Keris: Stories of the Wavy Daggers

The keris, a dagger from Southeast Asia, was named a Masterpiece of Humanity’s Oral and Intangible Heritage by UNESCO in 2005. The keris is a dagger with an unusual blade shape made possible by switching between iron and pamor (nickelous iron laminations). A number of the most well-known representations of the keris may be seen on the bas-reliefs of the Borobudur and Prambanan temples, which were used to promote the weapon as a cultural emblem in Indonesia.

A teukoe (teuku, aristocrat) of the west coast of Aceh with his bride and a keris, c. 1880
A teukoe (teuku, aristocrat) of the west coast of Aceh with his bride and a keris, c. 1880, By Lambert & Co., G.R. / Singapore – Leiden University Library, KITLV, image 4902 Collection page Southeast Asian & Caribbean Images (KITLV), Public Domain.

The keris, a dagger from Southeast Asia, was named a Masterpiece of Humanity’s Oral and Intangible Heritage by UNESCO in 2005

The keris is also a unique icon in Malaysia’s cultural history where it has evolved from a royal weapon of choice to a status symbol over the years. The level of opulence of the keris one owns shows one’s position in the old Malay hierarchy. To this day, many Malay families still pass down the odd keris as family heirlooms with bits of family lore attached to it. Traditionally, people would obtain a new keris whenever they went through a significant life event, such as puberty, marriage or purchasing their first property. When a child reaches puberty, the father would approach an empu (master smith). He would then commission the child’s first keris, providing information about the child’s age and characteristics. A keris connoisseur can usually trace a family’s ancestors by studying the weapon fittings and details that vary by region of the archipelago. A keris is made up of three parts: bilah (the blade), hulu (the hilt) and warangka (the sheath). Each part of the kris is considered a work of art, often carved in minute detail and made from a variety of materials, including metal, rare woods, gold, and ivory.   

Melayu Kris (Scabbard, possibly Sumatran)
Melayu Kris (Scabbard, possibly Sumatran)

Traditionally, people would obtain a new keris whenever they went through a significant life event, such as puberty, marriage or purchasing their first property.

The Keris of Empu Gandring

One of the most well-known keris legends in Java is from the Pararaton (Book of Kings). It describes a legendary bladesmith called Empu Gandring and his impatient customer, Ken Arok, the founder and first ruler of the kingdom of Singhasari, in the last days of the Kediri kingdom in the 13th century. Ken Arok ordered a powerful kris to kill Tunggul Ametung, the mighty chieftain of Tumapel, the capital of Singhasari, a Javanese Hindu–Buddhist kingdom in east Java between 1222 and 1292. Ken Arok eventually stabbed the old bladesmith to death because he kept postponing the keris’s completion. Dying, the bladesmith cursed the keris. He prophesied that the unfinished keris would kill seven men, including Ken Arok. Ken Arok used Empu Gandring’s cursed keris to assassinate Tunggul Ametung. He then cunningly put the blame to Kebo Ijo, a retainer of Tunggul Ametung, and built a new kingdom of Singhasari. The prophecy finally came true, with four men enlisted as the keris’ first victims, including Empu Gandring himself, Tunggul Ametung, Kebo Ijo to whom Ken Arok lent the weapon, and finally Ken Arok himself. The unfinished keris then disappeared, never to be seen again.

A maker of keris at work, presumably at Yogyakarta
A maker of keris at work, presumably at Yogyakarta, By Kassian Cephas – Leiden University Library, KITLV, image 12049 Collection page Southeast Asian & Caribbean Images (KITLV), Public Domain

According to another version of the story, the keris was passed on to Ken Arok’s stepson Anusapati, who then killed his stepfather after discovering that Ken Arok had killed his biological father with the same keris. The feud raged on until Kertanegara, the last king of the Singhasari Empire, reigned.

The Unbeatable Taming Sari

Taming Sari (“Flower Shield”) is one of the most well-known keris in Malay literature. The legend of the keris started sometime during the fall of Majapahit Empire and the rise of the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century. Taming Sari is said to have been so expertly crafted that anyone wielding it was unbeatable. Some versions of the legend tell us that the weapon would grant its user physical invulnerability. Tun Sri Lanang’s book, the Sejarah Melayu (History of Melayu), tells us that it was made by a Javanese empu and first used by the champion of Majapahit, a pendekar named Taming Sari. He was defeated in a duel to the death by the Malakan admiral Hang Tuah, after which the king of Majapahit presented the weapon to the victor.

A Javanese dancer with keris as part of his costume, 1885.
A Javanese dancer with keris as part of his costume, 1885. By Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0

Hang Tuah was scheduled to be executed after being falsely accused by a jealous official, but he managed to flee and go into hiding with the help of a minister who knew the truth. Hang Tuah’s keris and title of laksamana (admiral) were passed on to his comrade Hang Jebat. Furious that his best friend was unfairly put to death, Hang Jebat rebelled against the royalty and took over the palace. The desperate ruler of Malaka pardoned the minister so long as Hang Tuah could win him back the throne. Having trained under the same master since childhood the two friends were nearly equals but of the two, Hang Tuah was the superior fighter. Even after a long battle in the palace, neither could defeat the other because the keris Taming Sari leveled the playing field. Hang Tuah was only able to stab Hang Jebat after reclaiming his weapon.

The Devil of the Grave

Another Javanese folk story tells us the story of Arya Penangsang, the adipati (viceroy) of Jipang, Demak Sultanate, who was killed by his own kris called Setan Kober (“the devil of the grave”). Empu Bayu Aji forged the keris in the kingdom of Pajajaran. Near its completion, when the empu tried to infuse the weapon with spiritual power, he was distracted by a crying djinn (demon) from the graveyard. Because of this, although the keris was powerful, it retained the djinn’s evil nature that caused the wielder to be overly ambitious and impatient.

During the fall of Demak Sultanate in the 16th century, the keris Setan Kober was safely kept by Sunan Kudus, one of the nine Islamic saints of Java. But Sunan Prawoto, son of Raden Trenggana, stole the keris and used it to assassinate his uncle, Raden Kikin, by the river.  Raden Kikin has since been referred to as Sekar Seda Lepen (the flower that fell by the river). Raden Trenggana rose as a sultan and was replaced by his son Sunan Prawoto after his death. Raden Kikin’s son, Arya Penangsang of Jipang, exacted his vengeance by dispatching an assassin to kill Sunan Prawoto with the keris Setan Kober. Soon after, Sunan Prawoto’s younger sister, Ratu Kalinyamat, sought revenge on Arya Penangsang, as Penangsang also murdered her husband. She urged her brother in-law, Joko Tingkir the ruler of Pajang, to kill Arya Penangsang. Joko Tingkir sent his  son in-law Sutawijaya, who would later become the first ruler of the Mataram dynasty.

Malayan Kris with Turkish mountings
Malayan Kris with Turkish mountings

During a battle, Sutawijaya stabbed Arya Penangsang with a spear right in his gut. Arya Penangsang was drenched in his own blood and his intestines fell out of his open stomach. But due to his aji or kesaktian (spiritual power), Arya Penangsang kept on fighting with an open stomach. He encircled his hanging intestines on his keris hilt and continued to fight. However, when trying to attack his opponent, the reckless Arya Panangsang pulled his Setan Kober keris off its sheath and  foolishly cut his own intestines. He died due to his own clumsiness.

This story inspired the Javanese custom of circling jasmine garlands around the kris hilt, particularly on the groom’s kris during the wedding ceremony. The tradition is to remind the groom to not be reckless, easily angered and impatient  like Arya Panangsang.  The jasmine is symbolizes patience, grace, humility and benevolence, the very qualities that were lacking in the figure of Arya Panangsang.   

The Javanese custom of circling jasmine garlands around the kris hilt, particularly on the groom’s kris during the wedding ceremony is to remind the groom to not be reckless, easily angered and impatient.  The jasmine is symbolizes patience, grace, humility and benevolence,

History of Keris

Keris has been made in a variety of styles throughout history. The kind of keris used by the royal guards and warriors were more like swords, cradled in the left arm, many with straight practical blades that were light in both weight and design. However, there is also a shorter and more ornamental keris designed specifically for female royalty. A Sundanese manuscript, the Sanghyang Siksa Kandang Karesian, a didactic text of religious and moral lessons dated in 1518 AD, describes the keris as a king’s weapon, while the kujang, a native Sundanese weapon from around the 8th century AD, is a farmer’s weapon.

The history of keris is generally traced through the study of carvings and bas-relief panels discovered on the Indonesian island of Java. Some of the most famous depictions of a kris can be found on the bas-reliefs of the Borobudur temple (825 AD) and the Prambanan temple (850 AD) in Central Java. The Humanding inscription (875 AD), Jurungan inscription and Haliwangbang inscription (876 AD), Taji inscription (901 AD), Poh inscription (905 AD), and Rukam inscription (907 AD) all mention the word keris.

Keris Majapahit, dated 1300 - 1600
Keris Majapahit, dated 1300 – 1600

The keris as we know it today may have originated around 1361 AD in the kingdom of Majapahit, East Java. A clue of what a workshop of a Javanese keris blacksmith might have looked like at the time is depicted in the bas relief of the Candi Sukuh, a temple in Central Java, which dates from the 15th century Majapahit era. The characters depicted in this relief, however, are decidedly mythological. Bhima was the blacksmith on the left, forging the metal, Ganesha was in the center, and Arjuna was on the right, operating the piston bellows to blow air into the furnace. The wall behind the blacksmith displays various forge-made items, including keris. These representations of the keris in the Candi Sukuh established that the keris had already gained prominence in Javanese culture by 1437.

Through maritime trade links and the the growing influence of the Majapahit Empire in Java around the year 1492, keris culture spread throughout the Indonesian archipelago as far as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.  

Kalis, Mindanao, Philipinnes
Kalis, Mindanao, Philipinnes

The kalis, a larger sword variant of the keris, is a symbol of Moro and southern Filipino culture in the Philippines, as well as resistance to Spanish rule and influence. The Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have it on their flags. It has also been incorporated into the historical flags of the Sultanate of Sulu and the Cotabato Province’s emblem.

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