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The kris is among the many types of swords and daggers endemic in the southern Muslim part of the Philippines. By a wider definition, the kris (also called keris) is the most popular bladed weapon of the Malay world. In his book “The Kris Mystic Weapon of The Malay World” Edward Frey wrote, “The kris is the distinctive weapon of Malaysia and Indonesia.
These countries form the geographical and cultural area once referred to as the Malay world. The kris is found in a variety of forms ranging from northern Sumatra and Malaysia and to far-distant Mindanao in the Philippines.”
Some researchers postulate that the weapon is already in existence as early as 300 BC. There are various theories on the origin of the kris but most of them are based only on myths and legends. On this, Frey commented, “In addition, there are some more pragmatic views as to the origin of the kris.
These theories deal with the probable origin and evolution of kris-like daggers in South-East Asia based on harder evidence than mere mythology. Gardner [Gerald B. Gardner, author of Keris and Other Malay Weapons, 1936] offers his belief that the metal kris evolved from the sharp, barbed dorsal spine of a stingray, a fish common in Malay waters.”
The kris is extensively used for ceremonial purposes and legends abound on its supposed magical powers and mystical properties. But above all these, the kris first and foremost, has established its reputation as a fearsome bladed weapon, “For all its magic and mysticism and rituals associated with the kris, it was, for the first few hundred years of its existence, primarily a weapon of defense and sudden assault,” wrote Frey.
Physical design and combat application
The most distinctive attribute of the kris is its wavy blade though many variations of the weapon also display straight blades.
Despite this general characteristic, there are striking differences in the physical structure of the Mindanao kris that differentiate it from other designs used in the Malay world.
The more common version of the kris widely used in the Malay world was designed for stabbing while the physical attributes of the Mindanao kris are more appropriate for slashing and hacking.
A close examination of the handle construction of these two categories of kris would substantiate the aforementioned assumption. Researchers have observed that the Mindanao kris in addition to its longer length was constructed with its blade securely bolted on the handle, which made it appropriate for slashing and hacking. This sturdy method of handle construction is rarely found in kris designs from other parts of the Malay world.
Frey offers insights on this matter, “Indeed, at one time and in some areas it [the kris] was considered a despicable weapon, fit only for brigands, a weapon of treachery and with poisonous qualities at that. The very smallness of the weapon, fitted as it was with a bent-over or pistol-like grip, made it a perfect stabbing instrument.
It was easy to make a straight line thrust to the belly or kidney of a victim while the elbow was bent. This made it effective in a confined space and no doubt contributed to its reputation as a weapon of ill repute.” Another part of Frey’s book reads, “The kris is seldom very sharp, this combined with its light weight indicates that it evolved as a thrusting weapon for personal defense.”
In contrast to the aforementioned descriptions of the design most widely used in the Malay world, the Mindanao kris is legendary for its keen edge and amazing temper.
Damascening the blade and etiquette of carrying
There were also accounts of the so called “poison kris” that could aggravate the wounds it inflicted on a victim because its blade was supposed to be laced with poison. On this, Frey wrote that a possible rational explanation could be found in the process used to damascene the blade, “The damascene-like patterns forged into the blade, does create residues which may be harmful if ingested or allowed to enter the blood stream.”
An early work on the subject published in 1899, “Tales of the Malayan Coast From Penang to the Philippines” by Rounsevelle Wildman offers details of this meticulous process, it reads, “First the razor-like edges are covered with a thin coating of wax to protect them from the action of the acids; then a mixture of boiled rice, sulphur, and salt is put on the blade and left for seven days until a film of rust rises to the surface.
The blade is then immersed in the water of a young coconut or the juice of a pineapple and left seven days longer. It is next brushed with the juice of a lemon until all the rust is cleared away, and then rubbed with arsenic dissolved in lime-juice and washed with cold spring water.
Finally it is anointed with coconut oil, and as a concluding test of its fineness and temper, it is said that in the old days its owner would rush out into the kampong, or village, and stab the first person he met.”
Like in other places of the world where a prevailing blade culture exists, there is etiquette in carrying the kris. In the olden days and even today in some remote parts of Southeast Asia, ignorance of such customs could be interpreted as an act of challenge.
Wildman wrote of the fundamental protocol of carrying the kris, it says, “The kris, too, has its etiquette. It is always worn on the left side stuck into the folds of the sarong, or skirt, the national dress of the Malay.
During an interview it is considered respectful to conceal it; and its handle is turned with its point close to the body of the wearer, if the wearer be friendly. If, however, there is ill blood existing, and the wearer is angry, the kris is exposed, and the point of the handle turned the reverse way.”