Keris and the mind of the Pendekar


Keris Bali, Keris Bugis
Gryffindor [CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

A little cross-cultural communication for a change.A few things were mentioned in recent incidents. Among them silat and keris. Following that, I noticed a few mentions of these in social media. One thing I noticed is that with the exception of a few people explaining some aspects of the Malay martial arts, there was no one trying to explain the art in greater detail.

In one thread, there were people talking about the keris, and other Malay weapons, and comparing the keris to the Japanese katana. This was like comparing apples to oranges. They are miles apart in every sense of the word. Allow me to explain a little about the culture of the Malay warrior and the weapons they carry and use.

First, lets understand that the Japanese Samurai wants to kill you in one deadly stroke. If you survive that stroke, and go down, they may lose interest and go on to their next opponent. That is not how the Malay Pendekar thinks. People do not often appreciate, just how much the Pendekar want you dead.

Understanding the Keris begins with knowing its function. The Keris is not the only weapon Pendekars carry. The Pendekar always carries more than one weapon. Usually they will carry a pedang (sword) or parang (Malay machete). They often do this when they had to travel or in informal situations. This is because as cutting tools, the pedang and parang are far better cutting tools than the keris.

The keris with its sharp point and relatively blunt sides of the blade is primarily a stabbing tool, although you can also easily cut with the sides of the blade at the tip. Thus, the long keris is generally used to single combat or ceremonial uses. This is the reason, if they want to do symbolic things, they will use the long keris.

Then comes the keris pendua. This is the shorter, usually around five loks (bends) which they wear at the back of their bengkung (cummerbund / sash). This keris is usually the one they use for one on one combat. These keris are the ones where the pamur (scales on the blade) are used to full effect. They often ceremonially clean the blade with lime. When asked they would say it is a ritual but behind that ritual is the act of applying citric acid which gets into the pamur grooves and encourages rusting. What you get is a clean blade with scales that hide rust. So, if they stab you with this and you don’t die immediately, tetanus and infection will claim you after a few painful days. In addition, they may even coat the blade with poison made from a few indigenous plants. This is why you never see people kissing the keris pendua.

Some silat schools opt for weapons with less frills but are equally as deadly: the kerambit, badik, pisau, and ekor pari. The kerambit is a small curved blade designed to disembowel or slice through veins. The ekor pari or stingray barb has tiny backward facing scales that make it go into the flesh very easily but become almost impossible to pull out once it is in. Badik, rencong, and pisau are your more straightforward cutting tools which they might use to open a durian or two between battles. This completes the list of more common bladed weapons carried by the Pendekar. They also carry carry non-bladed weapons but that is for a different time.

The point here is that the psyche that gave rise to the Pendekar is a pragmatic one, and also a relatively secretive one. What you see is not what you actually get: for example, you face a Pendekar and you think you succeeded in disarming him of his primary large weapon, the long keris. What he, or she, is actually doing is halfheartedly fighting you so that you will “make” him lose his “primary” weapon and thus forcing him to use his secondary weapon which the actual weapon designed to send you to your maker in whatever way possible.

If we extend this thinking, we find that this form of pragmatism is also evident in other aspect of Malay culture. The Malay language for example, predominantly comprises words from other languages which it has made its own. This pragmaticism can actually be seen in daily Malay life, all we need to do is observe a little closer.



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