By Lena Koh Maltesen (Batch 16)
The presenter for the topic of keris which is a Malay weapon was En Mohd Nadzrin bin Abdul Wahab, who among his other editing and translation credentials, is the founder of several Malay culture-themed blogs and websites. Of mixed heritage ranging from Yemeni, Iranian, Indian, Malay and Portuguese, he has studied seven silat forms (Malay art of self-defence) and trains in three of them. He has won several silat competitions in Gold, Silver and Bronze categories. He has a day job as a corporate trainer at Accenture Solutions. En Nadzrin arrived in full Malay traditional costume complete with gold-black sarong, “songkok” (a Malay hat) and traditional sandals, a sparring partner for silat demo purposes and his personal collection of keris and books on silat.
En. Nadzrin discussed the history, origin, design rationale, ownership, care, myths and geographical implication of the keris.
There are many theories on the origin of the keris. One of this states that it originated in AD 1361 in the Malay Archipelago of Majapahit at Nusantara on the island of Java. In 2005, UNESCO designated the Indonesian keris as the “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. According to En Nadzrin, his silat master Guru Jamaludin Shahadan stated that the keris is the most scientifically designed weapon (2004).
Silat masters requested the blacksmiths to design a weapon that could be used as a secondary instrument at close combat and that does not need any form of training in its usage. It must be simple to use and conforms to the ergonomics and utility of the hand. En Nadzrin demonstrated how the “teratai” (lotus) movement of the silat allows the keris to penetrate into critical organs with just one stab. The most important parts of the keris are the two last “lok”(waves) of the blade that allows it to penetrate into the nape of the neck, the lung, stomach, heart and the part between the anus and scrotum and bring immediate death to the victim with just one jab. Traditionally the blade of the keris is made of 2 metals, usually nickel and iron but now also steel. The hilt must be rough and non-slip and the sheaths can be made of wood, ivory, horn of female buffalo and bone.
The hilt of the Malay keris is pistol shaped and less ornate than that of the Indonesian kris. The Indonesians prefer to work in metal to allow for a more ornate design thus increasing the value of the keris whilst the Malay keris is commonly sheathed in wood. Traditionally, Brunei, Singapore and Sumatra prized their keris as a form of weapon whilst Bali and Madura considered them as a magical talisman. The Bugis, being taller and bigger in physique, designed the hilt of their keris to be bigger, wider and longer. Sulu keris, being heavy, was used for slashing. In Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, the keris is either treasured by aficionados as collectors’ or heirloom pieces or preserved by silat practitioners which means there is smaller demand of keris as a whole but those being sought are specially commissioned at a higher price. These are usually made in Kelantan. A good keris sells about RM600. Some master craftsmen still have a backlog of orders by several years. By contrast, Indonesia has a demand for simple keris as it is considered more of a talisman. Only the Malay royalty still regards the keris as a symbol of prestige and power. The Sultan has a personal keris and the longer keris panjang (long) or keris kuasa (power) which are passed down through the royal generations. In the olden days, the keris panjang was used as a messenger tool by the king’s emissary and also for execution.
Legends of the keris having magical powers includes re-directing fire, killing by pointing, warning the owner of danger. Although the keris is capable of maiming its victims and causing death, ironically in Malaysia, it is not considered illegal to possess one. To-date, En Nadzrin stated there has been no case of injuries or deaths by keris in Malaysia in modern times.
The Keris can be cleaned with brasso or by the traditional method of dipping in coconut water, then rubbing the blade with lemon and smoking it with incense which does not leave a white residue.
The presentation was very engaging as we had the chance to watch a silat demo and how the keris is used in close combat and the opportunity to touch and see the the keris up close and personal.