The kris or keris is a distinctive, asymmetrical dagger indigenous to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand, and the southern Philippines. Both a weapon and spiritual object, a kris is often considered to have an essence or spiritual presence, with some blades possessing good luck and others possessing bad. Kris blades can be straight or sinuous. The blade is made from layers of different iron ores by a bladesmith, or Empu. Some blades can be made in a relatively short time, while more refined and elaborate weapons can take years or even a lifetime to complete. In a high-quality keris, the metal of the blade has been folded dozens or even hundreds of times and handled with the utmost precision. The handle and sheath are usually wood but can be made from decorative materials such as ivory or gold.
The kris spread from the island of Java to many parts of the archipelago of Indonesia, 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. Krisses were worn every day and at special ceremonies, with heirloom blades being handed down through successive generations.
In 2005, UNESCO gave the title Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity to Kris of Indonesia.
Kris vs. keris
The term keris probably had a Javanese origin, though it cannot be ascertained how it came about. The term "keris" may have evolved from the old Javanese word ngeris which means "to stab" or "to pierce." Kris is a European rendering of this Javanese term.
As noted by Frey (2003), kris is the more frequently used term, but this pertains mainly to the Western world. The term "keris" is more popular in the native lands of the dagger, as exemplified by the title of a popular Javanese keris book entitled the Ensiklopedi Keris (Keris Encyclopedia), written by the late Bambang Harsrinuksmo. Some collectors prefer “keris,” others “kris.” Other spellings used by European colonists include cryse, crise, criss, and creese.
The term “kris” is also loosely used to differentiate between the Moro kris swords found in the Southern Philippines and the keris daggers found everywhere else in the archipelago.
Blade and fittings
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 refined and elaborate weapons can take years or even a lifetime to complete. In a high-quality keris, 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 gives 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. Iron ore sources are rare in some areas of the Malay world, especially in Java. The Empu (those highly skilled smiths in the employ of Kratons, who can pass down their title of “Empu” to their sons) or pandai keris (smiths of varying skill levels, working outside of kratons), often use whatever types of metal ores are available to make the blade. There are tales of blades made of everything 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. The bends of sinuous blades are called luks. Most keris have fewer than 13 luks, and the number of luks should be odd, or the keris is considered unlucky. The sinuous blade has become synonymous with the keris, especially with the popular tourist souvenirs of today. In reality, more than half of the old keris have straight blades. The luks maximize the width of the wound caused by the blade, while maintaining a convenient 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 krisses); 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.
The ukiran and the sheath are often made from wood, though examples made from ivory or covered in gold sheets can be found. Different regions in Southeast Asian produce different styles of wilah, ukiran, and sheaths. One beautiful material used for some ukiran and wrangka was fossilized mammoth molar, called "graham." Such a molar would be cut to reveal the dentine patterns within the molar. Aged graham sheaths exhibit an attractive orange, white, and beige stripe pattern.
Frey (2003) concludes from Raffles’ (1817) study of the Candi Sukuh that the kris recognized today came into existence around 1361 C.E. Scholars, collectors, and others have formed numerous theories about the origins of the kris. Some believe that the form that is considered the earliest form of the kris, the keris majapahit, was inspired by the daggers of the Dong-Son in Vietnam (circa 300 B.C.E.). Frey (2003) dismisses the Dongson origin of the Majapahit. Unverifiable claims of another form predating the Majapahit exist. Kris history is traced through study of carvings and bas relief panels found in Southeast Asia. Some of the more famous renderings of kris appear on the Borobudur temple and Prambanan temple in Java.
Functionally, the kris is not a slashing weapon like a bowie knife or other fighting knife, but rather a stabbing instrument. If a kris fighter had stealth on his side, the kris was lethal. There are many stories of a kris being made especially for killing a specific person or ethnic group of people. The wound made by a kris was terrible; the edge of the blade "danced" in the wound, and left tatters of dead flesh, which would begin to rot.
A kris has a cranked hilt, which serves as support for a stabbing strike. At the same time, it allows the strength of the wrist to be added to the pressure on the blade while slashing and cutting. Kris has no special protection for the hand, except for the broadness of the blade at the hilt, which offers some protection. In rare cases, a kris has its blade made to rotate around an axis fixed in the hilt, so that the blade could automatically turn to slip past the ribs. This innovation did not function well and adversely affected the durability of the weapon.
Krisses were worn every day and at special ceremonies, with heirloom blades being handed down through successive generations. Yearly cleanings, required as part of the spirituality and mythology around the weapon, often left ancient blades worn and thin. In everyday life and at events, a man usually only wore one kris. Women sometimes also wore krisses, though of a smaller size than the men’s. In battle, a warrior carried three krisses: His own, one from his father-in-law, and one as a family heirloom. The extra krisses served as parrying daggers. If the warrior didn’t have a second kris to parry with, he used the sheath. Krisses were often broken in battle and required repairs. A warrior’s location determined the materials available to make repairs. It is quite usual to find a kris with fittings from several areas. For example, a kris may have a blade from Java, a hilt from Bali, and a sheath from Madura.
In many parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, the kris was the choice weapon for execution. A specialized kris, called an executioner's kris, had a long, straight, slender blade. The condemned knelt before the executioner, who placed a wad of cotton or similar material on the subject’s shoulder/clavicle area. The blade was thrust through the padding, piercing the subclavian artery and the heart. Upon withdrawal, the cotton wiped the blade clean.
One of the most famous folk stories from Java describes a legendary kris bladesmith, called Mpu Gandring, and his impatient customer, Ken Arok. Ken Arok ordered a powerful kris to kill the chieftain of Tumapel, Tunggul Ametung. Ken Arok eventually lost patience and stabbed the old bladesmith to death because he kept delaying the scheduled completion of the kris. As he was dying, the bladesmith prophesied that the unfinished kris would kill seven men, including Ken Arok. The prophecy was eventually realized, and then the unfinished kris of Mpu Gandring disappeared.
Another popular tale pertaining to keris was about one of the most well known keris in Malay literature, the Taming Sari. It was the keris of Hang Tuah, the great Laksamana (Admiral/General) of Malacca. According to a legend in Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), by Tun Sri Lanang, Hang Tuah obtained the magical keris by killing the King of Majapahit's pendekar (warrior), Taming Sari, by tricking the warrior into letting go of his weapon, and then killing him in a duel. The Taming Sari was said to grant its user invulnerability. In the legend, the keris was passed to Hang Jebat, Hang Tuah's best friend, after the supposed execution of Hang Tuah. Hang Tuah was executed by the Sultan Sultan Mansur Syah for treason after being framed, but with the help of the Bendahara (Prime Minister), he escaped and hid. His keris was passed to Hang Jebat who became the new Laksamana. Later, Hang Jebat rebelled against the Sultan for killing his best friend without a fair trial. Hang Tuah, who was loyal to the Sultan, came out of hiding to stop his friend. They fought in the palace, which Hang Jebat had taken over with the help of the magical keris. Hang Tuah knew that Hang Jebat could not be defeated while he held the Taming Sari, so he tricked Jebat by telling him that the Taming Sari was going to break, and gave Jebat his spare keris. Now, Jebat was no longer holding the legendary weapon, and was stabbed by Tuah. He died soon after from the poison of Hang Tuah's keris.
The spiritual essence of the kris is its blade. Blades were considered to have a life of their own, or at least to be vessels of special powers. Krisses 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. If the owner slept with the blade under his pillow and had a bad dream, the blade was unlucky and had to be discarded. However, a blade that was bad luck for one person might not be bad for another. Harmony between the owner and the kris was critical.
It was said that some krisses helped prevent fires, death, agricultural failure, and various other problems. They could also bring good fortune, such as bountiful harvests. Krisses were also thought to have special powers. Some were rumored to be able to stand on their tips when their real names were being called by their masters. Legends tell of krisses moving of their own volition, and killing individuals at will. When making a blade, the empu could infuse into the blade any special spiritual qualities and powers the owner desired.
Many of these beliefs, however, were derived from the association of different types of keris with specific types of people. For example, is a kind of Javanese keris called Beras Wutah, which was believed to grant its possessor easy life without famine, was usually issued only to government officers who were paid, in whole or in part, with foodstuffs (rice).
Because some krisses were considered sacred, and people believed they contained magical powers, specific rites needed to be completed to avoid calling down evil fates. For example, pointing a kris at someone is thought to mean that they will die soon, so in ceremonies or demonstrations where ritualized battles are fought with real krisses, the fighters perform a ritual which includes touching the point of the blade to the ground to neutralize this effect. It is also used in the Baris, a traditional dance of Bali.
A Moro kris is a heavy sword of Philippine Moro invention with an asymmetrical blade approximately 50 cm long. It may or may not be sinuous.
Kris as symbol
As a spiritual and legendary weapon, the keris is commonly depicted in coats of arms and symbols. For example, it can be seen on an obverse copper-zinc-tin RM1 coin with a songket pattern in the background. The Malaya and British Borneo, 1 cent (1962) coin also depicted a pair of crossed keris dagger.
- Duuren, David van. 1998. The Kris: An Earthly Approach to a Cosmic Symbol. Wijk en Aalburg, The Netherlands: Pictures Publishers. ISBN 907318732X
- David van Duuren. 2002. Krisses; A Critical Bibliography. Wijk en Aalburg (The Netherlands): Pictures Publishers.
- Frey, Edward. 1986. The Kris: Mystic Weapon of the Malay World. Images of Asia. Singapore: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195826604
- Tammens, G. J. F. J. 1991. De Kris: Magic Relic of Old Indonesia. Eelderwolde. ISBN 909004342X
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