An Interpretation of the Pre-Islamic Javanese Keris
Java between 1300 and 1600
Prior to 1300 all available evidence indicates that the keris was still in the form now known as the Keris
Buda, by 1600 we can be certain that the Modern Keris already existed, because of physical examples of
the fully developed Modern Keris that are present in European collections and with dates of entry to
these collections documented (6).
At the end of the 12th century the dominant faith in Indonesia was a syncretic form of Hindu-Buddhist
belief that incorporated elements of the indigenous animist and ancestor worship beliefs. At the bottom
of society the weighting was towards the animist and ancestor worship beliefs, at the top of society there
was a more formal observation of Hindu-Buddhist beliefs. This faith is usually referred to as
Javanese-Hindu, and within the Hindu thread it was Shivaistic, that is, the God Shiva (Javanese:- Siwa)
was recognised as the supreme deity.
During the 14th century another faith came to Java. This was Islam, probably brought by traders from
Gujerat. These traders established small enclaves along the north coast of Java, they would come with
the trade-winds from the west, carry on trade in Java, and when the trade-winds came from the east,
they would sail home again. They married into the local society, and as they grew wealthy and their
influence increased they drew local people from the bottom layers of Javanese society into their circle of
influence, giving them jobs, or land to work, on the proviso that they accepted Islam as their faith.
This acceptance of the new faith was not a problem for Javanese people, as their view of faith, religion,
and systems of worship was an inclusive view, not an exclusive view. Their attitude was that to adopt a
new faith did not mean casting off the old beliefs; they simply adopted the new faith alongside the
existing faith. One more God was obviously better and provided additional spiritual capital. It was a
matter of "in addition to", not "instead of".
At this early time, the penetration of Islam to Java was a social penetration, which grew through trade
links, marriage with local women, and the absorption into Muslim society of local people who depended
upon the Muslim traders for land and sustenance. The marriage of wealthy traders to daughters of the
ruling elite ensured that Islam not only penetrated at a grass roots level, but also became accepted at the
highest levels of society. The princes of Majapahit who were in control of the North Coast trade
converted to Islam and took Muslim wives, thus becoming a part of the Islamic trade cartels rather than
remaining in opposition to these trade cartels (7). Islam entered Java gradually and softly.
This situation changed in 1478 when the last ruler of the Kingdom of Majapahit converted to Islam.
Bhrekertabumi (Brawijaya V), the last ruler of Majapahit, was converted to Islam by his son, Raden
Patah, who had established the Islamic Kingdom of Demak, and the Golden Age of Majapahit came to
an end. With the conversion of Brawijaya V to Islam, Islam became a political force in Java, rather than
a social force, and conversion to Islam thereafter was pursued aggressively by the use of military means.
By the end of the 16th century Islam had established itself as a strong political element in Javanese
society. From this time the dominant religious and political force in Java was Islam. Islam in Java began
as a new religious belief system that amalgamated the indigenous Javanese beliefs and the previous
Hindu-Buddhist beliefs with the core beliefs of Islam; the old ways were tolerated provided the core
values and beliefs of Islam were propagated throughout the land. Importantly, palace culture had
become strongly influenced by Islamic culture.
To recap:- at the beginning of the 14th century, Java was ruled by an elite that observed a Javanese
form of the Hindu-Buddhist faith, a form usually referred to as Javanese-Hindu. Three hundred years
later at the beginning of the 17th century, Islam had come to Java and was aggressively pursuing the
spread of its beliefs.
The time during which Islam began to establish itself in Java was also the time when the dominant
kingdom in Java was the Kingdom of Majapahit, now regarded as Java's "Golden Age" and the time
when Java held the position of the dominant culture in South East Asia. The two major sources that
provide information on the Kingdom of Majapahit are the Pararaton (8) and the Nagara Kertagama (9).
There are areas of disagreement between these two works, but the disagreement is in the detail, not in
the overall flow of the narrative.
The Kingdom of Majapahit was established in 1293, not far from present day Surabaya. It was the last of
a series of Javanese-Hindu kingdoms that had arisen and then disappeared in East Java following the
shift of political power from Central Java at the end of the 10th century. The early years of the
Majapahit Kingdom were troubled by rebellion and dissatisfaction with its first two rulers, and it was
not until after the warrior mahapatih (prime minister) Gajahmada came to power in 1334 that order was
established and Majapahit began to expand its influence to other areas in South East Asia.
Gajahmada died in 1364, and Hayam Wuruk, who had been the ruler of Majapahit during the final 14
years that Gajahmada held the position of mahapatih, died in 1389. After the death of Hayam Wuruk,
internal conflict and increasing pressure from the Islamic settlements on the North Coast of Java saw
the steady decline and eventual collapse of the Kingdom of Majapahit.
The last ruler of Majapahit, Brawijaya V, converted to Islam in 1478, the remaining members of the
Majapahit line established a new kraton at Daha near Kediri, which was conquered by Sultan Trenggana
of Demak in 1527. From this point Islam was the dominant religious force in Javanese society.
The society of Majapahit was hierarchical. At its apex was the ruler, who occupied a place in his
kingdom that was a reflection of God's place in the cosmos. The ruler as god was at the center of the
kingdom, and the stability of the court depended upon the ruler's ability to manage the small group of
relatives and advisors who formed his inner court. This group was his greatest source of power and also
his greatest threat, as any ambition for the throne was most likely to be found amongst the members of
The society was structured into a hierarchical system based on inherited titles that identified the
segment of society that one belonged to, and one's place within that segment. The segments can be
thought of in terms of castes, but the Javanese-Hindu caste system was not inherited from the Indian
caste system even though the divisions within the title system parallel the Indian caste system. In this
paper, for ease of understanding, the societal divisions will be treated as castes. There were four castes:-
Brahmin (religious leaders), Ksatriya (warriors, nobility), Wesia (merchants, landowners), and Sudra
(farmers, craftsmen, manual labourers) (10). Unlike the caste system of India, there were no
untouchables, but below the Sudra there were three other classifications of people:- candela, m'lesa,
tuca (NB:-spellings vary).
In addition to the societal divisions mentioned above, there was a large population of bondsmen, men
and most often their families, held in bond because of (principally) debt. Their status was that of
The highest ranking caste was the Brahmins (clergy), but a Brahmin could not be king; the king had to
come from the Ksatriya caste. Although the Wesia were officially one of the ranking castes, in fact, they
were marginalized and had no share of the power and authority held by the Brahmins and the Ksatriya.
The Sudra were perhaps better off than the bondsmen, but in reality were also little more than slaves.
For any society that is based on a hierarchal structure to function in an orderly fashion, that hierarchy
must be observed by all within the society. During the first 35 years or so after the Kingdom of
Majapahit was established, some members of the Ksatriya Caste were not satisfied with their positions
in the hierarchy and this contributed to the rebellion and dissatisfaction that defined the rules of the
first two rulers. In 1328 Gajahmada was instrumental in replacing the second ruler with this ruler's
eldest sister. Six years later in 1334 Gajahmada was made mahapatih, and from the time when he had
effective control of Majapahit order appears to have taken root in the Kingdom. This could only have
occurred because of the actions of Gajahmada.
At this lengthy remove from the events which took place in Majapahit society during the first half of the
14th century, we can only theorise on the actions that Gajahmada might have employed to bring order
to Majapahit society. Some of these actions are obvious, and have been recorded in the literary sources.
It is well known that Gajahmada united the people of Majapahit, or probably more correctly the Ksatriya
Caste of Majapahit, in the pursuit of influence over a wide area of South East Asia. This technique for
the management of a group of people is well known and has been used by leaders from ancient times
until the present day:- the group becomes unified in pursuit of an external enemy, or a common goal.
But before the Ksatriya of Majapahit could be convinced to unite in order to spread the influence of
Majapahit, the members of that Ksatriya Caste first needed to be clearly structured so that each person's
correct place within the hierarchy was known and observed. Unless this hierarchical order was clearly
established there was always the danger that competition for power could again erupt in the ruling class
of Majapahit society.
To gain an understanding of how this necessary structuring of the elite segment of Majapahit society
might have been put into effect it may be useful to look at the way in which status within Balinese
society is shown. Balinese society is the acknowledged continuation of Majapahit society, and within
Balinese society status is marked in a number of ways. The most obvious way is in the level of language
used between people of varying status levels, and the relevant status level depends upon the inherited
title that a person has the right to use. But status is also shown in physical ways as well, for example, by
the designation of a higher or more prominent position in any gathering. In palaces, meeting places,
upper class houses, and the pavilions where gatherings are held, seating is tiered to permit people to sit
in accordance with their status, with people of higher status sitting at a higher tier. Cremation towers
(bade) are tiered in accordance with status, with the number of tiers in the roof of the tower reflecting
the status of the person being cremated. The maximum number of tiers in a cremation tower is limited
to 11 which is the entitlement of rulers and a limited number of other very high ranking people. The
principles of status identification that apply in Balinese society are based upon height, size, number,
It is probable that Gajahmada employed these same principles to provide the Ksatriya of Majapahit with
a system that would constantly make all members of that caste aware of their position within the caste,
both to themselves, and relevant to all others.
We know that tiered roofs were used on shrines, and possibly on some candis during Majapahit times
(11). We know that during the Majapahit reign, approval was granted to Balinese subjects of Majapahit
to use tiered roofs as status indicators on their cremation towers (bade). When a tiered roof is used,
inherent in its use is the concept that the number of tiers in the roof indicates the applicable status. It
would have been a very useful application of this system of status identification if had been possible to
provide a status indicator that was ever present with the members of the Ksatriya Caste, in order that
each member of the caste not forget his place in society.
As it happens, there was one item that was always present, every day, with every man who was entitled
to wear it. This item was the keris, and each member of the Ksatriya Caste would have worn his keris
every day (12). In its original form as a Keris Buda, it was already an icon with religious associations, by
making of it an indicator of status that was with every Ksatriya every day, its constant presence would
have reinforced the stability of the Majapahit societal hierarchy. It would probably have been only one
of the initiatives taken to reinforce the hierarchical principles of society, but if the keris did become a
means of social regulation, this would provide a plausible explanation for some of the changes that took
place in the form of the keris during the Majapahit era.
Gajahmada was the Mahapatih of Majapahit, this is most often translated as "prime minister", but
perhaps a more accurate translation would be "chief advisor". The mahapatih did not have any
ministerial department backing him as a modern prime minister does, his function was to ensure that
the kingdom was kept functioning in an orderly fashion, so although the ruler may have issued the
orders, those orders would only have been issued following advice from or consultation with his chief
advisor. In the case of Gajahmada, this chief advisor was also the leader in times of war.
Gajahmada was born a commoner with the birth name of Mada. Later in life, perhaps when he was
raised to the level of mahapatih, he took the name "Gajah", meaning "elephant", and became
Gajahmada. In battle his standard bore the gold embroidered figure of an elephant with raised trunk,
and in death he may have been deified as Ganesha (13).
In view of the existence of a well established Ganesha sect in Jawa during and prior to the 14th century,
there can be no doubt that Gajahmada was an adherent of this sect. The way in which Ganesha was
thought of in early Java varied depending upon the beliefs of the people concerned. In court circles
Ganesha was valued for his prowess as a military leader and destroyer of enemies, but for the common
people he was valued as a deity who removed obstacles and provided wealth and good fortune.
Image 4. The shrines in the temple complex at Mengwi in Bali.
The tiered roofs indicate by the number of tiers the status of the
deity to whom the shrine is dedicated.
Image 5. Diagram showing the names of features in the
physical composition of the keris.
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