From Majapahit to Putrajaya: The Kris as a symptom of Civilisation Development and Decline (Part 1)

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“Tak ada orang Belanda yang bisa bikin kris, Gus. Tak mampu dan takkan mampu. Coba buka, akan kau lihat tapak-tapak ibu jari empu linuhung yang membikinnya …

Lihat pada cermin nanti. Kalau kris sudah kau selitkan pada pinggangmu, kau akan berubah. Kau akan lebih mirip dengan leluhurrnu, lebih dekat pada asalmu” Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Bumi Manusia

The civilisation of the Malay archipelago has bestowed the world a number of lasting legacies. Over a long process of socio-cultural development which spanned several millennia, the Malay world was the focal point for the meeting of civilisations and cultures from all over Asia. Malay Civilisation still bears the traces of these early encounters between Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Islamic, European and indigenous cultures, and Malay art reflects the subtle blend of this myriad of influences.

One of the most obvious markers or symbols of Malay civilisation is the ubiquitous Kris: the famous weapon of the Malay peoples, which was used throughout the archipelago from Patani to the Philippines. Its use and appearance was widespread throughout the archipelago, as it made itself known in practically all circles of life. It was seen in the istanas and kratons (palaces), as well as the kampong and on the fleets of Malay war prahus. Krises were even made specially for women and children in some cases, perhaps by far-sighted pandai besis and empus (honorific title for the makers of krises) in anticipation of feminist critiques in the future.

The Kris is one symbol that has come to be intimately identified with the Malay peoples as a whole, and this association is more than justified. For indeed, the Kris has been part of the Malay world for hundreds of years, and in the development of the Kris in all its aspects and roles (as weapon, ritual object, symbol of rank and status) we can also trace the path of civilisational development of the Malays as a people as well.

From utility to luxury: The evolution of the kris as a symbol of civilisation.

‘Superfluous excess is the enemy of necessity’. Friedrich Nietzsche

The kris, lest it be forgotten, is fundamentally a weapon. Although it comes in all shapes and sizes, with a myriad of configurations depending on its dapor (silhouette), prabot (marks carved on the blade) and pamor (patterns created by forging the blade with different metal) types, it remains a personal instrument of offence and defence.

With the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism to the Malay archipelago we witness the development of complex socio-cultural rituals that encompass practically all areas of life, from politics and government to family law and inter-personal relations. The new religious system brought with it not only a unique credo but also successfully transformed the mental, moral, aesthetic and cultural universe of the archipelago. What appeared in the end was a rigid and highly-ordered religio-political and social system that reflected the order of the cosmos, with the Raja (king) occupying a pivotal position as the ‘nail of the universe’ and the lstana/Kraton (palace) serving as the stage for the cosmic drama to be played out. Thus the world of the lndon-Malay Kerajaan (understood here as a government ruled by a raja, or king) was one where the affairs of Gods, Dewas, Rajas and Men constantly overlapped and interpenetrated with promiscuous ease.

But due to a number of factors the development of the religio-political discourse of the pre-Islamic archipelago was a lopsided one. The Malay Rajas were eager to embrace this new creed as it afforded them a means to discursively legitimise and sacralise their rule on earth.

The multifarious array of beliefs, values, ideas and symbols that made up the universe of the Kerajaan gave the court artisans plenty of work to do and kept them occupied for literally hundreds of years. There was no end to the ways and means through which they could valorise the status and role of their Dewarajas in this cosmic drama of celestial proportions. It was also during this period when Hinduism held sway in the lndon-Malay court that the kris reaches the peak of its development and importance in the context of the societies of the archipelago. True to ibn Khaldun’s view that ‘civilisation’ manifests itself in the development of excess, luxury and the overdetermination of meanings and values attached to aesthetic forms and styles, the kris enjoyed a pre-eminence unparalleled by any other object in the lndon-Malay world at that time as the embodiment of all the elements that made up the heavenly world of the Kerajaan.

The kris had been a prominent social symptom in the Malay Hindu-Buddhist world all along, but by then it had evolved far beyond a mere instrument of defence and offence. Thanks to the influx of ideas and beliefs from both the mainland (Champa, Lankasuka, Siam, Patani) and the islands (Java), the Malay world was exposed to Vishnuite and Sivaistic schools of Hindu thought as well as aesthetics. The kris, as the ritual object into which these new forms, ideas and meanings had been invested, had become the living embodiment of the dominant Hindu cults of Siva and Vishnu and it had penetrated deep into the popular imagination of the lndon-Malay peoples.

This ‘leap’ in the evolution of the kris was registered in a number of ways: It was around this period that krises began taking to the air and flying about in all directions. The legendary epics of the time give a vivid account of the skies of Nusantara being literally littered with hundreds of krises, and in some parts of the archipelago the air traffic must have been quite heavy indeed, taking into consideration the proliferation of krises and prominent kris­ makers during the Hindu-Buddhist era.

The kris also begins to feature in the numerous panegyric courtly epics and histories (babad/hikayat) of the time. [… ] The kris also makes numerous cameo appearances in the local wayang rendition of the Ramayana and Mahabharatta epics. Some of the more prominent stars of these stories came to be associated with famous kris types such as the kris Yuyu Rumping (which made its appearance along with the Demon-King Rawana’s army when it destroyed the bridge between Ayodya and Halengka) or the kris dapor Pasopati (which was given to the Pandawa prince Arjuna by the Gods and is linked closely to Siva the Destroyer).[… ]

Kris production (and evolution) during the Hindu-Buddhist era remained at its peak at the Hindu-Buddhist courts of Java, Bali and Southern Sumatra. During the Hindu era, the major powers of the region included Pajajaran, Majapahit, Demak, Padjang and Mataram. In the annals of Pajajaran, we find numerous references to famous empuslpandai-besi who produced some of the mostfamous kris dapors that exist till this day. [… ]

During the Majapahit era, kris production reached another peak. The famous Majapahit kris is well known for its unique feature, namely having a hilt that is sculpted in the form of a squatting or sitting human figure, made as a part of the kris itself. (Its other unique feature being its near-miraculous ability to withstand the hazards of time, space and the vagaries of the market place to somehow find its way into numerous bazaars and antique-shops all over Southeast Asia today in ridiculously huge numbers).

Not only were krises highly esteemed and even worshipped as sacred objects with spiritual power then, but the kris-makers themselves were regarded as being among the elite of Javanese-Hindu society, along with the nobility and priests. Raffles (1830) noted that from the Pajajaran to Majapahit eras, the kris-makers of the realm were among the most valued and privileged members of Javanese society and their role and status was very much linked to the world of the court. Honoured and venerated by Royals, nobles and rakyat alike, the empus of the period were a class of their own and were at the peak of their careers. The forges where they produced some of their best work were also ascribed sacred status, often decorated to appear as miniature temples[… ]. However, the fact that these royal kris-makers were dedicated solely to the work of the court and the needs of their royal patrons also meant that they were liminal figures in lndon-Malay Hindu society and they were particularly dependent upon the Kerajaan and vulnerable to the vicissitudes of politics.

By the time the kingdoms of Demak and Pandjang arrive on the scene (late 15th century), the Hindu-Buddhist beliefs and values of the lndon-Malay peoples were already being challenged. But kris designs and kris-use still remained true to the traditions and standards of the past, as the production of quality krises remained firmly under the control and monopoly of the royal houses and the spiritually-inclined royal empus. During this period, several important dapors made their appearance, such as the famous eleven-lok dapor Sabuk lntan, said to be designed by the empu Joko Supo, son of Prince Sedayu, under orders of Sunan Kalijaga. Another equally famous royal son who took to the anvil and hammer of the kris forge was empu Ki Joko Growah, also a son of Prince Sedayu.

Thus at the height of the Hindu era, shortly before Islam began to consolidate its hold on the coastal kingdoms of the archipelago, we find that kris production and kris-use had reached its most sophisticated level. The krises produced in the kratons were of the highest quality and workmanship, crafted as they were not only by the royal empus but also the poets and historians from the special effects department of the of the Kerajaan, who dressed them in all manner of overblown epic flourishes.

It is during this period that we begin to see the kris turning into an object of luxury as well as symbol of royal status and Kerajaan power. The most elaborately decorated blades, intended for royal patrons and users from the royal and nobles houses themselves, were so beautifully and delicately worked that one wonders if they were ever used at all. (No doubt the priests of the court would have informed the ignorant lay-man that such krises were so powerful in terms of the sakti or semangat contained within them that they scarcely needed to be soiled with the blood of infidels and low-born foreigners in the first place). At this stage the culture of excess and luxury had overtaken the culture of necessity in the courts at least.

By the end of the Hindu era, some of the state krises of the courts had become excessively-decorated affairs bedecked with goldleaf, diamonds, rubies and other trinkets and ornaments. Spoiled and pampered in their ritual perfumed-oil baths, these krises seldom, if ever, performed the duties of state demanded of them. As the tide of change swept the landscape with the coming of Islam, the world of the Hindu-Buddhist kraton merely migrated to the popular tourist destination of Bali where the royal krises were given another couple of hundred of years or so to bask in their faded glory like retired divas. By the 20th century, they were forced to come out into the open at last, for one finale performance. When the invading Dutch forces laid siege to the royal capital of Klungkung, the Balinese-Hindu nobles performed the act of collective suicide (puputan) before the trained rifles of Holland’s infantry. The krises they wore were barely unsheathed before their masters were mowed down, and it was the bullets of Dutch rifles that tore through the air instead of the krises. Today they are found in the vaults of the Tropen Museum, Amsterdam, relegated to the status of artefacts of an antiquarian history. But long before the kris was reduced to the status of a mute and lifeless artefact, its aura of sacred unearthly power was diminished by another force of change: Islam.

Dr Farish A. Noor is among other things a historian, a political scientist and an antique collector.

This article can only be reproduced with’s authorisation. E-mail

Read Part 2 next week.


First Published: 14.01.2002 on Kakiseni

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