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The Fascination
of an Everlasting
Cultural Heirloom

JAKARTA (indo.com): The widespread tales that the Keris (or kris), 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 when visiting Indonesia. Does a keris have really supernatural power, a life of its own? The answer depends entirely on individual's own perception.

Keris are found in Java, Sumatra, Bali and other islands of the archipelago, and have also been used in the Malay Peninsula, Southern Philippines and Thailand since as long ago as the 13th century. The most ornate ones are made in Java, dating back to the kingdoms of Jenggala, Daha, Kediri, Singasari, Pajajaan, Majapahit, Demak, Pajang, Mataram. Today the keris continues to be made as a home industry in Indonesia, especially in Madura and East Java.

Experts on keris focus on many different 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.

Haryono Haryo Guritno, 69, is one example. "keris has an image of technology," he told indo.com recently. For him, the most fascinating aspect of the keris is the art of welding the patterns and sectioning.

Haryono, a retired naval officer and a mechanical engineering graduate of the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), has devoted his life to writing a book on the keris based on scientific research. He also makes them.

He shares the belief that the keris has magical powers because he believes that there are certain cultural elements that should be maintained, particularly those which do not contradict religion and certain ethical norms. "True, a keris is believed to be 'loaded' (with something), but it is 'loaded' for various scientific reasons, depending on the fabrication process.

People's views on religion and politics are intermingled with customs, beliefs, myths, and legends. These views change in accordance with changes in value systems and the patterns of cultural beliefs that they adopt. "Therefore, if we believe that a keris has a supernatural power, we flash back to 100 years ago," he said.

The making of a keris is preceded by ceremonies, offerings, and magic formulae to strengthen the belief that the keris has magical powers. Owners of a keris who believe in magical power conduct a certain ceremony to wash or 'bathe' their weapon during the first month of the Javanese lunar year - with offerings consisting of selected flowers, rice, fruit, and incense to preserve its supernatural power.

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 atmosphere, then it is considered that there is a marriage between the cosmos and the world, which the Javanese call the marriage between bopo angkoso and ibu pertiwi. Mythologically speaking, a keris made from atmospheric materials is said to have the power of God," he said.

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 kris. Iron gives the keris its body, and the steel its cutting edge. But it is the nickel that gives the blade its pamor, according to Haryono. The pamor is brought out and made visible through a process of washing the finished blade in a solution of arsenic and limejuice.

Pamor symbolizes certain hopes, there being around 150 different kinds of pattern. For example, a pattern of Beras Wutah - scattered rice grain - is considered lucky, as a man must be wealthy to scatter rice grains away. A pattern of Udan Mas - rain of gold - means that it is good for the businessman as it brings torrents of wealth.

Until today, some people believe keris not only to be weapons but also family heirlooms and status symbols. To recognize whether a keris is suitable to be conserved as an heirloom, an expert will look at it from three aspects: condition, material and style, Haryono said. Others consider keris to be works of art. Anybody can order an empu (a keris maker) to make one, or one can be bought in Jakarta at antique and craft stores on Jl. Surabaya, Kemang, Ciputat or in Sarinah Department Store.

As a cultural heirloom, the keris, will remain everlastingly fascinating even if scientific information on the object will, someday, overshadow the tales of mysticism. "The higher the levels of education we have and the more complete the background information, the more curious we will be," Haryono Guritno said.

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