To start with the very literal meaning of the word KERIS. It is widely spread in the Archipelago, and in Malay terminology, the root words are ke (to go) and iris (slice), may not be correct to apply to the present form of kerises as they are stabbing daggers. Other theories suggest the word coming from Indian Sanskrit which most likely is correct as many other aspects are linked with Hinduism.

To delve into the origin of the word Keris will not be useful in going into the deeper aspects of the item itself, as its evolutionary path depends also on the evolution of the item itself i.e. until someone invented or use it, only then can a word is coined to describe it.

The Keris origin itself is also with many controversial theories and still remains a mystery. Javanese temple stone carving reliefs are rich of representation, but most shows weapons more to do with the Indian world than with the Keris. But from these reliefs, we can see that the keris was used as an over arm weapon before it became an underarm dagger as we see it now. During its first evolution, it had a broad and leaf shaped blade, symmetrical base, and a hilt with pommel at the top.

Evident from Borobudur reliefs are not very useful as it is more of a pilgrimage religious complex with very few, if not any example of the keris or weapons. The lesser known candi Prambanan is more relevant, having a good relief on the making of the keris during the period.

The Keris as we know it today is the result of a long evolution. It has probably slowly evolved from a short blade leaf shaped dagger, to a proto Buda Keris (10th century) with some dapur characteristics, but still used as an over arm stabbing dagger. It reached its current form and shape during the Majapahit era (14th century) becoming and under arm stabbing dagger, and its height during the Mataram Kingdom (17-18th century).

One of the uniqueness of the Keris is its connection with the serpent or Naga. A Chinese monk, I-Ching, who lived in Java during the late 7th century, noticed the local Buddhism possessed a unique characteristic: praying Naga deities. According to the tradition, the straight Keris represents a still serpent, whereas the wavy represent a moving serpent. The Naga is often represented on Keris blades. 

Candi Sukuh, the 14th century temple, has a bas-relief representing a blacksmith shop with the god Bima forging a straight Keris. The tools to make the blade are below the Keris and above there is a display of blades of different shape:

  • symmetrical leaf shape with pronounced tips at the base.
  • asymmetrical similar to the West Java Kujang or the Kudi
Candi Sukuh Temple
Candi Sukuh Temple

Note the presence of elephant god Ganesha in the middle and the one working the bellows (some suggest Durga or Arjuna), and also a goat in front of Ganesha with a faintly seen broad leaf shape spear below the goat. Deeper understanding of this relief strongly suggests a sacrifice done during the making of the weapon, and is interesting to note how the process is done, and why the sacrificial animal is used.

Sukuh Lingga Bima
In the same Candi Sukuh, there is also a Lingga (a phallus) with a straight Keris blade

The sacrifice is done when the completed blade is red hot and subsequently killing the sacrificial animal with the spear preferably in one blow. The generally accepted belief of the soul leaving the body upon death is taken into another dimension here, as the soul of the sacrificial animal is “trapped” with the fire/air flowing from the bellow to the red hot blade acting as a medium for the soul to travel and be trapped into the blade.

One theory is to ask why a goat is used instead of other more “stronger” animal like the serpent or snake where the keris has its roots from? The intent of trapping a soul into a piece of metal must be answered first, and this intent can be drawn from the way of life of the people then. One logical suggestion is that the trapped soul acts as a protective element from non-physical or “black magic” or spiritual aggression whereby the physical damage is not immediate, but takes effect after time.

This kind of aggression uses the unseen part of a person i.e. the soul, to penetrate into the physical body. Here is where the trapped soul of the sacrificial animal in the blade acts as a substitute to prevent the owner’s soul from being attacked. Therefore there is no necessity to obtain stronger sacrificial animal which may not have more powers of protection, and also imagine how you would execute the sacrifice using say a tiger or other bigger stronger animals.

Upon the coming and embracing of Islam
, the above technique of making a keris with sacrificial animal is replaced by the use of chants or invocations of verses from the holy Quran. This technique is associated to the study and understanding of Sufism; – a spiritual and metaphysical understanding of living things within Islamic context.

The earliest description of what we believe to be a pamor blade is made by Ma Huan in “The overall survey of the ocean’s shores”. Ma Huan was a translator who accompanied the Chinese Admiral Zheng He.

During Zheng He third expedition they visited the Majapahit kingdom in 1416 and provided the following account: “… men in Java have a pa-lak stuck in their girdle. Everybody is carrying such a weapon, from the child of three years up to the oldest man. These daggers have very thin stripes and whitish flowers and made of the very best iron alloy; the handle is of gold, rhinoceros or ivory, cut into the shape of devil faces and finished carefully”. The pa-lak name applied probably both to badik or keris daggers, and according to Ma Huan, they were already very popular at the early 15th century.

From the 16th century, according to European travelers the Keris are commonly worn in Java, Bali, Sumatra and Sulawesi. French sailors mention the Keris on several accounts. In 1613, the Portuguese, Godinho de Eredia, provides a detailed description of the dagger. In the 17th century it was worn at the Siamese court.

With Javanese historical guidelines, keris are related to a specific period, one of the great Javanese kingdoms. There is a lot of subjectivity in identifying a Keris with a specific Tangguh and Sepuh. In fact very little historical facts are known before the Majapahit kingdom. In other areas out of Java however, things are very different. Due to the lack of historical references, the identification of kerises are not along the Javanese Tangguh criteria, but more basic dapor shape without attachments to era or regional history.

Below is a brief description of the known kingdoms or governments in S.E Asia from B.C to colonization of the type and form of keris/dagger used during the period.

Dong-son (600 BC to 3rd century AD)

Located in Thanh Hoa province, northern Vietnam. This is during the bronze age, and aside from the dongson dagger mentioned previously, the more famous dongson drum is widely found across the archipelago even in southern China. Sadly, there are no examples to correlate or connect this bronze age daggers to the other evolutionary forms. It is also notable to know that there is no more keris culture in the region presently, or even any representation of the keris sine the bronze age.

Dong-son Dagger
Dong-son Dagger

SRIWIJAYA  (6th to 12th century)

Although this Buddhist kingdom was not established in Java, but in Palembang, Sumatra, it is the mother empire of the Indonesian archipelago. Its power extended up to the Northern Malay Peninsula, Patani and Kelantan region, including southern Thailand. Hence we do see some similarities in the bird like keris handles from the Palembang and Patani regions. Although it origin may have similar roots, the evolutionary path taken after the fall of the empire differs greatly between the 2 regions.

This example is only one of the very few examples attributed to the era

FIRST MATARAM  (7th to 10th century)

This is the golden age of Hinduism and Buddhism influences with the great temples of Borobudur and Prambanan in Central Java. Mataram was essentially an agricultural kingdom. At the same time the powerful seafaring Sriwijaya kingdom from S-E Sumatra had under control most of the Northern coasts of the Archipelago. Example below is also one of the very few obtained from the era, but one can see its form conforming to the style of the era.

Mataram Dagger
Mataram Dagger

JANGGALA. KADIRI & SINGASARI (11th to 13th century)

During the 11th & 12th Janggala is best known for its trading role in the region, Kadiri  for its literary remains. The rise of Singasari is in 1222 until 1292. The heart of these kingdoms was located in East Java. A period with little temple construction. Little is known of this era, and examples are also very little and not strongly provenance to be definitive. Partly due to its short period of influence before the rise of the great Majapahit empire.

PAJAJARAN (13th to 16th century)

Its heart was located in West Java, it is the old Sunda kingdom, an essentially animistic culture. A lesser known kingdom, and overshadowed by the more powerful Majapahit empire. Not much is known on its influences in keris evolution, but the region’s main race of the Sundanese uses not the keris but the kujang or kudi as their preferred weapon/tlaisman and exclusively their own.

MAJAPAHIT (1292 to early 16th century)

This kingdom was situated in East Java, the heart was near today’s Mojokorto, South East of Surabaya. It was the first powerful Javanese kingdom that practiced a syncretism form of Hinduism and Buddhism and also introduced Islam through its mercantile activities with Arabic traders. Its influence was over Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Maluku and some of the S-E Asia coasts. The second powerful archipelago kingdom after Sriwijaya. Majapahit is the true ancestor to modern Indonesia.

Majapahit Keris 1
Majapahit Keris 1
Majapahit Keris 2
Majapahit Keris 2

MALACCA SULTANATE (early 15TH century to early 16TH century)

This kingdom founded by a renegade Majapahit Prince, Parameswara, who became a Muslim and the empire lasted about a little over 100 years. That period is often described as the golden age of the Malay Peninsula when the system of government was formed using the Inner Council of Five – Raja (King), Bendahara (Prime Minister), Temenggong (Army/Police Chief), Laksmana (Admiral) and Bendahari (Finance). This customs and traditions are still practice in today’s Malaysian states. Although pivotal in the rise of the Malay era, sadly the arrival of the Portuguese let to the fall and near total elimination of the Malacca courts and empire.

DEMAK & JAPARA (16th century)

Strong Islam influence in Java. The center of the kingdom is in North Java, then moved to Central Java. The Majapahit Hindu culture remains only in East Java and will later be limited to Bali.

SECOND MATARAM (17th to 18th century)

The great period of central Java influence in the archipelago.

YOGYAKARTA & SOLO SULTANATE (18th to 19th century)

After the fall of the Mataram kingdom because of the Dutch. In 1755, the treaty of Giyanti divided the kingdom in two sultanate, which would develop their own traditions.

Description of Malaca', from Godinho de Eredia (1613) – (A good perception on the first westerner (Portugese) overview on the people here)

The civilized Malay natives are honey-coloured and of pleasant appearance, with oval face, rather small eyes, and medium nose: the head is covered with an abundance of black, bushy hair: round the forehead they tie a silk band or red cloth in place of a turban.

Their bodies are well-built: they wear a thin ” baju ” or short shirt made of muslin, and round the waist a skirt of Choromandel cloth: this is rolled round so as to leave the right leg uncovered: in the waist they carry a knife 2 palms long: this is a dagger-blade called a ” Crys “. They walk with a confident gait: they go bare-footed without sandals….  

The armed forces of the Malays do not follow the ordered military tactics of Europe: they only make use of attacks and sallies in mass formation: their sole plan is to construct an ambush in the narrow paths and woods and thickets, and then make an attack with a body of armed men: whenever they draw themselves up for battle, they acquit themselves badly and usually suffer heavy losses.   The arms which they ordinarily use in warfare are the sword, shield, lance, bows and arrows, and blow-pipes with poisoned darts. At the present day, in consequence of intercourse with us, they use muskets and ordnance.

The sword, a blade measuring 5 palms in length, is called Padan among them: like the Turkish sword, it has a single edge. The dagger, called Cris a blade measuring 2 palms in length, is made of fine steel; it bears a deadly poison; the sheath is of wood, the hilt is of animals’ horn, or of rare stone, or of gold and precious gems.

The steel is treated in such a way that every injury is followed by immediate death when the wound draws blood. Iron, being constituted of earthy material, and of a substance which is more malleable than other metals (as Aristotle notes Aleteorologica ch. 6. in 4 Meteorelogica, chapter 6) yields a large quantity of rust and dross. So the natives soak the iron in water and in muddy pools for some time: they then treat it in the fire, refining it till the iron is clean and pure – a method mentioned by Pliny in Book 34 chapter 14.

Then, after polishing the blade of steel, they smear it with a poison so deadly that death soon ensues after any injury which draws blood, wherever inflicted.

The Malays
The Malays

So these Malayos use much poison on all their weapons, especially the points of arrows, whether made of iron or wood, or the teeth of animals or fish, or of “nyboes ” (‘nibong’).

Their bows are larger than the bows of Persia.   The lance called “azagaya ” is 10 palms in length: these lances are much used as missiles.   There are other lances, as much as 25 palms long: besides a great number of “soligue” made of “nyboes” and used as missiles.

Regarding the employment of artillery amongst the, Malayos, we know that on the conquest of Malaca in the year 1511, Affonco de Alboquerque captured much small artillery, falconets, and medium-sized sakers: these could have come from Meca in Arabia where they use larger pieces of the second order, such as battery-cannon: probably these came from Pegu and Syam, where they had an establishment for casting smaller artillery, of the first order, and a foundry for every other kind of metal-work; this thev had learnt from the Attayos and the Chinas, who first introduced artillery, which was invented after the rebellions against the Empire of Attay or Cattay.