Sabtu, 22 November 2008

The Javanese Kris, a Symbol of Identity


Features – Leisure Wednesday, August 28, 1996 Page 9


By Jimmy S Harianto

It is hard to believe that the krisses and swords in the showcases were made hundreds of years ago.

Not only are there no traces of rust, but the pamor (damascene), the fine designs carved into their frames, still radiate a brilliant shine. To non-expert eyes, the antique weapons, on display from Aug 21 to 28, 1996 at Bentara Budaya Jakarta, Jalan Palmerah Selatan 17 Central Jakarta, seem no different to new ones.

“Since I was 12, when I was in junior high, my father taught me how to take care of the sacred krisses my family have passed on from generation to generation,” said Tangsen Kusumo, 38, the son of the late Kanjeng Raden Tumenggung (KRT) Mandoyo Kusumo.

KRT Mandoyo Kusumo was a member of the Yogyakarta keraton (sultan’s palace). He owned 16 sacred krisses and swords of the kingdom which, at one time in history, ruled over Yogyakarta. Three krisses and one sword, said to be more than 400 years old, have gold coating and are studded with precious stones.

Mandoyo Kusumo was also a writer of books on kris. He used the information he found in the ancient books written in Javanese script, which he found in the keraton’s library. And, like his weapons, his old books are also still well-preserved in his home in Yogyakarta.

Tangsen and his twin brother Pinten Kusumo said the ancient weapons are still in good shape, thanks to the extreme care taken to preserve them ant the strict traditional rites they enshrine.

“I remember my father would always pull a kris from its sheath very carefully, not the way he pulled out a normal knife,” Tangsen said, “We unsheathe a kris only maybe once a year, to see if it is rusty, or needs cleaning, or if it needs to be soaked with warangan,”

Warangan is a liquid made of lemon mixed with ground mineral stones which contain arsenic and sulfur. The liquid helps to prevent the kris from corrosion.

Tangsen said that for some of the 60 weapons his father owned when he died in 1989, an offering would be made before the kris was pulled from its warangka, or sheath.

“The offering consists of a chicken with pure white feathers, bananas, small traditional cakes which can be found in Javanese markets, and five kinds of porridge and cakes made of gloutinous rice. Offerings are made and incense is burned before and after the kris is pulled from its warangka,” Tangsen said.

Tangsen’s grandfather, Kanjeng Pangeran Haro (KPH) Hario Tjakraningrat, was the grandson of Yogyakarta’s Sultan Hamengku Buwono VI. Tangsen’s grandmother, Raden Ayu (RA) Tjakraningrat was a granddaughter of Sultan Hamengku Buwono VII.


Like most weapons in the keraton, kris, swords and spears (tombak) are not used for battle but are kept to give the user of owner a feeling of confidence.

It is therefore not surprising, Pinten said, that his father pulled the kris from its warangka only once a year – or even only every three years for certain kris.

The tradition of enshrining weapons as carried out by the late Mandoyo Kusumo and his family – as well as other old or traditional Javanese families – is inherited form their royal Javanese ancestors. Many krisses are up to 500 years old.

“Some of the krisses were used by my father for official occasions, others for daily use. He would wear the kris by slipping it into the back of his belt, with the kris still in its warangka,” said Pinten, who admitted he was not ready to dedicate himself to the sacred weapons the way his father did.

“In the past, our father never showed the sacred weapons to anyone but our closest relatives and friends. In fact, the people living around us didn’t even know that we owned many sacred krisses,” Tangsen said.

However, the development of weapons technology and changes in the government in Java to a republic since Aug 17, 1945, wilted the old traditions of the Javanese keraton.

Consequently, the attitude of the Javanese towards the kris also changed. Kris was once considered a powerful tool to build confidence, now it is only an ornament and a symbol of identity for the Javanese people.

In the past, in certain situations a kris could represent a person. This might happen, for example, when a bridegroom was unable to attend his own wedding ceremony, when he was in a faraway place, or when he was delayed unexpectedly. For the Javanese, a wedding ceremony in which the bridegroom was “represented” by his kris was considered legal.

Javanese kings considered kris a symbol of power. If a king died, his successor would inherit his sacred weapons.

In fact, in the case of one or two certain weapons, which usually bear the title of Kanjeng Kiai (elder), if the weapons were missing from the keraton, if they “disappeared” – in mystical terms, the king was said to lose his power.


Word has it that kris may carry curses. This is possible, the Javanese say, if when the kris is being shaped, the empu (kris maker) whispers mantra to the weapon.

Therefore, some kris might contain evil power because the spells it carries are evil. Krisses like these were usually presented as a “gift” to an enemy, so the enemy is struck by bad luck.

Stories like these, of course, have no place in modern times, where people would rather rely on science and technology, scientific calculations dan sound planning to solve their problems of make a decision, rather than on premonitions.

Consequently, the function of the kris has shifted. Once a weapon, a confidence-booster, or even a source of magic, kris is now a symbol. The Javanese has Javanese kris, the Bugisnese have their own weapon called badik, and the Acehnese have Acehnese rencong.

The change in function has, in turn, shifted the tradition and methods of making sacred kris, swords or spears.

In the past, the empu would load the kris with spells in the process of shaping the weapon. Today’s kris makers choose the design and dapur (standard kris-models, of which there are hundreds) on the basis of artistic beauty.

“The kris of today has to do with art. It is therefore not surprising that in recent years there have been efforts to renew the shapes and production technologies of the kris. This is quite normal,” said Hajar Satoto, 45, an artist and kris-maker from Surakarta, Central Java.

Hajar, who also displayed his creations at Bentara Budaya Jakarta, has come up with several unusual-looking kris. Hajar used the pamor technique – which involves the “drawing” of streaks of color on the kris’ blade, using many different types of metals – to make a set of gamelan, the traditional Javanese percussion instruments.

He said that he has recently presented such a set to the king of the Solo sultanate, Sri Susuhunan Paku Buwono XII, while another set is being exhibited at Bentara Budaya Jakarta.

* Jimmy S Harianto or Ganjawulung, is a journalist at Kompas Daily, which is sponsoring the kris exhibition, and wrote this for The Jakarta Post.

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