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On the Cutting Edge of the Supernatural: Indonesia's Rattling, Flying, Magical Kris

May 24, 1987|BILL TARRANT | Reuters

IMOGIRI, Indonesia — The kris, Indonesia's traditional stabbing sword, rattles in its scabbard when it wants to be oiled and vanishes if it dislikes its owner, many Indonesians believe.

A wavy-bladed kris made by a master craftsman can also cure disease and protect its owner, according to popular belief.

Most men on Java own a kris at some point in their lives, and the sword has evolved over the centuries from a common weapon to a cult object said to have mystical powers. It is also a curiosity for tourists.

Belief in the kris's mystical qualities is strongest on Java, where more than 100 million of Indonesia's 168 million people live. Many of the other 13,000 islands in the far-flung archipelago also have a non-mystical variation of the sword.

Busy Kris Workshop

Jiwodiharjo is an empu , a master kris craftsman, in this tiny village near the central Java city Jogyakarta, considered the cultural center of Indonesia.

He and the employees at his workshop turn out as many as 200 kris a month. Most are ordinary ones, that do not fly around, rattle, vanish or otherwise misbehave.

His family has been making the kris here for 18 generations, since the early 1500s when the island of Java began converting from Hinduism to Islam.

To make a kris with power, one first needs a meteor. The best, most powerful swords are made of meteorite iron, he said.

Meteorite Still Used

Centuries ago a big meteor fell near the present site of the Hindu Prambanan Temple ruins near Jogyakarta. It was dug up and brought to the sultan's palace in the city. Today, palace craftsmen still use its dwindling remains, Jiwodiharjo said.

He and other kris craftsmen have to make do with ordinary iron these days. Nickel is used to create intricate patterns on the blade, giving each sword a unique character that is supposed to mystically mesh with its owner.

In the old days, according to popular belief, the kris-maker formed the curves of the white-hot blade with his hands and cooled it down by licking it with his tongue.

Jiwodiharjo prefers more conventional techniques to make a special sword. With two assistants gripping the blade and one working a bellows for the fire, he pounds the hot metal with his hammer in a hypnotic rhythm.

Fasting and Praying

This continues for several days, during which the sword master fasts and prays, before the blade is immersed in rice water, which blackens the metal and highlights the nickel engravings.

The kris was originally designed to inflict maximum injury on an enemy, with the wavy blade opening up a wound much wider than the blade itself.

Mystics believe that the blade of powerful swords, whose curves represent certain special properties, need only be pointed at an enemy from a distance to inflict an incurable illness on the target. They believe these swords can fly too.

Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia in the early 1970s, Lee Khoon Choy, wrote in his book "Indonesia Between Myth and Reality" that he once witnessed a kris sword fly out of a Muslim cemetery in central Java late at night.

Puzzled and Wary

The demonstration left him puzzled and wary about kris power, he said.

Other foreign residents of Indonesia also express an understandable caution toward the kris phenomenon. An American consultant for a rural aid project said he bought a kris from an antique dealer and hung it on a bedroom wall.

He said he woke up in a fright one night when he first heard and then saw the sword rattling against the wall. His servant said it was because the kris wanted to be anointed.

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