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Pity the Poor Keris: How a Universal Symbol became a tool for Racial Politics November 27, 2006

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.

By: Farish A. Noor“Elle est belle, elle est tres feminin” . (“She is beautiful. She is so feminine.)

I recall the words of my friend Nadia when I first showed a keris to her, as we sat on the verandah of my friend’s wooden house in the village of Bacok, Kelantan.

The keris, she remarked, was a beautiful object: Graceful, elegant and curiously feminine. Yet I was not surprised. This was not the first time I heard the keris described as a feminine object; indeed many of my European friends had uttered similar remarks. Their observations were not unwarranted: Even to the seasoned eye of the keris lover, the keris is an object of beauty – and its discreet, unstated charm lay precisely in the fact that it was slender, willowy, almost vulnerable and rendered all the more dignified with the patina of time-worn antiquity.

Yet how odd it is, that today, this most overdetermined symbolic fetish of the peoples of Nusantara has developed an alter-ego totally unkeeping with its past and purpose. What was once an object of adoration and reverence has now become nothing less than a symbol of ethno-nationalist exclusivism, a totem of aggressive masculinity, and an emblem of a racialised communitarianism. Pity the poor keris: An object so noble deserves a better fate than to be sullied by such ignoble purposes…

The feminine Keris: Not a macho symbol

It is in keeping with many right-wing movements that their members and leaders would be on the lookout for some symbol of power. That the keris could be politically and ideologically redefined as a symbol of racialised masculine pride is not uncommon nor unexpected. Just take a look around us and we will notice that practically all right-wing organisations have adopted some weapon or another to stand for the purported claims of male leaders who wish to make their political will and intent public through some phallic fetish or another. Right-wing movements (particularly of the militarist variety) have chosen all kinds of weapons to stand in the place of masculine power: Guns (notably Kalashnikovs), rockets, missiles, swords, axes, hammers, spears, arrows, darts and even knuckle-dusters have festooned the shields and banners of so many right-wing nationalist movements that it would take years to catalogue them all.

The use of the keris as a symbol of male power is thus easily understood, though it begins with the fundamental error of thinking of the keris as solely and primarily a weapon. We have argued elsewhere that the keris was first and foremost an object of religious devotion and a symbol of religio-cultural identity.(1) Its origins date back to the Hindu-Buddhist era of Southeast Asia when the peoples of the region had other weapons to chose from. Indeed, there exists little historical evidence that the keris was ever used in warfare.(2) The peoples of Nusantara had other weapons to chose from when it came to butchering each other, from swords and axes to machetes and spears. Later on by the late 18th century with the arrival of new weapons technology from India, the Arabs and Europeans, Southeast Asians adopted the use of muskets and then guns and cannons.

The keris was primarily a ceremonial object and its production was initially kept to select elite of Brahmin-craftsmen whose knowledge of metalwork and keris-making were closely guarded secrets. It was never meant to be a popular item for the masses, but rather a religio-cultural totem of identity and belief; which is why there were so many esoteric rites and rituals that guarded the sacred world of this fetish.

One of the esoteric aspects of keris-lore was its intimate link to the philosophy and praxis of Tantrism, an ancient pre-vedantic system of beliefs and cosmology that pre-dated the vedantic-Aryan teachings that would later develop and be known as Hinduism. Tantraism is today regarded as one of the earliest world religions and philosophies, and for feminists in particular is particularly highly regarded for its view of Woman as the centre of creation. It would not be possible to delve too deeply into the Tantric influences on the keris in an article like this, suffice to say that the tantric aspects of the keris and keris-lore can be seen in the symbolism contained in it.

The keris, it has to be remembered, is a composite object: It consists of the blade (mata keris) as well as the sheath (sarong keris); and in the symbolic coupling of the two (the keris inserted into the sheath or sarong) we see the symbolic enactment of the sexual act of copulation or intercourse. Here the upright keris assumes its phallic identity as the penetrating element (linggam), while the sheath assumes the status of penetrated object (yoni). But a tantric reading of this would reverse the order of interpretation by arguing that the masculine power of the keris blade is being enveloped and thus contained within the sacred feminine space of the sheath; thereby bringing about equilibrium and order, when the feminine encapsulates, embodies and contains the masculine. Ultimately, therefore, harmony in the universe is achieved when the expansive (and potentially destructive) power of the masculine is domesticated and tamed by the feminine. (Dedicated lovers of femdom would understand what I mean by this, but let me not digress…)

The composite keris (that is, the blade and the sheath assembled together) is thus a feminine object in the way that the feminine aspect is evident while the masculine is hidden. This is how the keris is traditionally meant to be seen and presented: Always in its sheath and never unsheathed in public. Once, while interviewing a wizened old keris lover in Java, I was told that “the true lover of the keris will always keep his keris in the sheath. He never leaves it unsheathed, or displays the blade in public”. Why, I asked the Obi-Wan of kerisdom. “Because only an uncultured brute (orang yang kasar) would do that. Would you ask your daughter to walk around naked in public, for all to see? If you love your keris, you would dress it up, keep it covered. That is why the sheath is called the sarong keris. Like a sarong, it has to be worn, to keep the keris decent, to respect its dignity. Itu baru yang sopan Mas Farish, hanya goblok kasar yang telanjangkan kerisnya…”

For cultured Southeast Asians in the past such as the Javanese, the art of wearing the keris was as important as the keris itself.

To unsheath the keris was an affront to society, the keris and the keris-owner. It was an expression of crude, brutish masculinity that bordered on the uncivilised and bestial. Yet tell that today to those demagogues who brandish the keris in public as soon as a camera is pointed at them. By taking the keris out of the sheath and separating it from its feminine counterpart, the sarong, they have rendered the feminine secondary. Here lies the symbolic machismo of the act, and in this singular gesture a feminine object of reverence and beauty has been transformed into a masculine symbol of power, aggression and violence. This marks the first epistemic violation of the keris, though sadly there are many more…

The universal keris: Not a racial symbol

The first epistemic violation of the keris lay in the transgression of its gendered meaning, from a feminine object to a masculine one. The second violation occurred when it was transformed from a universal object to a particular one, turning it into a symbol of exclusive racial-ethnic identity.

Today the keris is seen by some as a symbol of exclusive Malay power and identity. Set in the context of Malaysia where racialised politics has become normalised, the keris is now made to stand at the cultural frontier that separates the Malays from other ‘races’. But honestly, was there ever a time when the keris was an exclusively Malay symbol?

As stated earlier, the origins of the Nusantara keris dates back to the Hindu-Buddhist era when the peoples of the region were Hindu-Buddhists themselves. Thus from the outset the keris carries with it traces of Southeast Asia’s close connection to India and the Indian subcontinent, making it a pan-Asian object devoid of a singular homeland or origin. It is, in fact, a transcultural object that crosses a number of cultural and geographical frontiers.

Furthermore the keris also bears traces of Tantric, Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and praxis, which is sometimes made evident in the form and style of some of its variants. And here it is important to note that the keris has never been a homogenous object, but rather a meta-symbol that has many local variants.

Ernest keris-collectors would know that there is a world of difference from the keris of Patani and the keris of Java, and that there exists hundreds of variants of the keris, from the rapier-like keris panjang of North Sumatra and Minangkabau to the sword-like keris sundang of Southern Philippines (Mindanao and Sulu). Even in the Malay peninsula, there exists many distinct styles of keris, ranging from the Northeastern kerises of Patani, Kelantan and Trengganu to the Sumatran-inspired kerises of the West coast and the Bugis-inspired kerises of Johor. If the keris was meant to be a symbol of a singular ‘Malay race’, why the variety of kerises then?

One obvious answer to this is the simple historical fact that prior to the colonial invention of the notion of distinct ‘races’ in Asia, the peoples of the region did not think of themselves in terms of neatly-demarcated and firmly-defined racial blocs. There was no ‘Malay race’ (or ‘Chinese race’, or ‘Indian race’ for that matter) before the Western colonialists came over and stamped these labels on our heads. Not a single hikayat (epic) written prior to the 19th century uses the concept of race or even calls the people of the Peninsula the ‘Malay race’.

During this period the variety of kerises reflected the variety of identities among the peoples of the region. There was such a thing as a Kelantanese keris because there was such a thing as the Kelantanese people; and there was such a thing as a Patani keris because there was such a thing as a Patani people. But there was no such thing as a ‘Malay keris’ because there was no such thing as a ‘Malay people’: at least, not until our British colonial masters came and labelled us such…

Today it is a painful irony and insult to the keris that this most overdetermined of symbolic objects would be reduced to a marker of a simplified and essentialised racial identity. The keris was a universal object because it connected the philosophies of Tantrism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam together. It was a universal object because it connected the various nations and communities of Southeast Asia together. To reduce this object of multiple complex meanings to such a simple ideological symbol may serve the ends of politics, but it has killed the universal spirit of the keris.

To add insult to injury, the keris has been desacralised by the very same people who have sought to use it for purely political ends. The complex philosophy of the keris has been compromised by politicians who brandish it in public; and by those demagogues and ideologues who stick it on posters and flags. How can the keris ever hope to regain its former glory and prestige, after it has been desecrated so? What hope can there be to revive the universal spirit of the keris, after it has been stuck on placards with slogans like ‘This keris will drink Chinese blood?’ How can the keris maintain its silent dignity when some openly talk about taking out the keris, kissing it, waving it and asking when it will be used? The recent spectacle of keris-waving and the hysterical outpourings of racial anxiety at the UMNO assembly was just another nail in the coffin of the abused keris. From being a feminine object of sacred beauty it has been debased to the level of a phallic symbol for frustrated politicians. From the symbol of a universal philosophy it has been reduced to a static totem of communitarian politics.

No object in the repertoire of Nusanatara culture has suffered more in the name of politics and power than the keris. But in the process of the keris’s desacralisation and exploitation, we truly see the extent to which the communities of Nusantara have degenerated themselves. It is not the keris that has had her dignity compromised, but rather the ethno-nationalists and communitarians among us who have shown that they would stop at nothing to further their exclusive agendas: Matinya Keris bukan di tangan musuh, matinya Keris di tangan UMNO.


(1) See: Farish A. Noor, ‘From Majapahit to Putrajaya: The Kris as a symptom of civilisational development and decline’. In Journal of Southeast Asia Research, vol. 8. no. 3. School of Oriental and African Studies, London. November 2000.

(2) Many scholars of the keris have cast doubts on the notion that it could have served as a weapon in conventional warfare for a number of reasons: Firstly, the shortness of the keris blade itself compared to other cutting and stabbing weapons of the time meant that it could not possibly be used offensively in man-to-man combat against an adversary who was not similarly armed. Secondly the tang of the keris blade (the protruding shaft of the blade that enters the hilt) is often too short and slender to ensure that the blade would not bend or break if it was stabbed. Thirdly many scholars have also noted that many ceremonial kerises were regarded as sacred objects that should not be defiled by blood or other impure elements, which would necessarily preclude the possibility of it being used against another human being. Fourthly many ceremonial kerises were also ornately decorated and thus regarded as status and luxury objects, and here again it would be illogical that such objects would be put to use in common warfare.

Note: Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist, historian and human rights activist. He is also a lifetime collector of kerises. He can be contacted via www.othermalaysia.org.



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