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The Kris - Blade of SE Asia
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In the Filipino, Malaysian and Indonesian arts, there is a blade known as the kris that holds special meaning for its practitioners. This blade is loaded with legends, myths and religious significance, yet its history is little known.
Exactly where the kris originated is up for debate, but most experts believe that it was in Java, in present-day Indonesia. The first blades to be considered were fashioned there in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and already showed some of the characteristics of later blades, such as the curved hilt and narrow tang. They were called kris purva carita and were forged from a single metal, usually iron. Starting around the 8th century, the kris began to see a change in composition, from single metal construction to alloy or composite-metal construction. These later kris were called kris budda, and like the earlier kris purva carita, were generally straight blades.
When composite-metal construction began in Java in the 8th century, it was discovered by accident that putting several different metals together could cause a chemical reaction. These chemical reactions resulted in unique and beautiful patterns on the metal of the blade. These patterns were called pamor, and soon came to have symbolic and supernatural significance. It was believed that certain patterns gave powers to the blade and its wielder.
In Java, the master swordmakers are known as empu. After this accidental discovery, they began to perfect various patterns that could be reproduced at will. Since this combination of the metals could not be depended on to react in an exactly predictable way, chemicals began to be used to gain the desired effects. A smooth blade made of several layers was forged, then chemicals such as sulfur and weak acids were applied. By properly layering the composite-metal, and by applying the chemicals correctly, the empu could create motifs on the blade, such as split-rice grain and batu lapak, the saddlestone grain.
The first kris were made with iron extracted from sand, called Malela iron. Later, this was replaced by imported iron brought by Hindu and Persian traders. The most favored iron, however, was meteorite iron, which contained a natural alloy and was deemed to have mystical powers. The kris, more than any other blade, has always had a deep, religious component to its use and ownership.
These blades are generally believed to be the receptacles of the souls of their departed owners. It is for this reason that old krises are rarely sold. Most stay within a family, and because of the connection with the deceased, could not be passed to anyone who was not intimately known. Blood ties are usually needed to be able to inherit or be given a treasured kris. These blades are so respected that they are honored on special days, when they might be bathed or given offerings of flowers and incense.
After about the 9th century, the blades reflected the times in which they were made. Just as with the Japanese katana, certain swordsmiths came to be well-known, and their blades were desired by everyone. While early blades tended to be rather plain, the Hindu Majapahit period, from the 11th to the 14th centuries, produced blades which were often covered with gold and had jeweled hilts. An empu named Supa was one whose blades were much desired during this period. The next period covered the 14th and 15th centuries in the Kingdoms of Demak and Pajang. A famous empu named Umyang worked during the reign of Hadi Wijaya during this time and continued the tradition of layering gold onto the blade.
Most experts agree that the most magnificent krises were fashioned during the Mataram period, which lasted from the 15th to the 19th centuries. It was during the reign of the first Muslim ruler in Java, Sultan Agung in the 16th century, that the most coveted krises were created by an empu named Kynom. These blades were so good that they were demanded by royalty from as far as the Malay peninsula in the west to Sulawesi and Sumbawa in the east.
Even before the arrival of the Islamic religion, the kris was full of religious and spiritual significance. The demand for these blades spread the design of the kris across all of Southeast Asia. The religion of Islam was also spreading in the area at the same time. For example, an Arab missionary named Sharif Mukdum had arrived on the island of Sulu in the southern Philippines in 1380. By the time Magellan arrived in 1521, the entire archipelago with the exception of the central Visayan Islands (Cebu, Negros and the neighboring islands) was Muslim. As the Muslim religion spread, so did the attitudes that accompanied it, especially concerning the kris. It was during this period that the kris became a common name throughout SE Asia. As Islam took over from Hinduism and animism, the religious attributes may have changed somewhat, but whatever they became, they remained attached to the kris.
It is important to note that a genuine Javanese kris follows some rather strict rules. For example, design-linked attributes are rigid: 13 curves in the blade means that it is a warriors blade; 11 curves is for an artist. Curved blades generally represent power over the temporal, or real world. The straight kris, on the other hand, is associated more with the philosophical and esoteric. It is used to provide peace of mind and as a medium to communicate with spirits. Krises made in other cultures, however, do not necessarily follow these same rules.
Hilt designs also represent attributes. A lion design represents bravery and leadership and would be owned by a warrior. A dragon design represents dignity and protection and only a king or ruler would use it. A floral design is commonly used by priests to ensure peace of mind. Even the baskets on the top of the scabbards have meaning. A mango-shaped basket is for everyday use, and a boat-shaped one is for ceremonial use.
The basic design of a Javanese kris blade, whether curved or straight is always the same. The blade will be approximately 39 centimeters long and the tang is round and narrow, shaped something like a pencil. It is not bolted or otherwise firmly attached to the hilt. If properly made, the blade will balance perfectly on the base of the hilt. In other words, it will stand up without any other support. The hilt it usually curved down , on the same plane as the blade. The whole thing may be curved, or the part nearest the blade may be straight with a bend near the end.
This type of design does have an effect on the way the blade is used. While today the kris is mostly a ceremonial blade, in the past it was used in combat. Because of the tang design, the blade could not be used for any sort of slashing attack. Any sideways force would either cause the blade to rotate on the tang, or would just break it off. Instead, the blade was exclusively used in a thrusting manner, and this method often involved using the scabbard along with the blade as a blocking tool. Since a thrusting attack carries little force in any direction except straight forward, even a fragile wooden scabbard can move an attack off-line. This thrusting usage is also seen in the symbolism of the curved blade. The curved blades belong to warriors and represent a lightning bolt.
Other areas of SE Asia have blades which are called the kris, but use them in completely different ways. For example, the Moros in the southern Philippines have blades they call keris. It is something of a generic term, with more specific names for particular blades. There is a kris, a kalis, a kali, and many others. Some are one-handed blades and some, like the kampilan, are large two-handed chopping blades. The Moro style of fighting is much different than that used in Java. Many of todays styles of eskrima (arnis/kali) have roots in these southern Muslim styles. These styles of fighting tend to be from the slashing school, and the original design of the kris was not suitable.
It is probable that when the Muslim religion came to the southern Philippines, it was assimilated into the local culture without making a great many changes. The people then were animists, and when a new religion is introduced to animists, the tendency is to take whatever the new deity is and transfer existing rites and beliefs to that new deity. Much the same thing happened when Catholicism arrived in the 1500s. Even today, Filipino Catholicism is different in some rites than the mainstream Catholic Church. When the kris with its religious significance spread later, it is just as likely that these ideas were also accepted, but that they too were adjusted to fit what already existed. In other words, the significance of the blade and its place of honor, its necessity for manhood, etc. was taken by the Moros. What was not taken was the design of the weapon itself. To a trained warrior used to wielding a heavy slashing blade, suddenly junking all that for a shorter, narrow thrusting blade would have required an act of Allah! Filipino krises remain very different from the Javanese kris today.
The author owns several krises from the Philippines. One was acquired in Cebu, and it is a large, heavy weapon. It is more than two feet long and the blade is nearly three inches wide at the base. Another comes from the island of Tawi-Tawi, which is near Sulu in the south. It is much closer to an Indonesian kris. It is 45 centimeters (22 inches) long and 4.5 centimeters wide at the base. Both of these blades, however, as well as all my other Filipino krises, feature a full tang which is secured at the base of the hilt. This allows the use of the blade in a slashing attack without fear of losing it, and with less chance of breaking. The hilt on the Filipino blades is also often straight, without the bend that adds strength to a thrust.
There is an almost unlimited supply of stories told about sword attacks during the American -Filipino conflict in the early part of this century, including where a kris-wielding Moro swung his blade and cut a rifle barrel in half. This would have been impossible with an Indonesian kris, and it emphasizes the differences between the two types of blades. Both carry the name kris, but the Filipino version varies considerably from the original.
There are many rituals associated with the kris, and again these vary from place to place. In Java, it is considered disrespectful to unsheathe a kris after sunset. Only the owner should ever handle a kris, because of the spiritual aspect. The kris represents the identity of the owner and even today , a woman can be married to a kris, which is accepted as a legal proxy for the groom. The kris is supposed to be able to assist in success and career progress, enhance popularity with women and ward off any negative influences. There are stories told of a kris that would rattle in its sheath to warn of approaching danger. The presentation of a sheathed kris by the conquered represents surrender, and the presentation from an older man to a younger represents acceptance into the family. Many marriages are secured by the gift of a kris to the groom. In Java, a man without a kris is considered naked.
The kris is not only a beautiful and deadly weapon, it is a very big part of a mans life in several cultures of SE Asia. It is full of symbolism and carries a great deal of religious and cultural meaning. The study of the history of the kris, as well as its use, is an interesting and rewarding pursuit.

The author would like to acknowledge Mr. Dipika Rai, an Indonesian writer, whose work was used as a source for this article.

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