The Myth and Magic of the Keris


The Curse of the Nangka

Puteri Dang Anum was hungry. Pregnant with the child of the celebrated Laksamana, Megat Seri Rama, she chanced upon the palace steward carrying a platter of nangka (jackfruit) to be served to the sultan when he awoke.

Please, she pleaded. My child is famished. Could I just have one slice? The unsuspecting steward conceded, extracting just a piece of the fruit for the admiral’s wife.

After all, both the Laksamana and his wife had travelled far from their hometown in Bintan to serve the sultan in Kota Tinggi (Malaysia). The nangka was also at the peak of its ripeness, close to the edge of rotting. With plenty of the fruit remaining, surely the sultan wouldn’t miss a single aril.

Dang Anum looking mighty pleased with her nangka. Screengrab from “Sultan Mahmud Mangkat Dijulang”, produced in 1961 by Cathay-Keris Film Productions.
Dang Anum looking mighty pleased with her nangka. Screengrab from “Sultan Mahmud Mangkat Dijulang”, produced in 1961 by Cathay-Keris Film Productions.

 

Nothing could have prepared the palace for the wrath of the notoriously sadistic sultan, who upon noticing that he was eating leftovers, demanded to know who had the first taste of the fruit.

On hearing that it was Megat Seri Rama’s wife, the sultan ordered her belly to be split open, pulled out the unborn child and effectively sentenced both mother and child to death.

Laksamana then returned to the palace, fresh from a victory over the pirates that terrorised maritime trade between the waters of the Riau (in present day Indonesia) all the way to Kota Tinggi. Struck with grief, he swore to avenge his family’s death.

He sought the blessings of the Bendahara (vizier or chief minister), the Temenggong (chief of public security), and Raja Indera Bungsu (a distant relative of the sultan), who collectively with the Laksamana effectively ran the Malay court due to the sheer ineptitude of the king. And in the middle of Friday prayers, the legendary admiral unsheathed his keris, stabbing the king as he sat aloft on the royal sedan chair.

In response, the sultan threw his poisoned keris at the Laksamana, fatally injuring his attacker in the foot. With his dying breath, the sultan cursed the hometown of the Laksamana, proclaiming that all visitors from Bintan should die from vomiting blood if they ever dared to set foot in Kota Tinggi.

A film adaptation of Sultan Mahmud’s despotic reign. In this scene, Megat Seri Rama confronts the Sultan as he is aloft for Friday prayers. A dramatic keris fight ensues. From “Sultan Mahmud Mangkat Dijulang”, produced in 1961 by Cathay-Keris Film Productions.

Thus was the end of Sultan Mahmud Shah II, the last of the line of Malay kings descended from the legendary Sri Tri Buana  (also known as Sang Nila Utama).

The Keris: Originally a stingray tail or spearhead?

Despite decades of archaeological research throughout Southeast Asia, the origins of the keris still remain a mystery. There are two prevailing theories regarding the creation of the keris.

The first says that keris blades were initially made from the venomous tails of large stingrays. When iron was discovered, the tails were replaced with iron blades and the venom, substituted with a wash of lime juice and arsenic.

A stinger from a stingray measuring approximately 9.5cm. According to this theory, prehistoric weapons were first made from the tailbones of fish or sting rays. Photo credit: Wikipedia
A stinger from a stingray measuring approximately 9.5cm. According to this theory, prehistoric weapons were first made from the tailbones of fish or sting rays. Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

The second says that keris blades were originally spearheads. In the days when ancient Java was torn by war, warriors used to abandon their weapons, particularly the unwieldy spears, for speedier escape. They soon realised that it was a waste of perfectly usable iron and began to craft spears that had tips that could be easily dismantled. Coupled with a wooden sheath and small hilt, a new type of weapon that could fit comfortably under the belt of a fleeing warrior was born.

Even the place of origin of the keris remains a hotly debated topic today. While some scholars say that the keris was inspired by the ancient daggers found in Dong-Son (Vietnam) in 300 BC, others say it dates to the mid-14th century and originated from Java in Indonesia. The clearest and earliest depiction of a keris being forged, for example, is found in the bas relief of the Sukuh Temple in Central Java.

The bas relief in the Sukuh Temple in Java, which archaeologists say was built in AD 1361. The three scenes depict the Hindu god Bhima (left) as a blacksmith forging the metal, while his brother Arjuna (right) pumps air into the furnace. The elephant god Ganesha watches over the process in the centre. Photo credit: Wikimedia
The bas relief in the Sukuh Temple in Java, which archaeologists say was built in AD 1361. The three scenes depict the Hindu god Bhima (left) as a blacksmith forging the metal, while his brother Arjuna (right) pumps air into the furnace. The elephant god Ganesha watches over the process in the centre. Photo credit: Wikimedia

Either way, at least they now agree that the regional ubiquity of the keris was due to the expansion of the Javanese Majapahit empire (AD 1293-1527) which promoted the adoption of Javanese culture and associated cultural artifacts. Today, various versions of the keris can be found throughout Southeast Asia, even in the Philippines where the kalis, as it is known locally, has evolved into a sword-like version of the original dagger.

 The keris as a cultural artifact, sacred talisman, and political symbol.

Kerises are a core component of Malay culture, featuring heavily as weapons, spiritual talismans and symbols of honour. In the epic text Tuhfat Al-Nafis (translated as “The Precious Gift”), for example, kerises are brandished by various factions in the Bugis-Malay wars which were waged across the Riau and in Peninsula Malaysia.

Kerises, especially the older ones, are believed to be imbued with magic and can possess either a benevolent or malevolent nature. While better natured kerises can boost the powers of its keeper by bringing disaster or death upon his enemies, evil kerises are innately destructive and will seek out victims by flying around independently.

The best known of the “good” kerises is the Taming Sari, a magical dagger wielded by storied Malay warrior Hang Tuah. Said to grant the power of physical invincibility to its custodian, the Taming Sari also had the ability to hover in the air, or to leap out of its scabbard to defend its master during fights. Today the Taming Sari is said to be residing in the Perak Royal Museum in Malaysia as part of the Perak sultan’s regalia.

Bad kerises, in contrast, are unnamed and are usually destroyed once discovered. But it is rumoured that one nefarious keris resides in the Perak Museum in Taiping town, which is incidentally located along Jalan Taming Sari (Taming Sari Road), named after the famed lucky keris. Said to be possessed by a bloodthirsty spirit, locals claim that the keris is able to escape from its sheath at night, kill someone, and wipe itself clean before returning to its display case at dawn.

The keris is characterised by the blade’s asymmetrical profile, distinctive damascene patterning and ornate hilt. Kerises from the Majapahit era did not originally come with sheaths, although these became common later on. There are three main components to the keris: the dapur (general shape of the blade, be it wavy or straight), the perabot (ornamentation at the bottom half of the blade, see image on right), and the pamor (the damascene patterning). Photo credit: Fang Shihan, taken at the Malay Art Gallery.
The keris is characterised by the blade’s asymmetrical profile, distinctive damascene patterning and ornate hilt. Kerises from the Majapahit era did not originally come with sheaths, although these became common later on. There are three main components to the keris: the dapur (general shape of the blade, be it wavy or straight), the perabot (ornamentation at the bottom half of the blade, see image on right), and the pamor (the damascene patterning). Photo credit: Fang Shihan, taken at the Malay Art Gallery.

 

In Malaysia, the keris has been appropriated as a political symbol by pro-Malay nationalist groups. The daggers were brandished by extremist agitators during the Malay-Chinese race riots in the aftermath of the 1969 Malaysian general election. And until 2009, kerises were regularly held, kissed, or wielded symbolically during speeches by various heads of the youth wing in one of Malaysia’s political party UMNO (United Malays National Organisation).

Defence Minister of Malaysia Hishammuddin Hussein brandishing a keris during an UMNO party meeting in 2005, when he was serving as chief of the UMNO party youth wing and education minister. Other famous keris-waving UMNO youth chiefs include Najib Razak (now the Malaysian Prime Minister) and Khairy Jamaluddin (incumbent, and also the Minister of Youth and Sports). Photo credit: Wikimedia.
Defence Minister of Malaysia Hishammuddin Hussein brandishing a keris during an UMNO party meeting in 2005, when he was serving as chief of the UMNO party youth wing and education minister. Other famous keris-waving UMNO youth chiefs include Najib Razak (now the Malaysian Prime Minister) and Khairy Jamaluddin (incumbent, and also the Minister of Youth and Sports). Photo credit: Wikimedia.

In 2016, the keris was evoked once again in 2016 by Malaysia’s Islamist political party PAS (PAN Malaysian Islamic Party) during its annual party assembly. Ironically, whatever messaging the party intended to communicate was lost in the absurd theatrics of the event. Not only was the metre-long-plus keris oversized (the length putting it within the range of a rapier, and twice the length of even the Filipino kalis), but it was then used as a knife for a cake frosted to look like the PAS flag.

PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang holds the outsized keris at the party’s annual assembly. Photo credit: The Malay Mail Online .
PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang holds the outsized keris at the party’s annual assembly. Photo credit: The Malay Mail Online .

A Gift from Heaven: The Keris’ Pamor

The most important component of the keris is its pamor, the damascene pattern visible in the keris blade. Said to be the soul of the keris, pamor is produced by first welding together iron and nickel, and then finishing the blade off with an acidic mixture to bring out its distinctive black-silver pattern. The complexity of the pamor demonstrates both the skills of the empu (the keris smith), and the spiritual power of the blade.

Pamor falls generally into two categories: that which is controlled by the empu (pamor rekan) and that which is uncontrolled (pamor tiban). Pamor rekan produces patterns that many would consider more intricate but it is pamor tiban that is revered and cherished for its spiritual energies. On the left is a recently forged souvenir keris showing a rekan design called Bendo Sagodo, or “boiled fruit”. On the right is a much older keris of Bugis origin showing pamor tiban. Photo credit: Fang Shihan, taken at the Malay Art Gallery.
Pamor falls generally into two categories: that which is controlled by the empu (pamor rekan) and that which is uncontrolled (pamor tiban). Pamor rekan produces patterns that many would consider more intricate but it is pamor tiban that is revered and cherished for its spiritual energies. On the left is a recently forged souvenir keris showing a rekan design called Bendo Sagodo, or “boiled fruit”. On the right is a much older keris of Bugis origin showing pamor tiban. Photo credit: Fang Shihan, taken at the Malay Art Gallery.

But this was not always the case. Prior to the introduction of iron smelting in Java, kerises were mostly made from iron imported from the Luwu Kingdom in South Sulawesi. These contained trace amounts (about 1%) of nickel, which created a low level, indisdictive pamor in the keris blades. This metal was known as pamor luwu.

A second source of metal then arrived in 1749, from a meteorite that crashed near the ancient Prambanan Temple in Central Java. This meteoric iron contained more than 9% nickel, which produced dazzling pamor in the kerises subsequently forged from it.

The symbolism of a fiery projectile falling from the heavens before crashing near a holy ground was not missed. The Prambanan meteorite was regarded as a gift to the royal family from the gods and as such, the dazzling kerises forged from this holy metal, known as pamor prambanan, were believed to possess supernatural abilities.

Pamor prambanan thus became reserved exclusively for kraton (palace) kerises. And bit by bit, the meteorite was chipped away by the best empus in Java. Some believe that the keeper of a kraton keris could kill a person just by pointing the keris in his enemy’s direction.

Obviously due to the limited supply of meteoric iron, the majority of kerises today are forged not from the holy rock, but from scrap metal, including recycled bicycle parts!

Pamor is now created by inserting a sheet of nickel between heated iron layers (left), and then welding the entire bar to form the complex pamor patterns. At the end of the welding, the pamor needs to be “coaxed” from the keris by etching the blade with a mixture of arsenic and lemon juice (middle). This corrodes and darkens the iron while leaving the acid-resistant nickel intact, leaving a pale silver tint (right). Screenshots from youtube.
Pamor is now created by inserting a sheet of nickel between heated iron layers (left), and then welding the entire bar to form the complex pamor patterns. At the end of the welding, the pamor needs to be “coaxed” from the keris by etching the blade with a mixture of arsenic and lemon juice (middle). This corrodes and darkens the iron while leaving the acid-resistant nickel intact, leaving a pale silver tint (right). Screenshots from youtube.

Did you know?

It is believed that the older the keris, the more powerful its spiritual energies. Until recently, it was also believed that kerises get more poisonous over the years due to the accumulation of acid-arsenic polish used to bring out the blades’ pamor.

Modern scholars however, have debunked this claim, as the herbal concoctions containing arsenic cease to be effective within days of its application. Victims of stab wounds from ancient kerises were thus far more likely to die from tetanus than arsenic poisoning!

 

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