The Sacred Kris: Indonesia

Many of you have seen Kris for sale on the streets of Kuta, or at various ceremonies around Bali. The Kris is an integral part of these ceremonies and festivities and, denotes a man’s standing in society as well as being an important part of his formal attire when attending important functions.

The Kris are basically found in Java and Bali, however they are also to be found on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan. These magnificent daggers come in all shapes, sizes and blade forms.

It is believed the Kris were derived from the bronze daggers made by the Dongson culture, originating from what is now known as North Vietnam, around the 1st Century AD. For those people that have visited Pura Panataran Sasih in Pejeng in Central Bali, it is interesting to note that the bronze gong displayed there also has [or believed to have] its origins from the Dongson culture.

The Kris of Bali are generally larger than their counterparts in Java, but still retain a similar shape and are much more ornate both in blade design and hilt. Kris makers are known as ‘Pande’ or ‘Empu’, and belong to an elite group of craftsmen who are highly respected in society. In Bali, they were the Brahmana’s of the lower caste. They were regarded as a kind of sorcerer because they knew how to blend the two elements of fire and metal. They are great worshippers of the volcano Gunung Batur where it is believed they draw their powers enabling them to craft their profession.

There is a special way of wearing a Kris. How it is worn also denotes the ranking in society. Certain rules apply. It is positioned in the back of a sash so that the hilt of the Kris points to the right and, the sheath to the left. The Kris blade is an interesting and complex piece of metal and also the most important and sacred. The iron is finely honed, blackened with lemon juice and other compounds, and then highly polished to enhance the design on the blade itself. These ornamental designs, generally ‘Kala’ figures, delicate leafing, and even a serpent-like animal, are believed to give the owner protection from demons and evil spirits thus enabling the wearer of the Kris invulnerable.

The number of undulations, known as ‘lok’, is an important factor. There are some blades that have up to 31 loks but this is rare. Usually the amount is seven or nine. The importance being that it is an odd number. There is also a symbolic meaning. They are in reference to the epic Mahabharata. For instance, a three lok’d blade represents passion, ardour and fire while a five lok’d blade represents the five Pandava of the Mahabharata epic.

The hilts of the dagger are the most beautifully and ornately constructed works of art. These could be made from such materials as Ivory and beautifully carved metal. But, it is the handle of the Kris that is the most exquisite. Of the most exotic are the solid gold handles and those made of ivory, but in the main, ebony wood is used. With all these materials, the ornate carving is superb.

The Kris is no ordinary knife but in fact very sacred and believed to possess certain supernatural powers. Traditional law (adat) required that the father give to the son a Kris upon reaching manhood. Upon the death of the father, the son would inherit his Kris and thus be able to draw upon the spirits of the ancestors and their powers. It is even believed that some Kris have the powers of sorcery – strange things like turning into a snake or swimming and even talking and performing magical feats. It is also thought that the wearer of a scared Kris knows when danger is near because the Kris will rattle in the sheath.

Whenever you visit a museum in Bali [or Java] where old Kris are kept on display, you will more often than not see offerings of fruit and rice as well as incense. This is to keep the ‘powers’ alive in the Kris. If an old Kris is neglected then it loses its power. In general, Kris are wrapped in a silk-type cloth for protection and stored until needed. The Dutch were infamous in procuring Kris as ‘war-souvenirs’ and it was during the Puputan in Denpasar in 1906 that many superb Kris were stolen from the dead bodies.

If you wish to see some superb examples of Kris, then visit the Denpasar Museum. They have an excellent collection. Whenever you are out in the country, visit the local museums [especially in East Bali] where you will also find excellent examples. With regards to purchasing Kris in Bali, it would be a matter of scouring the antique shops. But, will you be getting the real thing?.