I just got this from The Star...
Blade of power and tradition
THE Malay keris is about loyalty and honour. Most Malaysians are familiar with the picture of first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, hand raised in the air, shouting “Merdeka” three times. Fewer know that in February 1956 in Malacca, when announcing the date for independence, the Tunku had raised the unsheathed keris to symbolise Malaya’s achievement of independence.
Turning the clock back a few centuries, Hang Tuah’s legendary keris, Taming Sari, was supposed to have been able to “fly in air”, striking whomever harboured evil intent against its owner. And it served only one master – Hang Tuah himself.
Torn between his loyalty to the Sultan of Malacca and his love for his childhood friend, it was with the Taming Sari that Hang Tuah killed Hang Jebat. Then, filled with remorse, Hang Tuah returned the “keris of invulnerability” to the sultan.
It is believed that this Taming Sari is housed at the Istana Iskandariah, in Bukit Chandan, Kuala Kangsar and is used during special ceremonies.
It was with these values in mind that Umno’s founding fathers chose two crossed keris as the symbol of Malay strength for their party flag in 1946. The context of the keris then was the fight for independence, spearheaded by Malay youth movements and Saberkas (Sayang Akan Bangsa, ERtinya Korban Apa Segala), which itself was later absorbed into Umno.
That fire for independence may no longer be relevant but, as the recent Umno general assembly demonstrated in its call to Malay unity, strength and sense of purpose, the fervour has not really waned.
When Umno Youth chief Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein had the Keris Panca Warisan ceremoniously carried into last year's Youth convention, pledging to uphold the Malay struggle, many non-Malays became perturbed over what they perceived to be a call to arms.
This year, he repeated the symbolic unsheathing of the keris. Again, young non-Malays became agitated. The DAP took it up and the subject was even debated in Parliament.
But today's keris is no longer a practical, everyday weapon. Its use is largely ceremonial – and figurative.
As in Perak, each palace, including the Yang di-Pertuan Agong's, has its own royal keris, which each ruler draws from its scabbard and kisses upturned upon his installation.
These sacred keris are not to be trifled with as they hold the ruler's “daulat” or royal power. The concept of power and responsibility to one's subjects is very much tied in with a heritage that spans the Malay world of Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines.
This is the home of the keris.
The origins of the keris date back to the early 14th century, where its earliest depictions are found in the candi (temples) of the Majapahit kingdom on Java. The names it carried were Sanskrit-derived, reflective of the kingdom’s Hindu antecedents.
When the Majapahit Empire fell apart, its Empu or pandai besi (keris master craftsmen) migrated elsewhere in Indonesia, setting up new enclaves and pledging allegiance to minor rulers. Some went to the West Sumatran palace of Pagar Ruyong and eventually found their way to Terengganu.
In many cases, their descendants continue the tradition, labouring away at simple low workbenches within the vicinity of their stilt houses in Terengganu and Kelantan.
The keris is made by forging various types and grades of metal – iron, nickel and steel are the standard – into a blade of between 30 and 38cm in length. A keris may be straight-bladed or wavy; the latter must have an uneven number of luk (curves), ranging from at least five to 47.
The hilt of the keris may be made of carved wood, horn or ivory, and embellished with a band of silver or gold. The stylised hilts are invariably bent to give a better “pistol-like” grip.
Only royalty may own keris hilts made entirely of silver or gold. According to the late Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard in his Living Crafts of Malaysia, the short keris worn by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on ceremonial occasions has an ivory King Fisher Head hilt.
The keris is a stabbing weapon. While it could be used to attack, it was more often a weapon of defence due to its lightness of weight and relatively short blade.
Silat exponents are masters of the art, as romanticised in the black and white movies of the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee.
Today, the keris is adopted as a part of proper Malay regalia. In formal settings, a man without a keris is deemed to be half-naked.
Malay bridegrooms traditionally carry a keris, sheathed, securely tied and usually borrowed, on the left of their samping when they turn up at the bride's house. It is there to complete the baju Melayu, without which the attire would smack of impropriety.
Along the same vein, some ranking hereditary datuks are also specifically required to wear the baju Melayu lengkap, complete with the keris, at the palace investiture ceremony.
Those who turn up to receive their awards, however, are generally requested not to do so. In some instances, to do so would be deemed as being derhaka pada raja (treachery to the ruler).
In the royal palace of Negri Sembilan who are descended from Pagar Ruyong, a Yang di-Pertuan Besar who takes on a commoner bride, or marries for a second, third or fourth time, might send his keris on his behalf. Technically, the bride will then be married to his keris, but because it represents the ruler's stature and power – in fact, represents the ruler himself – it is considered culturally acceptable, especially by traditional society.
Many superstitions abound regarding the keris, especially those made over many years and designed as being “personal to holder”.
The Empu would usually go into a spiritual state of prayer, fasting and meditation before he embarks on making a new keris. Sometimes he would dream of its design.
A keris must befit its owner’s status. A soldier cannot carry the keris of a general – it would be “too heavy” for him. He might become feverish, or some calamity might befall him.
In Malay homes, keris are treated with respect, even veneration. Apart from the obvious danger of two sharpened edges and a pointed tip, it is supposed to embody a spirit, which could rattle in its sheath, warning its master of danger.
Folklore has it that once unsheathed, some “spirits of the keris” even crave blood.
And thus, goes the same legend, one should not unsheath the keris if one does not intend to use it.
Even today, keris may not simply be given away. When sold, the transaction is done for a mas kahwin or “bride price”. Keeping the tradition alive, former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed when presented with one, bought it for a token silver coin.
By the nature of their intended use, keris have to be pre-ordered. To tide them over, keris makers have resorted to producing smaller versions, with four-inch blades and obviously without spiritual powers, for the tourist market.
As a weapon, the keris has long given way to that other “Western” import – the pistol. Crime stories are full of people being shot, rather than “kerised” to death.
As a symbol of their position in the land bearing their name – “Tanah Melayu” – Malays can become emotional about the keris. But few today own a genuine one. Even fewer know how to use it.
For collectors, its value is almost exclusively ornamental, a piece of