The True Origins of the Mystical Keris Sword
The Keris sword is a true enigma, a blade which has endured for thousands of years yet remains far more than a simple weapon. Imbued with mystical qualities and containing an inexplicable power, the Keris is an integral part of Indonesian history.
Today, Keris are in great demand as a highly collectable item. Each one has its own specific virtues and unique appeal, so choosing a Keris is a very personal decision. But why were Keris originally created and what was their purpose?
We delve deeper into the origins of this magical symbol.
What is the Keris?
Also referred to sometimes as kris, the Keris is an asymmetrical dagger, sword or blade which has a distinctive appearance. It’s known to date back many centuries and can be traced to Java, from where it spread out to surrounding areas.
The Keris is made up of three parts, all of which are important: the blade, the hilt and the sheath. Although it has clear potential as a weapon, Keris are prized in particular for their spiritual qualities.
It’s possible to find many examples of the Keris, and it’s said that you’ll know when you see the one for you. The design is typically narrow, tapering inwards from a wide and asymmetrical base. There are at least 40 variants on the dhapur - the design and form of the blade - with 120 variants of the pamor, the metal alloy decorative pattern on the blade.
Keris specialists classify each Keris depending on three elements:
- Sepuh - the age of the Keris
- With - the condition of the Keris
- Tangguh - the period in which the Keris was first made
Metalwork arrived in Indonesia from South China, making the transition during the Bronze Age. This was documented from the discovery of Dong Son bronze drums which date back to the 5th century BC.
This is especially relevant as the Dong Son culture is linked to a special kind of dagger with a decorative hilt which some have compared to the Keris. However, they are not the same and a simple comparison of the pre-Keris Indonesian daggers and the Dong Son blades shows that the Keris is distinct and separate from them all.
Manufacturing a Keris
Making a Keris wasn’t a quick process, and only certain people had the skill to do so. Known as empu, they laboriously created each Keris individually, folding layers of metal with unerring precision. In the most valuable Keris, there may be hundreds of layers of metal in the blade, a feat which may have taken many years to complete.
Although empu were blade smiths, skilled at working with metal, it wasn’t just a case of getting the tools out and starting the job. Before each Keris was created, the empu had to properly prepare themselves spiritually by fasting, refraining from sleep, performing rituals and meditating. Only once they had reached the proper spiritual state could an empu embark on the task of creating a Keris.
Before the work began, the individual ordering the Keris had to tell the empu exactly what they wanted from their blade. This included specifying the shape and number of waves (the luks), the type of pamor and any carvings. The number of waves in the blade would normally be odd, or else the blade would be considered to be unlucky.
Not all Keris have the distinctive wavy design; around half have a straight blade. The intended owner of the Keris would also tell the empu the spiritual qualities they desired from their Keris, such as good health, luck or wealth.
When Were Keris First Made?
For a cultural symbol of such enormous importance in Indonesia, it would seem to be almost inconceivable that no one really knows when or how the Keris first appeared. But yet, this mystical blade is shrouded in mystery with many scholars unable to agree on his history; some would argue this is yet further proof of the magical qualities of the blade.
At the 9th century Borobudur Temple near Yogyakarta in Java there are designs on the walls which are said to resemble the Keris. Nearby Hindu temples have similar drawings which although not entirely identical to the Keris, are very close.
It’s believed that these prototypes led to what is now recognised as the traditional Keris blade.
Although Keris was classified as a stabbing weapon and carried by soldiers, its origins weren’t always for violence. Some Keris were created for medicinal purposes while others were designed for the protection of a property (by hanging it up) or for meditation.
Some clerics believe that the Keris wasn’t made until the 10th century; others believe it may have been even later. However, the presence of the early artwork at Borobudur Temple suggests that the Keris has a longer history than some suggest.
Keris in Daily Life
As a highly spiritual item, and containing an energy of its own, each Keris was treated with respect. This meant that every Keris was passed from father to son, handed down through the generations as a valuable heirloom.
Women could sometimes carry a Keris too, although typically their blade would be smaller in size.
Keris weren’t designed to be left at home; they were carried around to everyday events. Warriors would wear three Keris at once: one from their father, one from their father-in-law and their own Keris.
The Keris was used for many purposes, and unlike other weapons wasn’t intended purely for battle. Nevertheless, it was an effective weapon and was used by warriors in combat with one Keris used to parry and the other one to attack. This meant that the Keris could sometimes be broken but no matter how bad the damage, a Keris could never be discarded. Every break would be painstakingly repaired with materials that were available. This is why some Keris appear to have mixed origins, having being repaired at a later date with materials which came from outside Indonesia.