Thread: Figural !
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Old 20th October 2019, 10:24 PM   #168
A. G. Maisey
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Join Date: May 2006
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Both Kai & I have commented on the difficulty of identifying the specific characters that are represented in Balinese & Javanese keris hilts. It does not really matter who published what in respect of an opinion of a hilt character, what matters is how that character has been identified, and then that opinion needs to be qualified.

The rational way in which to identify a hilt character is to try to identify any attributes that the carved character may have and then match those attributes to the known and/or accepted attributes of characters found in monumental sculpture or the wayang. But even this approach does not give an answer that can be necessarily relied upon.

As with many Indian Hindu arms, the nature of the keris is that of a shrine, a shrine that is essentially empty but that is held in readiness for the entry of the character from the Other World for whom it has been prepared. That character might be a major deity, a personal, often minor deity, a folk spirit, an ancestor, or even a combination of ancestor plus deity where the ancestor is considered as merged with that ancestor's personal deity after passing from This World. The sacred part of the complete keris is considered to be only the blade, that blade is the shrine, as with other shrines, the shrine that appears as a weapon has a guardian, a dwarapala.

The word "dwarapala" is from the Sanscrit and was used in Old Javanese, the first syllable "dwara" means gate or place of entry, and combined with "pala" it carries the meaning of a gate guardian.

The weapon shrine is normally empty, and evil spirits and evil entities are attracted to empty spaces, so to prevent entry to the empty weapon shrine a dwarapala is needed, that need is fulfilled by the presence of the totogan hilt figure. That hilt figure had a meaning and a purpose for the original custodian of the keris for which it was prepared, but once separated from that original custodian it is really very difficult, if not totally impossible to correctly identify the character represented in the hilt. At least, this is so with older hilts or hilts prepared for a persons with the beliefs of their ancestors, such hilts were in fact prepared as dwarapalas, not simply artistic figures.

The element of ancestor worship within the indigenous societies of Jawa & Bali is one that is frequently disregarded or glossed over. In fact, for a person from these societies who has strong traditional beliefs, the idea of his ancestors is a very major part of his being.

Consider this:- the reason for the existence of all of the ancestors of any person living comes down in the present to just one point, which is the existence of the person who is the product of those ancestors. In extremity, all those ancestors can be called upon to assist the present person. This is a very old idea, and is not unique to Javanese or Balinese indigenous cultures.

So, in an old Javanese or Balinese figural hilt that was prepared in the form of an ancestor figure, that figure represents not just a single ancestor, but the entire line of ancestors who are now present in the person who has that hilt affixed to his keris.

In the modern world many deeply rooted traditional beliefs have been forgotten. Forgotten to the point where even people who should know the possibilities for identification of a Balinese hilt character need to go outside their own society and ask people who are not a part of present day Balinese society what those possibilities might be. Not long ago this loss of culture was driven home to me very clearly by the admission of the loss of some of his cultural memory by a present day, practicing, Balinese empu.


The evidence of the difficulty in naming Balinese keris hilt characters can be seen in the books published by Pande Wayan Suteja Neka:- he is very careful when it comes to attributing specific names to hilt characters unless the attributes are exceptionally clear, and taking the old perspective, perhaps even those identities that have been given, might not be the intention of the original owner. If anybody should be able to identify a hilt character it would be Suteja Neka, but does he jump in and express his first impressions or random ideas as an opinion? I think not.


Very often we see in this discussion group questions raised in respect of the identity of the characters represented in keris hilts. Sometimes the attributes of such a character are not difficult to identify and the hilt is then identified as a representation of some deity or folk figure. But if we take the perspective that could have applied at the time that a particular hilt was prepared, then perhaps our identification must be considered as merely a recital of observed characteristics, the intent of the carver and his client might have been entirely different.
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