From Majapahit to Putrajaya: The Kris as a symptom of Civilisation Development and Decline (Part 2)

(edited by kakiseni.corn)

Read part 1 here.

From Luxury to Weapon: The gradual de-mystification of the Kris in the World of Islam.

‘New history begins while the older ones continue to flourish. Conflict might occur and the attempt to marginalize the old might be taken, but the old refuses to budge’. Taufik Abdullah, The Formation of Political Tradition in the Malay World

Islam not only displaced the Gods and Demigods, Dewas and Dewarajas of the ancien regime, it also bought over the copyright of the kris in the process.

One of the most vivid examples that we can find of Islam’s radical impact upon the lndon-Malay world is from a comparison of the cultural life at court during the Hindu and Islamic eras. The epics of the Hindu-Buddhist era that were heavily coloured by the dye of romanticism and fantasy gradually gave way to the drier prose of Muslim scholars whose paragons of chivalry and heroism tended to be more earth-bound. These imported Muslim narratives furnished the Malay world of letters with new symbols, figures and metaphors that were decidedly foreign in origin.

In many instances, the beleaguered establishment of the Kerajaan tried its best to withstand the tide of change by trying to keep alive the mystical and mysterious aura of the Kerajaan of the past. In the pro-Kerajaan narrative of the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), for example, we read of fantastic krises such as Hang Tuah’s kris Tameng Sari (glorious shield) which could perform all kinds of amazing feats such as taking to the air in search of pirate fleets and enemies of the state.

In time the ideas of Malay-Muslim Sufi thinkers like Hamzah Fansuri, Shamsul-din Pasai and Abdul-Rauf Singkel, couched in terms of Islamic metaphysics, would prove to be more destructive to the regimes of the lndon-Malay Dewarajas than all the divine krises that the latter could muster. For the appeal of Islam as it was taught by the Sufis to their potential converts lay in its claim that the goal of self-perfection, the ideal of insanu’l­ kamil, was something that peasant and ruler, rakyat and Raja alike could strive for, and in this quest all were equal. Furthermore the Sufis taught that Reason was universal, and that in this crucial respect, all Muslims were equal to each other and equal before God. As Al-Atlas puts it: within the Sufi interpretation of Islam, ‘the essence of Man is that he is rational and rationality is the connection between him and reality. It is these concepts and that of the spiritual equality between man and man that gave the ordinary man a sense of worth and nobility denied to him in pre-Islamic times’.

Islam’s most radical blow to the grand cosmic worldview of the pre-Islamic era was the way in which it gradually (though not completely) demythologised the world of the Malays. Thus it was in the realm of ideas that made up the lndon-Malay worldview that Islam’s arrival and impact was most keenly felt. Ismail Hamid says ‘Islam brought an end to the Hindu caste system of the Malays which had existed prior to the coming of Islam’ and ‘in its place Islam had introduced a concept of ‘democracy” that was based in the belief in the equality of all (believers) before God. Through the Sufis’ and Ulamas’ reliance on Tasawwuf (rational metaphysics) the fantastic and wonderful elements of lndon-Malay culture were all explained away.

And where the Sufi’s brand of rationality could not win over the audience, the Muslim poets and scholars managed to tie up the loose ends left behind by the Hindu scribes of the past, thereby making sure that all avenues and bases were covered by the newly-victorious side. In the end, the Muslim scholars, Sufis, poets and historians managed to rewrite and reinvent the worldview of the Malays to such an extent that even the esoteric world of the kris was not spared from their revisionist assaults.

With the consolidation of Islam and the changes in societal relations in the Malay-Muslim world, kris-making became more commonplace and it eventually spilled beyond the confines of the court and temple. Hamzuri notes that from the Mataram period (between the 15th to the 17th century) onwards, kris-production gradually becomes a more popular enterprise. By the time of the Jogya-Solo era (after the Treaty of Giyanti in 1755), ‘kris­ making was almost universal; that is, it was no longer a monopoly of the court empus, (and) it had become a folk craft’ in Java. This was also the case in the rest of the archipelago thanks to the proliferation of new empus/pandai besis who had left Java and migrated to areas such as Sumatra and the Malay peninsula due to the worsening political and social conditions in Java itself. By the 16th-17th century, kris-making had spread throughout the Malay world, with a number of production centres in places such as Patani, Kelantan, Aceh, Melaka, Minangkabau, Palembang, Bantam, Demak, Jogjakarta, Surakarta, Bali, Makassar, Goa, Banjarmasin, Mindanao and the Sulu islands.

Also as a result of the social changes occasioned by the arrival of this new creed, new social groups and classes came to the fore such as landed merchants, traders and the Muslim clerical class. This ‘bottom-up’ process of conversion also led to a ‘bottom-up’ appreciation of the kris as it became available to these new social groups and constituencies. Consequently the kris enjoyed new patronage and custom from these new groups, but also became popularised and vulgarised in the process. (Much to the horror and distaste of the traditional ruling classes).

Furthermore it must be remembered that the Muslim missionaries and traders brought with them not only a new creed and membership to a different religious community: They also brought with them new enemies, namely the Ferenggi (Christian Europeans) who were hot on their heels in search of merit in the global Crusade against Islam. To survive in this new environment, the Malay-Muslim had less need for pompous over-decorated weapons and more need for armaments that could persuade his infidel enemies of the righteousness of his cause.

From sacred symbol and object of luxury and status, it found itself reduced to the level of a profane weapon of deadly seriousness instead. As such innovations and modifications (such as the longer Kris Sundang of the Moros from Southern Philippines and the rapier-like Kris Bahari from Sumatra) were the order of the day.

Apart from the development of the form and figure of the kris blade (mata kris) itself, the evolution of the hulu (hilt) also took a different tum. Hill notes that ‘devout Muslims objected to the actual representation of Hindu divinities in the shadow-play (wayang) and on kris-hilts. But they were willing to compromise by altering the form to a grotesque caricature’.

The evolution of more lslamised hilts involved a semantic revision where these pre-Islamic hilts were given more Islamic (or at least acceptable) names instead. Thus the Garuda found himself reduced from the steed of Vishnu to the status of a kingfisher (pekaka) instead. Then the sculpted figures of the Gods and Demons of the past were gradually submerged under a carpet of arabesques, floral tapestries and geometric patterns that anticipated the ‘greening’ of the Malay archipelago under Islam in the centuries to come. Some hilt variations were ultimately reduced to totally abstract geometric affairs, almost modem in their conception and execution. While in others what little remained of the symbolism of the Hindu past was almost entirely covered over by floral or vegetal motifs, to the point where only the vaguest traces of the ancient Gods could be seen. In other areas such as Patani and Kelantan where the cult of Vishnu-Garuda was too strong to be fully erased, the figure of Garuda was modified to the extent that it finally took on the form of a crouching/squatting humanoid figure with its wings effaced altogether.[…}

The changes found in the shape, form and use of the krises during the Islamic era were reflected also in the extensive changes in the mode of kris-production as well. While during the Hindu-Buddhist era the pseudo­ scientific mode of kris-production was heavily influenced by elements of the religious and the occult, kris­ production during the Islamic period witnessed the introduction of a vast range of new terms, phrases, talismanic codes, formulae and taboos that were used by the Muslim empus/pandai besis. Contrary to the claims of contemporary lslamists who state categorically that the arrival of Islam eradicated the myths and superstitions of the pre-Islamic era, there is ample evidence to show that Islam’s arrival in the Malay world actually contributed another layer of beliefs onto the already-overcrowded and overdetermined cosmos of the Malays. Investigation into the rituals involved in the kris-making process during the Islamic era shows that while many of the pre­ Islamic influences are still evident, the dominant symbols, codes, talismans and formulae were Islamic in origin.

The combined effect of the socio-cultural changes cited above had, in the end, serious implications for the continued use of the kris in the Malay world. Having demythologised, popularised and ‘secularised’ the kris, the weapon was then made to serve the ends of war in an age of rapid modernisation and innovation. However, it must be remembered that although Islam may have grounded the magical krises, it did not deliver the killing blow which reduced it to the status of a common knife. That only came about after the Malay world’s encounter with an even more devastating force: Modernity.

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. Please e-mail

Read Part 3 next week.

First Published: 21.01.2002 on Kakiseni

Related items

For Translation

The 8th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…

The 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…