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Home » Solo Surakarta » Keris: A Precious Sacred Heirloom of Indonesia

Keris: A Precious Sacred Heirloom of Indonesia

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The ultimate symbol of heroism, virility, authority, and spirituality, Keris (also pronounced as Kris in English) is one of the most revered objects in  Indonesian culture. More than a mere ancient traditional weapon,  Keris is regarded as a precious heirloom passed down from great ancestors and continues to be preserved for future generations. In 2005, the significance of Keris was acknowledged by UNESCO who gave it the title of Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.


Found in  various cultures throughout the Indonesian Archipelago, nowhere is the Keris so embedded in a mutually-connected entity of ritual prescriptions and acts, ceremonies, mythical backgrounds and epic poetry as in Central Java. Hence, it is closely associated and identified with the Javanese culture, although other ethnicities such as the Balinese, Sundanese, Madura, Banjar, Bugis  and Malay ethnic group  are familiar with the weapon as central part of their culture.


Famous for its distinctive wavy blade, a Keris is an asymmetrical dagger with distinctive blade-patterning achieved through alternating laminations of iron and nickel-iron.

A Keris can be divided into three parts: bilah (blade), hulu (hilt), and warangka (sheath). These parts of the Keris are objects of art, often carved in meticulous detail and made from various materials: metal, precious or rare types of wood,  gold or ivory.

A Keris' aesthetic value covers the dhapur (the form and design of the blade, with around 150 variants), the pamor (the pattern of metal alloy decoration on the blade, with around 60 variants), and tangguh referring to the age and origin of a Keris.


The Keris blade or bilah is usually narrow with a wide, asymmetrical base. Uniquely, the number of curves on the blade (known as Luk) is always odd. Common numbers of Luk range from three to thirteen waves, however some blades have up to 29 curves. Although it is famous for its wavy blade, some of the older Keris from Majaphit era have straight blades.


The distinctive pamor patterns have specific meanings and names which indicate their special supernatural properties they are believed to possess.

 There are around 60 variants of pamor recognized today in traditional Keris blades. Some examples of pamor include beras wutah, udan mas, kembang kacang, kembang pala and ladrang cendana. The kris blade forging uses iron with a small content of nickel to create this pattern.


The handle or hilt – known as hulu and the sheath or warangka, are both objects of art. The hilt is usually made of  precious materials from rare types of wood to gold or ivory. It is often carved in meticulous and intricate detail. In Bali,  hilts are made to resemble demons or other figures coated in gold and adorned with semi precious and precious stones, such as rubies. In Java, kris handles are made in various types, the most common design being the abstract stylized representation of the human form.


As with the hilt, the sheath can also be made from various materials. Generally, the sheath is a wooden frame to hold the blade which can be coated with metals such as brass, iron, silver, or even gold, usually carved in sulur floral motifs. The sheath could also be adorned with precious or semi-precious stones.   


This masterpiece of traditional weaponry is estimated to have been around for nearly 1,000 years. Some of the most famous renderings of a Keris appear on the bas-reliefs of the Borobudur and Prambanan temples.


Others suggest that the Keris as recognized today came into existence around 1361 AD in the kingdom of Majapahit, East Java. Tomé Pires, a Portuguese explorer, in the early 16th century, described the importance of the Keris to the Javanese in his book Suma Oriental: “every man in Java, whether he is rich or poor, must have a Keris in his house, and no man between the ages of 12 and 80 may go out of doors without a Keris in his belt. They carry them at the back, as daggers used to be in Portugal”.


In Java, the traditional art of Keris-making is preserved in the Javanese cultural heartland, in  the royal courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, and also the princedom of Mangkunegaran and Pakualaman.


 The making of a Keris is a specialized duty of a prominent metalworker called empu. The empus are highly respected craftsmen with additional knowledge in literature, history, and spirituality, rather than just mere blacksmiths. An empu makes the blade in layers of different iron ores and meteorite nickel. Some blades can be made in a relatively short time, while more intricate weapons take years to complete. In high quality Keris blades, the metal is folded dozens or hundreds of times and handled with the utmost precision.

Several folktales — linked to historical figures —  mention legendary Kerises that possess supernatural power and extraordinary ability such as the Kerisof  Mpu Gandring, Keris Taming Sari, and Keris Setan Kober.


In Javanese culture Keris is revered as tosan aji or "sacred heirloom weapon". The Keris is believed to have the ability to infuse bravery upon its holder, a feature known as piyandel in Javanese,  which means "to add self-confidence”. Up to this day, Keris still plays an important in various traditional rituals and ceremonies of various cultures across the archipelago. Keris is also still used for display, as talismans with magical powers, weapons, sanctified heirloom, auxiliary equipment for court soldiers, as an accessory for ceremonial dress, an indicator of social status, and more.


A wide collection of Keris can be found at the Radya Pustaka Museum in Solo. There are also several Kerises on display at the Museum Pusaka (Heirloom Museum) at the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah.



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Keris: A Precious Sacred Heirloom of Indonesia

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