By Rosie Milne
I've just returned from a lecture on a traditional dagger, that was, until recently, of paramount importance throughout the Malay world: the kris. This lecture was held at the Singapore American Club under the auspices of the American Women's Association. The good matrons of the Arts and Culture Committee organized the event, and it would have been your typical Luscious Ladies bash, except that, in a radical departure, they'd decided to hold it in the evening so The Husbands could come along, too. Gosh! The excitement. The lecturer, Ronald Stride, was introduced as The President of The American Association of Singapore. I was most impressed.
Ronald, a financier, now retired, has been in South East Asia for well over 20 years. His love affair with the kris began in the early 1980s, when he was stationed on Java.In 1984 the Sultan of Solo invited him to the kraton (palace) for the Javanese New Year party. Ronald said it was like something out of a Cecil B. DeMille movie, with a cast of thousands, complete with flower-bedecked bullocks, warriors hung about with krises, dancing girls and the kitchen sink. The Javanese calendar is a tricky thing. In 1984 New Year coincided with Ronald's birthday, in September, and his wife, Janet, commissioned him a kris, from the sultan's empu.
No, I'd never heard of an empu, either. But it turned out an empu was a kris-smith. He was a man who combined great technical skill in metal working, with artistry, and with deep spiritual sensibility. The empu needed to be able to communicate with the spirit world, because the kris itself was partly of the spirit world; it was not just a dagger, it was a mystical weapon of great metaphysical power. The empu must get to know the man for whom he was making the kris, and he must accompany its manufacture by prolonged praying, to ensure that the magical power embedded in it did not clash with the personality of the man for whom it was being made.
Such a clash would lead to disaster, and Ronald explained that the empu who made his kris followed him round for a full 24 hours after he'd taken possession of it, to make sure he and the spirit of the kris would not be in conflict. The kris's soul was said to lie in the metal patterns the empu worked into the blade. These patterns, known as pamor, appeared when nickel, or another metal, was added to iron.
Pamor production was a technological feat, but the separate patterns had artistic names like "the mountain" or "watermelon seeds". These different patterns could encourage different benefits, such as bravery, good luck, prosperity, and so on. The kris was also protective. If a man slept with his kris under his pillow, then nobody could attack him; his kris would fly out and kill his enemies of its own accord. During the daytime, it would vibrate to indicate the approach of danger - a bit like a mobile phone might vibrate with a message.
The identification between a man and his kris was so complete, that a bridegroom could send his kris to stand in for him at his wedding ceremony, should he be unable to attend in person... An excellent start to a marriage I think you'll agree. Ronald had brought about a dozen antique krises along to the lecture; one was over 800 years old. Trustingly, he let us handle them - The Banker and all the other Husbands became very excited by this.
Given the blades' age, it was perhaps unsurprising that they didn't feel razor sharp, and that their surfaces were rough, like emery board, not sleek, like steel. Ronald demonstrated how the kris was used – with an upward thrusting motion. He said that in his opinion krises were always more symbolic than lethal, since if anyone had attempted to use one in earnest, he'd probably have been killed, as his attackers laid into him with deadlier weapons.
He also demonstrated how the well-dressed Malay wore his kris: if he came from Bali, he wore it between his shoulder blades; the Javanese wore it in the smalls of their backs, and practically everybody else wore it on their side, just as a cowboy wears his holster.
Before the Malay world became (mostly) Muslim, it was (mostly) Hindu-Buddhist-Animist. Kris blades carry this pre-Islamic history not only in their connection to the spirit world, but also in their design. Some blades are straight, they are said to represent the Naga – the serpent king of Hindu-Buddhist legend – when he is asleep. Sluggish people who need an injection of energy should not carry straight bladed krises.
Other blades are wavy, they are said to represent the Naga when he is active. Energetic, hot-tempered people, who need an injection of calm, should not carry wavy bladed krises. Do remember that, next time you commission one.
Wavy-edged krises always have an odd number of waves. And why? Because odd numbers were considered masculine. And why? Isn’t it obvious? Because they were indivisible by two, of course. Even numbers, being divisible, were thought to be feminine, since a woman divided by two when she had a child.
The Malay world was deeply hierarchical. The type of kris a man could carry was determined by his social position. Ronald explained that a fisherman who'd somehow made good – an unlikely scenario in traditional society – would never be able to carry a kris appropriate for a prince, even if he could afford it.
However, the sheath of the kris Janet commissioned for Ronald was of red lacquer. This was supposed to be exclusive to the royal family of Solo. Perhaps The Sultan knew Ronald would one day become The President of The American Association of Singapore, and thus surely worthy of red lacquer.
Rosie Milne's novels How To Change Your Life and Holding The Baby are both published by Pan, they are available through Amazon UK.
John Huggett is an artist and illustrator whose works are available through his website at John Huggett Telegraph