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  • Marco A. Briccola Beauty, Charm and Spiritual Aspects of the Keris Hilt Materials


    Marco A. Briccola

    The keris, also known as kris, is a typical Indo-Malaysian dagger originally created for religious rituals, therefore - considering its designated function it cannot uniquely be defined as a weapon.

    It is composed by different elements: the blade is the most important part of the opus, since it is the component mainly designated to transmit the spirit that the keris is belived to possess (semangat; see: Gardner 1937: 57) and make it a part of the traditional religious paraphernalia. The Malaysian name of the blade itself, mata keris (eye, or figuratively heart), reflects once more the idea of this hierarchy. The blade is protected, hidden from others gaze and at the same time it is presented at its 1very best by an elegant scabbard often made of fine wood. The scabbard is also wrapped up by a metal sleeve (pendok) and, sometimes, enhanced by a chord, tali, or by a chiselled mask (topeng) and are both also made from metal the two elements serving as transitional elements between the hilt of the dagger and its blade - a ring shaped one (mendak) and the other shaped in the form of a small cup (selut).

    The study of the hilt named hulu o ukiran is an excellent way to introduce the 2keris and at the same time deepen the matter since, at the moment of its creation, are involved both history and religion of the island, the social rank and the economic prosperity of the individual to whom the object is intended and concepts such as superstition and traditional beliefs, that are always associated with the idea of the keris itself and to which they are thorougly attached.

    It was a common belief that in the past local experts could recognize and identify the pamor the typical 1damascus pattern of the blade and consequently the power itself of the keris only by watching at the ganja, the part of the blade uncovered by the sheath. In this case the owner of the weapon would have felt exposed and powerless: to prevent this occurrence it was a general practice to forge a wulung type ganja, without visible pamor. See V. Ghiringhelli, The Invincible Krises 2, pag. 88.

    The word ukiran generally make reference to the wood carving but it commonly refers to the keris handle, 2being wood the most used material for its making. In Surakarta and Yogyakarta (Central Java) the handle is instead named deder or dederan.


  • Marco A. Briccola Beauty, Charm and Spiritual Aspects of the Keris Hilt Materials

    This broad range of meanings is given by the interaction of religions - Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist - and cultures typical of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago, thus permitting the creation of a unique civilization. Traditional arts and crafts perfectly represent this process and are the final result of this accurate blending: the handle of the keris is one of the best examples.

    The creation of the ukiran implies a relevant aestheticism and a deep knowledge of the traditions, even if the artisan - mranggi must mainly possess a remarkable manual ability and master the most various materials in order to harmonize all the elements together to create a keris intended as a totality.

    The aim of this essay is taking in exam and investigate a wide choice of materials selected for both their intrinsic and spiritual value.

    Metal, Logam

    The very antique specimens of keris , named 3sajen offers - or majapahit (Fig. 1), named 4 5after the old Hindu reign located in Java and Sumatra during the XIV century, were forged in one single piece. The hilt is shaped to represent a squatting human figure (understood as a divine ancestor) and shares the same material as the blade, iron (or steely iron), which is often meteoric and therefore a symbol of the cosmic force. It is an incredibly powerful material, which has an ambivalent potential, since it can protect from evil influences or it can also turn into their instrument. The choice between various types of iron or steely iron is very important not only in the keris sajen case, but also in the forging of the

    For an in-depth exposition on the subject see also Ensiklopedi Keris by Bambang Harsrinuksmo.3

    Considering these objects related to the religious field confirms that they were perceived as simbols or 4talismans, jimat, rather than merely tools.

    These objects are traditionally called deder iras in Central and West Java.5


    Fig. 1: Sajen type keris hilt. Observe the position of the human figure, squatting with the arms resting on the

    lightly reclined knees. (Ghiringhelli Collection).

  • Marco A. Briccola Beauty, Charm and Spiritual Aspects of the Keris Hilt Materials

    blade in general, as every metal is considered to have a specific power and properties that can be transmitted to the owner.

    A clear example is the raja besi, considered to be the most powerful as it is known to confer the authority and the faculty to obtain obedience. The aulia besi would suit chiefs and religious leaders having a very strong magic power, whilst the besi winduadi has the faculty to make the owner invisible to the enemy. The tumenggung besi would be perfect for the royal officials, whilst the bendahara besi, iron of the Treasurer, is better indicated for bank merchants and civil servants. The besi werani is usually remembered in old books as an extremely powerful iron, and once again the besi kursani can guarantee good sales and makes the owner more attractive and also invulnerable to weapons. Lastly, the besi kuning - also called iron or iron sulphur - consists of a yellow coloured metal considered to be a real amulet that donates supernatural powers to the lucky owner of the weapon if added to iron during the forging of the blade. Gold is a privileged choice for the creation of the keris hilt (Fig. 2), being a material distinguished for its incorruptibility it does not oxidise and is immune to the attacks of the most common acids. It is symbol of eternity,

    royalty and therefore divinity and - it is essential to notice that - it was once exclusively reserved to the royal court. Other privileged choices were noble leagues, such as swassa or suasa, composed by gold and copper, and mas munda, gold and


    Fig. 2: Exceptional gold made hilt, decorated with precious and semi-precious stones: it most probably represents Ravana (Rahwana) wearing a weapon similar to the double bladed Indian dagger haladie. Bali. (Ghiringhelli Collection).

  • Marco A. Briccola Beauty, Charm and Spiritual Aspects of the Keris Hilt Materials

    platinum and also silver (Fig. 3), symbol of purity, or brass and copper (Fig. 4) for the most common hilts.

    The construction techniques vary from piece to piece: the metal can be reduced to a very thin layer and used to cover a structure with a resinous base or a kneading clay, or it can be forged in threads that are then woven around a wooden core; an other case is that for the hilts obtained with a solid fusion, presumably using lost-wax casting techniques.


    Fig. 3 (Above left): important hilt made of silver: it represents the demon Buta Nawasari. Bali. (Ghiringhelli Collection).

    Fig. 4: Specimen made of metal, presumably bronze alloy. It is predictably quite heavy. (Ghiringhelli Collection).

  • Marco A. Briccola Beauty, Charm and Spiritual Aspects of the Keris Hilt Materials

    Wood, Kayu

    Wood is worldwide considered an exceptional material, symbol of the universal substance: woods and trees have always had a relevant position in the Indo-Malaysian magical world and for this reason they have always been considered a privileged choice for the creation of the keris hilt.

    Wood is usually selected for its splendid grain and for its inebriant perfume; the grain is carefully examined when cut: during the selection process and the manufacturing of the hilt the waste of material is always extremely relevant. The privileged choices are the Tayuman wood (Cassia Laevigata Willd.), the Kemuning


    Fig. 5: Kemuning wooden hilt: observe the beautiful blazes. (Ghiringhelli Collection).

    Fig. 6: This picture shows a keris with a hilt and a scabbard entirely made of Timoho wood: observe the kendit, a belt that goes through the ukiran. Bali or Lombok island. (Ghiringhelli Collection).

  • Marco A. Briccola Beauty, Charm and Spiritual Aspects of the Keris Hilt Materials

    (Murraya Paniculata Jack, Fig. 5), and the Timoho - or Timaha or Timanga, kayu pelet (Kleinhovia hospita Linn., Fig. 6). The first one, often with a fibre called doreng, is distinctive as it reflects the light in every direction, whilst the second is very appreciated by artists and presents a peculiar perfumed bark that is also used in cosmetic.

    The Timoho is a wood believed to be possessed by a spirit that shows its presence through the characteristic black and dark brown stains visible on the surface: these patterns, known as pelet, are mostly appreciated not only for the strong aesthetic value, but also because each one has is considered to possess its own power. It is therefore believed that the pelet intensifies and strengthens the power of the keris blade, a