has developped around the dagger.
The term “keris” is believed to have evolved from the old Javanese word ngeris which means ‘to stab’ or ‘to pierce’. Kris is a European rendering of this Javanese term and, while kris is the more frequently used of the two in the Western world, “keris” is the favoured spelling here and in the native lands of the dagger.
Keris blades are usually narrow and have a wide, asymmetrical base. Blade length is highly variable. The blade is made from different iron ores and often contains nickel. A bladesmith, or empu, makes the blade in layers of different metal. Some blades can be made in a relatively short time, while more legendary weapons can take years or even a lifetime to complete. In high quality keris daggers, the metal of the blade has been folded dozens or even hundreds of times and handled with the utmost precision. There are keris blades that purportedly carry the imprints of the smith’s thumbs, or even lips, which were impressed upon the blade during the forging process.
The different metals used to forge the blade give the keris its distinctive ‘watered’ appearance. This is called pamor and is similar in concept to Damascus patterning on Indo-Persian blades and “hada” on Japanese blades. Blades are acid-etched after forging to bring out the contrasting patterns formed by the various metals used in the keris.
The keris-smiths, called Empu (for those highly skilled smiths in the employ of kratons, the walled palaces belonging to sultans, who can pass down their title of Empu to their sons) or pandai keris (for smiths of varying skill levels, working outside of kratons), often use a myriad of metal ore types that they can find to make the blade. There are tales of blades made from meteorite iron (rare and highly prized due to its spiritual significance and higher nickel content) to scrap metals from vehicles, tools, railway tracks, captured Dutch cannons and blades, and in recent times, bicycle chains. Keris blades can be straight or sinuous. With sinuous blades, the bends are called luks. Most keris have fewer than 13 luks and the number of luks should be odd, or the keris would be considered unlucky. The sinuous blade has become synonymous with the keris, especially today as it has become a popular tourist souvenir. In reality more than half of the old keris have straight blades. The luks maximize the width of wound while maintaining its weight.
A keris and its sheath have many parts. The names for these parts vary by region. The following terms apply mainly to the Javanese keris: ukiran – handle/hilt; patra – handle carvings (especially on Javanese ukiran); selut – metallic cap on the ukiran (not on all keris); mendak – metal cup on the tang between the ukiran and the blade guard; wilah – blade; pocok – blade point; peksi – tang; ganja – guard/parrying structure; wrangka – the wide, top portion of the sheath; gandar – the narrow portion of the sheath; pendok – a metal sleeve for the gandar; buntut– end of the pendok.
Scholars, collectors and others have formed myriad theories about the origins of the keris. Keris history is traced through study of carvings and bas relief panels found in Southeast Asia. One of the more famous renderings of a keris appears on the Borobudur temple and Prambanan temple.
Functionally, the keris is not a slashing weapon like a bowie knife or other fighting knife, but rather a stabbing instrument. If a keris fighter had stealth on his side, the keris was lethal. There are many stories of a keris being made especially for killing a specific person.
The keris was worn everyday and at special ceremonies, with heirloom blades being handed down through successive generations. Yearly cleanings, required for as part of the spirituality and mythology around the weapon, often leaves ancient blades worn and thin. In everyday life and at events, a man usually only wore one keris. Women sometimes also wore a keris, though of a smaller size than a man’s. In battle, a warrior carried three keris: his own, one from his father-in-law, and one as a family heirloom. The other keris carried served as parrying daggers. If the warrior didn’t have another keris to parry with, he used the sheath. The keris were often broken in battle and required repairs. A warrior’s location determined what repair materials he had. It is quite usual to find a keris with fittings from several areas. For example, a keris may have a blade from Java, a hilt from Bali and a sheath from Madura.
Discussing the essence of the keris is a complicated topic. For the most part, blades were considered to almost be alive in some cases, or at the very least vessels of special powers. The keris could be tested two ways. A series of cuts on a leaf, based on blade width and other factors, could determine if a blade was good or bad. Also, if the owner slept with the blade under their pillow and had a bad dream, the blade was unlucky and had to be discarded. However, just because a blade was bad for one person didn’t mean it would be bad for another. Harmony between the owner and the keris was critical.
Because the keris was considered sacred, and people believe they contain magical powers, specific rites needed to be completed to avoid calling down evil fates. For example, pointing a keris at someone is thought to mean that they will die soon, so in ceremonies or demonstrations where ritualized battles are fought with a real keris, the fighters will perform a ritual which includes touching the point of the blade to the ground to neutralize this effect.
The keris was inscribed in 2008 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, originally proclaimed in 2005.