A Changing History of the Keris in Indonesia
The Keris is an ancient blade from Indonesia that is still as important today as it was in ancestral times. Passed down through the generations, the Keris was a valued family heirloom, preserving magic and power as well as warrior-like weaponry.
Keris have been in Indonesia for many centuries, but it comes in many different forms. The essence of the Keris has remained unchanged but over the years, there have been subtle differences to the appearance.
Here’s a closer inspection of when the Keris was first spotted in Indonesia and how it’s changed through the ages.
Arrival of Keris
The exact time that the Keris arrived in Indonesia has never been made absolutely clear and scholars disagree about its origins and when they first started to be made.
There are some signs at Borobudur Temple near Yogyakarta, and also a local Hindu temple of blades that closely resemble the Keris. They aren’t 100% a match but many believe these were the origins of the blade.
Some others believe it didn’t arrive in Indonesia until a few centuries later, while others believe there are signs of it even earlier via South China. If the theories about South China are accurate, this would date the Keris back to at least the 5th century. Many believe that there are too many differences in the Dong Son blades of South China and the Keris for this to be a plausible option.
While no one may be clear on exactly how and when the Keris emerged, it's clear that they have continued throughout the centuries, with slight tweaks in the presentation. For many collectors and Keris enthusiasts, being able to date the blade is essential so a system of classification was created.
System of Keris Classification in Java
In order to determine the Keris and its age, it’s necessary to classify the blade. This is known as tangguh, the process of assessing the type of Keris, the period of the maker or the period within which is was made.
Tangguh is a loose concept but generally relates to how the physical characteristics of the Keris come together to help define its type. Each tangguh has its own set of characteristics and classifying the blade allows it to be placed into the most appropriate one.
The most common physical indicators which are used to classify the Keris include:
- Tanting - the approximate weight
- Base material: besi or baja (iron or steel)
- Pamor: the materials used to create the distinctive design which contrasts against the blade
- Pawakan: the overall visual impression and the main body of the Keris
- Gonjo: the broad separate section at the base of the blade
- Gandhik: the curved swelling at the base of the blade, at the front
- Blumbangan: the groove found at the base of the blade which is gripped between the forefinger and thumb
- Sogokan: Fuller/s which rise up from the base of the Keris
- Ada-Ada: a central ridge
- Kruwingan: an indentation which runs either side of the Ada-Ada
- Luk: the waves/curves on the blade
- Wadidang: the wide curve of the blade
As many Keris are ancient blades and not all original features may be clear or intact, it’s not always possible to align all the features within one single classification. There may be exceptions in the cases of extremely high quality Keris which are very well-preserved in all aspects. It’s therefore customary for the classification to be awarded to the category which seems to fit the closest.
Classifying the Keris Through the Ages
Although every empu had their own unique style and technique, the Keris changed imperceptibly throughout the ages, remaining the same but with slight differences. Being able to classify it accurately is a good way of dating the blade and more closely identifying its roots.
These are the Javanese tangguh classifications:
Ancient: The Buda Keris (The Budho Keris) 125-1125
The Buda Keris is recognised more easily than many of the others because the blade is much heavier and is thick, wide and short. Although the classification may be easy to spot, it’s not as straightforward to be able to identify a fake so expert advice is highly recommended in all cases.
Ancient Middle Ages: 1126-1250 AD
Blades from Janggala from this period have smooth iron and are black in colour with a pamor which resembles white hair. The ganja area is especially short while the wadidang sits upright.
Old Middle (Central) Ages: 1251 - 1459 AD
The Majapahit Keris featured slim blades which were small, with a pointed sirah cecak, made from a heavy, black metal and contrasted by a long and fibrous pamor.
Keris from Jenggala were dense and made from smooth, black iron with white hair pamor.
Tuban Keris have a large, convex blade which is wide and covered with a pamor which spreads out over the breadth and a high shaped ganja.
Madura Keris are different yet again, with a blade that feels heavy and rough, made from pig iron, and a large pamor.
Middle Ages (Tengahan): 1460 - 1613 AD
Early Mataram Keris from this period feature a full pamor sogokan and a solid-looking pamor.
Young Ages (NOM) 1614 - 1945
Keris from Kartosura have a heavy-bellied blade, rough iron, a pointed shape and a lizard head on the ganja.
From Surakarta, the Keris are made from a fine iron with a spreading pamor.
The Yogyakarta Keris is made from a smooth, heavy metal covered with a full pamor which spreads, plus a hanging ganja.
Many of the greatest empu were said not to have survived World War II so there was a lull in new Keris being made for some time.
Independence (Kamardikan) - 1945 - present day
Blades continued to be forged after independence took place in 1945, starting again in 1970 when an empu named K R T Hardjonagoro, aided by Sudiono Humardan, pushed for resumption.
Although Keris have been made ever since, there has been an increasing move to replica items being passed off as authentic Keris so care has to be taken over identification. The genuine blades made during this period are classified as Kamardikan.