A Traditional Indonesian Dagger, The Kris

A Traditional Indonesian Dagger, The Kris

By Frank Teichert, Acting Manager, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History.

The kris (also spelled keris) is the national weapon of Indonesia and the oldest distinctive weapon in that culture. The kris can be traced historically through the carvings and base relief panels found throughout South East Asia. It is found throughout the Archipelago, as well as in Malaysia and the Philippines. It was the tool of ancient heroes and kings, becoming a symbol of both courage and beauty. Sultans (ruler or sovereign of a country) had elaborate versions of the kris made for them by famous blade smiths.

The kris has a distinctive wavy blade but can also be straight. It is an asymmetrical dagger with distinctive blade-patterning achieved through alternating laminations of iron and nickelous iron. According to legend, Empu Ramadi around A.D. 230 made the first kris. Early krises were leaf-shaped and were called pasopati, paso or pisau, meaning knife, and pati, meaning deadly. Antique krises are kept as heirlooms or votive objects, and some are said to possess magic power. They can also be seen as a symbol of power and of ethnic pride to the Archipelago people.

The curved blade appeared around A.D. 329. The number of curves is always odd, and the correct number for a particular owner is based on a thumb-beside-thumb measuring ritual accompanied by “lucky” incantations. The wavy blade or sarpa lumaku (walking serpent) was perfected and began to decline in the 15th century, the last period of “magic” krises. The pamor (Damascus) blade-welding technique also began to die out after the Majapahit era. Hammer-welding three metal bars containing nickel, iron and meteoric iron created the distinctive patterns. This allowed varying degrees of hardness in the blade, combining sharpness with shatter resistance. Rust and even poison were sometimes added to make the blade deadlier.

Throughout the Archipelago, the kris is a symbol of heroism, martial prowess, power and authority. As a cultural symbol, the meticulously decorated kris represent refinement, art and beauty, as the pride and prized possession for its owner; however, as a weapon it is associated with violence, death and bloodshed, therefore for this reason the kris is not used to symbolise Javanese culture or royalty, as Javanese tradition promotes harmony and discourages direct confrontation. This is also why the Javanese traditionally wear the kris on their back, to symbolize violence as the last resort. The kris can also be seen on different flags, emblems, coats and logos throughout the Archipelago and after the Malaysian independence, it became a symbol of Malay nationalism and is featured as the official flag of the United Malays National Organisation, Malaysia’s biggest and main national political party.

The kris is made up of three parts, the blade, the hilt and the sheath, these parts of the kris are objects of art, often carved in meticulous detail and made from various materials, such as metal, precious or rare types of wood, or gold or ivory. The kris usually has a curved pistol-grip hilt that aids in stabbing strikes. It allows the palm of the holding hand to add pressure to the blade while stabbing. A kris only offers minimal protection for the hand by the broad blade at the hilt. As with the hilt, a kris’ sheath is also an object of art. It can be made from various materials, usually, a wooden frame to hold the blade which can be coated with metals such as brass, iron, silver, or even gold. The upper part of the sheath formed a broad curved handle made from wood or sometimes ivory. It could be adorned with precious or semi-precious stones.

The kris in the Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History Collection is plain, the sheath is made from wood, it has the traditional serpent curved blade and the hilt is made from ivory carved with a floral motif and is slightly bent. To view this amazing blade visit Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History.

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