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The kris or keris is a distinctive, asymmetrical dagger indigenous to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. Both a weapon and spiritual object, krisses are often considered to have an essence or presence, with some blades possessing good luck and others possessing bad.
In 2005, UNESCO gave the title Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity to Kris of Indonesia.
The term keris had a Javanese origin, although the etymology is uncertain. The term “keris” may have originated from the old Javanese word ngiris which means “to slab”, “to wedge” or “to sliver.” Kris is a European rendering of this Javanese term.
As noted by Frey (2003), kris is the more frequently used term in the Western world. The term “keris” is more popular in the native lands of the dagger, as exemplified by the title of a popular Javanese keris book entitled the “Ensiklopedi Keris” (Keris Encyclopedia), written by the late Bambang Harsrinuksmo. Some collectors prefer keris, others kris. Other spellings used by European colonists include “cryse,” “crise,” “criss,” and “creese.”
The Kris is also loosely used to differentiate between the Moro kris swords found in Southern Philippines and the keris daggers found everywhere else in the archipelago.
Frey (2003) concludes from Raffles’ (1817) study of the Candi Sukuh that the kris recognized today came into existence around AD 1361. Scholars, collectors and others have formed myriad theories about the origins of the kris. Some believe its earliest credited form, the keris majapahit, was inspired by the daggers of the Dong-Son in Vietnam (circa 300 BC). Frey (2003) dismisses the Dong-Son origin of the Majapahit. Unverifiable claims of another form predating the Majapahit exist. Kris history is traced through study of carvings and bas relief panels found in Southeast Asia. Some of the most famous renderings of a kris appear on the Borobudur temple (825 CE) and Prambanan temple (850CE).
A kris has a cranked hilt that serves as a support for stabbing strike. It allows the strength of the wrist to add pressure on the blade while slashing and cutting. A kris only offers minimal protection for the hand by the broad blade at the hilt. In rare cases, a kris may have its blade forged so the blade’s axis lies at an angle to the hilt’s axis. The intention is to get the blade automatically turning to slip past the ribs. This works poorly and makes the weapon less durable.
Krisses were worn every day and at special ceremonies, with heirloom blades being handed down through successive generations. Yearly cleanings, required for as part of the spirituality and mythology around the weapon, often left ancient blades worn and thin. In everyday life and at events, a man usually only wore one kris. In the Malay literature, Hikayat Hang Tuah, the warrior is depicted as wearing two keris, one short keris and one long keris. Women sometimes also wore krisses, though of a smaller size than a man’s. In battle, a warrior carried three krisses: his own, one from his father-in-law, and one as a family heirloom. The other krisses served as parrying daggers. If the warrior didn’t have another kris to parry with, he used the sheath. Krisses were often broken in battle and required repairs. A warrior’s location determined what repair materials he had. It is quite usual to find a kris with fittings from several areas. For example, a kris may have a blade from Java, a hilt from Bali and a sheath from Madura.
In many parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, the kris was the choice weapon for execution. The specialized kris, called an executioner’s kris, had a long, straight, slender blade. The condemned knelt before the executioner, who placed a wad of cotton or similar material on the subject’s shoulder/clavicle area. The blade was thrust through the padding, piercing the subclavian artery and the heart. Upon withdrawal, the cotton wiped the blade clean. Death came within seconds.
One of the most famous folk stories from Java describes a legendary kris empu (bladesmith), called Mpu Gandring, and his impatient customer, Ken Arok. Ken Arok wanted to order a powerful Kris to kill the chieftain of Tumapel, Tunggul Ametung. Ken Arok eventually stabbed the old bladesmith to death because he kept delaying the scheduled completion of the kris, which Ken Arok had probably ordered several months before. Dying, the bladesmith prophesied that the unfinished or incomplete kris would kill seven men, including Ken Arok. The prophecy finally came true, with for men enlisted as the kris’ first death roll, including Mpu Gandring himself, the Adipati of Tumapel Tunggul Ametung, Kebo Ijo (to whom Ken Arok lent the blade and accused to be the murderer of Tunggul Ametung), and Ken Arok himself, later. The unfinished kris of Mpu Gandring then left disappeared.