This story on Keris Making was published in Sakal Times.
I am sure you are thinking who talks about daggers and weapons in the days when the world needs to be reminded of peace and harmony? But trust me, this is all about art and craftmanship and my intentions are biased towards the artists and artistry. Learning about different crafts and cultural traditions are my biggest takeaway from my travels. In the same league, my recent trip to Malaysia introduced me to one of their ancient crafts and some of the keepers of this tradition. Let us uncover the significance of an illustrious weapon- Keris, a prized possession for every Malay. Clearly, the wavy blade and striking patterns on the hilt got my eyes.
What is a Keris or Kris?
A distinctive, curvy and mystical dagger from the Malay Archipelago is known as Keris. Apart from Malaysia, it also has its roots in Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines and some parts of Thailand. Each of these countries treat their favourite weapon with veneration. It comprises of three prominent parts, the blade, hilt and the sheath. For years, it has been associated with royal regalia and is also regarded as the cultural symbol of Malaysia. For some it is ornamental, to some it speaks of nostalgia but mostly, the locals associate it with loyalty and honour. From praising their most loved and popular warrior, Hang Tuah’s legendary keris to having two crossed keris on political flag in the 1940s to using it for the ceremonial purposes in modern times, one thing is for sure that keris is no ordinary dagger for the locals.
In different civilizations and cultures, there have been many weapons but what makes it so unique? Primarily it is the shape, the number of wavy curves (loks) along with the stylish wooden hilt. The number of curves is always in odd numbers and the ones with higher curves were usually made for the royals and their families. A soldier will not have the same keris as the commander of the army or the King. But at the same time, this is one weapon that is for everyone, the royalty as well as the commoner. It is an asset that Malays are proud to own and have used it to wade off the unexpected dangers, for many decades. The belief has been so strong that men did not feel safe if they did not carry the keris with them.
Lets us scratch history
Well, nobody knows how and when and there are not many books that hold records but it has been established that the covetous weapon had its origin in the 14th century. It was confirmed by the depictions seen in the candi (temples) of the Majapahit kingdom of Java. In Malaysia, Hang Tuah’s keris gets a special mention in the museum in Melaka. When I visited the Hang Tuah Center in Malacca, I also saw Keris being used as an important prop, in Silat, the famous martials art dance of Malaysia.
Today, this stylish dagger may have many uses, but it has always been about self-protection. It isn’t huge and heavy like a sword and thus was easier to carry and use in confined spaces. When I held it in my hand and observed it closely, I could see how its sharp waves added to its strength and volatility.
Uses of Keris!
Before I could conclude that it is merely a weapon or a possession for the Malays, I was told that Keris is considered to possess magical powers. A few decades ago, it was imperative to carry a keris, to the extent that the attire was considered incomplete if the men dint have their blade of power. In fact, a belief also goes that a design of a keris reflects the personality of its owner. Some of the people worshipped their keris and frequently oiled it to keep it in the best shape. Every keris has many sentiments and stories attached with it.
When I questioned that why is it considered mystical, I was told that a belief goes that some keris possessed spiritual powers. They warned their owners of impending dangers and rattle in the sheath to send signals. Some folklores also say that one should not unsheathe it until they really wish to use it. Ill-use or neglect of the keris is forbidden.
What goes in its making?
The making of a keris is a work of art and it calls for patience and practice. A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to hear the metal clanging and see some of the blacksmiths at work, near the furnace and anvil at Bukit Rambai in Melaka. Perak and Terengganu are the other places in Malaysia, that are associated with keris artists. You may enrol yourself for one of the workshops or cultural walks to know more about it.
Presently, the art is losing its charm because there are not many adept artists left. The major reason for this is that it has always been a closely guarded secret. Pandai besi or Malay blacksmiths or Empu are some of the names given to the keris craftsmen. In the olden times, different types of metal were forged in the blade of the keris. In some cases, nearly twenty types of iron were used in the making. While its 99% of Iron, the other elements used are silicon, copper and nickel. The elements and the dedication with which a keris is made, reflects in its sharpness and design.
The most important thing that I learned at the workshop was that making of the alloy is the most gruelling part and it is first heated in fire, then hammered and this process is repeated a number of times. Once it becomes flat, it is shaped, sharpened, filed and polished. It may take days to create a strong blade, which is then immersed in vinegar or lemon. The last step is to polish the blade and move on to the carvings on the hilt. There may be different craftsmen for doing that. For the people from the royal family, expensive metals like gold and silver was used to make the hilt.
In the olden times, not anyone could become a keris maker, until you had a realization. There had to be a calling. Some would even dream of the designs that they shaped later.
Heirloom and more in today’s times!
If you promise to handle it carefully, Keris is one of the most beautiful souvenirs. Malaysia is trying its best to revive the love for it. It often makes it importance felt in exhibitions related to traditional handicrafts. This is the least that can be done to preserve the heritage. Those who own pricey and original versions are proud to show it to the others. In the last few years, there has been increase in the number of keris collectors.
The art is dwindling and the artists are numbered. Some of the veterans of the art are trying to save it by passing it on to their children and also holding workshops for the keen learners from different places. Travelers and tourists can definitely place orders for their souvenir pieces before-hand.