The kris (or keris) occupies a treasured position in Malay culture, a symbol of manhood and honour believed to harbour protective spirits. Traditionally, all young men crossing the barrier of puberty receive one which remains with them for the rest of their lives, tucked into the folds of a sarong; for an enemy to relieve someone of a kris is tantamount to stripping him of his virility. In the past some weapons were reputed to have magical powers, able to fly from their owners’ hand to seek out and kill an enemy.
The kris itself is intended to deliver a horizontal thrust rather than the more usual downward stab. When a sultan executed a treacherous subject, he did so by sliding a long kris through his windpipe, just above the collar bone, thereby inflicting a swift – though bloody – death. The distinguishing feature of the dagger is the hilt, shaped like the butt of a gun to facilitate a sure grip. The hilt can also be used to inflict a damaging blow to the head in combat, especially if there isn’t time to unsheathe the weapon.
The daggers can be highly decorative: the iron blade is often embellished with fingerprint patterns or the body of a snake, while the hilt can be made from ivory, wood or metal. Designs are usually based on the theme of a bird’s head.