This paper has been a very long time in production. Parts of it were written more than thirty years ago,
but other parts of it only became clear to me after I began the research necessary to bring together the
various elements I have attempted to address. The work that has produced this paper is still incomplete.
Much more research needs to be carried out in order to provide an adequate understanding of the
pre-Islamic Javanese keris. My hope is that what I have presented here may generate further research in
this neglected subject.
There is very little in this paper that is not already in the public domain; I have not revealed any hidden
knowledge, nor produced any startling revelations. Almost everything I have presented has been known
for a considerable period of time, however, the clues to understanding are spread over a wide area of
published material. What I have attempted to do is to link this existing information together and to
consider it in the light of 14th. Century Javanese society.
In this paper I have attempted to present a plausible hypothesis that will help to explain much of the
existing confusion relating to the early development of the keris. I have not presented incontrovertible
fact, I have not presented a theory, what I have presented is hypothesis, accordingly I will welcome the
introduction of any evidence that can either prove or disprove what I have presented.
The keris is a South East Asian dagger that in most of its forms is asymmetric, with the blade base wider
on one side than on the other. It can be either straight or waved and in its modern form has very diverse
variety. It is intended to be used as a thrusting weapon, and both edges are sharpened. The blade surface
usually bears a pattern that is known as pamor, which is produced during the forging process, and made
visible by etching.
It is widely distributed throughout South East Asia, the locations where it is found approximating the
areas of influence of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit at the peak of its power during the mid-14th
century. It is a dagger that has become a cultural icon in the country of its origin, Java.
The Modern Keris was preceded by and developed from the Keris Buda, a short straight form of keris
with minimal variation. By the beginning of the 14th century in East Java the Keris Buda was understood
as a symbol of the male principle and had an association with the Javanese-Hindu belief system. When
Islam became the dominant faith of Java, the keris was accepted as a cultural symbol and the
understanding of the Javanese keris today is in large part an understanding that has been generated by
more than 400 years of Islamic influence being brought to bear upon the culture and society of Java. An
understanding that has been influenced so greatly, and for so long, by Islam cannot possibly be the same,
or even similar, to the understanding that applied to the keris when it first appeared in its modern form
during the Hindu-Buddhist Kingdom of Majapahit.
This discussion relates to only the blade of the keris. This approach has been adopted because although
the hilt, and also the scabbard of the keris present their own iconography, these two elements are
regarded within Javanese keris culture as items of dress that are subject to change according to the
prevailing conditions. Only the blade remains a cultural constant, and only the blade is regarded as
having a spiritual element.
The discussion which follows is an attempt to provide an understanding of the keris as it might have been
understood during the Majapahit era.
Divisions of the Paper
Part 1 of this paper is a concise explanation of symbolism in Javanese society.
Part 2 provides a brief outline of Java between 1300 and 1600, with focus on the Javanese Kingdom of
Majapahit during the 14th century.
Part 3 traces the development of the Modern Keris from the beginning of the 14th century to the
collapse of the last Javanese-Hindu kingdom, Majapahit, in 1478.
Part 4 proposes an interpretation of the Modern Keris as it may have been understood at the time it
began to appear in Javanese society.
Prior to the introduction of the Hindu and Buddhist belief systems to Java, the indigenous Javanese
belief system was a combination of animism and ancestor worship. In animism as it was practiced in
Java, the belief was that all living things had a life energy or soul, which was the same for all, but
stronger in some things than in others, and that many natural objects also possessed a life force or
energy. All manifestations of nature were the result of the work of unseen forces, usually evil, that
needed to be avoided and appeased with offerings. The life energy or soul of a human being did not
disappear immediately after death but remained for some time in the places where the dead person lived.
This idea is a major concept of Javanese ancestor worship:- if the spirits of the departed saw that the
living were not practicing traditions correctly they could be angered and cause misfortune (1).
The Javanese tradition of ancestor worship placed the ancestors on mountains, which were symbolic of
the Cosmic Mountain. In the Javanese creation myth the Universe begins with three beings that emerge
from the Cosmic Egg and immediately see the Cosmic Mountain, so in Javanese belief, the Cosmic
Mountain symbolises the Universe and has been in existence since before time began. It represents both
the seen and the unseen worlds (2).
The symbolism of the Cosmic Mountain is a basic element of Javanese culture. It can be represented in
many ways, both natural and man-made; it is a recurring motif found in the fabric of Javanese culture,
moreover, it is a symbol that is a part of the indigenous culture of Java. In ancient times the idea of
regulation of the world from a mountain seems to have been almost universal, and the Javanese version
of this belief seems to have existed before Indian contact brought the Indian version of the idea, with Mt.
Meru as the sacred mountain, which in Java merged with the Javanese Cosmic Mountain.
Mountains, especially volcanic mountains, can be understood as symbolic of the Cosmic Mountain;
upwards pointing triangular shapes can be understood as symbolic of the Cosmic Mountain; manmade
shapes such as the tumpal motif in art, the Gunungan of
rice at slametans, the Gunungan puppet in the wayang are things that are symbolic of the Cosmic
When Hindu culture entered Javanese society it brought with it the Hindu belief system and some other
elements of the Hindu culture. Symbolism that is now a part of Javanese culture, but which entered Java
with Hindu contact includes amongst other things the lingga which is symbolic of Siwa, Mt. Meru (3), the
dwelling place of the gods, and the Tree of Life, the Tree that contains all living things on earth.
Interpretation of Javanese symbols can depend upon the circumstance under which the symbol is found:-
one symbol can be interpreted in different ways and have different meanings, the meaning given to a
symbol is not necessarily limited to a single interpretation.
Similarly, two or more symbols can fuse, and the symbol that is the result of the fusion may be able to be
interpreted in different ways, depending upon the circumstances in which that symbol is encountered.
This may seem to be a complex concept with which to come to terms, but it is no more difficult to
understand than the way in which different words can have different meanings dependent upon the
context in which they are used.
This tendency towards polysymbolism is demonstrated in the Gunungan, perhaps the most prevalent
symbol in Javanese culture. The Gunungan is a Javanese indigenous symbol, which after the
introduction of Hindu culture and belief systems fused with Mt. Meru and the Tree of Life. The
triangular form of the Gunungan is coincident with the upwards pointing triangle that is an icon of Siwa,
and Mt. Meru is a symbol of Siwa. When these symbols fused, the way in which the Gunungan form was
to be understood depended upon the circumstance in which it was presented.
The Javanese people use symbolism as a means of communication and social regulation. Symbols can
provide a message that relates to the natural (visible) world, or the supernatural (hidden) world, or to an
individual. Java in the past was a society that was dependent to a high degree upon symbolism for its
regulation. Continuing until the present time symbolism can still be used rather than words to convey
One of the major symbols in Javanese society is the keris. It is a symbol in and of itself, and it also
contains symbols that provide an iconographic message, if these symbols can be understood. In the very
early keris-like daggers to be found in the bas reliefs of the Candi Prambanan Temple Complex the form
given to the single depiction of the dagger identified as Prambanan I, and to the other daggers identified
as Prambanan II (4) is a clear representation of the Gunungan form.
During the Early Classical Period in Central Java, Hindu values and forms were much more prominent
than was the case in the Late Classical Period in East Java, when there seems to have been a return to
more indigenous Javanese forms in art and architecture. In Hindu symbolism the upwards pointing
triangle can be understood as symbolic of Siwa, so when we see triangular daggers in the bas reliefs of
Candi Siwa the probability is that these triangular daggers can be understood as symbolic of Siwa, even
though some are not pointing upwards (5). The possible ambiguity of interpretation of the Prambanan I
and II daggers was effectively settled when the Keris Buda blade form gained the sogokan, which is a
clear representation of the lingga of Siwa.
By the beginning of the 14th century in East Java lingga symbolism and Gunungan symbolism was
already present in the keris, and the keris was regarded as symbolic of the male principle. As the 14th
Century progressed and the Kingdom of Majapahit bloomed, changes took place in the keris which
resulted in the addition of more symbolism to the keris, making of it an icon of Javanese culture. The
purpose of this paper is to provide an explanation for the iconography of the keris as it may have been
understood in the Javanese Kingdom of Majapahit during the 14th century.
Image 1. Ganesha, the Disturber of
Disturbances; a deity who had an
important role in the formation of the
Image 2. A Modern Keris in the
formal dress used in the Karaton
Surakarta Hadiningrat, Central Java.
Image 3. This is an example of the Gunungan form.
This form occurs in many different applications, perhaps
the most well known being the shadow puppet used to
open and close Wayang Kulit performances. The
essential characteristics are the broad, leaf-like form and
the low-set narrow waist; sometimes the form will
spread to the base, sometimes merely fall to the base, as
in the example shown.
When we compare this indigenous Javanese icon with
the leaf shaped blades of India that were the
inspirational form for the ancestor of the keris, it is very
easy to understand how this weapon form became
endowed with religious symbolism in Java from the very
This paper or any part thereof may not be copied or reproduced
in any form without the express written consent of the author.
|For information on how to obtain a copy of the journal in which this
article was originally published please see end of BIBLIOGRAPHY
By A. G. Maisey
An Interpretation of the Pre-Islamic Javanese Keris