Malays strive to keep alive the spirit of the kris
Published on May 15, 2009
ONCE upon a time there lived a great raja who was fascinated with his kris dagger. He loved everything about it, loved it more than he did his queen and concubines, people said. One day the raja commissioned all the smiths in his kingdom to make daggers for him, and the best one would be acknowledged as such. The raja found beauty in all of the new daggers, except there was one thing that was nagging him. One smith was taking his sweet time making his dagger. Forty days passed and yet there was no kris from this one maker. Finally, the day came when the maker was ready to hand over the kris to the raja. Certain that it would be the best, the raja and his entourage went to the craftsman's residence. What a disappointment! The steel of the blade was sub-standard and the sheath was made of simple bamboo.
So upset was the raja at the result of this man's work, he furiously threw the kris into the lake.
A few days went by and the talk of the town was that a kris had been seen standing miraculously straight up but constantly moving on the water. And so the raja returned to the lake with his entourage to see what all the hoopla was all about. A fish with a dagger stuck in its back was hauled from the lake and presented to the king.
Confused, the raja turned to his advisers - military men and sorcerers. The smith was also summoned. When the raja asked about the making of this kris, the smith told him that it only took him a few days to make, but he did so after spending forty days meditating in a nearby cave. Considering the auspicious nature of the work, the smith had felt the need to ask the spirits and angels for their blessing.
The raja was also informed that once the blade was pulled from its sheath, it could never be put back unless it had drawn blood. If the raja had tossed it in the air in his disgust, surely he would have killed a bird.
In the Malay-speaking world, a kris demands and inspires respect, and stories like this are known from Thailand's deep South to Mindanao in the Philippines.
Most if not all of these stories predate the arrival of Islam in Southeast Asia. And while Islam demands total submission to God, the mystique and spiritual connection between the dagger and people never went away.
The extent of Brahman and Hindu influence on a Muslim Malay's kris is still debated among collectors and smiths. Nevertheless, one cannot deny that the kris, with its curved blade and elaborately carved handle, has always had a special place in the hearts and minds of the Malays.
"It's something you have to treat with respect," said Tik Alee Atabu, a smith from the Raman district of Yala.
For Ismail Benjasmith, a native of Patani who works on various committees and projects to keep alive local history and culture, the kris is as much Malay as the language itself.
Modernity and economic hardship have taken their toll on local communities in the South, with the promises of material wealth luring people to abandon traditional lifestyles and craftsmanship, while the ongoing insurgency has kept potential collectors and buyers of such crafts away.
Tik Alee Atabu and Ismail Benjasmith are looking for ways to link up with other kris makers in various communities on the Malay Peninsula with the aim of strengthening people's interest in the kris, as well as bringing a sense of pride and dignity to future generations.
"There is an old saying among the Malays: If you don't know it, you will not understand it," said Ismail. "For the future Patani Malays to love it, they must first understand it."
Like many people in this contested region with a history of mistrust of Bangkok rule, the vision of these two men is that this Malay-speaking region may be part of Thailand's nation-state, but also a part of the Malay world.
According to Ismail, the kris, as well as dance, woodcarving, shadow puppetry and other forms of traditional arts not only illustrate the region's uniqueness but also link the people in Thailand's Malay-speaking South to the ancient kingdom of Langkasuka, a Malay-Hindu kingdom that dates back to the first century.
"There isn't much incentive to keep alive our way of life except in our own consciousness and our sense of self," Tik Alee said.
"It's important to keep our culture alive. If we lose our identity, we will disappear as a people," he added.