An Interpretation of the Pre-Islamic Javanese Keris
The Iconography of the Keris
The various symbols to be found in the keris can be understood individually, but it is only when all
those symbols are treated as related parts of the entire keris that we can begin to understand the keris in
a way that may be in some agreement with the way in which the keris was understood by those who
were entitled to wear it in the Kingdom of Majapahit.
Symbolism Relating to the Keris Buda
By the 10th century when the Keris Buda form first appeared in Javanese temple bas reliefs, there had
been Javanese contact with Indian culture for about 800 years. Both the Hindu faith and the Buddhist
faith had a place in Javanese society, and flourished alongside the indigenous belief system. A major
characteristic of Javanese society is its tendency to fuse elements from outside Javanese society with
existing elements within Javanese society and create new ideas which accommodate all elements in a
harmonious way. This process of fusion of religious ideas had begun to occur in 10th century Central
Java, and although at this time the Hindu belief system was still strongly orientated towards a
mainstream interpretation of the Siwa tradition of the Hindu faith, indigenous representations in
monumental works, and indigenous ideas had already begun to be absorbed into the Javanese way in
which the Hindu faith was practiced.
The Javanese creation myth tells that the universe began when three beings hatched from the Cosmic
Egg, but at that time, the Cosmic Mountain already existed, because it was the first thing that was seen
by these three beings. Thus, the Cosmic Mountain is one of the basic ideas of the Javanese World View.
Indian culture brought with it not only the Hindu faith but ideas associated with the faith and with
Indian culture. One of these ideas was the Tree of Life, or the Cosmic Tree, the Tree that contains all
living things on earth. This is a very old and a very widespread idea that recurs in various forms in
virtually all cultures. In Java these two ideas had probably begun to merge by the 10th century, and by
the 14th century had merged with the Gunungan puppet used in the wayang (Javanese shadow play).
The Gunungan of the wayang is a polysymbol that represents the Cosmic Mountain and by association
the dwelling place of the gods, Mt. Meru, and also the Kalpataru Tree, or Tree of Life, the trunk of which
forms a passageway between the seen and the unseen worlds, and as such can be regarded as a unifying
agent (21 & 2). In the wayang, the alternate name for the Gunungan is the Kayon, the word Kayon from
the root "kayu" meaning "wood", and by association "trees", the "trees" to be understood as the Tree of
Indian culture also brought with it the weapon forms of India, representations of which can be seen in
the bas-reliefs of Candi Borobudur and Candi Prambanan. One of these forms is the leaf shaped blade, a
form that Rawson (22) considered to be "--- a common Aryan heritage of the Indo-Aryan peoples."
The typical leaf-shaped blade of India is an almost perfect representation of the indigenous Javanese
Gunungan form, so it is not at all difficult to understand that this blade form was recognised by the
Javanese people as a Gunungan form and acquired the religious aspects of the Gunungan. This
Gunungan form of the leaf-shaped blade was the foundation for its adoption as a weapon that
incorporated a socio-religious persona, and that weapon was the Keris Buda, the keris form which
preceded the Modern Keris.
By the beginning of the 14th century the association of the Tree of Life with the Gunungan had probably
occurred, and the Keris Buda had developed from the keris-like dagger found in the Prambanan Temple
Complex bas reliefs to become a true keris, albeit a keris of a different form to the Modern Keris that we
By the beginning of the 14th century the iconography that we can identify in the Keris Buda can be
1) The overall triangular form of the Keris Buda can be understood as an iconic representation of Siwa,
and it can also be understood as a representation of the Gunungan form that is so prevalent in Javanese
2) The sogokan where it exists can be understood as a representation of the lingga, the primary icon of
Siwa and of the male principle; the sogokan seems to have developed from the lines that are found in
some early monumental representations of the keris and that follow the triangular blade shape, this
triangular representation of a symbol of Siwa can be seen in the bronze Keris Buda shown in Image 25,
and is occasionally found in much later blades.
3) The blumbangan in combination with the sogokan can be understood as representing the lingga :
In the Prambanan Temple Complex reliefs two leaf shaped dagger forms can be found, forms that I
named in a previous paper as Prambanan I and Prambanan II (4). Both these forms are descended from
the leaf shaped blades of India, but in Java the leaf shaped blade was understood as the Gunungan and
became a classic representation of the Gunungan form, Prambanan I perhaps more so than Prambanan
II. The strong central rib in both these dagger forms may be able to be understood as a representation of
the trunk of the Kalpataru Tree (Tree of Life) which we know had fused with the Gunungan at a later
time (21), these forms occurring in a 10th century monumental work could indicate that the fusion of
these symbols had already taken place by the 10th century. The trunk of the Kalpataru Tree can be
understood as a passageway from the natural world to the supernatural world, that is from the seen to
the unseen world, this understanding fits perfectly with the function of the pusaka keris as a unifying
agent that brings together the present members of a kin group with the deceased members of a kin
When the keris is interpreted as the Gunungan, it is also interpreted as a representation of Mt. Meru,
and thus as symbolic of Siwa, and this multiple interpretation is strengthened by the presence of the
sogokan, a clear representation of lingga symbolism. Almost all keris possess the feature of
blumbangan, and when the sogokan representing the lingga is present, the blumbangan can be
interpreted as the yoni.
We know that in early Java the keris was symbolic of the masculine. Perhaps the triangular keris in its
earliest form was recognised as symbolic of the masculine, or perhaps this symbolic association did not
occur until after the lingga was incorporated into the design of the keris. What we do know is that in
14th century Java the keris was indisputably a masculine symbol that was regarded as an iconic
representation of the lingga of Siwa. The Candi Sukuh lingga is a representation of the male sexual
organ, and bears a carving in relief of an upright keris, together with the inscription:-
"Consecration of the Holy Gangga Sudhi ---the sign of masculinity is the essence of the world." (16)
This is the clearest possible statement of the nature of the keris in 14th century Java. We know that
Javanese symbolism is not monosymbolic and that the Gunungan form of the Keris Buda indicates that
it can be understood not only in terms of Siwa symbolism, but also in terms of Gunungan symbolism.
Once the Gunungan symbolism of the Keris Buda is recognised then the other associations of Tree of
Life and Mt. Meru naturally follow, indeed, the Mt. Meru association becomes clear from the Siwa
The lingga : yoni symbolism clarifies and reinforces the nature of the keris as pusaka. The lingga : yoni
symbolism represents the indivisible nature of male and female principles inherent in all creation.
When this female principle becomes a part of the male iconography, it is then possible to see the keris
as a male symbol which as a part of its character is representative of not only the male principle, but
incorporates the female principle and thus becomes representative of the community as a whole.
This male : female balance permeates Hindu ideals, there cannot be one without the other. Where we
find the lingga, we also find the yoni. At Candi Sukuh, on the slopes of Mt. Lawu in Central Jawa, a late
Majapahit temple which can probably be understood as a place of worship that was primarily occupied
with the core concerns of a rural Javanese population with birth, death and renewal (16), this core
concern is shown very clearly by the sexually explicit carving at the entry gate:- the yoni and the lingga
in the act of meeting, and thus of creation.
The keris was unarguably symbolic of the male element, but the complete vocabulary of iconic
representation found in the keris indicates that it was intended to be read not simply as symbolic of the
male principle, but as a cosmic symbol that could represent the entire micro cosmos of community or
By the beginning of the 13th century the Keris Buda had already become a symbol with religious
associations, and in this form it was probably employed as a religious implement of sacrifice. In the
Hindu faith weapons of materials other than iron were probably preferred for some sacrificial rituals,
and the Sathapatha Brahmana, a text describing Vedic ritual associated with the Shukla Yajurveda,
prescribes slaughtering knives of various metals for differing levels of sacrifice, with iron being named
for the lowest level.
Examples of the Keris Buda in bronze do exist, and the existence of these bronze weapons at a time
when iron was available would seem to indicate that these bronze weapons were used for the purpose of
religious sacrifice. During the 1980's in Solo, Central Java one such bronze Keris Buda, which had been
excavated, was seen and photographed. At least two other bronze Keris Buda are known to exist (23).
The existence of the bronze Keris Buda seems to validate the proposition that in Hindu Java some Keris
Buda were used as religious implements.
In Bali, the keris has been, and still is, an essential part of six separate religious ceremonies. In two of
those ceremonies, the ceremonies of Pitra Yadnya, and Bhuta Yadnya the keris is used as an implement
to effect blood sacrifice (24).
Siwa has the nature of both creator and destroyer, as in Hindu belief destruction is seen as the necessary
beginning of creation (25). It would seem to be particularly fitting that an iconic representation of the
lingga of Siwa should be used in the role of a weapon of sacrifice.
This early incorporation of religious symbolism into the keris put in place the foundation for later
iconographic additions to the keris.
An Interpretation of the Iconography of the Modern Keris.
The symbols that are found in the new form of keris that came into being during the Majapahit era, and
that did not exist prior to this are:-
kembang kacang, lambe gajah, jalen, greneng with ron dha, luk, and some figural icons.
Some other rarely found symbols do exist, such as the pudak setegal, a possible iconic representation of
the lotus, which can be found in one of the pre-1631 Bargello keris, however, the symbols, or ricikan,
noted above are the commonly recurring characteristics.
The Kembang Kacang.
"Kembang kacang" means "bean flower" in the common level of the Javanese language (ngoko); this
part of the keris is also known as "sekar kacang" in the high level of the Javanese language (krama);
both terms are euphemisms, as is true of much keris terminology.
In many keris forms where the kembang kacang appears it is found in company with some other
features:- the lambe gajah (elephant's lip) and the jalen, another euphemism, which is the name of a
small, sharp variety of grass.
The kembang kacang is understood to represent the elephant's trunk, with the lambe gajah as lip, and
the jalen as tusk.
All this is widely known.
In Java, elephant symbolism is attached to the deity Ganesha, and the existence of a well established
Ganapatya cult, the cult which came to recognise Ganesha as the ultimate and absolute God, is known.
In Singasari there is a statue of Ganesha that has been subject to scholarly examination which has
concluded that the Singasari Ganesha is a deification of Gajahmada as Ganesha (13).
Elephant symbolism in Hindu Java was tied to the deity Ganesha, so when the kembang kacang, which
is very clear elephant symbolism, is found in a socio-religious icon, the keris, it cannot be interpreted in
any other way than as an iconic representation of Ganesha.
The worship of Ganesha is regarded as a part of the worship of other deities; most Hindus commence
their prayers with a prayer to Ganesha. Ganesha is one of the five major deities, and the worship of
Ganesha has formed a part of the worship of Siwa since at least the 5th century.
In 14th century Java Ganesha was revered as a deity with a number of attributes; he was the Remover of
Obstacles, the God of Knowledge and Education, the God to whom one prayed for success and he was
prayed to before the beginning of any new undertaking, in court circles he was revered as a military
leader and destroyer of enemies, perhaps the reason why Gajahmada added Gajah to his name.
At the time Gajahmada assumed control of the kingdom of Majapahit and set about establishing order
within Majapahit, and of extending the influence of Majapahit throughout the region, the keris was
already a cultural icon. It contained religious symbolism and was viewed as a symbol of manfulness.
The incorporation of Ganesha iconography made of the keris an iconic representation of a mantra
addressed to Siwa and Ganesha. Such a mantra would be very fitting for a kingdom that was attempting
to strengthen and broaden its power base, both by diplomatic means and by military conquest, and this
mantra would have been available to every noble, every day, in the Kingdom of Majapahit.
The reason for incorporation of this symbolism was undoubtedly a socio-religious reason, and at this
remove we probably cannot say with any certainty exactly what the motive was for inclusion of this
symbolism into the keris. It could be that an attempt was made to bring an element of spirituality into
the Ksatriya Caste by providing a constant reminder of the religious foundations of the community.
Alternatively, the reasons for inclusion of Siwa symbolism and Ganesha symbolism into the keris could
be very much more simple:- Ganesha as the Remover of Obstacles and because of his military
association and ability to destroy enemies, Siwa as the Destroyer. Such a combination in a weapon
would seem to ensure invincibility.
The Ron Dha
The ron dha is a part of the greneng, and in Javanese and Balinese keris, the individual elements of
which a greneng is comprised can be subject to a degree of variation. However, the consistent element in
a correctly cut greneng is the ron dha. In a few forms of keris, the ron dha can also be found on the
opposite edge of the keris, in a symbol known as the jenggotan, which depends like a beard from the
In present day keris belief the ron dha is explained as a representation of the Javanese letter "dha", and
in the Surakarta keris of the 18th to 20th centuries, the ron dha is an accurate representation of the
current way in which the letter dha is written. The variation between the current form of ron dha and
earlier forms is explained by the way in which this letter was written in earlier times.
The use of this one specific letter of the alphabet raises the question as to why this letter should have
been chosen for inclusion on the keris. Present day keris authorities with a deeper knowledge will
explain that the ron dha is a representation of the name "Allah". Certainly, part of the Arabic character
for "Allah" is very closely similar to the form of the ron dha. However, one problem exists with this
explanation:- the ron dha existed in the pre-Islamic keris, as can be evidenced by its presence in the
Bali-Hindu keris, which came to Bali from the Javanese-Hindu Kingdom of Majapahit. The
understanding of the ron dha as an icon symbolising the name of "Allah" is perfectly acceptable in the
Islamic keris, but it is clearly not acceptable to place this understanding upon the ron dha in the
A third possible explanation for the use of the letter dha is that in some of the scripts which have been
used to write Javanese, the letter dha is also the number 8. In the Candra Sangkala numerological
system, the number 8 is the numerological value of the naga and of the elephant. Bearing in mind the
symbolic association of the keris with both the naga and the elephant, this numerological association
might seem to be a relevant, but very slight symbolic representation.
All of the above explanations fail to provide a conclusive or even convincing reason for the inclusion of
the ron dha as a characteristic of the Modern Keris in its original character in pre-Islamic Java.
In 1978 I had a ring made in Bali, the center of the ring, the "stone" if you will, is an antique gold Indian
coin showing Siwa and Parvati. The coin is held in place by two crowned figures of Ganesha on two
opposing sides, and by two representations of "OM", the smallest mantra, on the other two opposing
sides. Over time the points on the character "OM" wore away, and within a few years this character bore
a close resemblance to the worn ron dha found in early forms of the Modern keris. This resemblance
prompted me to investigate the ways in which the mantra "OM" can be represented. I found that there
are many ways in which to write the sound "OM", and these depend upon the script used, and the
purpose for which it is written. When the sound "OM" is written for religious purposes, it is not written
as the complete word, but rather it is written as a symbol that is only part of the complete word. In the
Balinese script that is descended from the Kawi script used in Majapahit, the major part of the sound
"OM" is a clear representation of the early form of the ron dha.
"OM" is used as a part of all mantras or prayers; it begins the main prayer, and often completes the
prayer. The ron dha exists in the Bali-Hindu keris, the Bali-Hindu keris evolved from the
Javanese-Hindu keris, thus the ron dha is without doubt a symbol that was in use in Hindu-Java, during
the time of Majapahit. This being so, it seems very probable that the symbol now euphemistically
referred to as the "ron dha" is a representation of the smallest mantra:- "OM".
In some keris various figures are carved into the metal, these are usually found in the wider sorsoran
area of the blade. The figures that are repeatedly found in older Javanese blades, and also in Balinese
blades, are representations of the Naga, representations of the Singo Barong, and representations of the
In later Javanese blades a greater variety of figures is found, but the figures I mention are the ones most
frequently met with in the earliest form of the modern keris.
Interpretation of these figures is a neglected field of research, however, a close examination of some of
the more obvious relationships linking keris symbols can provide a limited understanding of the motifs
most frequently met with in pre-Islamic keris.
The keris is symbolic of Siwa, the Gunungan and of Mt. Meru. Once this is understood, there is no
mystery about the Naga ( 26).
In Vedic myth, and Vedic myths form the basis of the Hindu faith, the God Vishnu used Mt. Meru as the
churning stick to churn the Great Milk Ocean, and he used the Naga Vasuki (Javanese:- Basuki) as the
churning rope. As the Great Milk Ocean was churned treasures arose from it, including Amrita, the
nectar of immortality, but a poison also arose from the churning, which was consumed by Shiva
(Javanese:- Siwa) and which had the twin effects of turning Shiva's throat blue and of purifying the
Naga Vasuki. Thereafter Shiva wore Vasuki as his sash.
The keris is a representation of the Gunungan, the Gunungan can be understood as Mt. Meru, and Mt.
Meru can be understood as an icon of Siwa. The Naga Basuki was used as the churning rope to hold Mt.
Meru, and was later worn by Siwa as a sash. Once these relationships are understood it is clear that the
naga motif when it appears on the keris is a representation of the Naga Basuki. The Naga Basuki is a
binding force, and the function of the Pusaka Keris is to bind all within the group to which the Pusaka
Keris relates. When the Naga Basuki appears on a keris this reinforces the cultural position of the keris
as an icon of society that unites all members of the society.
A keris with the Naga motif is shown in illustration 15A, 15B.
There seems to be some evidence that the Singo Barong, a representation of a lion, was a symbol
associated with high ranking Ksatriya nobles. This is indicated by the sarcophagi which were the
prerogative of high ranking nobles, members of the Ksatriya Caste, in olden times in Bali. These nobles
had the right to a sarcophagus in the form of a winged lion (27).
The Singo Barong is not winged, but in Hindu tradition, the lion is associated with the warrior caste.
Possibly the wings on a sarcophagus lion were added because of the implication of the spirit of the
deceased flying upwards from the cremation.
A keris with the Singo Barong motif is shown in illustration 28A, 28B.
An infrequently encountered figure that is sometimes found carved into the sorsoran of a keris is the
deer. This is now usually associated with the Kingdom of Majapahit, however it is interesting to note
that in Bali the sarcophagus of lesser nobles is a deer. It is possible that this symbolic association of
lesser nobles with the deer resulted in its inclusion as a part of keris iconography.
A keris with the deer motif is shown is shown in illustration 15A, 15B.
The Bhoma, sometimes called Kala, is a representation of the son of Wisnu and Basundari, and thus is
the child of water and earth. The joining of water and earth results in the growth of plants, which in a
society dependent upon agriculture equates to prosperity. In Sanscrit, Bhoma means "born of the earth".
Thus Bhoma can be taken to represent the growth of vegetation.
When Bhoma appears in the base of the keris blade this is a reinforcement of the Mt. Meru
representation, as the lower slopes of Mt. Meru are covered in foliage, and this is the abode of Bhoma.
But Javanese symbolism is very often polysymbolism, and the nature of Bhoma is as a protective
element, so the inclusion of Bhoma in keris iconography also provides protection from evil.
Image 23. The Candi Sukuh Lingga : Yoni,
an unusually explicit representation of this
symbol that leaves no doubt as to the message
of creation and cosmic continuity.
Image 24. Lingga : Yoni, Early Classical Period Central Java.
(Plate 166, Ancient Indonesian Art, A. J. Bernet Kempers
published with permission Louise Ariëns Kappers, C. P. J. van
Image 25. A bronze Keris Buda with
symbolic representation of Siwa in the
upward pointing triangles at the blade
base. The hilt fitted to this keris is from a
much later period.
Image 26. The shortest mantra,
"OM", or "AUM".
Image 27. "OM" or "AUM"
abbreviated for use as the ron
dha. What is shown in this
illustration should not be
interpreted as a direct
representation of a ron dha,
rather it merely illustrates the
component part of the complete
word "OM" that is the source of
the ron dha symbol.
Image 28A & 28B. A Modern Keris with Singo Barong motif.
Image 29A & 29B. A Balinese gate showing the head of Bhoma above the gate, and a
close up of the Bhoma; this illustration has been used rather than a keris because I did
not have available a keris with a sufficiently clear image of Bhoma.
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