Javanese Keris

Object of the Month: 06/2003

What is it?:

Javanese Keris



Age: Possibly early 1900s, but uncertain

Blade: 35 cm L x 8 cm W

What is it made of?:

Blade: steel, nickel, iron; hilt: wood; hilt fittings: copper; sheath: wood copper

Accession #: A:76:2:1137

Javanese Keris
Javanese Keris

The keris (pronounced "krees") is a traditional dagger found throughout SE Asia. It is believed by most scholars and experts to have originated in Java in the 14th century AD, however this is a contentious subject and its origins are still uncertain. A well-known oral legend links keris origins to a mythical cultural hero known as Prince Panji. Panji is said to have lived in 920 A.D. He is the main character of many stories telling of his adventures and romances. The keris comes in many shapes and styles, but the characteristic feature is the base of the blade called the ganja, where the blade widens to form a pointed guard. This feature distinguishes a keris from other types of edged weapons. The keris is no ordinary dagger. Though it was historically used as a weapon, it has always been an intricate part of Indonesian culture in which it plays practical, social, and mystical roles.

A keris smith is called Empu, an honorary term meaning "lord/master". One can only obtain this title with skill, spiritual depth, and knowledge of appropriate ritual required for making a keris. Making a sacred keris in not a simple or quick process. First, the Empu must choose an auspicious day to begin. He must then eat only plain while rice and drink only water for two to three months prior to beginning. . A person desiring a keris discusses his wishes with an Empu. Choosing a keris is not a light decision. One must choose a keris appropriate to his social status and position. A keris with gold on its hilt or sheath, for example, is traditionally reserved for royalty, as gold is thought to be a gift from God. If a person chooses a keris not suited to his status, it could cause harm to him and others. It is so intimately connected with its owner that a man and his keris are considered one and the same. If a man cannot be at his own wedding ceremony, his keris can represent him.

The main parts of a keris are its blade, sheath and hilt. Each part helps to characterize the keris in terms of origination, era, owner, and symbolism. The blade is the most valued part, in that it holds the sacred power of the keris. There are two main constituents of the blade: the pamor (the damascene design on the blade) and the dapur (the shape of the blade). A combination of metals is used in the making of a keris. Keris smiths make different blends of iron, steel, nickel and sometimes meteorite. The Javanese consider kerises made with meteorite to be particularly powerful. The meteorite is obtained from a meteor that fell in Prambanan, central Java, in 1729.

Keris pamor The smith heats thin layers of metal, pounding and folding and fusing these layers together. He continues reheating, adding more layers and refolding, sometimes more than sixty times, until the desired product is achieved. The forging and technique of folding and pounding of different metals creates a variety of designs on the blade, called pamor. To bring out details of the pattern, a mixture of lime juice and arsenic is applied to the blade, which turns the iron and steel black, while the nickel remains white. This creates a beautiful contrast, highlighting the pamor design.

Pamor comes in many varieties, each having a particular symbolism. pamor can be divided into rekan and tiban, respectively meaning "willed" and "fated". A rekan/willed design is planned by the smith. A tiban/fated pattern is unplanned-left to God's will. These patterns have very strong spiritual connotations. pamor is further classified into particular patterns. The pattern on this particular keris is called "wos wutah", which means "scattered rice grains". It is thought to bring luck, tranquility, and a peaceful life. Wos Wutah is of the tiban class, which gives it strong spiritual power and energy.

Keris luk The dapur is the shape of the blade, including dapur lurus (straight blade) and dapur luk (wavy blade). dapur also includes the feature on the ganja, the wide part at the base of the blade. Slight differences in these minute features can distinguish one type of keris from another type that appears identical without close scrutiny. A straight blade represents a resting naga, a mythical serpent, while a wavy (luk) blade symbolizes a naga in motion. The former is meant for someone who has a stable, constant lifestyle, the latter for someone who is always on the move. When counted correctly, luk ranges from 3-29, always an odd number. Any keris above luk 13 is out of the ordinary, meant for someone of very high status. Like pamor, dapur types have specific meanings. The interpretation of meaning varies depending on the expert. The keris here at the Science Museum has luk 13. The symbolism of luk 13 is most often interpreted as power, and the ability to maintain peace and stability in any situation.

The ganja is another factor in defining the dapur. The features on the ganja help to characterize a keris. The ganja is actually a separate piece of metal, which is attached to the blade by a joint. The longer, sharp end is called the aring, and the degu is the shorter, blunter end. The saw-like serrations act as a guard to catch an opponent's blade. The features on the ganja of this keris help to classify it as keris Parangsari, which literally means 'knife essence'. It is meant for someone who is ambitious and on the move.

Keris ganja and hilt The hilt style is from the Palaces of Surakarta (now Solo) in central Java. It has seven planar sides, and has only small carving representing the kala mask, a benevolent demon. A small protrusion in the carving called a kuncung represents a nose. Before Islam became dominant, hilt forms had been anthropomorphic in nature. Since Islam prohibits the depiction of living things, these hilts became abstracts. The wooden Surakarta hilt is a beautiful example of the elegant simplicity characteristic of the post-Islamic Palace keris.

The sheath is wooden with a copper casing. The casing is only partial, allowing the wood to peak through a slot in the center, and it aptly known as blewah (slotted). The base of the sheath, called the wrangka, is boat shaped, which some believe represents the moon boat on which the mythical hero, Prince Panji, rode.