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TRADITIONAL HANDICRAFTS OF BRUNEI DARUSSALAM: KRIS MAKING
The Handicraft Series:
PART III - KRIS - THE MALAYS' UNIQUE AND ANCIENT WEAPON
Since time immemorial no weapon has been made renowned and revered in the Malay world as the kris. With its razor-sharp blade, which is usually wavy, the kris was in former times the favourite weapons of royalty and commoner alike. In the hands of a skilful exponent of pancak silat, the Malay art of self-defence, it was, and can still be, a deadly weapon in close combat. As recent as the beginning of the century, no man felt safe and secure leaving home without one tucked in his waistband, ready for the unexpected. Such confidence in the kris was a tradition made antiquated only by the passage of time.
Although mystic stories emanating from the Indonesian archipelago - where the original kris was believed to have been created - suggest that it has been in existence since time unrecorded, the kris became especially prominent both as a weapon and symbol during the Majapahit Empire in the thirteenth century and later at the Malaysian royal court through the exploits of its legendary warriors, such as Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat and their companions. The krises were also the weapons of the famous Bruneian warrior Bendahara Sakam and his men when they drove off the Spanish invaders from the country in 1578.
To this day no one is sure when exactly the first kris came into being. There are many tales, virtually all preternatural, relating to the genesis and exploits of the kris. One story concerned two brothers who went on a journey. One had a bamboo staff and the other a crude blade. Both these weapons, given to them by their father, possessed supernatural powers and could turn into anything the brother wished.
One day they came upon a palace where they saw a beautiful girl weaving a piece of cloth on a bamboo loom. The first brother, desirous of knowing more about the girl, commanded his staff to turn into a bird. The second brother willed his blade to change into a tiny venomous snake that entered the loom and shortly after bit the girl, who immediately fell into a deep coma.
It turned out that the girl was the daughter of the King who owned the palace. The King tried everything in his power to revive her but without success. After severl efforts failed he became desperate and proclaimed that he would give his daughter in marriage to any man who could bring her back to life.
The brother who owned the blade-truned-snake being the only one with the antidote, which he obtained from the magical blade, succeeded in saving the princess, who subsequently became his wife. According to a belief, craftsmen of that period drew inspiration from the story and so created a weapon with the deadly blade sinous like the snake in motion, the hilt taking the form of the bird's head and the sheath representing the loom into which the snake slithered before it delivered its coma-inducing bite. Thus the kris was born.
Like the magic blade-turned-snake, the earlier krises were usually endowed with mysterious powers by their makers who were not only exceptional craftsmen but were some kind of occultists as well. The powers could be either good or evil, depending on the propensities of the persons who had them forged. Hence there are numerous stories about what such krises could do for their owners, like making them invincible; warning them of approaching dangers; saving them from sudden attacks; flying out at night to seek and destroy their enemies and other equally fascinating tales.
Stories like this add to the mystique surrounding the kris, which to the Malays is not only an ancient and unique weapon but also a treasured ornament and heirloom.
Clearly the kris is very unlike other daggers or knives in origin and appearance. Almost all krises have lok or waves, the total of which has always been an odd number. Another unique feature is the widening of the blade just below the hilt, and one side of this part is usually found a small ornament that may take the form of an elephant's trunk, a snake's tongue or other objects according to the preference of the kris-maker.
The blade is normally covered by a damascened pattern called pamur or kuran depending on the composition of the metal used to fabricate the patterns. The ris maker believes that the pattern stengthens the blade and make it more lethal.
Some krises like Kris Sula, which was used in the old royal courts to execute wrongdoers, or Kris Palembang are without the lok. The hilt of such a kris, however, is more often than not still resembles a bird's head.
Making a superb kris requires great skills that come from years of learning and practise. The knowledge of making this covetous weapon was once hard to come by as it was a closely guarded secret passed on from one generation to another and was taught only to a few selected family members. A person who was expert making kris and other weapons was known as Pandai Besi. There is a village in Brunei's centuries-old Kampong Ayer called Kampong Pandai Besi, where obviously the country's ironsmiths once lived.
Quite often the blade, hilt and sheath are nowadays made by three separate craftsmen. The experts who can fashion all three as in the old days number a mere handful in the Malay world today.
The procedure of making the kris is basically the same as in the past, the only difference being the availability of modern tools. A peice of metal is repeatedly heated and hammered until it is flat. The next steps involve shaping, sharpening, filing and polishing. At some points along the process, the puting kris or shankdpin, onto which the hilt is to be fitted, is drawn out, and traces of impurities are removed from the blade.
The finished blade is then immersed in home made vinegar for at least twenty four hours to bring out the panmur or kurau.
The hilt and sheath are usually made of hard fine grained wood that is both durable and attractive. In Brunei Darussalam, the two types of wood popularly used are obtained from the kulimpapa and hasana trees. In the old days horn and ivory were rarely employed. but lately as the kris is becoming more of a decorative object than a weapon, the use of horn or ivory for the hilt and sheath has been more common.
The art of kris making will live on in Brunei Darussalam as it has been revived at the Brunei Arts and Handicrafts Training Center where young men and women formally undergo a three-year course.
The kris may no longer be seen inside a man's waistband, except perhaps during ceremonies, but the awe and fascination for this extraordinary weapon will never cease.
Source: Brunei Today published by Information Department, 1994
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