ANN/THE JAKARTA POST – Prince Abiyoso Hadiningrat held the hilt of his kris firmly as he fed its black blade into the kiln.
He then pressed the edge of the heated blade to his tongue before cooling the dagger in a basin of air kembang, or water infused with the petals of various flowers. Then, he repeated the steps.
To the untrained eye, Abiyoso’s actions may have seemed like a traditional Indonesian stunt, just as performers in a trance appear to eat glass or stab themselves with their krises in the kuda lumping or barong dances in Java and Bali. But the venerated elder maintained that there was a method to the apparent madness.
A TIMELESS RITUAL
“I had to ensure that the kris struck the right balance between hot and cold,” said the scion of the Pakubuwono dynasty of Surakarta, Central Java. “After all, it does symbolice striking a balance in nature.”
Abiyoso’s moves were part of puja rahayu ningrat (noble, merciful veneration), an age-old Javanese ritual closely intertwined with the kris. The tradition is the centrepiece of the Keris Indonesia for Peace and Humanity exhibition at Bentara Budaya, held to mark the 17th anniversary of UNESCO’s designation of the dagger as a form of Intangible and Oral Cultural Heritage.
Abiyoso started the ritual by sitting on a corner of a long table covered with foods like chicken, duck, rice and traditional sweets. Incense wafted around him – much as it did during the ceremony’s inception in the time of the Majapahit kingdom, from the 14th to 16th centuries – as he performed the jamasan (fire and water purification).
The ritual is not for the faint of heart, as it entails putting the kris in hot coals, licking it, then dipping the blade in air kembang.
“Aside from balance and purification, licking the kris also determines how clean one’s flesh and spirit are,” said Abiyoso, who claimed to have performed puja rahayu ningrat for five Indonesian presidents, including President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and late strongman Soeharto.
He explained that puja rahayu ningrat purified every part of the kris, not least the luk (curves of the blade), which are always an odd number. “The average luk number is five to symbolise the five pandawa (heroes) in the Mahabharata epic poem. The number five also reflects Pancasila, the Indonesian state ideology.”
Gerak Nusantara cultural organisation head Revitriyoso Husodo agreed with Abiyoso. He said the ceremony reflected the kris’ place in the Indonesian psyche.
STRENGTH IN TRYING TIMES
“The philosophy and the virtues symbolised by the kris makes it a symbol of peace.
Admittedly, this is a paradox, as the kris is a weapon of war and not the most powerful one, as it can be overpowered by swords or spears and outranged by the latter,” he said.
“But the kris is a powerful symbol that embodies one’s hopes and dreams and instills them in the blade. In short, the kris is a ‘spiritual placebo’ that makes one’s faith and beliefs more tangible.”
Puja rahayu ningrat might conjure images of influential political and economic figures who hope to use the ritual to attain their ends. However, organisers sought to dispel this notion.
They encouraged those with krises to bring them to be purified. They allowed viewers to wash their faces with the air kembang or drink it to purify themselves.
“Aside from blessing the kris, puja rahayu ningrat serves as a prayer for peace and humanity. In this case, it is relevant in a world reeling from COVID-19, an economic recession and conflicts,” Revitriyoso said.
“The ritual and kris filled the spiritual void superficially filled by gadgets. Yet enlightening the public is still an uphill climb, especially as the kris is still seen as a relic of an agrarian age and is associated with superstition and mysticism.“
While Revitriyoso is concerned that the kris is on the back foot against modernisation, kris vendors like Tio of Wesi Aji Keris remain upbeat. “Opening the kris stand (at Bentara Budaya for the kris exhibition) did wonders for business, as I can take five to seven orders, compared to one to three customers at our kiosk in the Jatinegara jewellery market,” he said. “Our most popular wares are kris designed as lucky charms. Demand for them is universal among young and old alike.”
His fellow kris seller Joko Supriyadi of JS Collection, agreed.
“Technology might be a challenge to public demand for kris, but in my case, it proved helpful,” he asserted. “Most of my customers, especially young people, were drawn by my YouTube channel rather than my shop.”
Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Islamic organisation cultural expert Zastrouw al-Ngatawi summarised the kris and its associated ritual best.
“The kris’ shapes and contours are like a book and spiritual road map of Indonesia’s development through the ages. One needs to ‘read’ them like a book,” he said.
“The kris’ flowing form also teaches one to be more sensitive to nature, an indispensable element as many current problems stem from rampant modernisation.
“But though the kris as a cultural tradition can serve as a guide to the future, one should not venerate them, nor romanticise them as a product of a halcyon past.”