‘Pity the Poor Keris’: A Metamorphosis of a Dagger

In July 2005, the Youth Chief of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Hishammuddin Hussein, delivered an inciting speech that showed Malay pride and persistence in the Malaysian political arena. His bombastic words were prefaced by an event that cemented the symbolic value of the keris as a political weapon. Hussein waved and kissed the dagger while his entourage chanted, “Long live the Malays”.[1] Today, we see the keris taking on a painfully dominant political meaning, which denotes Malay-Malaysian (henceforth Malay/sian) radical ethnocentricity.[2] However, historically speaking, the keris has long been part of a non-political, traditional culture of the Malays. The keris was (and is) often used in ceremonial events such as weddings and coronations. So how did the keris end up deep in this ethno-political controversy? I argue that the answer lies in the metamorphosis of the keris form from being a tool to a cultural symbol to a political weapon parallel to the history of the Malay/sians.

 

The keris form is iconic: the slanted and pointed hilt, the curvilinear blade and the embellished sheath. When the three parts are assembled, most kerises span between twelve to sixteen inches from hilt to tip.[3] However, the peculiar form of the keris is not just an advantageous accident. During the Hindu-Buddhist period of the Malaysian Peninsular (c. 800), the keris was introduced through silat combat and its form was conceived to maximize utility.[4] Consider the average keris: its one-foot length is optimal in the close-quarter martial style. The curvilinear blade inflicts a wider wound, which is harder to heal; the slanted hilt was for convenience when drawing and for quick stab-and-withdraw moves with straight, forward thrusts.[5] The dagger’s notorious reputation did not originate from its efficient form though. The wrath of the dagger manifests due to its ability to poison its victims, making dying by the blade of a keris  an excruciating one.[6] But fashioning the keris requires skills and knowledge beyond the practical; it requires the knowledge of magic.

 

Legend has it that a keris is a living entity. Various literary sources refer to the keris as having an animus, a “temperament” and agency.[7] One such keris in Perak Museum, Taiping, is known for its thirst for blood. After dusk, it is believed to “sneak away, kill someone, wash and wipe itself” before returning back to its place of safekeeping.[8] Similarly, the fifteenth century Hikayat Hang Tuah tells us that Hang Tuah’s keris, the ‘Taming Sari’, was noted for its ability to unsheathe itself and attack the opponent whenever the owner was in danger. While these legends are extravagant as historical sources, they provide a window into the world of the Malays with regard to the cultural status of the keris.

 

The keris’ supernatural powers are believed to be rooted in the syncretic worldview of the Malays: having mixed traditions from its indigenous, Hindu-Buddhist and Islamic periods. Particularly, the wooden hilt of a keris makes for prime example. The hilt is often carved from a strong wood, which carries the most life essence.[9] Furthermore, the making of the hilt would not be attempted by anyone other than a master carver.[10] The magnificent task is to match the life essence of the wood to that of the owner, thus binding man and dagger together. So close was the association between man and his keris that the dagger became an ethno-marker during colonial British Malaya (from the mid-eighteenth to mid-twentieth centuries). As a result, the keris became a cultural symbol for Malay identity (as opposed to the Chinese- or Indian-Malaysians). In other words, the keris not only became integral to the Malay image but also began to metonymize the individual.  Even today, the dagger makes an appearance in Malay ceremonies that involve a strong sense of self: id est weddings, royal coronations.

 

Returning to Hussein’s keris-waving act, it is misleading to think that this was the first incident in which the keris was incorporated into Malaysian politics. One only needs to examine the national heraldic design and logos of Malay/sian political parties to understand the political role of the keris. Take the Malaysian coat of arms: five kerises are encased in the top horizontal section of a central escutcheon. UMNO’s flag also employs the silhouette of a keris as its sole and central subject.[11] More recently, in 2015, UMNO released a new logo with two kerises forming an ‘X’ in the centre. The implicit message is that Malay identity is integral to the Malaysian identity today. The obvious critique, then, is the fact that Malaysia has long been a multicultural nation.

 

The multicultural aspect of Malaysia can be noted in its Hindu-Buddhist, pre-colonial and colonial pasts. At every significant turn of Malaysian history, the people have been well exposed to foreign exchanges. Therefore, the assertion of the keris as an ethno-nationalist symbol for the Malays ultimately disregards the people’s experience of  pluralism. Reacting to this revisionist stance, Farish Noor rightly noted that the keris is “the most apt and oldest signifier of a plural cosmopolitan Malaysian that we have today”.[12] The urge, then, is to understand how objects retain all of their histories.

 

Understanding the 18th-century social context of the keris should not abrogate its more-distant past. The keris, as perceived by Malay/sians has indeed morphed through time but it is precisely this metamorphosis that should be embraced. The point is to not to do away or replace the narrative. If anything, the composite biography of the keris epitomizes how historical linearity may be harmful to a nation’s healing. For this reason, the keris and the histories that it signifies ought to be comprehensively taken into account to appreciate its place in current society. If not, then, in the words of Noor, “pity the poor keris”.[13]


 

Footnotes

[1] Liew Chin Tong, ‘A Decade after Hisham Waved His Keris...”,  Malaysia Kini, Monday 20 July 2005, <https:// www.malaysiakini.com/news/305590>.

[2] This article focuses on the history of the Malaysian Peninsular as it houses the nation’s seat of government and capital city. It is pivotal to note that the perception of the keris may differ in the Bornean (East) Malaysian societies, whom experienced a slightly different history.  As for the term “Malays” used in this article, I refer to the individuals with a legal Malay status, as stated in the Malaysian constitution.

[3] A.H. Hill, ‘The Keris and Other Malay Weapons’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 29 (1956), pp. 7-60, (p.10).

[4] G. C. Woolley, ‘Origin of the Malay Keris’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 16 (1938), pp. 36-39, (p.37).

[5] Hill, p.10-11.

[6] Edward Frey, The Kris: Mystic Weapon of the Malay Weapon (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988), p.23.

[7] Frey, p.12.

[8] ibid.

[9] The Malays  tradition has been called the Cult of Wood due to their reverence for the forest and its organic materials. For more info see Farish A. Noor and Eddin Khoo, Spirit of Wood: The Art of Malay Woodcarving (Singapore: Periplus Editions Ltd., 2003), p. 30.

[10] ibid., p.119-120.

[11] The Malaysian coat of arms was adopted in 1963 & UMNO was founded in 1949.

[12] Noor, Farish A., ‘Pity the Poor Keris: The Transcultural Origins of the Keris and How it was turned into an Ethno-Nationalist Marker’, What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You: The Annexe Lectures Vol. I (Malaysia: Matahari Books, 2009), pp. 20-55, (p.55).

[13] ibid.. p. 19.

Bibliography

 

Frey, Edward, The Kris: Mystic Weapon of the Malay Weapon (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988).

 

Hill, A.H., ‘The Keris and Other Malay Weapons’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 29 (1956), 7-60.

 

Noor, Farish A. and Khoo, Eddin, Spirit of Wood: The Art of Malay Woodcarving (Singapore: Periplus Editions Ltd., 2003).

 

Noor, Farish A., ‘Pity the Poor Keris: The Transcultural Origins of the Keris and How it was turned into an Ethno-Nationalist Marker’, What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You: The Annexe Lectures Vol. I (Malaysia: Matahari Books, 2009), 20-50.

 

Tong, Liew Chin, ‘A Decade after Hisham Waved His Keris...’, Malaysia Kini, Monday 20 July 2005, <https:// www.malaysiakini.com/news/305590>.

 

Woolley, G. C., ‘Origin of the Malay Keris’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 16 (1938), 36-39.

 

 

Essay by Irina Ridzuan, Postgrad, MSc in Late Antique, Islamic and Byzantine Studie