Friday, April 18, 2014

Melaka, Part Four - Kriss Knives

18 April 2014

Yes, I bought a kriss knife in KL and sent it to my brother.  I should have waited, Melaka seemed to be the center of kriss knives is Malaysia.  (Also spelled "kris" and often spelled "keris" in Malaysian.)

The kriss is a dagger type knife, double-edged, with a curvy blade.  This knife is the traditional weapon and tool of the indigenous peoples of SE Asia - it's the prized dagger of Indonesia, Borneo, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, and Singapore, and is known as a "kalis" in the southern Philippine Islands.

First, the curves are always in an odd number.  The kriss shown here, from the National Museum in KL, has eleven curves.  (Count each "out" to make it easier to keep track.)  A kriss with three curves is used for a medical knife.  A kriss with five or seven curves in the average weapon of the average person.  Nine curves might signify the dagger belonged to an officer.  Eleven curves, this would be for a higher up officer, maybe a general.  Some krisses have so many curves they seem more like a sword than a dagger.

Also, a kriss always has a little hook, and one end of the top is extended.  Without going into a lot of detail, this is basically to maximize the damage to one's enemy or opponent.  The one stabbed with the kriss.

The handle is offset from the blade - in other words, when you hold the kriss handle straight, the blade is then on a diagonal plane.  Probably also to maximize damage.

The kriss blade often has designs on it, sometimes in the design of a dragon or a snake, with the head by the hilt and the tail being the point of the blade.  

Lastly, a kriss usually comes with a scabbard or sheath.  And this often matches or coordinates with the kriss handle, perhaps both being made from the same kind of wood, or even ivory.  Scabbards can also be covered in worked metal, forged into intricate designs.

We met a shopkeeper in Melaka who had quite a collection of krisses, and was willing to share much of the above information.  Also, old kriss are handmade; newer kriss, those made within the last 10 to 20 years, are machine made and not only less well made, but less desirable.  They aren't considered true kriss knives by connoisseurs.

Now, the bridge near our hotel had kriss knives on bas reliefs along the bridge face, and four large sculptures, one on each tower of the bridge.  
Apparently the kriss  is a symbol of the former sultan of Melaka, and so the kriss has become symbolic of the power of Melaka.  Or something like that.

The door handles of the People's Museum were in the shape of the kriss, which was interesting.

And in this museum, I discovered the world of kriss lore.  Wow.

So here, for your reading pleasure, is a copy of the information about kriss knives, as written by someone for the People's Museum in Melaka, Malaysia.
"The widespread tales that the Keris (or kriss), a traditional weapon, possesses magical powers that allow it to fly or move by itself inside a cupboard have enthralled many, spurring not only locals but also foreign tourists to purchase these ornate knives.  Does a keris really have supernatural power, a life of its own?  The answer depends entirely on an individual’s own perception.
"Experts on keris focus on many aspects of the weapons in order to fully understand them, viewing them from different aspects such as the historical, cultural, archaeological, anthropological, as well as considering all the legends, mythology and ethnology.
"In terms of its fabrication, a keris is welded from various different metals that fall into two groups: metal derived from the earth and metal derived from the atmosphere.  Materials from the atmosphere means meteor and asteroid.  If the iron is welded or combined with another material from the atmoshphere, then it is considered that there is a marriage between the cosmos and the world.  Mythologically speaking, a keris made from atmospheric materials is said to have the power of God.
"Welding certain kinds of metals into one blade causes them to form patterns known locally as “pamor.”  “Pamor” – or damascene – is the most striking feature of the keris.  Iron gives the keris its body, and the steel its cutting edge.  But it is the nickel that gives the blade its “pamor.”  The pamor is brought out and made visible through a process of washing the finished blade in a solution of arsenic and limejuice."

 Interesting stuff!  Plus, years ago (no one will say long ago), kriss knives were made with poison imbued blades.  Only the blacksmiths knew how to do this, and they didn't share this secret with anyone else.  (Side note - we met a blacksmith in Georgetown who still makes handmade kriss, but he wasn't willing to make just one for us, he said it would be too much work.)

All in all, a fascinating weapon.  Not that I'm a fan of weapons, having been to my share of anti-war rallies in the 70s.  But there's something about that shiny curvy wavy blade that is hypnotic, something about the sinuous dragon design on the blade and the ornate scabbard that calls for, well, admiration if not possession.

No, I'm not buying myself a kriss.  I don't need one in my luggage, nor my home.

But they really are enthralling daggers.

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