The misunderstood Indonesian dagger

The kris, the wavy dagger of the Malay world, is recognised by UNESCO as part of the world’s intangible heritage. But in its native homeland, the dagger is surrounded by many superstitions and religious biases.

Exhibition to demystify the kris
Jakarta Post, 24 August 2008

The legend of Ken Arok, founder of the 13th century Hindu-Buddhist kingdom Singosari, is one of deception, murder, power, desire and revenge. In the midst of it all is the deadly weapon which brought him to power and death — the asymmetrical dagger — the kris.

In the Pararaton Script, commoner Ken Arok becomes the leader of Tumapel (Malang, East Java) after murdering Tunggul Ametung, ruler of the Kediri Kingdom. He renames the kingdom Singosari and marries the pregnant and now-widowed Ken Dedes, who was Tunggul’s wife.

The story goes on to tell how Ken Arok killed Tunggul Ametung with a powerful but cursed kris made by Mpu Gandring. Before killing him, Ken Arok first killed Mpu Gandring with the same dagger, after growing impatient with Mpu Gandring because he was taking so long to fashion it. Before dying, Mpu Gandring cursed the kris, saying it would kill seven people — including Ken Arok.

Ken Arok would later die from the same dagger, wielded by Anusapati, Ken Arok’s stepson, the son of Ken Dedes and Tunggul Ametung.

This famous tale lives on in the minds and hearts of Indonesians. In the 21th century, superstitious beliefs of the kris’ mystical powers still surround the cultural artifact.

According to Tony Junus Kartiko Adinegoro, head of Panji Nusantara, an organization of kris aficionados, these widespread irrational beliefs negatively impact the ability to preserve the kris as a cultural artifact.

“The preservation of kris in Indonesia is neglected because religious leaders do not understand the underlying philosophy of the kris.”

Believing kris’ have mystical powers and supernatural beings living inside them has caused Islamic leaders to tell people to stay away from them, Tony said.

“The cultural artifacts are thrown into the sea or destroyed, which saddens us.”

Panji Nusantara held a Kris Kamardikan exhibition and competition in Jakarta in a bid to demystify the indigenous Southeast Asian dagger so people could understand the kris’ importance in ancient Javanese culture.

The exhibition was held at Bentara Budaya Jakarta from Aug. 12 to 16 to commemorate Indonesia’s 63rd anniversary of independence. The exhibit included antique kris’ from all over Indonesia, some dating from the 13th century. New kris’ produced after Indonesian independence are called kris kamardikan, a term coined by Panji Nusantara; these were also exhibited and included in the competition.

“We want to revive the Indonesian kris as a cultural artifact so people will see it as an important element in our heritage,” Tony said, who also was the exhibition organizer.

In 2005 the kris earned the UNESCO designation: “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.

Kris expert Haryono H. Guritno writes in his book, Keris Pusaka Nusantara, the kris is found in every part of Indonesia except Maluku and Irian Jaya. It is also found in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, the Philippines and Thailand.

In the book’s introduction, Guritno said the sophisticated technique used in the kris’ pamor (metal pattern) was difficult for people in the past to understand, thus increasing the layman’s belief that its owner was assisted by supernatural powers.

Tony said the various pamor on the kris that reveal themselves after cleaning rituals (warang) using acid water have symbolic meanings which serve as autosuggestive forces for the owner.

“It’s not that the kris itself has powers but it has symbolic meanings to which its owner aspires to,” Tony said.

Classic pamor include grasshopper wings, symbolizing the ascending of one’s status and rice patterns, symbolizing wealth.

The exhibition included a kris from the Neka Art Museum, a private collection from Belgium ambassador Marc Trentesau and an antique kris from Madura.

Related Books:
The Pararaton
Keris and Other Malay Weapons (Bibliotheca Orientalis: Malaya-Indonesia)
Keris and other weapons of Indonesia
Pusaka, art of Indonesia

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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