ORIGIN OF THE KERIS AND ITS DEVELOPMENT
TO THE 14TH CENTURY
A paper which sets forth evidence to be found in the monuments of Central and East Java as the basis for a commentary upon the origin and development of a traditional Javanese weapon. by A.G. MAISEY
The modern keris has existed since at least the mid 14th Century. It developed in East Java from an earlier form known in Java as the keris buda. The keris buda was preceded by and, coexisted with, a Javanese dagger with a leaf shaped blade which resembled the leaf shaped blades of Indian swords.
The period during which the keris buda, and its immediate predecessor, came into being was the Early Classical Period (end 7th Century to end 9th Century). This period of Javanese history was heavily influenced by Indian culture and ideas. The evidence, although incomplete, points to the keris being a descendant of the line of weaponry which embraces the leaf shaped blades of India, and proposed by Rawson as " ...a common Aryan heritage of the Indo Aryan peoples".
Note: In this paper keris buda, pre-modern keris and Prambanan II have the same meaning, and modern keris and keris have the same meaning.
The keris is a South East Asian dagger.
Typically the blade of a keris is of asymmetric form, with the blade wider on one side than on the other. The blade can be either straight or with an uneven number of waves, is usually about 12" to 15" long, and is sharpened on both edges. The surface of the blade frequently bears a pattern, produced during the forging process, and made visible by etching, which is known as pamor.
The foregoing blade description relates to the modern keris, which dates from at least the 14th Century. Some keris do deviate from this description, however, for the purposes of this paper, these deviations are not material.
A number of theories have been put forward to explain the origin of the keris (Hill). These range from adaptation of a broken spear, to development from the sting of the stingray. Javanese and Malay traditions attribute origin to legendary figures. An examination of these theories would use much time and space and would contribute little. Suffice to say that when viewed against evidence available in the country of origin of the keris, Java, these theories are difficult to support or accept.
Solyom states: "We may only speculate about how and when the keris and its manner of use evolved." He then goes on to mention an early form of keris known in Java as keris buda, which the Javanese attribute to the Central Javanese Hindu Buddhist era (c. 700 A.D. to c. 900 A.D.). He comments further: "Apparently no reliable dating has been obtained for them."
Examination of monumental evidence in Java demonstrates that the keris buda did indeed exist during the Central Javanese period. The same sites where representations of the keris buda can be found, contain representations of another very similar dagger which can reasonably be considered to be the direct predecessor of the keris buda. The form of this predecessor is very similar to the leaf shaped blades identified by Rawson as one of the two chief forms of Indian sword blades. Considered in the time and cultural frame work of the Central Javanese period this would seem to indicate the influence of post-Gupta culture on this weapon design. These blade forms are leaf shaped, waisted and with a splayed base. Rawson states that, along with a second Indian blade form, "Both these blade forms are consistently represented in Greek vase paintings from antiquity, so it is very probable that they are a common Aryan heritage of the Indo-Aryan peoples."
Another point of similarity with Indian weapon design is in the pommels shown on the swords and daggers of the Central Javanese period. On the swords, these are the common Indian round disc, surmounted by a small dome. On some of the daggers, this disc has become an oblong shape (Harsrinuksmo, p.19), an alteration which would facilitate a waist level, vertical carry.
Central Javanese Period (Early Classical)
It is generally accepted that there had been Indian contact with Java from about the second century A.D. (Coedes). By the early 8th Century, the Shailendras, a Buddhist dynasty, had established themselves as rulers in Central Java. Between 775 A.D. and 864 A.D., during the reign of King Samaratunga, the great Buddhist monument of Borobudur was completed, and was probably consecrated in 824 A.D. (de Casparis). Not long after this, early in the 10th Century, the temple complex of Lara Jonggrang was completed.
The Lara Jonggrang complex is situated near the village of Prambanan, not far from Jogjakarta in Central Java. Because of its siting it is often referred to as Candi Prambanan (Prambanan temple). This is a Hindu temple devoted to the worship of Shiva.
Both Borobudur and Prambanan are examples of Indian art and architectural influence in Java. The architecture of Borobudur is influenced by Indian Gupta and post-Gupta styles (Britannica), and the art and architecture of Prambanan is a synthesis of northern and southern Indian styles (Kempers). The reliefs at both these monuments, although influenced by Indian culture, do not show Indian settings, but place the stories related by the reliefs in a Javanese context.
Harsrinuksmo reports a short weapon, similar to a keris, portrayed in the reliefs of the Buddhist monument of Borobudur. I have searched these reliefs several times in an effort to locate this representation, but to date, I have had no success. A number of other weapon types are shown, however, nothing remotely similar to a keris has been identified.
Candi Prambanan (Lara Jonggrang)
1. Prambanan I. A monkey warrior holding a Prambanan I style dagger. The leaf shaped blade is the great grandfather of the modern keris. Located at Candi Shiva, Prambanan Temple Complex, Central Java.
The temple complex at Prambanan consists of the central temple of Shiva, flanked by the temple of Brahma (south) and Visnu (north), and 5 smaller temples. On the inside of the balcony wall of Candi Shiva, and continued on the balcony wall of Candi Brahma, the story of the Ramayana is carved in relief. The relief carvings of Candi Shiva contain at least three representations of weapons, which I shall refer to as "Prambanan I", that I consider to be forerunners of the keris buda. These weapons are daggers with leaf shaped blades, splayed blade base, and with a separate piece fitted to the blade base, as is the gonjo on a modern keris blade. All are fitted with heavy pommels, topped by a dome, in the Indian fashion, and are held in a manner which dictates an overarm stab, rather than a thrust.
2. Above: Prambanan II. Laksmana holding a Prambanan II style dagger. All essential features of a keris are present, and the blade form is what is now known as 'keris buda'. The handle, with its heavy pommel, is designed for use with an overarm stab. Located at Candi Shiva, Prambanan Temple Complex, Central Java.
3. Right: Prambanan II. Close-up of the dagger held by Laksmana in the photograph above.
The relief carving of panel No. 4, second scene, depicts Rama and Laksmana killing the giants which are threatening Wismamitra's hermitage (Moertjipto, Drs.). The dagger shown in this relief bears an asymmetric base, defined gonjo, kusen, and odo-odo; all features of a keris. I consider that this dagger, which I shall refer to as "Prambanan II", is a representation of a keris buda.
Candi Visnu carries a representation of at least one dagger similar to Prambanan I in its relief carvings.
All the daggers mentioned above are short, broad, and heavy, and of the same proportions as a keris buda. They display a leaf shaped blade, with greater or lesser waist definition, a distinct central ridge, and splayed blade base. Representations of swords found in the same reliefs also carry leaf shaped blades, however, of a form more suited to the cut, than to the thrust. Many are similar to Rawson's Harasnath khanda, but I am not suggesting a link here, because of the time difference. It is, however, interesting to note the existence of a form similar to the Harasnath khanda, in Central Java in the 9th Century, when Rawson places this form in the 11th Century in India. Was this a separate Javanese development from the same root, or did the Harasnath form exist prior to the 11th Century?
The generally accepted date for completion of the Prambanan complex is early 10th Century, however, evidence does exist in the form of an inscription, dated to the year 856, which implies that this temple complex already existed in that year (R. Soekmono, in Fontein, p. 78).
East Javanese Period (Late Classical)
In the late 10th or early 11th Century, the centre of Javanese cultural and political life shifted to the East. The first king after the shift of the court from Central to East Java is known to be King Sindok. He is mentioned in several inscriptions, the earliest dating from 919. He claimed descent from the dynasty of Mataram, which ruled in Central Java following the failure of the Shailendras in about 870 (Vlekke).
We know little of East Java in the period from the arrival of Sindok up until the establishment of the kingdom of Majapahit in 1292. Sindok ruled over the kingdom of Kadiri, which was destroyed around the year 1000. Airlangga reunified East Java, and then divided his kingdom between his two sons. Almost nothing is known of this period. In 1222 the kingdom of Singosari arose, followed by Majapahit in 1292. Vlekke suggests that the constant change in the centre of power during this period of Java's history indicates the existence of a number of small principalities in more or less permanent competition with each other. If this was the case, the resulting political instability probably generated unrest and a less than peaceful social environment. History tells us that in such a social environment, the members of that society customarily carry arms as they go about their daily business.
From this late classical period there are further examples of the evolution of the keris. An 11th Century East Javanese carving (Fontein, plate 19), shows a demon grasping a weapon with two blades, both of which display the same short, broad, heavy form with waisted blade, splayed base and heavy central ridge, as found in the Prambanan I dagger. However, in this East Javanese example, the blade features are more accentuated than in the Prambanan examples.
Candi Singosari (c. 1300), located not far from present day Malang, provides an example of gandik and gonjo, albeit, not on a keris. These features, which are now accepted as being typical of the keris, are found on a dagger with a jambiya shaped blade and bearing a domed, disc shaped pommel (Fontein, plate 25).
Fontein also presents a 14th Century East Javanese finial, which shows a man holding a keris of modern proportions. This keris is held in the rapier like fashion of the modern keris.
In the Museum Mpu Tantular, in Surabaya, can be found a stone carving of Durga originating from Candi Jawi (14th Century). In one hand Durga grasps a dagger very similar to the Prambanan II dagger, however, the form is considerably more refined, being of a lighter construction than Prambanan II, and fitted with a waved gonjo. This dagger is held in a manner which dictates a thrust, rather than an overarm blow.
Candi Panataran is located near Blitar, and is the largest temple complex in East Java. Its existence covers the period from 1197 to 1454 (Kempers), and it is a Javanese Hindu complex. The main temple at Panataran dates from 1347 (Kempers), and its base carries reliefs telling the story of the Ramayana.
4. Prambanan I after the move to East Java. Hanoman, The Monkey King, shown using an elongated version of the Prambanan I style of dagger. Located at Candi Panataran, East Java.
There are many representations of weapons in these reliefs, and swords, spears and daggers bearing blades similar to those found in the reliefs of Prambanan can be identified. Included in these representations of 14th Century Javanese weaponry is a relief of Hanoman using a dagger with many of the features of Prambanan I, and using it as an overarm stabbing weapon. However, in the Panataran relief, this dagger has become a little longer and proportionately thinner.
5. Prambanan II style blade, but the handle is without the heavy pommel, thus permitting the weapon to be used to thrust, rather than with an overarm stab. This is the first monumental appearance of the keris as a thrusting weapon, and is located at Candi Panataran, East Java.
There are several representations of keris in the Panataran reliefs. Two of these representations are particularly interesting in that one shows clearly the manner of use; and the other the way in which the keris was worn. These keris are still represented as short and broad, however, the relief which depicts use shows that the grip has changed from an overarm stabbing grip to a grip which will allow a rapier thrust. Moreover, the relief showing the way in which a keris was worn demonstrates that the heavy pommel of Prambanan II has disappeared.
1 A keris buda from the period 11th to 13th Century. No pamor is in evidence, and the laminated construction technique has not yet appeared.
2 A late keris buda. The blade is of early form, but laminated construction was used, and pamor is in evidence. This keris was probably made after the mid 14th Century, as a copy of an earlier piece.
3 Transitional form of keris. In this blade the emergence of the modern keris has begun. Some features of the keris buda are still in evidence, such as the square tang, high gandik, and broad gonjo. However, the tang, although still essentially square has a slight radius on its front and back, and the blade has lengthened, and become lighter. Close examination reveals residual traces of black iron with what appears to be an inclusion of nickelous material. The bulk of the blade material is heavily grained iron or steel, and as it retains much of its original form, indicates that the laminated outer skin would have been very thin. This blade appears to be an early attempt at laminated construction, and probably dates from 13th to 14th Century East Java.
4 A modern keris, the blade executed in the Central Javanese Surakarta style. This keris was made in 1987.
Examination of physical specimens of pre-modern keris and of early examples of modern keris, shows that on some pre-modern keris, a line drawn through the centre of the blade deviates from a line drawn through the centre of the tang by 3°, on other pre-modern keris, this deviation is 8.5° to 9°, and on the modern keris the deviation varies from 8° to 12.5°. The smaller angle of deviation found on some pre-modern keris, and resulting in a blade with a straighter presentation, is consistent with a weapon used to stab overarm, whilst the wider angle of deviation found on other pre-modern keris, and on all modern keris, is consistent with the thrusting style of use of the modern keris. The existence of two distinct angles of deviation in pre-modern keris would seem to indicate that even before the appearance of the modern keris, its immediate predecessor was being used to thrust, as well as to stab.
Further evidence that the keris buda was used as, and developed from a weapon used with an overarm stabbing action, is to be found in the tang. The tang of the keris buda is of square section. Such a tang was necessary to prevent the blade from turning in the handle, something very undesirable in a weapon used with a powerful overarm, downwards stabbing action. Conversely, the tang of the modern keris is round, which allows adjustment of the orientation of the blade to the grip, to suit the individual user, a desirable feature of the keris used as a thrusting weapon, which is unimportant where the weapon is used overarm.
In the period from at least 900 A.D. to circa 1300 A.D. stabbing weapons with leaf shaped, waisted, splayed base blades, similar in shape and mounting to Indian leaf shaped blades, were an established form of Central and East Javanese weaponry. The existence of a variation of this weapon, similar in all respects, except for the shortening of one side of the splayed base, is substantiated by representations of this weapon in relief carvings on monuments in Central and East Java, dating from 10th to 14th Centuries.
It is an established fact that Indian culture and ideas were a major factor in the development of Javanese culture from at least the 8th Century.
The existence in Java of a weapon bearing similar blade shape and mounting to a major Indian style indicates that the design of the Javanese weapon was generated by the Indian design.
The variation of this dagger with one side of the splayed base shortened, resulting in an asymmetric blade base, does not exist in Indian weaponry. This weapon with leaf shaped blade and asymmetric base is original to Java and marks the commencement of the development of the keris. This weapon is known as the "keris buda".
In Central Java the keris buda was used primarily, perhaps solely, in an overarm stabbing action. In East Java, during the period from circa 1000 A.D. to circa 1300 A.D., the keris buda underwent changes which resulted in it becoming a longer, lighter, thinner weapon, used to thrust, rather than with an overarm action. These changes saw the appearance of the modern keris.
Reasons for Change
The development of the keris buda from Prambanan I, and the modern keris from the keris buda can be supported with evidence, and accepted with reasonable confidence. However, the reasons for this development are pure hypothesis. Nonetheless, I would like to present the following for your consideration.
As a rule form follows function. The Prambanan dagger which eventually developed into the modern keris was a personal weapon. If we can judge by later historical records of the society in which this dagger was found, such personal weapons were carried constantly (Groeneveldt). The mode of dress adopted in Java would make carrying a dagger of the size and design of the Prambanan dagger quite inconvenient. The manner in which such a dagger was carried can be seen on a statue to be found in the north alun-alun of the Surakarta Kraton (Harsrinuksmo, p. 19).
I submit that loss of the heavy pommel and refinement of the blade form of the Prambanan daggers, were changes made to permit more convenient wear of the dagger for someone in the everyday dress of a sarung. When the pommel disappeared, and the blade became lighter, the weapon became more suitable for use with a rapier grip, than with an overarm action. As a rapier, the blade became longer, and consequently thinner; for it to have remained the same width and thickness would have made it too slow for effective use as a thrusting weapon. As a thrusting weapon, the necessity for a symmetrically splayed blade base, acting as a cushion for the side of the hand, lessened, thus the blade base became asymmetric, its function now simply to support the first joint of the index finger.
Actually, the blade had already become asymmetric prior to any modification along the lines outlined above. Witness Prambanan II, the keris buda. The reason for this earlier adoption of asymmetric form can possibly be explained by the grip used with the keris buda. The shortened side of the blade base supports the fingers, the longer side, the side of the hand. With the use of this grip it is obvious that a projection in front of the fingers is unnecessary, and in some circumstances could cause inconvenience.
The political unrest of the late classical period, prior to Majapahit, is also a possible factor in the development of the modern keris from the keris buda. In such times a light, fast, thrusting weapon would tend to be more useful than a weapon used with a slower overarm stabbing action. The lighter weight, and greater convenience of carry of the modern keris would have tended to see this longer, lighter, faster version of the Javanese personal dagger, favoured over the heavier, slower keris buda. Particularly so if the social environment was unsettled, and it was considered desirable to always have a means of defence at hand.
However, without technological advancement in forge processes, this development of a longer, lighter, faster, more convenient weapon for personal use, may not have been able to be achieved. Most keris buda do not carry pamor. "They are plain iron..." (Solyom). Conversely one of the distinctive features of the modern keris is its pamor. Weapons constructed with pamor are essentially a sandwich; a core which forms the cutting edge, supported by a laminated plate on either side. This form of blade construction provides much more strength for equal cross section than does a blade of homogenous construction. I believe it is probable that weapons of pamor construction made their appearance in East Java, during the same period which saw the modern keris developed, that is, the three hundred years between 1000 A.D. and 1300 A.D. It is possible that proximity to the north coast, and consequent contact with traders from Persia and the Indian sub-continent played some part in the technological advancement of forge processes, which saw the introduction of blades of pamor construction.
The decrease in width of the blade caused a deterioration in the capacity of the weapon to cause haemorrhage. In an effort to compensate for this shortcoming a waved form of blade came into being. This waving of the blade had the additional advantage of allowing it to be more easily withdrawn from a wound. The development of the distinctive features of sogokan, kembang kacang and greneng were probably attempts to divert blood from the grip.
These changes had already taken place by the mid 14th Century.
The modern keris has existed since at least the mid 14th Century. It originated in East Java and was a development of the keris buda, which was a transitional form of an earlier dagger. The development was occasioned by the custom of habitually carrying a dagger as a personal weapon, and the mode of dress.
Britannica Encyclopedia, 15th Edition, 1983.
Casparis de, J.G., quoted in Forman.
Coedes, G., The Indianised States of South East Asia.
Fontein, Jan, The Sculpture of Indonesia.
Forman, B., Borobudur.
Groeneveldt, W.P., Historical notes on Indonesia and Malaya compiled from Chinese sources.
Harsrinuksmo, Bambang, Ensiklopedi Budaya Nasional.
Hill, A.H. (M.A., D, Phil) The Keris and Other Malay Weapons, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 29, Part 4, No. 176.
Kempers, A.J. Bernet, Ancient Indonesian Art.
Moertjipto, Drs., Prasetyo, Drs., B., Kusumo, Drs., I.D., Darmoyo. The Ramayana Reliefs of Prambanan.
Rawson, P.S., The Indian Sword.
Soekmono, R., in Fontein.
Solyom, Garrett and Bronwyn, The World of the Javanese Keris.
Vlekke, Bernard H.M. Nusantara.
Copyright © 1998 by A. G. Maisey. All rights reserved. Country of first publication: Australia
This paper or any part of thereof may not be copied or reproduced in any form without the express written consent of the author.
This paper previously appeared in Arms Cavalcade, Official Journal of the Antique Arms Collectors Society of Australia Co-op Limited, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1998), pp. 8 - 11 and 23.
This html edition was prepared by Lee A. Jones and is presented on the Ethnographic Edged Weapons Resource Site with the permission of the author. Version 1.0 ~ 10 March 2001