Watch out, deadly curves!
No, this is not a traffic sign warning drivers of a dangerous winding road, but a rather inadequate description of keris, the traditional Indonesian dagger. Whether created by human hands or of supernatural origin, keris are believed to be physical manifestations of invisible forces. Forged in fire but symbolic of water, a keris represents a powerful union of cosmic complementary forces.
A distinctive feature of many keris is their odd-numbers of curves, but they also have straight blades. Keris are like naga, which are associated with irrigation canals, rivers, springs, wells, spouts, waterfalls and rainbows. Some keris have a naga or serpent head carved near its base with the body and tail following the curves of the blade to the tip. A wavy keris is a naga in motion, aggressive and alive; a straight blade is one at rest, its power dormant but ready to come into action.
Different types of whetstones, acidic juice of citrus fruits and poisonous arsenic bring out the contrast between the dark black iron and the light colored silvery nickel layers which together form pamor, damascene patterns on the blade. These motifs have specific names which indicate their special powers: udan mas (golden rain) is good for prosperity, wos wetah (unbroken rice grains) brings well-being.
Three fingers remaining helps in making decisions; two fingers left are good for spiritual purposes. One and a half fingers left repel disaster and black magic; one finger remaining is suitable for agricultural prosperity. Half a finger left is useful for thieves; no finger remaining is good for making proposals. What’s going on here? Cutting off fingers for punishment? No, by measuring a keris from base to tip with four fingers of each hand alternating, the remaining length indicates how the keris is beneficial.
The keris is an important family possession and considered to be an ancestral deity, as weapons often play critical roles in the rise and fall of families and fortunes in history. Heirloom keris have proper names which describe their power: Ki Sudamala is Venerable Exorcist and repels negative forces, Ki Baju Rante is Venerable Coat of Armor and spiritually protects one wearing it.
In Bali, an heirloom keris and other such metal objects are presented offerings every 210 days on the day called Tumpek Landep, which means ‘sharp’. They are cleaned, displayed in temple shrines, and presented with incense, holy water, and red-colored food and flowers to honor Hindu god of fire Brahma. This is followed by prayers for a sharp mind to Sanghyang Pasupati, the deity who empowers sacred objects and defeats ignorance.
Motorbikes and cars, modern metallic symbols of power and status, are also presented with offerings because they can bring fortune or mishap. Some Balinese jokingly call this day Tumpek Honda or Tumpek BMW, depending on what they can afford to own. With palm leaf ornaments flying up against windshields and rear-view mirrors, however, one wonders about the safety of this practice.
While the scabbard and hilt of the sheath may be made of rare woods or ivory and adorned with precious metals and fine gemstones, the most important part is the blade. Forces emanating from the dagger are kept under control by the sheath which also protects the blade. A cloth bag roughly in the form of a large keris in its sheath, sometimes made of magically protective black-and-white checkered kain poleng cloth, further shields against dust and damage.
A blacksmith is called pande, the same as the Indonesian word pandai meaning ‘skilled and clever’ as anyone who works with metals must be. The word empu is used for someone with a very high level of knowledge: sri empu is a high priest, empu keris is a highly skilled person who makes daggers. More than just weapons, in November 2005 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Indonesian keris as a great cultural achievement of world humanity.
In September 2006, the Pura Penataran Pande Peliatan blacksmith clan temple south of Ubud held a huge rededication ceremony. For this, its members had a new Balinese keris made. During a ritual forging of the blade in June, men took turns hammering at the red-hot blade at the home of the temple’s priest. During this time Suteja Neka, the senior person overseeing the ceremonies, became fascinated by keris and began learning as much as he could about them.
But things did not stop there, for Neka soon started to collect keris. He went to antique shops, visited collectors, attended exhibitions, and contacted organizations. When the news spread, people from Bali, Java and Madura brought old and new keris to Neka for him to examine and perhaps add to his collection. He also sought out handles, scabbards and sheaths along with those who made them, becoming a full patron of all the arts connected with keris.
The exhibition Keris in Culture: Traditional Daggers in the Arts will be officially opened and recognized as a permanent part of the Neka Art Museum by Jero Wacik, Indonesian Minister of Culture and Tourism, on 22 July to commemorate the museum’s Silver Jubilee. Paintings with keris in them will also be displayed along with photographs of keris in Balinese rituals, dances and costumes. The keris will be housed in a new two-storey room at the Neka Art Museum to complement the artworks on display.